The designation of the Frankfurt School as a ‘critical theory’ originated in the United States. It goes back to two articles, one written by Max Horkheimer and the other by Herbert Marcuse, that were both published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
(later Studies in Philosophy and Social Science
) in 1937.1
, published from 1932 to 1941, was the publishing organ of the Institute for Social Research. It gave coherence to what in fact was an internally diverse and often disagreeing group of heterodox Marxists that hailed from a wide disciplinary spectrum, including social psychology (Fromm, Marcuse, Horkheimer), political economy and state formation (Pollock and Neumann), law and constitutional theory (Kirchheimer, Neumann), political science (Gurland, Neumann), philosophy and sociology (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), culture (Löwenthal, Adorno), musicology (Adorno), aesthetics (Adorno, Löwenthal, Marcuse) and social technology (Gurland, Marcuse). In the Weimar Republic, the Institute was known by sympathisers as ‘Café Marx'. It was the first Marxist research institute attached to a German University.
Since the 1950s, ‘Frankfurt School’ critical theory has become an established, internationally recognised ‘brand name’ in the social and human sciences, which derives from its institutional association in the 1920s and again since 1951 with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, (West) Germany. From this institutional perspective, it is the association with the Institute that provides the basis for what is considered critical theory and who is considered to be a critical theorist. This Handbook works with and against its branded identification, concretising as well as refuting it.
Critical Theory: An outline2
In its original formulation, critical theory is characterised by thinking against the flow of the (reified) world. It is an attempt to brush against its grain to reveal its foundation in historically specific social relations. It was the first serious Marxist attempt to confront the historical materialism of the orthodox Marxist tradition. According to the orthodoxy, labour is a transhistorical objective necessity and the various modes of production present historically specific forms of labour economy. In this view, history is objectively unfolding towards a ‘higher’ mode of production: socialism. For the orthodoxy, therefore, there can be no such thing as the critique of labour. There can only be a critique of the capitalist irrationality of labour organisation, leading to the endorsement of socialism as a rational form of labour organisation.3
Orthodox Marxism thus conceived of capitalism as transition to socialism either through reformist struggle for recognition of labour rights or revolutionary struggle as midwife for a centrally planned labour economy.4
In the 1920s, Frankfurt School critical theory emerged from within the constraints of these positions as well as the deadly hostility that existed amongst their respective supporters and between the latter and their nationalist foes.
Following Max Horkheimer, the opposite of a critical theory of society is not an uncritical theory: it is ‘traditional theory'. For Horkheimer, traditional theory is uncritical of its own social and historical preconditions. Instead of seeking to establish the social and historical constitution of its object, it identifies society as given – mere data. Against idealism, it holds that positivism is an element of critical thought. Critical theory is about the conceptuality of a historical reality. It is both a method of thought and a process of thinking in and through the social object. It is not a method of organising concepts and of thinking about society. Rather than applying thought to the social object, it argues that conceptuality holds sway within it. This insight formulates the task of critical theory as an immanent critique of society, one that sets out to uncover what is active in objects. Thus, against positivism, it holds that in its immediate and direct appearance the whole of society is untrue.
Horkheimer's ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ argues that in its posited appearance, society presents itself in the form of petrified relations, which perpetuate themselves as if by some independent dynamic that is regulated by invisible forces. This appearance is real as necessary illusion, which is ideology; the ideology of the social object is its appearance as natural. According to Horkheimer, Marx was the first critical theorist who conceived of capitalist society as an objective illusion.5
That is, the fetishism of commodities is real as the objective inversion of the social relations that vanish in their appearance as a relationship between economic quantities, which are regulated by an invisible hand that, as Adorno put it, takes care of ‘both the beggar and the king'.6
What has vanished cannot be identified nor conceptualised; what remains is the social subject as a non-conceptuality.7
Abstract things neither posit themselves nor do they impose and reproduce themselves according to some innate objectively unfolding logic. Rather, it is the social relations, individuals in and through their social praxis, that render social objectivity valid by bestowing it with a consciousness and a will. The veracity of this insight is no way challenged by the equally valid insight that the subjects act under the compulsion of social objectivity, on the pain of ruin and disaster. In this context, critical theory is best seen as an attempt at conceptualising capitalist social objectivity
as a definite form of human social practice. Critical theory thus becomes a negative dialectic of the conceptualised praxis (begriffene Praxis
) of capitalist social relations.8
As argued by Horkheimer in ‘Traditional and Critical Theory', Marx's critique of political economy amounts to a devastating judgment on existence, not just of the economic sphere but of society as a whole, as a totality. Totality is a negative concept of the wrong state of things. For Horkheimer, Marx's critique of political economy is social critique. It is critique of the economic categories as the valid categories of a ‘false’ society. For Adorno, Marx's critical theory is characterised by its resistance to substituting the truth content of thought for its ‘social function and its conditioning by interests'. Traditional theory, says Adorno, ‘refrains from a critique’ of social contents, and ‘[remains] indifferent to it'.9
It classifies and defines social phenomena but does not look into them. The purpose of critical theory as a critique of ideology is to uncover what is active in things to reveal the socially constituted principle of compulsion, that power of society as a whole, in which the social subject, Man in her social relations, appears as a mere character-mask (Adorno) or personification (Marx) of reified relations between seemingly natural social things. It is of course true, as traditional theory recognises, that the ‘life of all men hangs’ by the profitable extraction of surplus value.10
Time really is money and money is money only as more money. Yet it does not ask why that might be so and does not inquire into its conceptuality – that is, it does not attempt to comprehend the social laws that are innate to this mode of human social reproduction as definite laws of human social practice.
Furthermore, critical theory holds that social reality and theoretical praxis are the same and not the same. There is neither an untheoretical reality nor can reality be reduced to thought. Reality, the real, entails theory as the condition of its comprehension, meaning and practical intelligibility. Whether something is rational is a matter of thought and interpretation. The comprehension of reality is a theoretical effort and the critique of reality is therefore a critique of its theorising. Reality neither speaks for itself nor by itself. Its critique is fundamentally a theoretical critique, which is also a critique of epistemology and science, that includes philosophy and political economy. As a critical theory, therefore, materialism is ‘a dissolution of things understood as dogmatic'.11
In this context, Lukács’ notion of ‘false consciousness', which he developed most clearly in his History and Consciousness
, is unhelpful. In the ‘enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world’ of capitalist social relations, thought too is enchanted, perverted and topsy-turvy. Critical theory is here characterised as an effort of critique, making thought work, which entails confrontation of the cogitative account of society with its experience. Critical theory holds that the theoretical concept of society is fundamentally an experienced concept and vice versa.12
Traditional theory might want to analyse society on the basis of algorithmic data. It can do this because it has no experience of society. What counts are numbers; whether numbers inflate or deflate is, however, of no concern to the numbers themselves. It is a concern for the social subject, and the validity of inflation or deflation is therefore a social validity. For traditional theory, experience is not a scientific category. It therefore excludes what is vital from its analytical gaze. Nevertheless, the development, say, of economic theory into social statistics is not ‘false', as opposed to the ‘right’ theory of so-called Marxian economics. Economics, as the science of economic matter, meets definite social needs, takes the direct appearance of society as immediate proof of its veracity, analyses the economic phenomena and articulates the economic quantities in the form of mathematical equations. In this manner, it rationalises society by scientific-mathematical method. It does all this in the name of scientific method and accuracy without once asking itself what the economic categories are, what the economic quantities
are quantities of and, indeed, why the effort of human social reproduction appears in the form of economic quantities that present themselves devoid of innate human contents. For the science of economic matter, the consideration of such contents, and questions about their human-social validity, amounts to a metaphysical distraction. It inserts into economics a non-economic subject, disrupting the economic idea of purely economic matter.13
The critique of economics as a social science without social content does not entail its rejection as a science of ‘false’ consciousness. It rather entails social critique – that is, critique of a society that expresses itself in the form of economic categories and economic matter, which economic science seeks to render intelligible by rationalising the economic appearance of society, without distraction. Traditional social theory does not see that economic forces are forces of definite social relations. Why, indeed, does this content, human social reproduction, the satisfaction of human needs, take the form of independent economic categories, upon whose power ‘the life of all man hangs by'?14
The theory of society becomes no less traditional when it demythologises the social object into a secular ‘logic of things’ that, akin to an abstract system of logic, structures the actual behaviour, consciousness and mentality of the actual individuals and their libidos, too.15
In Adorno's memorable formulations in Negative Dialectics
, reality requires thought for its comprehension, and historical materialism is critique of society understood dogmatically.16
It is critique of society through theoretical critique. Critical theory is characterised by its attempt to dissolve the dogmatic posture of social objectivity by revealing its vanished social genesis. It holds that in order to grasp the world one has to be within it. Critical theory is critical on the condition that it thinks through society. What is vital about economic quantities is not their quantitative expansion. What is vital is the sheer unrest of life for access to the means of subsistence, which for its success depends on economic growth for its own sake, on the accumulation of abstract wealth for accumulation's sake. As a critical theory the critique of political economy entails the recognition of suffering as the hidden truth of the relations of economic objectivity. Critical theory, therefore, is a critique of a world that is ‘hostile to the subject', no matter that it is the social individual herself who endows the reified world with a consciousness and a will, not just in the economic sphere but in society at large, body and soul.17
In fact, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who never established a close working relationship with the Institute but who stayed in close contact with some of its members, and whose theoretical concerns were also close, focused the programme of research most clearly: it amounts to an anamnesis of the social origin, or genesis, of real abstractions.18