Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists:

By Stephen Bronner

"When the power of synthesis vanishes from the lives of men and when the antitheses have lost their vital relation and their power of interaction and gain independence, it is then that philosophy becomes a felt need.
----G.W.F. Hegel

Twenty five years ago, when I first became interested in critical theory, it was the preserve of a small group of intellectuals. Journals like Telos and New German Critique had just formed and most academics in America had never heard of critical theory or, with the exception of Herbert Marcuse, its leading figures. The legend that critical theory inspired the movement of the 1960s is, certainly in America, misleading; its major works were translated only in the 1970s. Now, however, things are very different. Jurgen Habermas is everywhere legitimately recognized as a giant of social theory and there is hardly a literary critic who is unaware of Theodor Adorno or Walter Benjamin. Critical theory has invaded the most prestigious academic journals in disciplines ranging from anthropology and film to religion, linguistics, and political science. In fact, given the new stratum of technical experts and intellectuals concerned with normative and empirical disputation, it has arguably become a feature of the very society its proponents ostensibly challenged.

Reconstructing the radical aims of the critical project, evaluating its inadequacies along with its legacy for the present, is the purpose of this book. It is not meant to provide a detailed chronological history. Excellent histories have been written like The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay and, more recently, The Frankfurt School by Rolf Wiggershaus; important general works have also appeared such as Introduction to Critical Theory by David Held and The Frankfurt School by Zoltan Tar along with often magisterial biographies by scholars like Susan Buck-Morss on Walter Benjamin, Daniel Burston on Erich Fromm, Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse, and Arpad Kadarkay on Georg Lukacs, and Gillian Rose on Theodor W. Adorno. Nevertheless, an inquiry into the relevance of the tradition via a critical analysis of its major figures and basic themes is missing. 

Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists will employ the emancipatory imperative of critical theory against critical theory in its predominant forms of expression. It will neither remain neutral nor assess the importance of each particular theorist. Space constraints have prevented the consideration of every important figure in the critical tradition. It would have been interesting to consider the work of important members of the younger generation like Oskar Negt, Claus Offe, and Ulrich Preuss. It also was not simply for want of interest that the contributions of Leo Lowenthal and Siegfried Kracauer to the sociology of culture or Otto Kirchheimer, Friedrich Pollock, and Franz Neumann to law and political economy, have been omitted. But the point was to deal with the classical formulation of the project and setting priorities became a necessity. The standing of any particular figure or idea was not decisive in making the choice of what to include or exclude. It was rather of matter of deciding upon what best fit my particular concerns and most contributed to the sketch of the general enterpise.

Critical theory is not a system nor is it reducible to any fixed set of proscriptions. Every major figure in the tradition of critical theory, perhaps for this very reason, employed the essay as a stylistic vehicle. The essay, with its inherently unfinished quality, is the logical form for generating anti-systemic claims and fostering the exercise of reflexivity. A certain logic always tied together the essayistic efforts of critical theorists from the past and that is also the case here. The contributions of one thinker are treated in one way and those of another are dealt with differently. The point is not to offer a neutral set of judgments or assess the importance of each thinker within the tradition equally. Each chapter provides a new and distinct interpretation of its subject matter. But themes carry over and new ones emerge. There is an open quality to the work, a space for the subject to develop connections, which probably reflects the condition of philosophical inquiry in general and the state of critical theory in particular. Indeed, if the essay is consonant with the spirit of the critical enterprise, so is the hope that the whole will coalesce into more than the sum of its parts. 

Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists seeks to reinvigorate the interdisciplinary character of the original enterprise and discussions will touch upon fields ranging from philosophy and aesthetics to politics and anthropology to theology and history. Any work on critical theory must also recognize its fluid character, the fact that it is no longer identifiable with any ³school" or tendency, and that its continued relevance depends upon the willingness to confront old assumptions from the standpoint of new conditions. None of this, however, justifies the refusal to offer a general definition or understanding of the tradition. A stance of this sort can only feed obscurantism. The present volume is thus an attempt to present critical theory as a cluster of themes inspired by an emancipatory intent.

Critical theory, from the very first, expressed an explicit interest in the abolition of social injustice. The point was to show how repressive interests were hidden by the supposedly neutral formulations of science no less than ontology and, in this way, the movement always retained a commitment to the sociology of knowledge and the "critique of ideology" (Ideologiekritik). This internal or immanent encounter with the existing order, however, retained a transcendent or utopian component. A commitment to the integrity of the individual, and freedom beyond existing parameters, became perhaps the motivating factor behind the entire enterprise. The equilibrium holding between the immanent and transcendent elements of the project was always tenuous at best. The extent to which one or the other is given more or less weight is an interesting way to consider the development of critical theory and judge individual theorists in relation to one another. But even the balance between these two concepts shifts within the different works of any given theorist, and neither is ever sacrificed entirely. The intent is thus to preserve the tension in reality on which the dialectical thinking can feed.

The objective was to foster reflexivity, a capacity for fantasy, and a new basis for praxis in an increasingly alienated world. Critical theory, in this way, stood diametrically opposed to economic determinism and any stage theory of history. It sought to examine the various "mediations" between base and superstructure. It engaged in a revision of Marxian categories and an anachronistic theory of revolution in order to expose what inhibited revolutionary practice and its emancipatory outcome. Critical theory wished to push beyond the stultifying dogma and collectivism of what became known as "actually existing socialism." The ideological and institutional framework of oppression was always thrust to the forefront and made the target of attack. This is what fed critical theory's concern with utopia and its unyielding commitment to experiment with new forms of experience and analysis.

The cluster of themes defining critical theory thus retains a certain integrity and coherence. It also emerges from a distinct historical context. World War I and the Russian Revolution provided the context in which new departures in dialectical thinking took place. The identification between technology and progress, science and moral development, collapsed in the trenches. Liberalism lost its allure; reform and good will had apparently proven useless. One apocalypse had been unleashed and another seemed on the agenda. The "betrayal" of proletarian internationalism by social democracy in 1914 along with the seizure of power by the communists, and a spate of proletarian uprisings throughout Europe in the aftermath of the war, thus provided the impulse for a critique of orthodoxy and the standard "materialist" interpretation of Marx.

Orthodox marxism may have anticipated this, but its belief that capitalist crises in the economically advanced world would automatically build the future of socialism in the most advanced nations obviously did not conform with the revolution in economically underdeveloped Russia, which Antonio Gramsci initially termed a "revolution against Capital." Emphasis on the objective development of productive forces and bureaucratic forms of mass organization, which viewed republicanism as a prerequisite for socialism, gave way before a new concern with "consciousness" and the most radical possible transformation of society. A new concern with the connection between revolutionary theory and practice made itself felt. Thus, the relation between marxism and philosophy became a matter of importance.

Critical theory is usually associated with various members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research like Max Horkheimer who became its director in 1930; Leo Lowenthal who joined in 1926; Theodor W. Adorno who began to participate in 1928, but only became an official member ten years later; Erich Fromm who started his nine-year collaboration in 1930, Herbert Marcuse who joined in 1933, and Walter Benjamin who never officially became a member at all. But, in fact, it was spawned by a set of unorthodox thinkers more or less associated with the left-wing of the communist movement who represented what Maurice Merleau-Ponty would call "western marxism." This tendency with its opposition to mechanistic materialism and all ahistorical forms of interpretation, its emphasis on the dialectical method and the importance of the idealist tradition for Marxism, its concern with consciousness and overcoming alienation, turned its thinkers into far more than merely the precursors for of the "Frankfurt School." Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, for this reason, opens with chapters treating the contributions of Karl Korsch, Georg Lukacs, and Ernst Bloch.

All had an extraordinary influence on the development of critical theory. Interpreting ideology as a "lived experience," rejecting rigid disciplinary constraints, seeking to reconstitute the connection between theory and practice, Korsch employed the insights of materialist dialectics to criticize the increasingly petrified forms of Marxism embraced respectively by the social democratic labor movement and the Communist Party. Historical materialism truly became historical. The critical power of the dialectic was directed at those who considered themselves its guardians. His relentlessly immanent confrontation with reality, however, does not deny transcendence. Freedom is never identified with any given form or system by this theorist who was ultimately expelled from the Communist Party and helped develop an "independent" Marxism.

Georg Lukacs, who ultimately recanted his heresies in order to remain in the communist movement, contributed to this trend as well. His approach would prove a milestone in developing the sociology of knowledge. At the same time, however, it was far more metaphysical than that of Korsch. Orthodoxy, for Lukacs, was a matter of method grounded in the categories of totality and mediation. He employed it both to analyze the discordant relation between "bourgeois" theory and practice as well as develop interpretations of issues like alienation, which would profoundly influence the future of critical theory. "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat," which is arguably the seminal work of the entire tradition, makes this clear. It provides the frame of reference no less than the categories in which even the most adamant of Lukacs' dialectical adversaries would operate. A critical commentary on this essay, which illuminates its anticipation of future issues and trends, thus seemed useful and appropriate to include.

Ernst Bloch was the greatest of utopian philosophers and his work blended historical materialism with the anthropological, religious, and existential questions deriving from a variety of different traditions. Marxism assumed a new apocalyptic form in the thinking of this maverick intellectual who would provide a radical criticism of stage theory and innovative analysis of fascism even while identifying himself with the communist movement. His influence on liberation theology became profound after World War II. Only now, however, is he becoming well-known in the United States. And that is strange. He had already been famous in Europe for decades. His utopian philosophy grew from the same soil as Korsch's concern with workers' councils and Lukacs' emphasis on class consciousness and the abolition of all alienated social relations.

All of this, however, makes it clear once again that the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk. Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy and Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness both appeared in 1923. This was the year in which the possibility for an international revolution was finally laid to rest. It was also the year in which the Institute for Social Research was founded in Frankfurt am Main. The initial research program was developed under the stewardship of Dr. Carl Grunberg. It centered around the labor movement, the capitalist economy, and the new experiments with planning in the Soviet Union. Korsch exerted an important influence during this and among the important scholars were Fritz Sternberg, Henryk Grossmann, Friedrich Pollock. Many members were aligned with the communist movement and its perspective on the state and monopoly capitalism even carried over into certain important writings of the 1930s. Nevertheless, a fundamental shift in direction took place when Max Horkheimer became director in 1930.

He coined the term "critical theory." He also used the Journal for Social Research, which would serve as the public forum for the Institute, to set the new agenda with its emphasis on a far broader cluster of issues ranging from psychology and aesthetics to philosophy and the critique of technology. "Horkheimer's Road" is an attempt to explore the various phases of his career, the contributions and limits of his thought, and certain assumptions behind the enterprise of what would come to be known as the "Frankfurt School." Indeed, especially given the lack of any major biography in English, this chapter assumes particular scholarly importance.

Horkheimer juxtaposed critical theory against all "traditional," metaphysical and materialist, forms of theory. His purpose was to highlight the manner in which critical theory militates against all attempts to construct a fixed system and every attempt to identify the subject with the object, whether conceived in terms of social institutions or the "covering" categories of philosophy. Ontology and instrumental rationality, which respectively either identify subjectivity with certain prefabricated categories or dismiss it entirely, would bear the brunt of his assault. I included, for this reason, one essay dealing with the relation between politics and philosophy in the work of Martin Heidegger, who would play such an important intellectual role in the 1930s, and another concerned with analytic Marxism. Both employ critical theory to contest alternative frameworks. Their relevance, however, also becomes evident in a different way.

Just like the quality of a great painting becomes clearer when surrounded by competing works of the period whose styles it radically contests, a particular theory assumes sharper outlines when contrasted with the philosophical positions it opposes. And, in the 1930s, the critical rationalism of the Institute gave it a unique position. This was a decade in which all hope for the future seemed lost. Walter Benjamin, who would become one of the most prominent literary critics and philosophers of the century, sought to save it by recapturing "the glow of the profane." He evidenced an extraordinary commitment to freedom, individuality, and philosophical experimentation during the time in which totalitarianism was on the rise. His attempt to construct a negative philosophy of history, substitute a less rigorous constellation for the classical Hegelian concept of totality, and emphasize the particular would ultimately lay the basis for transforming the entire critical project. Nevertheless, while most interpretations stress or even glorify the fragmented quality of his thinking and insights, this one will view those very qualities making for his current success as compensations for his failure to fuse the messianic with the materialist.

Walter Benjamin was an enthusiastic supporter of modernism like virtually every other major figure in the critical tradition. He viewed surrealism, with its emphasis on the transformation of everyday experience, as an essential component of the revolution. His own radicalization, in fact, occurred through his relationships with outspoken critics of bourgeois cultural traditions like Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Asja Lacis. With the extension of support by Stalin to the Popular Front in 1936, however, expressionism and modernism came under attack in favor of "realism." A debate took place in which Lukacs, who had openly retreated from his youthful avant-gardism in order to propound a standpoint in conformity with the new communist line, set the stage for a debate in which Bloch and Bertolt Brecht offered the most important responses.

"Political Aesthetics in the 1930s" provides the background for the "expressionism debate" and a quick summary of the principal arguments. But it also confronts them in order to move forward. An emancipatory aesthetic for the contemporary era cannot remain stuck at choosing between realism or modernism. Arbitrary constraints of this sort are anachronistic. New categories are necessary to evaluate diverse artistic contributions, the ambivalent character of mass culture, the relation between representation and mimesis, and that is precisely what this essay seeks to offer in a preliminary form. 

Exile, however, was the real theme of the 1930s and 1940s. The Institute of Social Research and most of its members, seeking to escape Hitler, ultimately relocated in the United States. There, in collaboration with Theodor Adorno, a brilliant musicoand philosopher, Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment . This marked a significant shift in the direction of critical theory. No longer was the proletariat seen as the revolutionary subject of history, no longer were teleological notions of progress taken seriously, no longer was the liberal enlightenment legacy taken for granted, no longer was it merely a matter of redirecting technology towards new ends. The critical theory of society surrendered to a more directly anthropological form of inquiry. The possibility of revolutionary transformation was seen as fading in the face of an apparently seamless bureaucratic order buttressed by the "culture industry" and intent on eliminating subjectivity and the reflexive sources of opposition to the status quo. A certain cultural elitism took shape. For the proponents of critical theory, working within the dialectical framework of Hegel and Marx, it thus ultimately became a matter of recruiting Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in their battle against the collectivist strains within advanced industrial society.

Theodor Adorno was perhaps the most talented proponent of this new turn in critical theory. He and Horkheimer would become linked and, following the return of the Institute to Frankfurt in 1947, they would become the most important academic mainstays of the enterprise. The only real disciple of Benjamin, the inventor of "negative dialectics," Adorno's works show a genuinely remark-able range and quality; indeed, they include what is arguably the most important work on aesthetic theory written in this century. It is with Adorno, however, that the relation between theory and practice most nearly verges on disintegration and the connection between immanence and transcendence appears most tenuous. "Dialectics at a Standstill" will analyze his rescue of utopia through an "inversion" of reality and his redefinition of critical theory as an anti-systemic metaphysic lacking any criteria with which to justify its claims or articulate its purposive aims.

Concerns of this sort are often reflected in the attacks on the difficult style employed by critical theorists. The heritage of dialectical philosophy surely had an impact; the complex use of complex concepts often justifiably demanded a complex style. Especially in the ideologically charged postwar context, however, members of the Institute also employed an "aesopian" form of writing; indeed, often from fear or self-serving purposes, they wished to hide their marxism and used the highly abstract hegelian language for that reason. But there is also a theoretical justification for their abstruse style. Even while concern was expressed with fostering enlightenment attitudes in works like The Authoritarian Personality, which was directed by Adorno, the famous analysis of the culture industry implied that popularity would necessarily "neutralize" whatever emancipatory message a work retained. Nevertheless, there was nothing ambivalent about the willingness or the ability of Erich Fromm to engage the public.

No one was more popular than this great neo-freudian psychologist. He was surely the most succinct and lucid stylist to emerge from the Institute. He was also perhaps the most loyal to its original purpose. Fromm was, originally, one of its most influential members and a close friend of Horkheimer. His concern was with social psychology and its relation to political and clinical practice; indeed, this would continue to serve as a point of reference even in his later attempts to link Freud with Marx. For this reason, when Adorno first insisted on developing the critique of anthropology from the standpoint of Freud's instinct theory, he clashed with Fromm. The dazzling newcomer won the battle. Fromm divorced himself from the Institute and proceeded to write a number of bestsellers including Escape from Freedom. Quickly enough, in fact, he was condemned for the "superficial" quality of his writings. Nevertheless, "Fromm in America" will explore his significance and the important influence he exerted on postwar intellectual and political life in the United States. 

Critical theory reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s. Its emphasis upon alienation, the domination of nature, the regressive components of progress, the mutability of human nature, and the stultifying effects of the culture industry and advanced industrial society made the enterprise relevant for young intellectuals. Radicalism in theory, however, betrayed what was ever more surely becoming a conservatism in practice. New stalwarts of the establishment like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, for example, were essentially appalled by the movement their own writings had helped inspire.

Herbert Marcuse, however, remained faithful to the original practical impulse of critical theory. He self-consciously employed it to inform the rash of new movements. He also provided, whatever its other failings, a positive utopian response to what he termed "one-dimensional society." Pessimism concerning the future of a society in which all ideological contradictions were being flattened out combined with the commitment to utopian vision. It was a perspective, viciously criticized by Fromm,which was predicated on confronting "progress" and the anthropological condition of humanity. His perspective sought to fuse the anthropological insights of the young Marx with the "play" principle of Schiller and the metapsychology of Freud. His concerns derived from those articulated by Adorno in the 1930s and, probably for this reason, Marcuse was viciously attacked by Fromm among others. Nevertheless, Herbert Marcuse was the thinker who really introduced critical theory to America and the attempt to illuminate his extraordinary influence led me to include the text of a short speech commemorating his death as the prelude to a critical examination of his utopian theory entitled "The Anthropological Break."

The passing of the radical wave created a new set of issues for the new generation of critical theorists. Taming its utopian excesses, mitigating its subjectivism, affirming its connection with the enlightenment, establishing its relation to the empirical sciences, providing its normative concerns with philosophical legitimacy, and infusing it with insights from different traditions, all became matters of concern. Every one of these problems was confronted by the most brilliant modern representative of critical theory, and one of the pre-eminent philosophers of our time, Jurgen Habermas.

He was always concerned with "undistorted communication" and an emancipatory interest capable of informing the rational adjudication of grievances. He has also become a prominent "public intellectual," who has dared to take a stand on the most important political and philosophical issues of the age. Perhaps this is part of the reason why he retreated from his earlier methodological commitments to epistemological forms of inquiry. Habermas made a "linguistic turn," which was inspired by his new interest in pragmatism and analytic philosophy. Critical theory had originally viewed these philosophical standpoints with contempt. But, according to Habermas, the normative claims of critical theory would now finally receive justification. They would become grounded within the intersubjective construct of language itself and, in this way, he believed that a new discourse ethic might prove useful in informing a host of essentially liberal perspectives on law and politics. But there are lingering questions concerning the character of this new system, its connection with the critical tradition, its claim to provide a "postmetaphysical" philosophy, its ability to deal with questions of material interest, and its relevance to political practice. Indeed, these issues are at the core of "Jurgen Habermas and the Language of Politics."

Critical theory projected an emancipatory promise and a new interdisciplinary perspective seeking to inform the struggles of the oppressed. Martin Jay was thus correct in suggesting that the questions raised by the proponents of Western Marxism and critical theory were the right ones even if the answers they offered were not. The continuing relevance of the project thus depends upon the willingness to make good on that original promise and refashion various categories and assumptions in order to confront new conditions. But, in my opinion, this can only occur insofar as new developments in critical theory challenge both its identification with both "negative dialectics" and discourse theory. Highlighting its political impulse, affirming its practical character, and beginning the sketch for a new critical theory of society is the purpose behind the last chapter of this volume.

"Points of Departure" will deal with issues ranging from the preoccupation with foundations and the totality to the status of utopia and the critique of ideology; it will emphasize questions dealing with solidarity and the domination of nature, class and cosmopolitanism, interests and autonomy, reification and aesthetics, the constraints on democracy and the need to contest the arbitrary exercise of power in both existing political institutions and the accumulation process. Confronting these questions will, furthermore, occur from a standpoint willing to identify critical theory with the democratic and socialist variants of the enlightenment tradition. The ambivalence concerning its connection with the enlightenment has become ever more wearying and ever less productive. Critical theory must now, once again, situate itself and make explicit its purposive aims. Immanence can no longer be played off against trasncendence; emancipatory critique can develop only by reaffirming the connection between the two. This last chapter in Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists seeks to contribute toward that end. It is thus less a conclusion than the attempt to provide a new beginning.

New York City, 1993


There are many people who have played a role in this enterprise. Luis Eduardo Mendieta generously offered his time, enthusiasm, and invaluable commentary on every phase of the enterprise. Samuel Assefa, Edmund Arens, John Ehrenberg, Michael Forman, Micheline Ishay, Kurt Jacobsen, Christine Kelly, Douglas Kellner, Eva Grunstein-Neuman, Jose Maria Rosales, Hong-lim Ryu, Manfred Steger, and F. Peter Wagner also provided me with their insights on various chapters and Alison Truefitt was exceptionally helpful in preparing the manuscript. I should also take this opportunity to thank Simon Prosser of Basil Blackwell Publishers for his commitment to the book and also my wife, Anne Burns, for her patience and support. Finally, however, I would like to recall the memory of two very different thinkers who personally inspired my interest and commitment to the critical project: Ernst Bloch and Henry Pachter.