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Critical legal studies (CLS) is a liberal movement of law professors founded in 1977 at a conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its central belief is that the logic and structure of law actually is no more than attempts by the powerful in society to oppress the lower classes. The law simply perpetuates and legitimizes societal injustices, and the rich use the law as an instrument for oppression. CLS advocates view law as politics, and insist that it is absurd to view the law as being neutral or value free. CLS supporters seek to change the law in order to remake the structures of society.
CLS theorists include Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Robert W. Gordon, Morton J. Horwitz, Duncan Kennedy, and Katharine A. MacKinnon. The movement was thriving at Harvard Law School in the late 1980s until traditional faculty members succeeded in denying tenure to at least one member of the CLS movement.
CLS is an American movement but cites as authority the German social theorists Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Max Weber, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, and the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci. The work of French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have also been influential in the movement.
The Legal Realism movement in the 1920s and 1930s is seen by some as a precursor to the CLS movement, because legal realists also urged analyzing the law within a broader social context.
Today there are splinter groups within or without CLS that include feminist legal theory and critical race theory (CRT).