"Should critical theory continue?" That surprising, in my opinion great question, was asked by Axel Honneth in the speech he opened last month at a conference at Harvard on the occasion of the centenary of the founding of the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) in Frankfurt. It is a good example of one important value of critical theory - self-reflection. I will not attempt to answer it but merely to sharpen it by presenting my own view of what critical theory means and what its contribution to today's left might be.
The history of critical theory can be divided into four stages. The first began in 1923, in the Weimar Republic, when Felix Weil donated the wealth acquired by his father, a grain merchant, to found an institute devoted to historical studies of the labor movement. The second one began in 1930, when Max Horkheimer became the director of the institute. Marked by the work of Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, Pollock, Neumann, Kirkheimer, Leventhal and, marginally, Walter Benjamin, the period spanned the decades from fascism and the New Deal to the 60s. The third stage began in the 20s. It reflected the dissatisfaction of the New Left with the social democratic welfare state, and it was dominated by Jürgen Habermas. In the fourth, current stage, which in society is marked by the revival of powerful social movements centered on race, gender and sexuality, thinkers such as Honneth, Rainer Forst, Seyla Benhabib, Rahel Yegi and Nancy Fraser play the main roles.
Any attempt to situate it historically must place critical theory in a wider and more colorful set of left currents known as "Western Marxism" - a term coined by Merleau-Ponty in 1955. Western Marxism arose as a response to the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution and the failure of the German Revolution. Among its major figures are Lukacs, Gramsci, Sartre, Lefebvre, Althusser, Di Bois, SLR James, Fanon, Raymond Williams, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.
The very term "Western Marxism" signaled a problem. The First World War showed the incomparable irrationality of capitalism and imperialism, and imposed a choice between war and revolution, but the working classes in Western Europe in the 20s again chose war in the form of nationalism, authoritarianism and fascism. In the time after the Bolshevik revolution, when other parts of the world were boiling, a good part of Western Europe (and the United States) seemed to be on a "special road" (Sonderweg), which did not lead to revolution. The motivating force of "Western Marxism" - the explanation of irrationality in history - led to theories of reification (Lukács), hegemony (Gramsci), culture (Williams) and theories of working-class racialization (Di Bois, James and Fanon).
The Frankfurt School's contribution to that constellation stemmed from a return to the central idea of German idealism - the active subject - developed by Kant and Hegel and to which Marx gave a materialistic twist with his understanding of history as a product of human activity, or practice. This idea was common to all Marxist thought, but the Frankfurt School looked at it from the perspective of the mind (Vernunft), which it contrasted with instrumental rationality. The thinkers of that school understood history as a social dialectic in which apparently rational projects become profoundly irrational, so that the mind is not realized. Such a view of history led them to the second phase of Freud's work.
The key figures of the Frankfurt School at that time - Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm and Marcuse - saw psychoanalysis primarily as an examination of the complexities and difficulties of the mind: the subject's struggle to escape from its infantile objects or to change them entirely and its feverish strivings in the service of blind pursuit for objects, as well as distortions of the mind in the form of rationalization, defense and projection. Far from limiting psychoanalysis to the individual, the Frankfurt School traced the collapse of primary institutions, the formation of masses based on identifications and ego-ideals, and the spread of images and phantasies through groups in ways that escape the control of the mind.
They also used Freud to clarify the utopian element in the New Left. Marcuse, for example, posited the reality ego (as subject versus object) as subject versus "faculties and attitudes that are more receptive than productive, that tend more toward pleasure than transcendence, that remain strongly attached to the pleasure principle." Primary, narcissism, he argued, showed the way "from sexuality restrained by the dominance of the genital" to the eroticization of the whole body, and from instrumental rationality to art, play and narcissistic manifestation.
Frankfurt School theory dominated both the German and the American New Left, but its role changed in the 70s. The defeat of fascism culminated in the social democratic welfare state in Western Europe, as well as decolonization throughout what was then still called the Third World. Social forces whose voice had been marginalized in the age of industrial capitalism—women, colonial subjects (including racialized and racialized groups in the metropolis), students, and young workers—became crucial to the politics of the left. Those layers brought with them new demands, especially for democracy or participatory democracy. Jürgen Habermas, a former student of Horkheimer, led critical theory's response to these demands.
Having experienced the defeat of Nazism and the American occupation of West Germany, Habermas re-positioned critical theory in the Western liberal tradition, which he interpreted in such a way as to emphasize its democratic or Dewey character. Developing a conception of politics that is centered on the public sphere and legitimizing the state's activities through democratic dialogue, he replaced the earlier idealistic conception, which understood the subject as a monad, with intersubjectivity and relational psychology. In this way, he tried to establish the normative foundations of critical theory in "communicative action". The result owed very much to Kant and Hegel, and very little - or nothing - to Marx.
Participants at the Harvard conference generally agreed that Habermas's focus on normative foundations led to the inflation of political theory and the marginalization of social theory. Some believed that from this arose the danger that the form of criticism would become a mere "should", placed above and outside the social world. Although a general consensus was reached that critical theory should refocus on social theory and social movements, the conference itself did little to show 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 strong revival of Marxism in contemporary politics: with the theory of Marxist feminists and social reproduction, eco-Marxism and the awakening of black Marxism, evident in theories of racialized capitalism. Absent - perhaps because it would be highly divisive - was any discussion of the global role of the United States in fueling the war in Ukraine and the monstrously one-sided policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one has grappled with the more basic question of why critical theorists abandoned Marxism in the first place.
Every mention of the current state of the world - war, climate change, Trumpism and so on - leads us to wonder whether Habermasian critical theory and its contemporary successors have lost touch with the violence and irrationality embedded in capitalism, that is, with the key idea of critical theory. until the 70s. A symptom of that problem is the fact that the Freudian-Marxist moment was not even mentioned at the conference.
When we look at the rise of the right today - the nationalist and anti-immigrant right in Europe, Brexit, Trumpism, Modi, Putin - the similarities between now and the 20s and 30s become striking. It is widely believed that liberal capitalism is our strongest protection against the right, but one of the great achievements of the Frankfurt School is that it showed that liberalism and capitalism emerged from the same capitalist framework. It had a Marxist dimension: for example, in "The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian Conception of the State" (1934), Marcuse argued that liberalism and fascism represent two phases (competitive and monopoly) in the development of capitalism. And it also had a Freudian dimension: for example, the idea of the bourgeois family as an incubator of authoritarianism. Marcuse also began researching the political-spiritual/sexual utopian awakening of the New Left, early feminism, and the gay movement. Of course, the Freudian-Marxist effort to understand fascism and emancipation was only the beginning and barely scratched the surface. Are today's explanations of these phenomena, which focus on the protection of the liberal-democratic public sphere, so great that they can ignore that effort?