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Chapter 3 from What Every Christian Needs to Know about Social Justice

What Every Christian Needs to Know about Social Justice

This week's book excerpt comes from one of our most popular titles, What Every Christian Needs to Know about Social Justice by Jeffrey Johnson, and is an important and timely message for the church.

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Chapter 3


If the house of social justice is built on the foundation of classical Marxism, then the framing is constructed from critical theory. If we look below the surfaces of the “sexual revolution,” the feminist and gay rights’ movements, and the Black Lives Matter organization, we will discover the common infrastructure of critical theory.

The Origins of Critical Theory

Critical theory sprung from classical Marxism. Many committed Marxists in the 1920s had become disillusioned with classical Marxism. Marxists in Germany and Austria were increasingly concerned that communism was not taking root in the European nations. Though Marxism was implemented in the Soviet Union in 1922, it was being rejected elsewhere. Moreover, they knew that for Marxism to flourish and spread, it had to be accepted and welcomed by the masses around the world. It must be a global revolution of the people for the people. But where was the uprise? Where was the frustration against capitalism? Where were the demands for a new world order—a rebuilt society of justice and equity?

In his Hegelian determinism, Marx believed communism would naturally overtake capitalism around the world. Sooner or later, the progressive evolutionary process of the laws of economics was bound to create a global classless society. Yet, in the 1920s, it still seemed that the majority of the Have Nots remained content working for the Haves. It appeared that wives remained happy to live under the leadership of their husbands. And it looked as if nationalism was alive and well.

According to the disillusioned Marxists, some new tactic was needed to awaken the masses from their slumber. Marx was under the impression that communism would naturally spread on its own. But the disciples of Marx were beginning to think otherwise. More radical measures needed to be taken to motivate the Have Nots to take action.

Before there would be democratic global socialism, the majority of those who are oppressed and under the authority of another (be that a husband, parent, or boss) must be stirred into such a frenzy of discontentment and frustration that they collectively push all established institutions of authority down. Only then can a classless and global society of equality and justice with no hierarchical structures of authority arise.

Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch

The first two Marxists to question classical Marxism were Georg Lukács (1885–1971) and Karl Korsch (1886–1961). Georg Lukács was an active member of the Hungarian Marxist Party who sought to make a slight revision to classical Marxism. He highlighted his concern in his book History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. Likewise, his friend Karl Korsch, a member of the German Marxist Party, published his Marxism and Philosophy in 1923, outlining his issues with Marxism.

Their concern was rooted in the epistemology of classical Marxism. Marx was committed, as we have seen, to positivism. Lukács and Korsch were not so convinced that the findings of science were able to be interpreted without being misread by one’s cultural biases. These cultural biases are often so subtle they remain hidden in the interpreter’s unconsciousness. Lukács, for example, argued, “There is no objective reality which social theorists can passively reflect upon; for at every moment they are part of the societal process as well as its potential critical self-awareness.”[1]

Lukács eventually moved to Moscow and found work at the Marx-Engels Institute. Korsch fled Germany in 1936 for the United States and taught at Tulane University in New Orleans before moving to New York to work at the International Institute for Social Research.

The Frankfurt School

Lukács’ and Korsch’s slight move away from classical Marxism helped set in motion the rise of the Frankfurt School and what is now known as Western Marxism, better known today as social Marxism.

The Frankfurt School, or more technically known as the Institute for Social Research, at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, was founded in 1923 by Marxist law professor Carl Grünberg (1861–1940), the first avowed Marxist to hold a chair at a German university, and was funded, ironically, by a wealthy merchant, Felix Weil (1898–1975). Though Weil was born into wealth, he was a committed Marxist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the practical problems of implementing Marxism. This is fitting, because the Frankfurt School, the first Marxist research center in Germany, was dedicated to one thing—researching how best to implement Marxism around the world.

The Frankfort School was committed to teaching and implementing Marxist ideas into every division of education—philosophy, sociology, history, law, and psychology. It gathered a team of Marxist professors to do just that. Some of the more notable scholars were Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who would take over leading the program in 1930.

And it was Max Horkheimer who first coined and defined critical theory in his 1937 essay, Traditional and Critical Theory.

The Foundations of Critical Theory

The foundation for critical theory is social Marxism. Building off the work of Lukács and Korsch, the Frankfurt School rejected one of the threefold foundational pillars of classical Marxism, positivism, and replaced it with relativism.

The Ontology of Critical Theory—Materialism

Like classical Marxism, social Marxism is founded on atheism. This did not change. Social Marxism is just as godless as classical Marxism, if not more so.

The Epistemology of Critical Theory—Relativism

The Frankfurt School became more consistent with their atheism by rejecting positivism and embracing relativism. The universal laws of science have God’s fingerprint stamped on them. Like God, they are authoritative and binding—regardless of how one may “feel” about them. As one of the leading proponents for social justice today, Robin DiAngelo, said, “Critical theory developed in part as a response to this presumed superiority and infallibility of scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.”[2]

And the famed social Marxist and community activist Saul Alinsky (1909–1972) claims, “Men have always yearned for and sought direction by setting up religions, inventing political philosophies, creating scientific systems like Newton’s, or formulating ideologies of various kinds. This is what is behind the common cliché, ‘getting it all together’—despite the realization that all values and factors are relative, fluid, and changing, and that it will be possible to ‘get it all together’ only relatively.”[3]

Marx may have flirted with relativism with his obsession with the materialistic dialectics of Hegel, but the Frankfurt School all out embraced it. They were even willing to throw out the laws of nature. According to Horkheimer, even the laws of nature cannot be comprehended outside of one’s subjective experiences, which have been encoded in one’s thinking by one’s cultural context.

The Frankfurt School also believed that not only were the history books written by those in power at the time but that the meaning of language was determined by those in power as well, making language itself a tool used by the powerful to maintain their power.

Because reality can only be understood through the ever-changing prism of one’s cultural context, one’s cultural context is the principal oppressor— especially if it has been shaped in any way by theism. Thus, the greatest danger of oppression, according to social Marxists, is the oppression that imprisons people’s thinking without them even knowing it. Those who believe in God and in traditional values, for instance, are the most oppressed by the cultural institutions because they are informed by the history and language of the ruling class and willingly submit to the norms of an oppressive society.

The Ethics of Critical Theory—Anti-Authority

But like classical Marxists, social Marxists are committed to communism as the solution to the institutional and systemic oppression that permeates society. They, too, rejected any notion of depravity and sin against a holy God. They did not place the ills of society within man’s depraved heart but, rather, within the external institutions of society, such as the traditional family.

The Frankfurt School was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). The Institute’s sociology and psychology departments integrated Freudianism with their Marxist ideology.

Essentially, Freud claimed that behavior was influenced by three levels of consciousness:

  1. the id—the unconscious mind, which includes one’s basic desires and impulses
  2. the ego—the conscious mind, which is shaped by society
  3. the superego—the ego seeking to suppress the id, one’s basic desires, and bring them into conformity to social norms

Thus, the id, which Marx believed was the “true you,” is conflicted by one’s ego (i.e., conscience), which has been shaped by the cultural constructs of society. This internal conflict of the mind (i.e., the superego) is what brings frustration and oppression to one’s thinking. It is what brings guilt. For instance, the young teenager who is struggling with homosexual desires may feel guilty because his conscience has been unjustly shaped by his religious upbringing. Such guilt keeps him oppressed and prevents him from being who he wants to be. It keeps him from expressing his “true identity.”

Freud reasoned that this internal war brings a false sense of shame, confusion, and frustration. Therefore, the cure to man’s internal conflict and false guilt is found only in the dismantling of the cultural constructs that bring about the false sense of guilt. The external norms that suppress the id from coming out of the closet must be removed. Not until all social norms of the past are dismantled will the id be fully free to express itself without conflict or shame.

The Frankfurt School held that morality, then—especially conservative values—was socially constructed to keep the inward desires of the powerless and oppressed class from being free to express themselves. This oppression will continue as  long as these values are maintained by the old institutions of power, such as the family.


 The Infrastructure of Critical Theory

On the threefold foundation of social Marxism— atheism, relativism, and anti-authority—critical theory emerged. The word critical comes from the critical approach the Frankfurt School took to the knowability of reality and truth. They believed that knowledge is confined to language and that language has been socially constructed by the subjective and ever-changing contextual “values” of those in power.

Without man being made in God’s image, which allows effective and authoritative divine communication, this makes sense. In other words, with no divine revelation, there can be no universal truth. And without universal truth, language has no foundation for its own meaning.

Thus, for the Frankfurt School, language is a social construct of the ruling class used as a means of oppression. And therefore, language is oppressive. French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) carried forth these ideas in three books all published in 1967: Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Voice and Phenomenon. Because knowledge is the construction of language, and because language is the construction of socially constructed definitions written by those in power, knowledge becomes a means of power and oppression. Michel Foucault (1926–1984), for instance, coined the term power knowledge in 1981, claiming that “knowledge is a construct of power.” For Foucault, rather than truth being objective, it operates as “regimes of truth.” “Each society,” Foucault claimed, “has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value.”[4]

Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), who took over Sigmund Freud’s outpatient clinic and wrote The Sexual Revolution in 1936, claimed, “Marx found social life to be governed by the conditions of economic production and by the class conflict that resulted from these conditions at a definite point of history. It is only seldom that brute force is resorted to in the domination of the oppressed classes by the owners of the social means of production; its main weapon is its ideological power over the oppressed, for it is this ideology that is the mainstay of the state apparatus.”[5]

It’s not necessarily jails or prisons that keep the Have Nots oppressed; it is language itself that is holding them down. The Haves define the meaning of words, and such proscribed meaning is what keeps the Have Nots in line and submissive. And this is the heart of critical theory—any authoritative meaning that passes itself as objective truth is inherently discriminating and oppressive.

Therefore, critical theory seeks to deconstruct objective meaning wherever it’s found. Critical theory is applied to the study of law (critical legal theory), the study of history (critical history theory), the study of sexuality and gender (critical gay theory and critical gender theory), and the study of race (critical race theory).

But in all this, the objective is to deconstruct meaning, which they deem is intolerant, to liberate the so-called oppressed from the unjust bondage of those who are in power—or as the director of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, said, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”[6] For Horkheimer, the endgame of such liberation is “individual self-emancipation and self-creation.”[7] In other words, to have liberation (from God), all authority and meaning and traces of God must be deconstructed because authority is inherently oppressive in their worldview.

The objective of the Frankfurt School was to study the best way of implementing the liberation of Marxism, and they concluded it would not happen without reeducation. But before you can teach people the value of Marxism, you must inform them of the dangers of capitalism. People who are happy with the way things are must become disillusioned with the way things are. They are unknowingly oppressed and, thus, need to be informed of their oppression. They need to be awakened. If ever they are going to collectively break out of the social prison that enslaves them, they must become discontent with the “Establishment.”

The Frankfort School scholars knew this type of revolution would not happen overnight. Horkheimer recognized it would take time, for famously he claimed, “The Revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming them slowly into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism.”

Long ago they determined to use the universities as their churches to reindoctrinate the masses and convert new followers to their pursuit of justice and equality. From the universities they would train up community leaders and politicians, continuing this process generation after generation until they controlled the mainstream media and outlets of communication. And without guns or bombs, the populace would be convinced that something radically needed to happen to the current Establishment.

Before the Establishment as a whole can be overthrown, however, the various institutions of society must be overthrown (the authority of the individual, the family, and civil governments). As David Held explains, “The purpose of theory . . . is to analyze and expose the hiatus between the actual and the possible, between the existing order of contradictions and a potential future state. Theory must be oriented, in short, to the development of consciousness and the promotion of active political involvement.”[8]

The Deconstruction of the Family

But rather than attempting to undermine the authority of the individual and one’s inalienable rights first, this would come last in the process. First, the authority of the patriarchal family needed to be assaulted by the radical left. The traditional values of complementarianism, gender roles, sexuality, and parenting needed be deconstructed. The traditional family is restricting and oppressive, even to those who willingly embrace it.

This assault on the traditional family started many years ago with the sexual revolution and the feminist movement in the 1960s and has continued with the gay, bisexual, and transgender movements of our own day. This decay can be chronicled by observing how the family is represented in TV sitcoms over the last sixty years.

David Held, in his book Introduction to Critical Theory, explains why the Frankfurt School was so adamant about the necessity of deconstructing the family: “The family is the mediator between the economic structure of the order and its ideological superstructure.”[9] Horkheimer states,

The family has a very special place among the relationships which through conscious and unconscious mechanisms influence the psychic character of the vast majority of men. The family, as one of the most important formative agencies, sees to it that the kind of human character emerges which social life requires, and gives this human being in great measure the indispensable adaptability for a specific authority-oriented conduct on which the existence of the bourgeois order largely depends.[10] The family, in his view, is the building block of the dangerous infrastructure of authoritarianism.

As Held further explains,

The birth of Capitalism emancipated the family from serfdom. Yet the family retained a pseudo-feudal, hierarchical structure as the direct personal dependence of women and children survived in the home. The power of the father was always based on the dependence of others; he had the capacity to give or withhold things that were greatly wanted. Under Capitalism the basis of his authority was, at least for a period, reinforced; ‘father’ rules the roost not only in virtue of his physical strength but also because he is often the sole breadwinner. The relative isolation of women and helplessness of children in the home strengthens his position.[11]

Moreover, Horkheimer claimed that the family perpetuates generational authoritarianism:

[The son] may think what he will of his father, but if he is to avoid conflicts and costly refusals he must submit to his father and satisfy him. The father is . . . always right where his son is concerned. The father represents power and success, and the only way the son can preserve in his own mind a harmony between effective action and the ideal, a harmony often shattered in the years before puberty’s end, is to endow his father, the strong and powerful one, with all the other qualities the son considers estimable.

. . . Childhood in a limited family becomes an habituation to an authority which in an obscure way unites a necessary social function with power over men.[12]

And as if that were not enough, Horkheimer asserted the authoritarianism of the family is at the heart of man’s psychological problems: “The lack of independence, the deep sense of inferiority that afflicts most men, the centering of their whole psychic life around the ideas of order and subordination, but also their cultural achievements are all conditioned by the relations of child to parents or their substitutes and to brothers and sisters.[13]

Likewise, psychologist Erich Fromm, another member of the Frankfurt School, agreed: “The instinctual apparatus itself is a biological given; but it is highly modifiable. The role of primary formative factors goes to the economic conditions. The family is the essential medium through which the economic situation exerts its . . . influence on the individual’s psyche.”[14]

Wilhelm Reich, the author of The Sexual Revolution and Social Function of Sexual Oppression, claimed that only “under non-capitalist and non-patriarchal institutions people could live honestly, industriously and co-operatively.”[15] And according to David Held, “Reich’s conclusions as to what could bring about an end of this state of affairs included recommendations establishing the sexual rights of all—including children and adolescents.”[16]

It is the authoritarian patriarchal father who suppresses the sexual desires of children, keeping the next generation enslaved in an out-of-date morality. Reich claimed, “We do not conceal the fact that we want to protect children and adolescents from being inculcated with sexual anxiety and guilt feeling.” Thus, for Reich, sexual health can be defined as the “freedom from any kind of ascetic moralizing attitudes.”[17]

For this reason, critical theory is not only committed to destroying the traditional family but also to removing education out of the home and into the public square. Instruction of the next generation needs to be the responsibility of the state to ensure oppression does not continue to forthcoming generations. For, as Hillary Clinton famously stated, “It takes a village.”

Finally, critical theory demands that parental rights be slowly removed and children be able to make more and more decisions on their own without parental consent. Eventually, any parent who objects to their child undergoing a sex change or an abortion will be seen as abusers who need to be arrested.

The Deconstruction of Civil Authority

The goal of Marxism has always been global in intent. All classes and demographical divisions must be eliminated. Marx made this clear in his day, and the social Marxism of the Frankfurt School was not any different. The decentralization of power is a safe- guard against the abuse of power, but such decentralization, according to critical theory, only incites authoritarianism of one nation over the others. This can be seen, they say, in the colonization of lands belonging to native people groups around the world by the industrial nations of Europe.

For the Frankfurt School, nationalism, like racism, is an oppressive idolatry of superiority. Nations such as America, they would say, were built on oppression. According to this way of thinking, America was formed on the confiscation of lands that belonged to the Native Americans and then was built up on the backs of slaves. That’s why the tagline “Make America Great Again” is deemed as offensive and racist—in the eyes of some, America has never been great.

Furthermore, nationalism must fall before there can be an open and borderless society. More and more power must be relocated from the state to the national level and then from the national level to the international level. The way for governments to relinquish their national sovereignty is by turning the focus to global concerns and dangers, such as climate change, that are best confronted by a global economic effort.

The Deconstruction of Individualism

Finally, the authority and inalienable rights and freedoms of the individual must be taken away and consolidated into one globalized power of “equality.” The right to life and self-protection, the right to take dominion and gather personal property, and the right to free speech and to worship God according to conscience all must be removed for Marxism to work.

Free speech is dangerous because words are dangerous. Language is how the traditional values of oppression and authoritarianism spread. Such oppression must be removed for people to feel free to “sin” without a guilty conscience.

And the freedom to take dominion and gather personal wealth and property also must be seized from the individual. Too much personal property and wealth is oppressive as it supposedly limits and hinders others from their fair share. If some have more than they need, this means that others will have less than they need. Though individual freedom may seem to be the hardest of the God-given institutions to deconstruct, the far left has been doing a good job at getting people to willingly give over their rights to the state. You see, there is more than one way to take away individual freedom—by force, by fear, or by exchange.

Personal freedoms can be taken away by brute force, but this hypothetically goes against critical theory’s ideologies of anti-oppression and authoritarianism. They would rather take away individual freedom by fear. This is how political correctness works. Make people feel so ashamed to use certain words that they willingly give up the freedom of speech. Get people so scared of a spread of a pandemic that they willingly submit to being micromanaged by big government. Create fear and offer safety, and people will give you almost anything you ask them.

But it seems the most effective way of confiscating personal freedoms is by exchanging them for free handouts. Freedoms come from God, and no government or power has the right to take them away. Yet the state can confuse people as to what their rights are. So, because critical theory advocates do not believe in God, they don’t believe human rights come from God. And by claiming that free healthcare and free cell phones and free college tuition and free money are human rights (which only big government can give to everyone), they can help get people to willfully exchange their God-given freedoms for a hot bowl of porridge.


[1] Quoted in David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), 21.

[2] Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012), 4.

[3] Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1972), xv. See also pp. 10, 11.

[4] Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 73.

[5] Wilhelm Reich, “Social Function of Sexual Oppression,” in German Essays on Psychology, Wolfgang Schirmacher and Sven Nebelung, eds. (New York: Continuum, 2001), 153.

[6] Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Seabury, 1982), 244.

[7] See David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory, 25.

[8] David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Oxford, UK: Polity, 2004), 22.

[9] Held, Introduction to Critical Theory, 126.

[10] Max Horkheimer, Authority and the Family, accessed February 6, 2021, max-horkheimer-authority-and-the-family.pdf, 98.

[11] Held, Introduction to Critical Theory, 129.

[12] Horkheimer, Authority and the Family, 107–108.

[13] Horkheimer, 108–109.

[14] Rainer Funk, “Erich Fromm’s Concept of Social Character,” Social Thought & Research 21, no. 1/2 (1998): 215–29, accessed February 8, 2021,

[15] Quoted in Held, Introduction to Critical Theory, 116.

[16] Held, 117.

[17] Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, trans. Therese Pol. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), 279.