Critical Theory at 100
‘Should critical theory continue?’ This was the surprising and, in my view, admirable question that Axel Honneth posed in his opening address at a conference at Harvard last month to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt. The question exemplified an important value of critical theory, namely self-reflection. Rather than attempt to answer it, I will try to sharpen the question by giving my own view of what is meant by critical theory, and what its contribution to today’s left might be.
The history of critical theory can be divided into four parts. The first began in 1923, under the Weimar Republic, when Felix Weil donated the wealth from his father’s grain importing business to found an institute devoted to historical studies of the labour movement. The second began in 1930, when Max Horkheimer became the director of the institute. Revolving around the work of Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, Pollock, Neumann, Kirscheimer, Löwenthal and, marginally, Walter Benjamin, this era spanned the decades from Fascism and the New Deal to the 1960s. The third began in the 1970s. It reflected New Left discontent with the social democratic welfare state and was dominated by Jürgen Habermas. The fourth and current moment, characterised by the resurgence of the right and powerful social movements centered on race, gender and sexuality, includes such post-Habermasian thinkers as Honneth, Rainer Forst, Seyla Benhabib, Rahel Jaeggi and Nancy Fraser.
Any attempt to situate critical theory historically must place it in the larger and more diverse set of leftist currents known as ‘Western Marxism’, a term coined by Merleau-Ponty in 1955. Western Marxism originated as a response to the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution and the failure of the German Revolution. Its key figures include Lukács, Gramsci, Sartre, Lefebvre, Althusser, Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Fanon, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.
The term ‘Western’ Marxism signalled a problem. The First World War had demonstrated the incomparable irrationality of capitalism and imperialism, posing a choice between war and revolution, yet the working classes in Western Europe in the 1920s seemed once again to be choosing war, in the form of nationalism, authoritarianism and fascism. At a time when, following the Bolshevik Revolution, other parts of the world were erupting, much of Western Europe (and the United States) seemed to be on a Sonderweg, a ‘special path’, on which the revolution was not unfolding. Explaining irrationality in history was the motivating force behind Western Marxism, leading to the theories of reification (Lukács), hegemony (Gramsci), culture (Williams) and the racial ordering of the working class (Du Bois, James and Fanon).
The Frankfurt School’s contribution to this constellation stemmed from its return to the core idea of German idealism: the active subject, as developed by Kant and Hegel, and given a materialist inflection by Marx, with his understanding of history as the product of human activity or praxis. While the latter idea was common to all Marxist thought, the Frankfurt School looked at it through the lens of Vernunft (‘reason’), which it counterposed to the instrumental rationality of the liberal tradition. History, for the Frankfurt School, was a social dialectic in which apparently rational projects became deeply irrational, such that reason remained to be realised. That view led them to Freud in the second phase of their work.
The dominant figures of that era – Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm and Marcuse – saw psychoanalysis, first, as an interrogation of the internal complexities and difficulties of reason: the subject’s struggle to escape or transmute its infantile objects, its feverish ambivalent strivings in the service of a blind search for objects, and the deformation of reason in such forms as rationalisation, defensiveness and projection. Far from restricting psychoanalysis to the individual, the Frankfurt School traced the breakdown of primary institutions, the formation of masses based on identifications and ego ideals, and the communication of images and fantasies through groups in ways that escaped the constraints of reason.
They also used Freud to elucidate the utopian element in the New Left. Marcuse, for example, counterposed the reality ego (as a subject against an object) to ‘those faculties and attitudes which are receptive rather than productive, which tend toward gratification rather than transcendence, which remain strongly committed to the pleasure principle’. Primary narcissism, he argued, pointed the way ‘from sexuality constrained under genital supremacy’ to eroticisation of the entire body, and from instrumental rationality towards art, play and narcissistic display.
The theory of the Frankfurt School dominated both the German and American New Lefts, but its role changed in the 1970s. The defeat of fascism had culminated in the social democratic welfare state in Western Europe, as well as decolonisation throughout what was then still known as the Third World. Social forces whose voices had been marginalised in the era of industrial capitalism – women, colonial subjects (including racial and racialised groups in the metropole), students and young workers – now became central to Left politics. These strata brought with them new demands, especially for participation or participatory democracy. Jürgen Habermas, originally a student of Horkheimer’s, led the critical theory response to these demands.
Having lived through the Nazi defeat and the US occupation of West Germany, Habermas resituated critical theory in the Western liberal tradition, which he interpreted to bring out its democratic or Deweyan character. Developing a conception of politics centered on the public sphere and the legitimation of state action via democratic dialogue, he substituted intersubjectivity and relational psychology for the earlier idealist conception of a putatively monadic subject. In this way, he sought to establish the normative foundations of critical theory in a theory of ‘communicative action’. The result owed as much to Kant as to Hegel, and very little if anything to Marx.
At the Harvard conference there was widespread agreement that Habermas’s focus on normative foundations had led to the inflation of political theory and the marginalisation of social theory. For some, it created the danger of a form of critique that becomes a mere ‘ought’, situated above and outside the social world. While there was a general consensus that critical theory needed to recentre itself on social theory and social movements, there was little evidence at the conference that this was happening.
One exception, closer to the original spirit of the Frankfurt School, was Nancy Fraser’s call to connect critical theory with the powerful resurgence of Marxism in contemporary politics: Marxist feminist and social reproduction theory, eco-Marxism, and the resurgence of Black Marxism, evident in theories of racialised capitalism. Missing, probably because it would have been so divisive, was any discussion of the United States’ global role in fomenting the war in Ukraine and in the monstrously one-sided politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. No one grappled with the more fundamental question of why critical theorists abandoned Marxism in the first place.
Any reference to the current world situation – war, climate change, Trumpism and so on – forces one to ask whether Habermasian critical theory and its contemporary successors have not lost touch with the fundamental violence and irrationality built into capitalism, an insight that was crucial to critical theory until the 1970s. A symptom of that problem was the absence of any reference at the conference to the Freudo-Marxist moment.
When one considers the rise of the right today – the nationalist and anti-immigrant right in Europe, Brexit, Trumpism, Modi, Putin – the similarities between the present moment and the 1920s to 1930s is striking. Liberal capitalism is now widely considered our strongest safeguard against the right, but one of the great achievements of the Frankfurt School was to show that liberalism and fascism came out of the same capitalist grounding. This had a Marxist dimension: Marcuse in ‘The Struggle against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State’ (1934), for example, argued that liberalism and fascism represented two different stages (competitive and monopoly) in the development of capitalism. And it had a Freudian dimension: the idea, for instance, of the bourgeois family as the incubator of authoritarianism. Marcuse also began to explore the politico-spiritual/sexual utopian awakening of the New Left, early feminism and gay liberation. To be sure, the Freudo-Marxist efforts to understand fascism and emancipation were mere beginnings; they barely scratched the surface. But are today’s explanations, which revolve around protecting the liberal-democratic public sphere, so advanced that they can ignore them?