‘One front of many’: The Marxist agenda of Black Lives Matter

“Black Lives Matter is intended to be a tactic to help rebuild the black liberation movement. … It is not possible for a world where black lives matter if it is under capitalism. And it is not possible to abolish capitalism without a struggle against national oppression and gender oppression. So, the fight against police terror [and] state violence is but one front of many.” These words of Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM), squarely position that organization within a neo-Marxist framework, where a variety of axes of oppression give way to a multi-front struggle.

The BLM movement has taken over the consciousness of many in America and it has rendered any rejection as opposing the very essence of rightness and compassion and the just quest for racial reconciliation. When a movement is conceived in such fashion, we must pause and examine its premises, antecedent influences, and philosophical foundations. After all, we might be gravitating steadily toward a movement that is not all what it appears to be.

When Karl Marx died in 1883, Marxism entered a crisis. As several of Marx’s predictions for revolution failed, revisionists began to offer alternative explanations. Probably the first major revisionist was Eduard Bernstein, with his social democracy construct. But it was Vladimir Lenin who saved Marxism, not by his intellectual power but by his clever use of tactic and terror to take power in Russia. In the face of Lenin’s savage, dictatorial rule, many other communist thinkers in Western Europe began to develop a diverse array of revisionist alternatives, a process that remains under way to this day. 

An important revisionist effort began in Germany, through the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, and it is within that school of thought that we can find a remote precursor to BLM’s ideology. “Critical Theory” refers to several generations of German social theorists and philosophers in the Western European Marxist tradition, who undertook revisionist studies in Marxist thought with an emphasis on culture — similar to the ideas of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci understood that the increasingly better living conditions of the working class under capitalism made it unlikely for revolution to come about, as Marx predicted. It was instead through the incremental takeover of cultural institutions — education, the arts, entertainment, news media — that revolution had an opportunity to succeed. Subversion was to ignite by co-opting the system, not by the radical overthrow of it. This is a significant departure from classical dialectical materialism: Culture was more important than politics or economics — thus, the popular term “cultural Marxism.” 

Their quest was “emancipation from slavery” and the creation of a world “which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings by transforming all the circumstances that enslave them. Many “critical theories” and social movements have emerged that identify varied dimensions of domination and oppression in modern societies, among  them “black liberation” theories such as Critical Legal Studies (CLS) and Critical Race Theory (CRT). I venture to offer that “intersectionality” and other radical 20th century theories are the late offspring of the crisis of Marxism.

Within that general neo-Marxist understanding of oppression we find the concept known as intersectionality. This analytical framework proposes that each person possesses different identities that combine to create a variety of operations or modes of either oppression or victimization. A person might exhibit different modes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sex, class, religion and disability. Every aspect constitutive of a person — and as an extension, social relations — is a relationship of oppression. All these identities overlap and express themselves as advantageous or disadvantageous, bringing forth relationships of oppression or freedom. There are victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed, “us” and “them.” These relationships lie at the heart of identity and at the center of politics, culture, law and all human relations. Antagonism is the very essence of social advancement.

This idea developed during the latter part of the 20th century in the thought of radical feminist scholars and activists, several whom were LGBTQ. These scholars and activists referred to interlocking systems or axes of oppression intent on marginalizing people based on certain group identities. Intersectionality is a term that attempts to explain these dynamics. Originating within the CRT framework, intersectionality challenged the notion that gender was the exclusive mode of oppression for women. Author bell hooks tells us that intersectionality “challenged the notion that ‘gender’ was the primary factor determining a woman’s fate.” A number of scholars working within CRT assumptions proposed that the oppression experienced by white middle-class women is different from what black and poor women experience. Writing in 1988, for example, Deborah King referred to the concepts of double jeopardy and multiple consciousness in the experience of black women being women, black and poor.

Associated with and popularized by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality has gained traction with academics and journalists, where advocates have bestowed on it an aura of presenting factual knowledge of social reality and the affirmation that failing to acknowledge this complex web of privilege and oppression is failing to understand reality. After Crenshaw, a number of other radical feminist scholars delved into the idea of intersectionality, including the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. In her work on “black feminist thought,” Collins explored how “interlocking systems of oppression” affect black women. Collins stated that “the experience of oppression by black women instantiates a distinctive black feminist consciousness concerning material reality.” 

The proximate antecedent sources of intersectionality are thus radical feminist thought, postmodernism, Critical Race Theory, Critical Legal Studies, and the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. Placing Karl Marx as the ultimate influence is not to say that all scholars and activists working within the framework of intersectionality are consciously Marxist. It is, rather, that the framework embraces the assumptions of Marxist dialectics. In the realm of political and structural intersectionality we can clearly see the thought of Marx. Even postmodernists such as Michel Foucault, who are nominally resistant to determinism, seem to have embraced assumptions from the strongly deterministic ideology of Marxism.

Intersectionality originated to explain the connection between race, gender and other identities. Crenshaw highlighted the disadvantages experienced by members of various “oppressed groups” in a hierarchy of disadvantages caused by intersecting systems of oppression. Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory are part of the historic quest to avoid the epistemological crisis of Marxism provoked by its scientific reductionism and mechanistic prediction of the inevitable, automatic collapse of capitalism. A positivist approach to social change under the guise of Marxism as science seems to erase the role of human subjectivity and culture. If there is an inevitability to the collapse of capitalism, then there is no need for an effort to develop a revolutionary consciousness that cannot fail to emerge.

The concept of intersectionality is an element within a project that rejects the positivist thrust of traditional Marxism and elevates the importance of “praxis” as a real possibility for revolutionary change and a response to alienated social existence. The old Marxist emphasis on “proletarian consciousness” is removed from the center. But how are CRT and intersectionality still Marxist? The simple answer: They are neo-Marxist, not traditionally Marxist — because specimens of the latter are museum pieces these days. Marxism remains valid as a general methodological framework for social transformation and the destruction of capitalism, but its earlier expression must be challenged and reinterpreted.  

Cultural Marxism attempted to reinterpret Marx; CRT and intersectionality are part of that general effort of extending Marxism by using it more as a template for understanding dialectical social relations than as a scientific understanding of society with specific, untouchable elements. In creative ways, revisionists present a conception of society that can be said to exist in stark contrast with orthodox Marxism while still embracing its general reading of history. This revisionism affects Marxist social ontology, which saw praxis exclusively in reference to labor and the proletarian class. Intersectionality, for example, sees political action in the social totality to avoid what Marxist theorist Georg Lukács called “reification” — the notion that everything becomes an object or commodity under capitalism, and persons are more like things than human beings. That is why organizations such as Black Lives Matter can speak of human dignity, while adhering also to gender ideologies that see no intrinsic dignity in human beings at all, as we shall briefly explore. Suffice it to say that the great enemy of movements such as BLM is not white supremacy; it is capitalism. 

The Black Lives Matter organization fits within this framework of a neo-Marxist vision of social processes. One of its founders asserted that the movement is a front, and it is important to understand why this is the case. What we know as BLM began with rage at what the organization calls “rampant and deliberate violence inflicted on us by the state.” BLM describes its origins this way: “In 2013, three radical Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — created a Black-centered political will and movement-building project called #BlackLivesMatter. It was in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman.” The proximate reason to begin the campaign was a specific instance of racial violence that highlighted a system they described as imbued with racism. In effect, they affirm that blacks are the victims of a global effort to extinguish them: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

Within the periphery of this movement, there were many people who joined because they were more concerned with the truth of the proposition that black people matter because they are human beings who deserve justice than by anything else the organization seemed to stand for. What is problematic is that the proposition was not free-floating. It was not a theoretical examination of anthropological realities or a general affirmation of dignity seeking reform. It was, and remains, a proposition converted into an instrument at the service of an organization with a specific ideology. With the 2020 death of George Floyd, more and more people entered the movement and now it has acquired mainstream status. Those masses on the periphery are being influenced by, and unwittingly cooperating with, the center, which is ideological. The gravitational pull of ideological movements is quite powerful and everything that challenges the center is eventually absorbed or expelled. Those who openly reject the center are denounced and said to be against the general aim of justice. Once one is within the whirlwind of that hurricane, it is impossible to go outside on a picnic. That is what we call a united front.

Many good people join movements out of concern for a cause and are motivated by the desire to “do something.” Once a movement starts, however, it is rather difficult to resist its luring enticements, especially when the system becomes a parasite living off true historical wrongs. It camouflages its true colors by looking like another necessary step on the long American journey for racial justice. This camouflage works, despite the movement’s founders telling us what their ideology is, because people want it to be different and hope to isolate the center from its periphery. But the center sucks you in.  

This is complicated by what we know of the organization’s ideology and the Leninist concept of the united front. We can find the idea in Marx, but the concept emerges in full with Lenin and his theory of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. Once the Communist Party was made illegal in Russia and Lenin had to go into exile, the Bolsheviks chose to utilize broader movements and causes to advance revolution, abandoning the idea that such alignments polluted the cause. In his work, “Two Tactics,” Lenin rejected the Menshevik call for extreme revolutionary opposition by the proletariat through its vanguard and proposed to “march side by side with liberal and monarchist bourgeoisie without merging with either.” Lenin decried the refusal of communists to participate in elections, to join larger causes to advance revolution, and to create movements around certain problems that could bring “fellow travelers” alongside the proletarians. Lenin called “childish” the communist refusal to compromise with bourgeois parties and movements, as such tactical efforts were an essential part of the communists’ ultimate victory. 

The fact that BLM is an ideological movement whose origin was spread through a network of radical organizations defending multiple causes, and later became a Marxist-inspired organization, gives us reason to believe that the wider movement that has emerged is a united front. History shows that fronts in countries experiencing “colonialism” or “imperialist oppression” kept widening to include more and more non-communist sectors. The communists grew whenever they followed correct united front tactics with other movements. They gained mainstream status and acceptance and were looked upon as the most active unifiers of those fighting injustices. The BLM movement has all the elements of a sophisticated united front. 

Taking into consideration these three aspects, one who desires to proclaim the truth and do justice but does not want to become a tool of those who cunningly manipulate people must seriously pause before embracing the BLM movement. As the living out of justice does not necessitate a movement, the best attitude is one of healthy skepticism toward the BLM movement and of commitment to getting involved with non-ideologically motivated organizations doing positive things in the black community. It is important also that we understand the issues at hand and learn of the competing forces within the civil rights movement that gave way to various understandings of black reality in America: one integrationist, personalist and reformist; and the other separationist, dialectical and revolutionary. As a united front, BLM instrumentalizes the race problem for revolution, but not just race. As we learn from scholars in intersectionality and the thought of black feminist communist scholars, there are multiple axes of oppression and there exist a “triple oppression” of classism, racism and sexism.

Black Lives Matter’s emphasis on “gender liberation” fits within this communist and radical feminist concept of intersectional fronts of liberation from capitalist oppression and its various expressions, one being “heterosexual supremacy.” On a page (since removed) about what BLM believes, we read that it seeks to “dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk,” as well as to “foster a queer-affirming network.” It is under the rubric of intersectionality that BLM activists attempt to emphasize gender ideology and “Queer Theory.” Those who identify as trans/GNC are given a place as the most oppressed of the victims of white supremacy — with white supremacy being the umbrella term for all oppressions under capitalism, whether the question is one of race or not. 

The trans/GNC take the place of the lumpenproletariat, the lumpen being in Marxist-Leninist theory the lowest stratum of the industrial working class, including also thieves, prostitutes, vagrants and others at the margins of society. This ragged and dangerous class — “social scum” as Marx called it — lacked revolutionary consciousness and often became pawns at the service of the bourgeoisie, but also tended to act as the “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue.” However, a neo-Marxist theory such as intersectionality must admit the injustices suffered by the lumpen as an axis of oppression and seems to identify the poorest of the poor and the “gender non-conforming” with the possession of class consciousness and even with the greatest potential for revolutionary consciousness, as they are the most oppressed. 

To better understand the gender theory element in neo-Marxist theory, let us take a brief look at second wave feminism and Queer Theory. There are two main characters in the development of radical feminism that are essential to understanding its anthropological assumptions. The first is the French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Regarded as the intellectual founder of second wave feminism, Beauvoir had a long sexual relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, one they called a “soul partnership,” a non-exclusive and intentionally childless union. In her view, the biological difference between men and women was merely a “brute fact,” that is, a meaningless, given curiosity of existence. Following Sartre, she affirmed that existence precedes essence; that is, everything is given or begins to exist without meaning. We cannot derive any meaning or purpose out of brute facts. 

This view of reality denies the principle of sufficient reason, which states that for every entity X, if X exists, there is a sufficient explanation for why X exists. No, matter is just there, they avow; it exists, and that is all there is to it. This view also goes against the traditional Aristotelian-Scholastic notions of the natural order, where things have both substantial form and immanent teleology. Different substances have different causal powers and that signifies they exist with intrinsic meaning. As philosopher Ed Feser states,  “For something to exhibit teleology is for it to point to or be directed toward some end or outcome. For it to exhibit immanent teleology is for this directedness to be intrinsic to it, rather than imposed from outside.”

This is absolutely denied by the existentialist school of thought of French philosopher Michel Foucault, Sartre and Beauvoir. For them, there is no such thing as an inherent human nature. As Foucault stated, in reply to Noam Chomsky’s assertion that “humanly valuable” concepts such as justice, love, kindness and sympathy seem to possess a “real” essence: “I will just say that I can’t help but think that the concepts of human nature, of kindness, of justice, of human essence and its realization, these are all notions and concepts that have been created within our civilization, our system of knowledge, and our form of philosophy.” These concepts, as social constructs, could not overthrow the oppressive regime of capitalism.

For the existentialists, the world is a complex arrangement of parts with no inherent tendency toward the ends they serve, and thus without any telos, as meaning must be imposed “from outside,” as it were. As there is no intrinsic meaning to anything in the world, the doctrine of ends and final causes is only an imposed meaning and historically it has often been imposed for the purposes of control. Things do not possess a drive toward perfection or fulfillment in their essence; there is no causa finalis and there is no causa formalis. According to Beauvoir our bodies are impersonal attachments, somewhat external to ourselves, and meaning is derived from the other side of the mind-body Cartesian split, from being a “thinking thing.” We are thinking things or, more importantly, we are “freedoms.” That is, a voluntarist power exists in us that fills the gap of meaning. It would be accurate to describe Beauvoir’s theory as a sort of moral or attributed dualism where a person and the human animal do not identify and personhood is socially bestowed, achieved by a sort of decree or recognition or attribution. 

But that such “we” is a freedom relates to its indeterminate telos or ultimate end. In a sense, as Jacques Maritain stated, referring to René Descartes, such a view of the person is a type of angelic epistemology where the individual intellect becomes self-sufficient. Maritain calls Descartes the father of the individualist conception of human nature. Beauvoir might be the goddess of modern feminism’s individualist conception of human beings and the triumph of their will instead of the intellect. We can move our will into creating a telos from the outside because we are “freedoms.” In contrast to Sartre, who saw each of us as an enemy to each other as we fight to actualize our freedom, Beauvoir said that to actualize our freedom we must cooperate and respect each other, something that aligns with conceptions of sexual cooperation in traditional notions of sexual difference. Men and women must recognize, affirm, and embrace their differences, and only by doing so will they be able to create a condition of equality and respect: “[B]y and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.”

For Beauvoir, the goal in life is to maximize our freedom. Now, the history of humanity as it relates to sex is that although sex is just a brute fact without meaning, one sex oppresses the other — the male systematically oppresses the female. Beauvoir then concludes that women are not born women but become women as they take the brute fact of sex bereft of meaning and give meaning to it, instead of allowing men to give meaning to women. The process of reclaiming identity by giving meaning to themselves is what is called gender. 

As the definition of woman is given by men, she cannot live out her freedom and remains tied to the facticity of sex, becoming a breeder, only having meaning in giving birth and staying at home to give birth to “new flesh.” There are three elements that impede women from transcending the facticity of sex: Western society, the Western husband, and women’s own compliance. Capitalism, as a creation of Western society, with its concept of private property, becomes another instrument of oppressive men who must own the means of production. Who produces children? Women. Thus, men must own women through either brute force or by “mystification,” that is, by inventing the idea that the nature of women is to become mothers. 

Motherhood and marriage, in this scenario, are oppressive capitalist institutions used by men as a ploy to define women by the meaningless fact of sex and deprive them of the freedoms they ought to possess. This is the essence of second wave feminism, to eradicate meaning from the fact of sex and demystify women to become the freedoms they are called to become. There is no doubt that Beauvoir states certain things that are true in history, such as the oppression of women, but she encapsulates these within a false philosophical framework that inevitably leads to more radical approaches. The most important of these is that expressed in the thought of Judith Butler and “queer” feminism.

Butler takes the assumptions of Beauvoir and moves them forward while rejecting what in her view was an important mistake in Beauvoir’s thought. The mistake is, of course, anthropological. Butler denies Cartesian assumptions and thinks that the facticity of sex must be denied altogether. Accepting biological sex as a brute fact grants to sex a pre-discursive existence; that is, sex is not a social construct but an ultimate and independent foundational reality built in nature. But for Butler everything that exists is culturally or socially formed. Nothing escapes what she calls the “heteronormative matrix.” Nothing escapes the social construction of reality, nothing effaces social laws, including biological self. Here in the thought of Butler we find the justification for the popular idea of “assigning sex at birth.” All identities are socially constructed, and the idea of a given biology as essential reality is an illusion. Science itself is an illusion, as it gives meaning and purports to objectively discern what is nothing. 

Black Lives Matter has embraced a Queer Theory ideology whose anthropology answers the question of what we are as humans in a way that is radically different from the answer given by those of us who believe that we are beings with intrinsic meaning. Their calls for liberation and justice, often given with familiar language, cannot be reconciled with traditional Christian anthropology. The false anthropology of BLM informs their worldview — and that is why it ought to be rejected.

In their view, we are something other than embodied unified wholes, complete human organisms whose very existence is imbued with meaning and purpose. A sound anthropology understands that creation as such is imbued with meaning and God made human beings in his image and likeness, with the intrinsic and existential moral capacity for self-realization. He pronounced us “very good.” We were created with the capacities of reason and volition and for each other, for mutual self-giving, for love. Aristotle’s fundamental ontology states that all things have “forms,” that is, natures or essences. The entire assortment of things in existence also have matter, and united with form, constitute all the particular things we see around us. The form of things makes them intelligible, and we look at it to answer what things are. Things around us are real, as common sense and experience seem to indicate. 

What is most important here is that human beings are not mere reducible substratum; human beings are primary substances whose reality is not reducible to their parts — we are not reducible to our organs, which are in turn reducible to atoms and so forth. These are individual things to which we can ascribe certain individual characteristics but also characteristics that are shared by the same kind of things that share a substantial form. For example, I am an individual but also a member of a kind called “man.”  

A woman possesses a substantial form. She is an orderly and unified whole with various systems such as a digestive system, a cardiac system, a nervous system and a specific reproductive system. These systems need specific organs, such as a stomach, a heart, a brain, but also fallopian tubes, ovaries, a uterus and so on. The substantial form of a woman is the unified and orderly whole with all its systems, organs and parts. The substantial form is also the source of the unity and function of the parts as a whole, the very being of the woman through the various stages of the life of that woman. The form of the whole of a woman is what accounts for the parts, and not the other way around. The woman really exists, and she is not merely a physical thing, or biological forces, or particles devoid of meaning. The woman is not an accidental thing, and all the different things of living experience are really real, not merely accidentally present. 

Irreducibility also excludes the idea that meaning and substance reside in society or in the acting person, who confers significance to raw matter devoid of meaning. This idea of irreducibility makes concepts real, but it also makes things such as “humanity” and “universal human rights” possible, as there is a universality built into the nature of things because of their substantial form. The readers of this piece came to exist at a point in time when their human organisms came into existence, instead of sometime later when some non-bodily entity made the decision to instantiate their meaning or an individual decided to give them meaning. We are not non-bodily persons who inhabit a non-personal body. We are the kind of substance or kind of being whose bodily existence is intrinsic to itself, not merely accidentally so — we have inherent dignity

This is denied by radical feminist ideology and the entire ideological prism through which BLM interprets race, gender, the human person, and society as a whole. As such, it ought to be absolutely rejected as a deficient movement.