This article began life as part of another, soon to be published in Apramāda, in which I contrast the vision of social justice that motivated Dr Ambedkar, India’s great social reformer, with the ‘Social Justice’ that is now such a dominant force in Western culture, and argue that the two are far less compatible than might be assumed. But in writing that article I found that an explanation of what I am calling ‘Social Justice’ called for an account of its historical development, and that this outgrew its original purpose and warranted separate treatment. This I am giving it here, and I hope that, concise as it will be, it will suffice as an explanation of what I mean by ‘Social Justice’, and why I regard it as so dangerous.
What I am calling ‘Social Justice’ is associated with many terms: identity politics, intersectionality, wokeness, political correctness, to name a few. Perhaps the best general term for it is Sangharakshita’s coinage, ‘pseudo-liberalism’, since it presents itself as liberal whilst being anything but. The words ‘social justice’ themselves will have positive associations for many people, so to make it clear that the phenomenon I am explaining and criticizing is quite distinct, I shall refer to ‘Social Justice’ with initial capitals and either scare quotes or the addition of ‘Critical’ as a qualifier — the significance of which will become clear.
I should state at the outset that I am by no means against genuine social justice causes, nor am I unsympathetic to all aspects of the political left, though I advocate caution about identifying with political ideologies, whether left or right. I am also aware that the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ are very blunt instruments, and that they no longer capture the varieties of political position in the modern world. Nonetheless, it is from the left that modern ‘Social Justice’ ideology comes, and where it is most strongly embedded. In fact, while it is a hybrid of attitudes, ideas and methods drawn from various sources, significant amongst these is Marxism, which is therefore where my short history shall begin.
The Long March of ‘Social Justice’
By the end of World War I, classical Marxism was in trouble. Not only had the predicted revolution not yet come, but the workers of Europe had fought and died in their millions, not for class, but for nation. In Russia the communists did seize power, but since Russia was still largely an agrarian society rather than a highly industrialized one, the revolution itself contradicted Marx’s prediction. More importantly, in the decades that followed, the rest of Europe did not follow suit, but instead seemed intent on pursuing nationalism in new, dangerous directions. Meanwhile it was gradually forced on the attention of all but the most dogged admirers of the Soviet Union that something had gone terribly wrong. In 1940 Orwell wrote, ‘All people who are morally sound have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks.’1
The result was that, as Dr Ambedkar said in 1956, ‘much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces.’2 This left Marxists with a choice of three paths, which Bryan Magee outlined as follows:
Some Marxists were disillusioned…to the point of abandoning Marxism as a theory which events had now proved to be mistaken. Others refused to question the theory regardless of the historical evidence. But there were a few in between – people who remained, or wanted to remain, Marxists, but who felt that Marxist theory would have to be very severely re-examined, and to some extent reconstructed, if it was to remain at all credible.3
It is the latter path that, combined with other influences, led to Critical Social Justice. A full account of this labyrinthine course would require a whole book,4 and we must content ourselves with some broad brushstrokes.
Among the Marxist thinkers of the early 20th century, a name that comes up again and again as of particular importance is that of Antonio Gramsci. Although he wrote his most important work in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it is in the radical student movements of the ‘60s that his influence began to take hold. One of his key ideas was that of ‘hegemony’, which extends the understanding of how the elites exercise power beyond the ownership of the means of production (the mechanism identified by classical Marxism). In addition to economic power, the elites keep the populace compliant by the exercise of a cultural power, through its members occupying key positions of influence in society, in education, the priesthood, the civil service, etc. For communism to come about, therefore, a proletariat uprising is not sufficient. There also needs to be a ‘long march through the institutions’,5 whereby the positions of influence in society are gradually filled by the intelligentsia of the left. The appeal of this idea for that class of people is easy to understand. Classical Marxism offered a sophisticated theory to clever idealists. But since the revolution would be a result of inexorable historical forces, such people were left wondering what part they had in bringing it about. Gramsci helped both to explain the tardiness of communism, and to give the intelligentsia the honoured role they so longed for in engineering its eventual triumph.
The Frankfurt School
Also important among the neo-Marxists was the ‘Frankfurt School’, which comprised a group of intellectuals centred around the ‘Institute For Social Research’. Founded in Frankfurt in the 1920s, its mainly Jewish members relocated to Columbia University in the 1930s, where they continued to attack the foundations of the very society that had given them refuge from the Nazis, and thereby probably saved their lives. The Frankfurt School profoundly shaped subsequent leftist thought. In particular, it originated ‘Critical Theory’, a term still widely in use, which refers to the ‘critique’ of society for the purposes of exposing and undermining its power-structures (and which gives us the ‘Critical’ in ‘Critical Social Justice’).
They were a diverse group, and included interesting thinkers such as Erich Fromm among their associates. But it was Herbert Marcuse who most influenced what became Critical Social Justice. Remaining in the United States after his colleagues had returned to Germany, he became a grand old man of ‘60s political radicalism.
A particular concern of Marcuse was the attempt to integrate Marx and Freud. Capitalism is, he taught, not merely economically oppressive, it is also psychologically repressive. The seeming order and prosperity of capitalism is a mask for underlying repression, especially (since this is Freud) of the sex drive. Sexual liberation and political revolution therefore go hand in hand. The problem, however, is that the combination of economic prosperity and psychological repression is so powerful that the revolution can no longer be expected to come from the proletariat as a body. There was therefore a shift in attention, which proved crucial to Critical Social Justice ideology, towards the identification of marginalised groups in society — those who, since they have not benefitted from the status quo, have also not been totally brainwashed by it. Intellectual leadership drawn from such groups, and trained in critical theory, would be the vanguard of the revolution.
Marcuse’s article ‘Repressive Tolerance’ is essential for understanding Critical Social Justice. In it, he argues that in a capitalist society, the idea of ‘tolerance’ itself becomes another tool of oppression. His conclusion is that there is no obligation to tolerate ideas that do not agree with those of the radical left.
The next significant development was postmodernism. Some of the key figures associated with it, Foucault and Derrida in particular, provided a philosophical foundation for the strand of academia that led to Critical Social Justice ideology.6 Postmodernism is a diverse movement, and notoriously difficult to generalise about. For our purposes it is probably best understood as a rejection of, or at least scepticism about, the ideals of the European Enlightenment. Whereas the Enlightenment championed reason, universal truths, individual rights and political liberty, postmodernism gives us radical scepticism about ‘meta-narratives’ and the possibility of objective knowledge, and an emphasis on relativity, subjectivity and society’s role in constructing identity.
The significance of this epistemological shift needs to be underlined. Previously, theories of society and of social progress were expressions of Enlightenment assumptions. Even Marxism was an attempt (albeit deeply flawed) at a scientific theory of society, and was thus, in its way, a product of the Enlightenment. But under postmodernism, all such attempts at a unifying theory of truth, and even the belief that there could be such a thing, became suspect.
However, the method of postmodernism was largely negative. In its delight in ‘deconstruction’, it not only rejected the values and achievements of the Enlightenment, but also failed to replace them with anything better. This intellectual void was eventually filled by a synthesis of postmodern theory with a Marxian activist orientation.
For the first couple of decades postmodernism was a largely academic affair, its practitioners involved in playing the obscure intellectual game of deconstructing Western culture. But from the late 1980s onwards, the revolutionary egalitarian spirit of its Marxist antecedents (especially the ‘critical theory’ of the Frankfurt School) came back to the fore. A new tradition of activist scholarship arose, which applied the deconstructive methods of postmodernism to various social categories, particularly to the disadvantages suffered by women and ethnic or sexual minorities — now with the stated aim of reconstructing society on a more egalitarian basis.
The central notion of the new activist scholarship was formulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar who helped to found Critical Race Theory. Crenshaw replaced the Marxian vision of class conflict with that of ‘intersectionality’. In this view, society consists of multiple intersecting identity groups along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability and mental health (to name some of the main ones). Individuals are either ‘privileged’ or ‘marginalised’ according to their particular configuration of group-identity characteristics. The idea of intersectionality was to become important not just in Critical Race Theory, but in third-wave feminism, queer theory (including transgender theory), and several other branches of ‘Social Justice’ scholarship.
Social Justice Ascendancy
We have now to account for the current cultural moment, in which we see radical ideas which were once confined to obscure corners of academia, stripped of any of the subtlety with which they may originally have been expressed, and established as a major force in public life throughout much of the English-speaking world, and as one of the rival camps in what has been referred to as the ‘culture war’. How one feels about this will depend which side one is on in the war, or at least where one’s sympathies predominantly lie. No doubt many who promote ‘Social Justice’ sincerely believe themselves to be on the right side of history. But for anyone who values the achievements of Western culture, including Enlightenment principles such as individual liberty, freedom of thought, objective truth, reason, tolerance, democracy, the rule of law, due process and the presumption of innocence — let alone common sense and decency — the ascendancy of ‘Social Justice’ is a near-unmitigated catastrophe.
Those who follow the culture wars may already be aware of how bad things are. For those who do not, I can only say that they are very bad indeed. In the last decade Critical Social Justice ideology has swept through our culture like wildfire. The universities themselves, especially the humanities, are overrun, possibly beyond redemption. There is virtually no area of public life that is not infected. Gramsci’s ‘long march through the institutions’ is, if not complete, very far advanced. Marcuse’s intolerance of the notion of tolerance (or, rather, the intolerance that has always characterized the radical left, for which Marcuse provided a rationalisation) has drastically shifted and narrowed the ‘Overton window’ of acceptable opinion. Ideas which not long ago would have been seen as fringe and frankly bizarre are now insisted upon so aggressively that the lives and careers of those who dare to speak out against them are destroyed.
Back in the ‘90s, Sangharakshita referred to political correctness as ‘one of the most pernicious tendencies of our time’.7So pernicious has it now become that we can hardly be said to live in a truly free society. Even telling jokes deemed offensive and expressing the wrong opinions on the internet — ‘offensive’ and ‘wrong’ meaning anything that is not approved by the diktats of ‘Social Justice’ — can be enough to get one investigated by the police and even prosecuted for ‘hate speech’. Here in the UK, few politicians, even on the right, dare to oppose it.
A Perfect Storm
How did we get to this point? It is a perfect storm born of multiple conditions. First, it seems to me that liberalism has for too long flown on borrowed wings. I have argued elsewhere that it needs to be contained within a framework of higher values, which cannot come from liberalism itself.8 Such a framework is sorely lacking in the modern West, and those looking for moral certainty, but unwilling to seek it in religion, are left with no foundation. This is compounded by the fact that most of the moral battles that might be fought in the name of liberalism (leaving aside men’s rights issues, which are not even allowed into the discussion) have already been won. Lindsay and Pluckrose point out that postmodernism took its activist turn in the late 1980s,
just as the Civil Rights Movement, liberal feminism, and Gay Pride began to see diminishing returns after twenty years of remarkably rapid progress towards racial, gender, and LGBT equality on a legal and political level.9
The progress towards racial equality and tolerance for sexual minorities are the proudest achievements of the huge attitudinal change that occurred in the ‘60s. This progress was largely an extension of the Western liberal tradition that has given us representative democracy, individual rights, free speech, reason and the rule of law. But now that there is little more to be done in the name of liberalism, those eager to demonstrate ‘progressive’ credentials require a different set of presuppositions. Critical Social Justice meets that need. It does so not so much by building on liberalism’s achievements, but by denouncing it as the very system of oppression which needs to be overcome. Thus, Critical Social Justice has brought off an astonishing trick. It has captured the moral high ground of the genuine social justice causes that it claims to be the heir of, whilst fundamentally rejecting the theoretical assumptions (such as individual liberty and equality of opportunity) that made progress in such causes possible.
This ideological capture has been going on in the universities for decades. But a further step was required for it to become as widespread and influential as it now is. There has been a gradual translation of postmodern neo-Marxist10 thought, out of the obscure jargon of its academic origins and into an easily grasped and morally charged set of postulates about society. These are then treated as inviolably true, and made into the basis of a new quasi-religion. The main articles of this faith are that human beings exist within a hierarchy of intersecting social categories which entirely determine their view of the world, that all social situations are imbued with power dynamics resulting from such inequalities of privilege, and that it is the task of the virtuous to root out these inequalities and side with the oppressed. Like all ideologies — which are by nature parasites on genuine morality — buried within this is an important germ of truth. But what truth it contains is divorced from any counter-balancing factors, wider moral concerns, or a transcendent perspective on human life.
Perhaps more obviously than by its central tenets, this quasi-religion can also be recognised by its language. Critical Social Justice is familiarising us with a jargon that would have seemed weird to most of us even a decade ago. Exhortations to embrace the pseudo-values of ‘diversity, equity and inclusivity’; assumptions of ‘systemic oppression’ and ‘white privilege’; accusations of ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘cultural appropriation’; warnings about ‘micro-aggressions’; denunciations of ‘cis-gendered heteronormativity’; calls for ‘cancellation’, claims that ‘speech is violence’, complaints about ‘mansplaining’, demands for ‘safe spaces’ and issuing of ‘trigger warnings’. All of these, and many more such neologisms, are products of Critical Social Justice ideology.
Probably many of those mouthing these phrases, including not a few Buddhists, have little idea of their provenance. But to be fair, Critical Social Justice has drifted a long way from its Marxist precursors — so far that it has been adopted as the moral currency of the elites, and can boast of very little support from the working classes, whom the traditional left was supposed to represent.11 Even corporations have adopted its language. Perhaps that should not come as too much of a surprise. Demanding no sacrifices, it is the most cost-effective method of moral grandstanding, and the perfect smokescreen for the naked pursuit of profit.
The extreme product of this new religion is the (mockingly called) ‘Social Justice Warrior’. Tempting as it is to join such mockery, such people should, I suggest, be seen as victims of Western individualism and postmodern nihilism. The ideas they have been drip fed have left them deracinated and in desperate need of identity and moral certainty, a simulacrum of which is provided by ‘Social Justice’. Having been taught to hate Western culture, they seek refuge in denouncing it. The notions of power and oppression provide a lens through which they look at the whole world, a miasma that pervades society from top to bottom, which it is their anointed task to expose and condemn.
Such fundamentalists are the minority, but rather than telling them to grow up, society allows them a disproportionate voice. In fact, not a few are stalking the corridors of power. To understand how this has happened, we must consider another strand. It should not be thought that the seepage of the radical left out of the universities and into society is a new phenomenon. Especially since the ideas of the New Left became influential amongst the student baby boomers, they have been taking root in all the institutions of the Western world, albeit in diluted form. The reason that ‘Social Justice’ zealotry has walked through our institutions unopposed is because they had already been infiltrated by a softer form of the same ideas.
This brings us to the need to distinguish genuine from pinchbeck social justice. The inability to do so results in a failure of the political left to police itself. The liberal left and the radical left have always existed side by side, without a sufficiently clear delineation between them.12 In addition, the fact that for so long the intellectual precursors to Critical Social Justice were hidden by jargon, requiring special training to decipher, allowed them to go unchallenged. The liberal left has nurtured a very illiberal cuckoo, which is now casting its foster siblings out of the nest. It is only now that the ideology has exposed itself, both by entering the cultural mainstream and by formulating its ideas more explicitly, that it is experiencing any serious pushback. The question is, whether there is still time to save what is valuable in Western culture, including our proud liberal social justice tradition, from its predations, and on what basis to do so.
Nonetheless, it is precisely the limitations of liberalism that have made it susceptible to the ‘Social Justice’ contagion. By the very nature of the two traditions, the advocates of Critical Social Justice will tend to be more zealous in their advocacy than the defenders of liberalism will be in their defence. What is needed is not the replacement of liberalism with an illiberal ideology, but a more fundamental shift in values, through which what is valuable both in liberalism and in post-Marxist thought can be reconciled in a higher synthesis. It is this possibility that Buddhism offers, and I would hope that all Buddhists, of no matter what political leaning, would join me in wishing for this.
But as well as advocating for a higher ideal, Buddhists have a duty to identify and refute what stands in its way. ‘Social Justice’, despite its seductive branding, is one of the greatest threats to Western culture and to the establishment of Western Buddhism. It is high time for a recognition of the danger it poses.
- Quoted in Cambridge Companion to Orwell, p137.
- Ambedkar, ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’.
- Bryan Magee, Men of Ideas, p62.
- There are a number of books that have been helpful to me in forming a general overview of this area, especially Cynical Theories (Lindsay and Pluckrose), Understanding Postmodernism (Hicks), Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (Scruton), The Long March (Sidwell). I also recommend The Destructivists by William Collins, extracts from which are being published as articles in Apramāda.
- The phrase does not originate with Gramsci, but is often used in relation to his thought.
- Indeed, Foucault is the most cited name in the whole of modern scholarship.
- Sangharakshita, A Stream of Stars, p74
- Karl Popper and the Crisis of Liberalism
- Lindsay and Pluckrose, Cynical Theories.
- ‘Postmodern neo-Marxism’ is a term popularised by Jordan Peterson. Although it has been criticized, I hope from what I have said it will be clear why I regard it as justified.
- One consequence of this is the phenomenon of ‘leaving the left’, or, as my father put it ‘I think the left has left me.’
- For example, Sidney and Beatrice Webb — who were influential figures in the early days of the (nominally democratic) Fabian Society — as well as being eugenicists, ended their days as staunch supporters of the Soviet Union, long after Stalin’s reign of terror had been made known. Perhaps it is a giveaway that the Fabian Society’s original coat of arms depicted a wolf in sheep’s clothing.