Critical Theory of Marxism: Definition, Origin and Aspects

Read this article to learn about the Critical Theory of Marxism: Definition, Origin and Aspects.

Definition, Origin, Nature :

The critical theory is inexorably connected with the Frankfurt School because the members of this school propounded certain concepts or ideas that have built up the general outline of critical theory. The preeminent members of the school were Horkheimer, Adorns, Marcuse and Habermas.

They were the key contributors of the essays published by the school and, at the same time, they elaborated certain basic ideas that have built up the general body of theory which is known as critical theory.

The critical theory is opposed to the traditional theory. It is largely based on positivism. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was to some extent the founder of positivism. His positivism is called intellectual-cum-political. He suggested that natural and scientific methods are to be applied for the study of social phenomena.

The pro-pounders of the critical theory applied positivism for the study of Marxism. They also borrowed Kant’s ideas of reason and knowledge, Hegel’s concept of spirit. Finally they focused on specific historical forms capitalism and exchange process of Marx. Thus, in the whole concept of critical theory, Kant, Hegel and Marx met together.

Although a number of contributors are associated with the development and analysis of critical theory Kolakowski is of opinion that a major part of the credit of building up the theoretical structure should go to Horkheimer.

In a programmatic essay published in 1937 Horkheimer presented few guidelines of the theory. These can be stated in the following manner.

The studies of social phenomena should be based on the ordinary rules of induction and should aim at formulating general concepts and laws. But the critical theory asserts that social changes are the real forces that help to construct the body of a theory.

In this connection the importance of science must be recognised, because behind every social action and any sort of change there plays science.

The bourgeois thinkers and philosophers have neglected this vital aspect and have emphasised the independence of science. Behind social production, science always plays the most important role. If the basic concepts of science are changed, then the social production is bound to change.

Another central idea of the critical theory has been stated by Kolakowski in the following words: “Critical theory regards itself as a form of social behaviour and is aware of its own functions and genesis. Its specific function is that it refuses to accept that the rules of existing society are natural and inevitable. It seeks to understand society as a whole”.

The critical theory admits that the proletariat must be liberated from the bondage of capitalism. But, at the same time, the proletariat must not be subject of any other authority even it might be socialism or communism.

In other words, the proletar­ians must enjoy full freedom in regard to thought and ideas. A physical atmosphere shall be created in which the proletarians will be able to keep their independence.

An interesting aspect of the critical theory is both men and women will have the freedom to build up a society which will be free from external domination. Some people are of opinion that in the eye of critical theory the idea of freedom must have complete significance, that is, it will not be diluted.

It has been noted that emancipation does not mean the removal of economic bondage only. The proletar­ians must be free from all sorts of bondage. The theory aims at human emancipation in a broad sense. It talks of a world where people will enjoy full power.

What is the central idea of critical theory? Horkheimer published an article in 1937 Traditional and Critical Theory. We quote a lengthy passage from this article. The critical theory means: “not simply to eliminate one or other abuse. For it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organised. Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as non-scientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing. The individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions of his existence as given and strive to fulfill them”.

The critical theory lays its faith upon the materialist conception. It takes the class-related structure of society and thoroughly studies the reactions of individuals to the class structure. That is, individuals are quite conscious of the class structure and take necessary steps against it.

An important part of the critical, theory is stated in Dialectic of the Enlightenment. It has been stated that enlightenment broadens the outlook and attitude of man towards himself and society. Being enlightened, the individual seeks the ways of his and his fellow citizens’ liberation. Then he proceeds to find out the ways of liberation.

He thinks that only through the control of man over nature and over many others liberation can come. But the enlightened mind should be properly channelized. A misguided enlightenment is if no use or utility at all.

Marcuse, Horkheimer and Habermas:

In order to have a clear idea about the various aspects of critical theory we must go through the views of what Marcuse, Horkheimer and Habermas expressed through their writings. Herbert Marcuse was the preeminent and the most original contributor of F. S. First of all we shall discuss Herbert Marcuse’s contribution.

Herbert Marcuse was a Jew and after Hitler’s accession to power (1933) he emigrated to the United States in order to escape from Hitler’s inhuman torture. The German emigres founded the Institute for Social Research in New York and Marcuse worked there several years.

Kolakowski says that his Marxism is a “curious ideological mixture” of Marxism and Hegelianism. Marcuse (1898-1979) published his most notable work Reason and Revolution in 1941 where he has interpreted Marxism in his own way.

Of course his own way means mixture of Hegel and Marx. He borrowed Hegel’s concepts of reason and dialectics and interpreted Hegelian dialectics in the light of Marxism. Marcuse drew the attention of the academic world to Marx’s Paris Manuscript and he thoroughly studied it in order to know what exactly it says. He was also attracted to the theory of revolution stated by Marx and Engels.

Though he accepted Hegel’s theory of reason and dialectics he did not subscribe to his view on religion and world spirit. Summarising his ideas on Marxism, Kolakowski says: “the essential basis of Hegelian and Marxian dialectic is not the movement towards the identity of subject and object, but towards the realisation of reason, which is at the same time the realisation of freedom and happiness”.

It is interesting to note that Marcuse’s idea is not confined within the concept of emancipation. In several works Marcuse emphasises a very important and basic point. Follow­ing Hegel he said that reason proceeds towards development and it proceeds dialectically.

When it assumes a developed or mature form people start to work reasonably. He says that it is true that people at first work or struggle for the emancipation from economic bondage. But they did not stop their activities after this particular emancipation is achieved.

They proceed towards another object and it is realisation of freedom and happiness. Marx focused on the emancipation of the working class. But Marcuse broadened the idea. He believed that man is not concerned only with attainment of physical needs or requirements. He always thinks how to maximise his happiness and minimise his sorrows and sufferings.

This is the crucial issue that constitutes the central idea of Marcuse’s investigation. He observed that almost all the sections of modern society are concerned about sorrows and frustration.

It is the basic responsibility of revolution to free men from all sorts of frustration. So we find that the central idea of Marcuse’s theory is not classless society, but a society where everyone will be entitled to freedom and happiness in their full form.

Marcuse has explained the transition from Hegel to Marx. “In Marcuse’s interpretation, the transition from Hegel to Marx was a transition to a different order of truth—one that could not be interpreted in terms of philosophy. For, all the philosophical concepts of Marxian theory are social and economic categories whereas Hegel’s social and economic categories are all philosophical concepts”.

There is also another difference. Hegel emphasises philosophical labour. Whereas, Marx speaks of alienated labour. Due to division of labour and other reasons labour is alienated from the mainstream of society.

Marcuse was in favour of revolution but this revolution must be based on reason. Needless to say that the idea of reason is purely Hegelian. He is of opinion that the working class must emancipate itself from economic and political exploitation. But its struggle shall not stop here. It must aim at attainment of happiness and only reason can perform this task.

So we find that Marcuse has expanded the objective of Marxian theory of revolution. He has further said that people must know the extent of emancipation and only the achievement of reason will empower him to know that.

Marcuse has drawn our attention to a very pertinent aspect of revolution. He says that without revolution working class cannot free itself from the numerous ills of capitalist society. But the capitalists had built up a superstructure which includes modern and improved technology and a great scientific system.

Marcuse’s question is does the seizure of capitalist state mean the seizure or destruction of improved technology and modern scientific system? It is to be remembered that the super­structure always corresponds to the capitalist system.

Naturally the proletarians cannot profitably utilise the superstructure of capitalist society. The proletarians must have to find out the way how the old capitalist superstructure can be utilised for the well-being of the new society. That should be the primary concern of the working class. In the judgment of Marcuse this is not an easy task at all.

We shall now turn to Horkheimer (1895-1973). Under the directorship of Horkheimer the Institute of Social Research made considerable progress in enun­ciating several aspects and important propositions of the critical theory of society. We find him emphasise the idea of a critique of ideology.

This is similar to Marx’s critique of capitalist commodity production and exchange. Horkheimer wanted to give stress on the integration of various disciplines and, in this way, he introduced interdisciplinary research.

Finally, his different writings have emphasised on the Central role of praxis. It is to be used for the ultimate verification of theories. His very remarkable contribution is “the elaboration of philosophical basis of critical theory and a critique of empiricism and positivism.”

In 1937 he published an article Traditional and Critical Theory. In this article he raised a question. What is theory? His answer is theory for most researchers is the sum total of propositions about a subject, the propositions being so linked with each other that a few are basic and the rest derive from these.

In the opinion of Horkheimer there are two important aspects of theory. One is, a theory is built up upon certain basic propositions. But these basic propositions do not constitute the entire body of theory.

Along with these there exist several general propositions. Both the basic and general propositions are all linked with each other. That for the construction of a theory both basic and general propositions are necessary.

Another aspect of Horkheimer’s theory is a social researcher must go through the material aspects of a society. Imagination or value judgment have no place in a critical theory.

What the real or material situation of the society exposes the researcher will accept as final and on the basis of that he will start his research work.

In other words, imagination or value judgment have no place in the investigation of critical theory. In his opinion: “The individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions of his existence”.

That is, the physical existence of individual is the basic or most important matter and nothing else. The emphasis on materialistic aspects of society ultimately can reveal the true picture of society and its members.

It is unfortunate that the bourgeois philosophers practically neglected the materi­alistic aspects and emphasised upon the value judgments and this process failed to reveal the true nature of society and its members. The bourgeois thinkers were not interested in the radical change of society, reforming it was their prior concern.

If we seriously go into the depth of Horkheimer’s critical theory the following idea will come out. In his opinion, a theory is in the service of human emancipation, freedom and maximisation of happiness. The whole social structure will be remodelled for the attainment of these objectives.

Without a radical change of the existing society these objectives cannot be attained and, for that purpose, a revolution is essential. It is now obvious that the critical theory of Horkheimer (and several others, particularly Marcuse) does not suggest any special type of utopia.

It speaks of certain general features which are to be attained. Satisfaction of material demands is a very important thing no doubt. But universal happiness and peaceful condition of society must be given due importance. We, therefore, see that in his theory there is an amalgation of Marxian and Hegel’s views philosophy of Hegel and economics and politics of Marx.

Jurgen Habermas:

Jurgen Habermas is a top-ranking German philosopher and the most impressive figure of the second generation of the Frankfurt School. During the Nazi period he was mentally and physically tortured and he was politicized by the Nuremburg trials. He was closely associated with Adorno (1903-1969) and Horkheimer.

He was born in 1929. Habemas is one of the neo-Marxists who have focused on the various types of crises of capitalism. That is, as a neo-Marxist he accepts the Marxian theory of crisis in capitalism but he does not believe that this crisis is mainly due to the inherent contradiction in the capitalist system. He again does not concentrate on class struggle and the seizure of political power by the working class.

He has analysed the nature and crisis of capitalism which he observed in the twentieth century. He has stated the various aspects of crisis and has carefully analysed them in his noted work Legitimation Crisis (1973).

He has stated that there are series of crises in capitalist democracies and in order to get rid of them the capitalist system builds up a structure or system of legitimacy. But this attempt fails to ensure an end of crises.

Habermas and others are of opinion that it is beyond the capacity of the capitalist system to remove these crises. He says that the economic development of the capitalist society is due to the technological innovations and the application of science and technology to industry. But the application of improved technology has failed to avert any crisis.

On the other hand, it is faced with crises such as unemployment, stagnation and problems in resource allocation In order to avert crises the government proceeds to rely on democratic means politics becomes the sphere for solution.

Crises in Capitalism:

Habermas has started his analysis about capitalism more or less following Marx. But after this he has scanned the capitalism of his time in a different way. In the seventies of the last century he published two works which drew the attention of the people of academic world.

These are Legitimation Crisis (1976) Communication and Evolution of Society (1979). Habermas has entered into the depth of capitalism around him and he observed it from a very close distance.

He says that capitalism of Marx’s time suffered from crises and capitalism of his time is also faced with crises. But both these crises are not of the same nature. He says that the entire capitalist system can be divided into few subsystems.

In his opinion there are three subsystems of modern capitalism. It means that modern capitalism is not an undivided one. The important subsystems of modern capitalism are: the economic, the political administrative and socio-cultural. In any modern capitalism these are the three main sub-sectors or subsystems. But though they are sub-sectors, they are closely linked with each other.

The economic sub-sector is again divided into three sub-sectors one is public sector which means that this sector is controlled by the state or government. Manufacturing of armaments falls in this category. Railways and postal services in some countries are included into public sector.

Most of the manufacturing industries come under the private sector. The industries of this sector run through keen competition. In some countries the public sector industries face competition and these are called public-private partnership.

The purpose of this method is to throw certain industries into competition so that they can reorient the system. After this analysis Habermas says that the whole capitalist system is facing is in the danger of severe crisis. But the crisis of capitalism that had surfaced in the second half of the 20th century is quite different from that of Marx’s time.

According to Habermas, the crises in capitalism have endangered the entire system of capitalism. Why this Crisis? Explaining the viewpoint of Habermas, David Held (Political Theory and the Modern World) observes: “It is a consequence of the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society”.

What are the contradic­tions? According to Habermas the causes of contradictions are the following. There is a contradiction in social production and private appropriation. There is another contradiction.

The capitalist system, in order to earn maximum profit, is not producing sufficient amount of consumption goods and this creates a gap between supply and demand. It is the type of crisis. This is completely manmade. Habermas points out a new type of crisis.

In his opinion the crisis in rationality. Which means that the producers have failed to take a rational decision. There is an authority which is not capable of taking a rational decision in regard to production and related matters. Habermas also points out a motivational crisis.

The increasing tendency of crisis forces the authority to adopt certain measures. It is because in democratic systems public opinion pressurises the government to adopt prophylactic measures to fight the crises. The result is the government is forced to enhance its role in economic fields. The governmental activity sets in. How much the role of government succeeds in averting the crisis is a different question but the fact is that the crisis is a reality and the authority is conscious of it.

In democratic countries the governments come forward to shoulder a part of the cost of production. But finally this approach of the government fails to solve the crisis. This is because the crisis in modern capitalism is part of the whole capitalist system and any piecemeal attempt to arrest the crisis fails to satisfy the opponents and to solve problems. But the intervention of the government is faced with another problem.

There are several elements in a liberal capitalism who do not like the increasing role of the state. This finally leads to a tussle between the visible hand of the governmental intervention and the invisible hand (and this is not small) of liberal capitalism. Habermas calls this legitimation crisis.

The crisis is due to the fact that a large section of the public wants increasing and meaningful role of the government and, on the other hand, a powerful section (which is a minority) wants government’s non-intervention. In other words, a legitimised authority is chal­lenged (though not directly).

According to Habermas the chief factor which is active behind this legitimation crisis is the class structure of liberal capitalism. This means that one class forces the legitimate authority of the state to take measures to fight crisis and the other class stands in the way so that the state authority keeps it away from taking any action.

Let us put it in the words of Habermas:

“In the final analysis the class structure is the source of legitimation deficit” Habermas says that if the state authority wants to take anti-crisis measures it must secure the consent of all classes or sections of the society. But this is not possible because the interests of different classes are contradictory.

Explaining the view of Habermas, Held observes:

“As the state’s activity expands and its role in controlling social reality becomes more transparent, there is a greater danger that this asymmetrical relation will be exposed. Such exposure would only increase the demand on the system. The state ignores these demands only at the peril of further demonstrating its non-democratic nature”.

From this analysis it is now clear that in modern or liberal capitalism there is a legitimation crisis and it is not possible for the authority of the capitalist state to get rid of this crisis.

Habermas says that modern capitalism is in the midst of severe crisis and it is not easy to save the authority from this crisis. What is the net result? In the opinion of Habermas the crisis in legitimation will continue to exist and in that situation liberal capitalism or present form of capitalism will not be able to keep its form intact or to maintain its form.

Explaining Habermas’s opinion regarding the crisis of present capitalism, David Held maintains: If Habermas’s argument is correct then capitalism will either evolve into a kind of “Brave New World” or it will have to overcome its underlying class contradictions. “To overcome capitalism’s underlying class contradiction would mean the adoption of a new principle of organisation. What exact institutional form the new social formation might take Habermas does not say, nor does he say how the new social formation might evolve”.

The authority of modern capitalist state is making efforts to fight the crisis, but all attempts have gone in vain. Habermas himself says that economic crises are shifted into political system through the reactive-avoidance of the government. But the crises still exist and will continue to exist. The credit of Habermas lies in the fact that he has understood the nature of crisis from which liberal capitalism suffers, though there no solution.

Contribution of Frankfurt School:

It is noted that critical theory emerged at a crucial time. After the death of Lenin in 1924 there was a large scale chaos in the erstwhile Soviet Union. This chaos generally centred around the capture of power. Different groups and power centres began to interpret Marxism in their own way.

Finally there appeared Joseph Stalin and he captured (by means of manipulation) the whole authority to utter the last word about Marxism. Again, there arose rapid rise of fascism which threatened Marxism or socialism. The capitalism of West European, countries posed another big challenge to Marxism in general and the Soviet government in particular. At this critical situation the Frankfurt School made its appearance.

The author of the article published in a Dictionary of Marxist Thought (edited by Bottomore) writes:

“The acknowledgement that Marxism became a repressive ideology in its Stalinist manifestation thereby confirming that its doctrines do not necessarily offer the key to truth constitutes one of the crucial premises of critical theory”.

It allows the recognition that classical Marxist conceptions are quite inadequate. Marxism has certain scientific foundations. But it is quite inadequate to face new situations created by fascism and other; orthodox dogmas.

Marx and Engels enthusiastically propagated that the state (in a communist society) would wither away. But the adherents of critical theory after prolonged research arrived at the critical conclusion that there was no possibility of withering away of the state. The state has more important functions to perform.

In a new society the role of the state as an agent of repression could be obliterated and the role as a welfare organisation could be established. The critical theory wants to reiterate this. It does not suggest its abolition.

The critical theory makes Marxism a confluence of several streams of social science. Sociology, social psychology, philosophy, religion, morality and even sexuality all have found a place in the elaborate analysis of critical theory.

Particularly its emphasis on happiness, reason and freedom is really noteworthy. In this connection it is mentioned that the F. S. talks about enlightenment.

Due to the influence of enlightenment people’s mind and idea both are broadened or enlightened. For revolution both consciousness and spontaneity are required and without enlightenment these two essential requirements of revolution are hardly to be achieved.

She also gave special importance to these two concepts consciousness, spontaneity all subject matters of psychology.

Let as conclude our analysis by quoting a long passage from Battomore’s book: “The expansion of the state into more and more areas, the growing interlocking of base and superstructure, the spread of what they called the ‘culture industry’, the development of authoritarianism, all implied that political economy had to be integrated with other concerns”.

Some members of the critical theory were critical of Marxism but none of them suggested its rejection. In fact, all of them suggested its modernisation. The members of the Frankfurt School have brought out Marxism from micro-level and placed it at macro-level. They have sincerely endeavoured to prove that.

Marxism is not dead, and, Marxism is not Stalinism. It is not confined within the four walls of Bolshevik administration. It is related to overall emancipation of human beings.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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