Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner
Critical Theory and Society: A Reader provides a selection of particularly important essays by members of the Institute for Social Research. Founded in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany, it became the first formally unaffiliated Marxist-oriented institute in Europe. Under its most influential director, Max Horkheimer, its members attempted to revise both the Marxian critique of capitalism and the theory of revolution in order to confront those new social and political conditions which had evolved since Marx's death. In the process a "critical theory" of society emerged to deal with those aspects of social reality which Marx and his orthodox followers neglected or downplayed.
The term critical theory itself was only coined in 1937, after the majority of the Institute's members had already emigrated to the United States following the triumph of Hitler. The concept was initially a type of code which, while differentiating its adherents from prevailing forms of orthodoxy, also tended to veil their radical commitments in an environment that was hostile to anything remotely associated with Marxism. But the term stuck and soon was used to encompass and define the general theory of contemporary society associated with Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, T. W. Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and Frederick Pollock—as well as with Jürgen Habermas and others who later undertook to continue the tradition.
We have assembled this reader in the belief that critical theory can promote important developments in social theory today. Growing dissatisfaction with the academic division of labor and the dominant views in the various disciplines have led to increased interest in both theoretical and political alternatives. Critical theory offers a multidisciplinary approach to society which combines perspectives drawn from political economy, sociology, cultural theory, philosophy, anthropology, and history. It thus overcomes the fragmentation endemic to established academic disciplines in order to address issues of broader interest.
An antidote to the frequently noncritical quantitative approaches within contemporary social science, critical theory also provides a potentially more useful and politically relevant alternative than currently fashionable approaches like existentialism and phenomenology, poststructuralism and postmodernism, as well as the various versions of humanist idealism which are periodically recycled and repackaged. By contrast, critical theory maintains a nondogmatic perspective which is sustained by an interest in emancipation from all forms of oppression, as well as by a commitment to freedom, happiness, and a rational ordering of society. Eschewing divisions between the humanities and the social sciences, it thus sets forth a normative social theory that seeks a connection with empirical analyses of the contemporary world.
Fundamentally inspired by the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Marx, critical theory is intrinsically open to development and revision. Inherently self-critical, it offers a well-articulated standpoint for thematizing social reality—unlike the current postmodern theories which attack all forms of thought in an undifferentiated manner. Against all relativistic and nihilistic excesses, critical theory seeks an emancipatory alternative to the existing order.
The diversity of interests and insights among critical theorists made the choice of texts for this book particularly difficult. Our selection was guided by an attempt to emphasize the most characteristic theorists and themes within the tradition. We also sought to balance the historical importance of any given text with its contemporary relevance. Finally, without sacrificing intellectual quality, we tried to choose texts which were somewhat less esoteric than some for which the critical theorists are infamous.
This reader focuses, for the most part, on the "inner circle" of the first generation of critical theorists, which consisted of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Lowenthal, Pollock, and Erich Fromm. Yet we have also included texts by Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, who were to varying degrees associated with critical theory, as well as selections from Jürgen Habermas, who is clearly the most significant member of the second generation. Unfortunately, space constraints forced us to omit texts by contemporary critical theorists such as Oskar Negt, Alfred Schmidt, Claus Offe, and Albrecht Wellmer. We also could not include works by such significant members of the Institute as Karl Wittfogel, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, Franz Borkenau, and Henryk Grossmann, as well as related theorists like Karl Korsch and Ernst Bloch, who were occasionally supported by the Institute or—in Korsch's case—published by its journal.
This volume has been designed both to provide an introduction to critical theory and to inspire the advanced student. The selections have been organized into five sections which, we believe, highlight the most significant aspects of critical theory. Part I opens with some key texts which set forth the original program and research agenda of the Institute for Social Research. This section, like the others, contains important texts which have been translated into English for the first time and which should provide an informative introduction to the program and scope of the original enterprise. Part II is constructed around the theory of society which the Institute sought to develop, while Part III attempts to elaborate the cultural criticism and critique of mass culture for which its members have become justly famous. Part IV contains provocative contributions to their project for a new social psychology, while Part V advances certain "critical visions" which attempt to link critical theory with politics and provide perspectives for future inquiry within the framework of this tradition.
Each section is organized chronologically, and many of the essays comment on previous positions set forth within the Institute. Yet even when they address similar issues, it will become apparent that sharp differences existed between members of the Institute. In fact, critical theory is not a single doctrine or unified worldview. Instead, it is a set of basic insights and perspectives which undermine existing "truths" even as they foster the need for a theory of society that remains to be completed. In this spirit, while not systematically evaluating the positions set forth in each essay, our introduction will attempt to illuminate the socio-historical matrix wherein critical theory evolved and indicate the relevance of basic issues addressed with respect to the project as a whole.
Our first section contains essays concerning The Institute for Social Research and its original program. When the Institute was founded in 1923, the "heroic" period of the Russian Revolution as well as the proletarian revolts which followed World War I had come to an end. The Weimar Republic, established following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was initially threatened by uprisings from the left and the right. By 1923, however, the period of revolutionary upsurge had waned and intense discussion had begun concerning the "failure of the revolution" and "the crisis of Marxism." Many members of the Institute maintained ties with the various parties of the Left and—under the leadership of the Austrian Marxist Carl Grünberg—developed a research program centering around the character of the labor movement, the capitalist economy, the new experiments with planning in the Soviet Union, as well as those "subjective" conditions which subverted a proletarian victory in Germany. During the period of Grimberg's tenure, a rather orthodox Marxism permeated the Institute and was carried over, to a greater or lesser degree, in many of the writings from the thirties. Nevertheless, a shift in direction took place when Max Horkheimer became director in 1930, following Grünberg's retirement due to a stroke.
The son of a German industrialist, a philosopher by training, Horkheimer was also interested in sociology as well as a wide range of other academic pursuits. It was under his leadership that the Institute developed the project for which it would become internationally renowned. A highly effective academic entrepreneur, he gathered around him many individuals who would eventually achieve fame in a variety of disciplines. Under Horkheimer's direction, the Institute undertook to develop a theory of society, and it is fitting that the first selection in our volume should be Horkheimer's previously untranslated inaugural lecture "The State of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research." Here, Horkheimer defines the tasks of the Institute and sets forth the multidisciplinary program which would characterize it. Presenting the Institute's position against more mainstream conceptions of social theory and science, Horkheimer calls for a multidisciplinary integration of philosophy with the sciences in the hope of providing a theoretical instrument for transforming politics, society, the economy, and everyday contemporary life.
One of the distinguishing features—and novelties—of the new approach was its attempt to develop a critical social psychology. For this task, the Institute appointed a Freudian psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, who would become one of the most widely read social theorists of the postwar era with works like Escape from Freedom and The Sane Society. Our second selection is accordingly the first English translation of a 1929 lecture by Fromm entitled "Psychoanalysis and Sociology," which clearly sketches the attempt to combine sociology and psychology in a new theoretical framework. Though he never did develop a theory of the manifold mediations which exist between the individual and society—in the manner of, say, Jean-Paul Sartre—Fromm, along with Siegfried Bernfeld and Wilhelm Reich, became one of the first to undertake a Marx-Freud synthesis in order to analyze the ways in which social conditions constituted the psyche and psychological factors affected social life.
The Institute's members published the results of their research in a journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, which served as their public platform. In keeping with the Institute's general project, its key members usually read and discussed each others work so that the edited and published version often reflected the spirit of a collaborative enterprise. The first issue of the journal illustrated the Institute's approach to the various disciplines. It contained articles by Fromm on psychology, by Henryk Grossmann and Pollock on economics, and by Adorno on music, as well as a host of others. From this issue, we decided to include Leo Lowenthal's essay "On Sociology of Literature" and Horkheimer's "Notes on Science and the Crisis." Both of these articles argue that application of the Marxian historical materialist approach to the relevant disciplines provides the best starting point for inquiry and research.
Lowenthal, who would become an important critic of literature and mass culture at the University of California at Berkeley, argues against dominant idealist and philological positions. Instead, he favors an approach which interprets texts and determines the meaning of cultural objects within their social and historical context. Refusing to study literature as a self-contained object, Lowenthal was unable to provide either an explanation for literary transcendence or normative aesthetic criteria in the manner of Lukàcs. Nevertheless, he became a pioneer in the development of the sociology of literature—as well as a member of Horkheimer's "inner circle" who played a key role in managing Institute affairs.
Horkheimer himself tended to publish the key programmatic statements of the Institute. "Notes on Science and the Crisis" is one of those pieces which addresses à particular historical situation and its impact on the Institute's research agenda. The "crisis" refers to the world economic depression of 1929, whose persistence was producing ever more massive unemployment as well as social and political instability. In his article, Horkheimer explains how science and technology are potentially emancipatory forces of production even as they are fettered by the irrationality of the capitalist economic system. The implicit presupposition is that a more rational form of social organization would use science and technology to dramatically improve human life. It was only in their later work that members of the Institute would assume a more critical stance on the role of science, technology, and the notion of progress with which both bourgeois society and "actually existing socialism" (Rudolf Bahro) identified.
Even initially, however, the Institute's theorists believed that only by calling the most basic assumptions into question would it become possible to provide an adequate critical theory of society. In a 1937 essay, "Philosophy and Critical Theory," Herbert Marcuse pointed to the importance of critical rationalism for the Institute's theoretical enterprise. Indeed, along with Horkheimer's classic "Traditional and critical theory," this essay contains one of the most comprehensive programmatic statements of the Institute's attempts to synthesize philosophy, the sciences, and a radical political perspective.
Where traditional social sciences based on positivist assumptions wish to exclude normative concerns from social scientific inquiry, and banish them to the realm of metaphysics or obscurantism, Marcuse highlights the importance of concepts such as reason, freedom, and happiness for critical theory. Recognizing the need for empirical research, though ultimately unable to define its role within the new project, Marcuse emphasizes that speculative reason is the yardstick with which to measure the degree of social rationality or irrationality inherent in any given form of social or political organization.
Despite his inability to specify institutions by which an emancipated order might reproduce itself, Marcuse is aware that freedom is not license and that a rational ordering of society will universally expand the opportunities for the exercise of individual autonomy. Such notions are crucial to the tradition of philosophical idealism which Marcuse wants to link with a materialist heritage whose importance derives from its concrete emphasis on individual happiness and well-being. A materialist stance suggests that freedom, happiness, and reason are not spiritual features of the individual. Instead, they are concrete potentialities for satisfaction that demand realization. It is this commitment to the "good life" which critical theory places at the forefront, and then uses to call existing repressive conditions into question. Thus, according to the new standpoint, a materialist project of social reconstruction requires a foundation in critical rationalism which alone can forward the utopian projection of a free society.
This Utopian commitment of critical theory points to the fervent desire of its proponents for an emancipatory alternative during a period when the Great Depression was spreading throughout the capitalist world and fascism was threatening to engulf Europe. In this vein, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of fascism for the development of critical theory. Since most of the Institute's members were Jews and Marxists, the Nazis quickly forced them into exile. In 1934, after numerous complications, its headquarters were finally moved from Frankfurt to Columbia University, in New York, which offered office space and institutional support. Upon coming to the United States the Institute's members began their inquiry into the roots of the fascism and the manner in which socializing institutions—especially the family—induced individuals to accept even the most irrational forms of social and political authority. It was also while in exile at Columbia University that the Institute's members developed their particular style of "ideology critique" which analyzes the social interests ideologies serve by exposing their historical roots and assumptions, no less than the distortions and mystifications which they perpetuate. Indeed, this was the time when the Institute began to programmatically form its conception of critical social theory.
Part II is entitled "Fragments of a Theory of Society" because, in reality, the Institute never produced that comprehensive theory of society which its members sought. While they provided elements for a theory of the transition from market/entrepreneurial to new forms of state and monopoly capitalism, their positions on these developments were quite diverse and their various insights never coalesced into a coherent theory. Consequently, though these fragments provide some of critical theory's most important contributions, the failure to articulate a more fully developed social theory points to the limitations of the original program sketched out by Horkheimer.
The section opens with the first English translation of Horkheimer's essay "The Jews and Europe." Written in 1938, as Hitler was preparing for war, it prefigures many of the basic concerns which would later define critical theory even as it shows how a certain orthodox Marxism remained part of the original project. Consistent with the general thinking of the Institute's members, the essay views fascism as an outgrowth of capitalism moving from its liberal to its monopoly stage; thus, in an oft-quoted passage, Horkheimer writes: "Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism."
Although the topic nominally involves European Jewry, Horkheimer basically interprets anti-Semitism in terms of its usefulness for monopoly capitalism. In considering it as a mere ideological facade for the elimination of an entire sphere of circulation, defined by small banks and the vestiges of a market, Horkheimer grossly underestimates the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi project—a flawed interpretation that later Institute studies would rectify. The essay, however, also reflects Horkheimer's deep despair over a future in which he foresaw mass-mobilized groups submitting to new forms of totalitarian domination.
All of the Institute members were in agreement that fascism had emerged from a capitalism in crisis and that it evidenced a new form of the capitalist state. Still, there were sharp arguments within the Institute over whether the new fascist...