By Bernard E. Harcourt
Practices always have a meaning, and meanings organize practice and produce real effects.
— Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger (2017)
The next social revolution in America, then, must involve the utter abolition of racial prejudice in all its institutional forms.
— Manning Marable, “The Third Reconstruction,” Social Text (1981)
The George Floyd protests in the spring and summer of 2020 were the largest protests in American history, with between 15 to 26 million people participating, remarkably, during a time of heightened concern about public gatherings following the first deadly wave of COVID-19. The movements for Black Lives—and on its heels the election of President Joe Biden—sent the Right into a tailspin. The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was one response, among the most extreme, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and their fellow travelers. The failed coup by Donald Trump and his enablers, Mark Meadows and Rudy Giuliani among others, was another reaction.
Yet another response has been the all-out war on race consciousness in this country—more specifically, the nationwide campaign to undermine the intellectual and cultural framework that made possible the movements for Black Lives. This attack has taken the form of a brutal assault on “Critical Race Theory,” the 1619 Project, antiracism and intersectional theories, and all of the ways of thinking critically about race relations, systemic racism, and race consciousness in this country. It is a campaign for the hearts and minds of Americans to whitewash the way they experience and view their society; and every term or framework that I could use to denounce the effort—white supremacy, anti-Blackness, race, class, caste, etc.—are precisely the concepts that the Right has targeted and is trying to eliminate from our vocabulary.
This new phase—this ideological phase—of what amounts to an American counterrevolution is not covert. It seeks a transformation of the way Americans think and view the world—a revolution, in effect, that could “not be televised,” as Gil Scott-Heron said. But it does so openly, explicitly, and, in that sense, it is being televised and broadcast. In a manifesto titled “The Courage of Our Convictions: How to Fight Critical Race Theory,” published in City Journal on April 22, 2021, one of the most vocal ideologues on the Right, Christopher F. Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, publicizes the strategy:
To borrow a phrase from the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, [Critical Race Theory] is fast achieving cultural hegemony in America’s public institutions. It is driving the vast machinery of the state and society. If we want to succeed in opposing it, we must address it politically at every level.
To “address it politically” means, among other things, to recover the language and discourse, to conquer the ideational space, to regain cultural hegemony. “In terms of principles,” Rufo writes, “we need to employ our own moral language rather than allow ourselves to be confined by the categories of critical race theory.” The battlefront now is over that language—the everyday words we use and ways of seeing the world. The conflict is also, as Kendall Thomas will argue, over the question whether these are moral or political questions.
In a bold article titled “The Third Reconstruction: Black Nationalism and Race in a Revolutionary America,” Manning Marable sketched the blueprint for a transformation of American society that would eradicate racial prejudice. In the process, Marable compared the first Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War to the second reconstruction period of the Civil Rights era. He emphasized what he called “one pivotal difference”: the second reconstruction, Marable wrote, “was fought on the terrain of public policy and electoral politics, over cultural and social relations rather than on the battlefield.” Marable referred the reader to Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between a “war of movement” (also translated sometimes as a “war of maneuver,” in other words, physical warfare) and a “war of position” (what we might think of as counter-hegemonic cultural warfare). Along these lines, critical theorists now face a war of position without ever having achieved hegemony.
The Assault on Critical Race Theory
Most of the attacks have crystalized around the term “Critical Race Theory,” which has become the vessel for any and all progressive or radical thought on race, as well as on gender and sexuality—in effect, for any and all forms of race, gender, transgender, or sexuality critiques. This comes through again, explicitly, in the words of Rufo:
We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’
The concerted attacks have turned Critical Race Theory, or now simply “CRT,” into a household name—and national punching bag. (In another essay, “A New Phase of the American Counterrevolution,” I recount in more detail the assault on Critical Race Theory).
Until recently, the field of Critical Race Theory received attention predominantly in the academy. It was not really part of the national public discourse. In the legal academy, where the term “Critical Race Theory” originated, its aura and influence reached a zenith in the 1990s. It produced brilliant new insights throughout the early twenty-first century related to racial capitalism, neoliberalism, intersectionality, sexuality, and more—interventions that are crucial and essentials for critical thinkers like me. But relatively few scholars were paying attention until now, not to mention the public at large. I recall hearing one of my most respected colleagues in a faculty meeting mid-2000s arguing that there was no point hiring in the field of Critical Race Theory because the paradigm was exhausted. That was how most (non-critical) legal scholars—including liberal and many Left thinkers—felt about Critical Race Theory before the pandemic. When they discussed it, they tended to treat it as a historical episode in legal theory (after the “Critical Legal Studies” movement and before “Queer Theory”).
Today, you can be driving down a remote road in middle America, reach a stop sign, and see “CRT” scratched underneath the red enamel paint: “STOP CRT.” In the middle of nowhere. Far from the ivory towers. Beyond the reach of the New York Times. Republican legislators have introduced over a dozen bills in state legislatures and in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking to ban CRT and antiracism training in employment or educational settings. In New Hampshire, the proposed legislation targets “divisive concepts,” “race or sex scapegoating,” or the idea that the country or state is “fundamentally racist.” In Arkansas, it forbids training programs that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” marginalized groups. Idaho and Louisiana have introduced similar types of legislation. Conservative politicians around the country have been running campaigns on their opposition to CRT. Local school boards have erupted in curricular struggles over CRT.
Now, it is important to understand that the moniker “Critical Race Theory” or simply “CRT” as used by its opponents is the placeholder for a much more diffuse constellation of basic ideas than originally formulated in the legal academy—a constellation that both intentionally stretches the meaning of CRT to become entirely banal (essentially, it now includes any mention of race that is “divisive”) and at the same time requires a lot of theoretical work to understand what it is doing and how it functions. In the ideological assault, the term CRT points to any form of non-white race consciousness; for example, the idea that there is systemic racism against persons of color in America, or that there are ongoing legacies of slavery or Jim Crow in this country. It effectively covers any form of non-white racial identity politics or any claim about power that could be considered divisive from the perspective of a supposed white person.
I am being careful to exclude white racial identity politics because the attack on CRT is blind to that; so, for instance, it does not consider the “blue lives matter” American flag as having anything to do with race or racial identity, even though that symbol is, at its core, a racialized marker intended to confront and combat #BLM. In this sense, the label “CRT” is not just about any form of race consciousness, but about consciousness of antiblackness or white supremacy or racial discrimination against persons of color. As you can tell, it is theoretically complex, even though intentionally pedestrian. This requires a lot of unpacking. But for now, it is important to recognize that the marker “CRT” in the public discourse today has outgrown the strictly disciplinary term Critical Race Theory that was originally coined and developed in American law schools. It is not literally the writings, books, or articles of the legal scholars—Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas, Patricia Williams, and others. Their theoretical work infuses the common meaning, but the term has been instrumentalized and redefined to cover, essentially, anything related to Black consciousness.
The Present Political Conjuncture
We are in the midst of a fierce political assault today. At the time of the storming of the Capitol, I described it as the culmination of an American Counterrevolution. Hindsight has, if anything, confirmed my opinion. But with that failed coup, the counterrevolution has pivoted to a new front and entered a new phase: a phase of (renewed) ideological struggle, a war of position as Gramsci would have said. It has burrowed down on the cultural formations of progressives today: antiracism, critical race theory, anti-xenophobia, trans* and non-conforming sexualities. It has reengaged, in a newly invigorated way, the culture wars. The main battle right now is no longer the street, but words, language, ideas. Of course, the two have always worked in tandem. “Practices always have a meaning, and meanings organize practice and produce real effects,” Stuart Hall reminded us. Together, they become, as Hall put it, “racism’s two registers.”
What then is to be done? Should critical theorists reclaim the discourse of Critical Race Theory and take back CRT, in the way in which, perhaps, the term “queer” was reclaimed by Queer Theory? Or should critical theorists shift semantic fields and let go of the term in order to invent other new ways of speaking and seeing the world? Should they confront the assault or rather ignore it and instead keep theorizing?
These are the questions I would like to explore at Revolution 6/13 and I can think of no one better to guide us than my brilliant colleague Kendall Thomas, the Nash Professor of Law at Columbia University. Professor Thomas is one of the founders of Critical Race Theory and co-editor of the seminal collection Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: New Press, 1995). He has been instrumental in helping push Critical Race Theory into new areas of gender and sexuality, racial capitalism and neoliberalism, cultural studies, and poststructuralism.
Kendall Thomas has been a leading voice in response to the assault on Critical Race Theory. He recently delivered the 2020 Equality and Diversity Lecture at Oxford University and penned an essay arguing that these questions of racial justice are political, rather than moral questions.
Our discussion at Revolution 6/13 will be guided in part by the writings of two other remarkable worldly revolutionary philosophers, Stuart Hall and Manning Marable. Much of Stuart Hall’s work focused precisely on the intersection of practice and culture, discourse, ideology. An early member of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and founder of British Cultural Studies and The New Left Review, Hall’s writings are particularly pertinent in these times of ideological counterrevolution. For many years now, they have inspired Kendall Thomas’s work at the center that he founded and directs, the Columbia Center for the Study of Law and Culture. We will read Hall’s article “Culture, Resistance, and Struggle,” which, Hall explains, “focus[es] on cultural and ideological rather than political forms of resistance,” as well as on his political writings and his memoir, Familiar Stranger.
Manning Marable, late professor of history and African-American studies at Columbia University and the founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, provides another beacon to guide us. Marable was a model of the engaged worldly philosopher who brought together critique and praxis. Marable helped found and give early direction to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and later chaired the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS); at the same time, he also wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking 2011). We will be focusing on his article “The Third Reconstruction: Black Nationalism and Race in a Revolutionary America,” where he sketches a radical blueprint for transformation along the lines of dual sovereignty between a Black nation and a predominantly-white postcapitalist society. In a brilliant work of imagination and ambition, Marable charts a radical vision for the future.
We cannot hope for the revolution and the Third Reconstruction within our current century. Socialism is not “on the agenda” in our country, but the battle in civil society for socialist or capitalist ideological hegemony wages daily. As we prepare ourselves and others for the next American civil war, we might consider what we would do with state power if it was truly ours. This is a speculative but hopeful contribution toward the foundations of that socialist society—the new cultural democracy.
— Manning Marable, “The Third Reconstruction,” Social Text (1981)
Welcome to Revolution 6/13!
 Christopher F. Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions: How To Fight Critical Race Theory,” City Journal, April 22, 2021.
 Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”
 Manning Marable, “The Third Reconstruction: Black Nationalism and Race in a Revolutionary America,” Social Text, no. 4 (Autumn, 1981): 3-27, at 5 (emphasis added).
 Christopher Rufo tweets (https://twitter.com/realchrisrufo/status/1371540368714428416 and https://twitter.com/realchrisrufo/status/1371541044592996352); see also Marisa Iati, “What is critical race theory and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?,” Washington Post, May 29, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/29/critical-race-theory-bans-schools.
 See generally Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas et al. (New York: New Press, 1995).
 Adam Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession: How Conservative Politicians and Pundits Became Fixated on an Academic Approach,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2021.
 Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”
 The American Counterrevolution refers to the American mode of governing, at home and abroad, through a counterinsurgency warfare paradigm (what was called la guerre moderne or la guerre révolutionnaire originally in France). Herbert Marcuse discussed it in his book Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972). Since 9/11, the American Counterrevolution has gone through different phases, from the more brutal form associated with torture and indefinite detention with President George W. Bush, to the more legalistic form associated with targeted drone strikes and total information awareness with President Barack Obama, to the white supremacist, New Right form associated with the Muslim Ban and child separation at the Southern border with President Donald Trump. See generally Bernard E. Harcourt, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (New York: Basic Books, 2018).
 The counterrevolutionaries have learned their lessons well—from Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, as they explicitly recognize. See generally “Critique & the Alt-Right,” available here https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/praxis1313/4-13/; read introduction here: https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/praxis1313/bernard-e-harcourt-introduction-to-critique-the-alt-right/.
 Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 105.
 Stuart Hall, “Culture, Resistance, and Struggle,” in Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, ed. Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 180; Hall, Familiar Stranger.
 Note that although Marable was a brilliant and radical visionary, he was by no means a PIC abolitionist! In the article, he proposes up to life imprisonment as punishment for racist behavior. Marable, “The Third Reconstruction,” 17.
 Marable, “The Third Reconstruction,” 26.