Sociology 319

March 24-26, 2003


Critical Theory

Introductory – pp. 14-15, 44-45, parts of chapter 2.

Psychoanalytic – pp. 137-42 (Elliott); anthropological – pp. 252-3; culture – pp. 353-363.

Chapter 18, pp. 505-44 (Calhoun).


1. Meaning of Critical Theory


Critical theory has different meanings for different writers.  As critique it is usually considered to be a critique of modernity and the developments and institutions associated with modern society.  It can also be a critique of particular schools of thought within sociology, or of sociology and social science as a whole.  A large part of critical theory has been to critique art and culture, in particular the consumer culture, advertising, the media, and other forms of popular culture.  Some of the arguments in Giddens, “Dilemmas of the Self,” such as the evaporated self and commodified experience, are very similar to critical theory.  In fact, it is in the sphere of culture that critical theory continues to be relevant and innovative.  Marxism is one form of critical theory, since Marxism provides a critique of capitalism and modernism. 


Kellner notes

Critical Theory has been deeply concerned with the fate of modernity, and has offered systematic and comprehensive theories of the trajectory of modernity, combined with critical diagnoses of some of the latter’s limitations, pathologies and destructive effects – while providing defenses of some of its progressive elements.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 3)

In Kellner’s view, critical theory has generally been committed to the idea of modernity and progress, while at the same time noting the ways that features of modernity can create problems for individuals and society.  In some ways, even Weber’s theory of rationalization of modern society can be regarded as a critical theory.  Weber argued that rationalization was a force that increasingly dominated western and other societies, limiting creativity and the human spirit.  Various critical theorists have relied heavily on the Weberian critique, and much critical theory is one way that the Marxian and Weberian traditions can be combined.


Critical theory is usually more closely associated with a group of theorists called the Frankfurt school.  It was German theorists such as Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and, more recently, Habermas and Offe, who are usually identified as establishing and developing a critical theory of modern society.  Others such as the Hungarian Marxist Lukacs, and some contemporary North Americans, most notably Craig Calhoun and Douglas Kellner can also be considered critical theorists.  It is primarily this tradition that will be examined in this class.


Note that critical theory differs from post-modern approaches to social theory.  Theorists in the latter perspective tend to argue that modernity has ended, or that modernity must be rejected in its totality.  Post-modernists may even reject social theory and political practice whereas critical theorists tend to theorize extensively and some argue that politics can be used to pursue progress.  Critical theorists generally tend to have a comprehensive and overall social theory and an idea of progress and a better world, even if they are unable to find ways of getting there.  In contrast, a post-modern approach is more likely to be associated with rejection of comprehensive, universal theory.  


2. Critical Theory in the Blackwell Companion


Critical theory is discussed in various places in the Blackwell Companion.  The main places it is discussed are as follows.


·        In the Turner volume, there are short discussions on pp. 14-15 and pp. 44-45.

·        Some philosophical aspects associated with the critical theory perspective are briefly briefly noted in chapter 2.

·        The psychoanalytic connections to critical theory, through the writings of Fromm and Marcuse and discussed on pp. 137-42 and the anthropological connection on pp. 252-3.

·        The most extensive discussion of critical theory is contained in Chapter 18, “Social Theory and the Public Sphere,” by Craig Calhoun.  He sets this discussion within the context of sociology in the public sphere, where it has been extensively involved in research and policy issues – often providing advice, direction, and justification to existing policies and institutions.  Calhoun’s main concern in this chapter is how sociology can provide a critique of society and he presents considerations “for social theory as public discourse.”

·        Finally, a discussion of cultural aspects is on pp. 353-363.


A useful background article on critical theory is that of Douglas Kellner, “Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.”  (Link on web site and copy on Library Reserve).  The web site has many more articles on critical theory.


3. Marxism and Critical Theory


In Chapter 2 of the first edition of Turner, Therborn notes that Marxism is “the major manifestation of the dialectics of modernity, in a sociological as well as a theoretical sense” (Turner, 1996, p. 53).  While Marxism is often regarded as being critique, the works of Marx are among the most praiseworthy of capitalism and modernity.  It was this dialectical approach to capitalism, noting both “the emancipatory and the exploitative” (Turner, 1996, p. 55) that distinguishes Marx and Marxists from other writers.  Weber, in particular, tends to focus on negative forces within capitalism, and Durkheim also notes ways in which the functioning of capitalism can be disrupted, to the detriment of individuals and society. 


Marxism embraces modernity and Marxists argue that one of the main problems is that capitalism puts fetters on the progressive forces.  The forces of capitalism are viewed as progressive in sweeping away the traditional, religious, backward, and feudal forms of society, spreading industrialization and urbanization across societies.  The forces of capital, markets, and commodities are the most powerful in history, able to break the hold of traditional forces that constrain and limit people.  Capitalism spurs the development of science, technology, trade, and communication, creating a new world that has the potential to create a much better world for everyone.  Historically, capitalism is progressive in breaking the power of traditional social forces and creates the possibility of socialism and communism – where all can share equitably in what human creativity can produce.  It is only through the stage of capitalism that an improved society can emerge.  In that sense, the modern is emancipatory.


At the same time, Marx developed a powerful and all-encompassing critique of capitalism and he regarded it as exploitative of human labour and its potential and creativity.  Marx’s critique of capitalism was that while this system had incredible power and potential to transform human society positively, in actual fact it resulted in exploitation and ultimately limited the possibility for further improvement.  Workers were emancipated from traditional limits but became slaves of the new factory system, monopolization resulted in limits on trade and further progress, and the state acted in the interests of the bourgeoisie rather than society as a whole.  Accumulation created unheard of social wealth, but ended up in the hands of a few, who prevented further improvements in society.  In this sense, capitalism was not only exploitative of the majority, but limited social progress. 


Therborn notes how Marxists after Marx has adopted ambiguous approaches to modernity (Turner, 1996, p. 55).  Some theorists and groups tended to become more social democratic, arguing that capitalism could be reformed and improved.  Others tended to adopt a more critical approach to capitalism as a system, arguing that this system had to be overthrown in order to create socialism and a better society.  Therborn traces through some of these traditions in Marxism in Europe and around the world, showing how Marxism continued to contribute to the critical tradition.  Marxists have been influential in anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles in the colonial world, in trade unions in many countries, and in feminist and minority struggles to end oppression, discrimination, and inequality.  Marxists have generally taken a critical approach, looking for inequality, domination, and illegitimate uses of power, and have tried to expose and eliminate these.  As such, Marxist approaches still have a critical edge to them.


4. Frankfurt School


a. Historical Background.  When critical theory is mentioned in connection with social theory, it is usually associated with what is called the “Frankfurt School.”  Therborn notes that the term “was launched in 1937 by Max Horkheimer, the Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research” (Turner, 1996, p. 56).  The Institute had begun in 1923, with a financial endowment from a wealthy German grain merchant, and was attached to Frankfurt University in Germany.  German universities had been quite conservative, but with the political turmoil following World War I, new ideas developed and were influential within the universities.  For a time, many Marxists thought that Germany would become socialist, following the Russian revolution.  When this proved unlikely to occur, some of the intellectuals attracted to Marxism argued that Marxist-oriented research was necessary to re-examine Marxist theory in light of the changes that had occurred in Europe.  In particular, some of these Marxists considered that while the objective conditions for socialism existed, the subjective consciousness of workers was not conducive to overthrowing capitalism and creating socialism.  In particular, “revolutionary consciousness, culture and organization and a clear notion of socialism seemed to be lacking.”  As a result, it was necessary to reconsider various aspects of Marxism and focus on “consciousness, subjectivity, culture, ideology and the concept of socialism … in order to make possible radical political change” (Kellner, 1989, p. 12). 


The Institute began its work in Germany and continued through 1933, when the Nazis came to power.  Most of those who were members of the Institute went to the United States at that time, with some like Marcuse staying there, while others returned to Germany after World War II.  The Institute was established in New York City and became affiliated with Columbia University and it was there that the term “critical theory” became associated with the Institute.  After WWII, the Institute was reestablished in Germany and continues to operate there.  Following the death of Horkheimer and Adorno, Jurgen Habermas became the leading critical theorist, a position he continues to hold.


Dates for major critical theorists:


Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Max Horkheimer (1895-1973)

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)

Jurgen Habermas (1929-     )


b. Materialism and Idealism.  Critical theory is primarily a European social theory, influenced by the German tradition of Marx, Weber, and Simmel, by the experience of fascism, and by the changing aspects of modern capitalism.  Calhoun notes as influences Marxism, psychoanalysis, German idealist philosophy and theology, and other writers such as Nietzsche (p. 515). 


Critical theory began by putting Marxian political economy at the centre of analysis, and early critical theory was materialist and committed to socialism.  One of the major features of this perspective was that social theory could not take the familiar and observed as given and unchanging.  Rather, all of social life is a reflection of the economic system and the role of social theory was to investigate the ways in which this changed and affected people.  Horkheimer argued that there needed to be a study of “how the categories of our consciousness were shaped and how they in turn constituted both the world we saw and what we took to be possible” (Calhoun, p. 515).  However, this was not a crude materialism that might argue that consciousness is a direct result of economic position.  Neither was it idealism, arguing that consciousness had no connection with material reality.  Rather, critical theory “describes the complex set of mediations that interconnect consciousness and society, culture and economy, state and citizens” (Kellner, 1990, p. 3, bottom and see top of p. 4). 


Critical theory thus developed an approach which incorporated both the economic and material, and an analysis of individuals and their social psychology, attempting to deal with aspects of what we might refer to as the agency-structure issues today.  But neither the material nor consciousness was primary in determining the other.  Rather, these theorists paid much attention to culture, law, ethics, fashion, public opinion, sport, life style, and leisure (Kellner, 1989, p. 18), topics which had not previously been incorporated into Marxian analysis.  Calhoun notes how “Marx shared with the young Hegel an attempt to conceptualize the absolute creativity of the human being through the example of art, but unlike Hegel he extended this into a more general analysis of labour” (p. 516).  The Frankfurt school theorists took up this challenge once again and made art and aesthetics a central feature of their analysis.


Calhoun (p. 517) also notes how these theorists added Weber’s views concerning bureaucracy and rationality to these ideas, and argued that the tendencies to rationalization could lead to a totally administered society, where the new would be excluded.  While they focussed on the individual in a way that other Marxist theory did not, they feared that the individual would be submerged in the administered totality.  The arguments of Marcuse on this issue are notable.


c. Supradisciplinary.  Once Horkheimer became Director of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, he envisaged the Institute as carrying out interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary studies that cut across and combine various traditional academic disciplines.  Kellner notes that Horkheimer argued that social philosophy should examine and elucidate

the fate of human beings, insofar as they are parts of a community, not mere individuals.  It concerns itself above all with the social life of the people: state, law, economy, religion, in short, with the entire material and spiritual culture of humanity.  (Kellner, 1990, p. 2). 

That is, he looked on critical theory as an approach that would examine all aspects of social life, not only the larger structural forces but also the individual, consciousness, and the community.  In intellectual terms this meant working with ideas from philosophy, the social sciences, the arts, the humanities, and other traditions.  Rather than being interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, the aim was to assemble various writers and thinkers who could combine and synthesize ideas from these various perspectives.  By studying current social and political problems, the hope was that a new synthesis of perspectives could be achieved, whereby the boundaries of the traditional academic disciplines could be overcome – that is, a superdisciplinary approach to the study of the social life of people. 


Horkheimer was critical of sociologists and other social scientists for eliminating philosophy from their analysis and limiting themselves to the study of specific aspects of social life, without considering the structure and organization of society as a whole (Kellner, 1990, top of p. 3).  At the same time, he was critical of some branches of philosophy for limiting themselves to observable facts and the “scientific method.”  For Horkheimer, philosophy is essential to an overall social theory, but this theory also has to be involved in concrete studies of the social world – there should be a “dialectical penetration and development of philosophical theory and the praxis of the individual disciplines” (Horkheimer quoted in Kellner, 1990, p. 3).


As a result of these considerations, critical theorists are critical of Marxism when it is mechanically materialist or too determinist.  They were especially critical of branches of philosophy, especially positivism and scientific methods associated with it.  They are also critical of sociology and other social sciences for being insufficiently critical and having only partial analyses.  They thus set very high standards for social science, ones that they themselves were ultimately unable to meet. 


Given that the initial concern of these theorists was to understand the reason why class consciousness had not developed among the working class, their first project was to conduct an empirical study of the white-collar working class in Germany, to obtain information concerning their psychological, social, and political attitudes and combine this with theoretical ideas from the various social sciences (Kellner, 1989, p. 19).  The findings of this study were that “the actual revolutionary potential of the German working class was less than was usually assumed, and that, while the workers might resist a fascist attempt to take over the government, it was unlikely that they would undertake the sacrifices necessary for a socialist revolution” (Kellner, 1989, p. 20).  While this approach provided interesting results, it is not clear that in studies of this type, the approach of these critical theorists differed all that much from some of the conventional social science approaches.


d. Political Sociology.  In their early writings, critical theorists can be regarded as working primarily in the Marxian perspective, but extending it by examining the new forms capitalism took, and developing it in new directions, by examining culture and consciousness. 


i. Commodity Exchange.  Beginning from the commodity and commodity production as the key feature of capitalist society, they argued that

capitalist market relations and values were penetrating ever more areas of life.  … Exchange as becoming the primary way in which people related to and interacted with each other in a capitalist market society.  Consequently reification, the turning of humans, culture, nature and everything else into commodities whose fundamental substance was exchange value, came to dominate relationships and activity within capitalist society.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 53). 

That is, rather than human relationships between individuals, exchange relationships come to dominate inter-personal relationships.  Marx had noted this, but this line of thought was much further developed by the critical theorists.  They looked on capitalism in the twentieth century as extending this to many aspects of society previously untouched or relatively unaffected by exchange relations.  They saw aspects of personal life such as love, friendship, and the family being reduced to such form of exchange.  Consumption became organized by such forces as well, so that there were increasingly “oppressive uniformities and identities” (Calhoun, p. 516).  Calhoun notes that they were concerned with “the increasing and increasingly enforced sameness of modern society – both a conformism among its members and a difficulty in bringing underlying tensions, even contradictions, to public attention and action” (p. 517).  They viewed such forces as stifling individuality and particularity (Kellner, 1989, p. 54) and producing a certain sameness among all members of society.  This aspect of capitalism has developed much more than in the 1920s and 1930s, so that this part of their critique certainly has an important resonance in today’s economy, media, and society.  Consumer and media capitalism have vastly extended their reach into all aspects of the consumer society and life in general, and a critical approach to contemporary society can benefit from and use the ideas developed by these critical theorists. 


ii. Administered Society.  A second major feature of the political sociology of critical theory is the notion of an administered society (Calhoun, p. 517 and p. 523).  Weber had argued that forces of rationality and rationalization were becoming increasingly dominant in western society.  Rather than traditional or charismatic forces being dominant in social organization, Weber argued that calculation, accounting, considered decision-making, and guidance social action by careful examination of how means could be used to accomplish particular ends were forms that had become more forceful in western society.  These forces are clearest in economics, business, and formal organizations, but Weber argued that these same forces made their effects felt in politics, education, and even the arts.


Critical theorists added these ideas of Weber on bureaucracy, rationalization, and administration to the Marxian ideas of exchange and commodification.  While Marx was primarily concerned with the economic sphere, the critical theorists extended their analysis to the political and social sphere, combining the ideas of exchange and administered society.  The result was a view that capitalism and the society associated with it “was a totalizing system which attempted to penetrate every area of life from self-constitution to interpersonal relations to education.”  These totalizing processes were leading to the destruction of “individuality and particularity” (Kellner, 1989, p. 54). 


One form this took was an economic analysis which argued that capitalism had been transformed from uncontrolled and relatively free markets to a form of state capitalism.  While Marx and some earlier economists may have foreseen some aspects of this, they did not foresee the manner in which the state would intervene in the economic sphere.  Friedrich Pollock, one of the economists associated with the Frankfurt School developed a model of state capitalism, whereby “the state acquires power over money and credit, and regulates production and prices.  Furthermore, management becomes separate from ownership” (Kellner, 1989, pp. 60-61).  While these critical theorists may have overestimated the role of the state in economics, and underestimated the vibrancy of capitalism as an economic system, theories of this sort have contributed to our understanding of capitalism and how it evolves.  There is a strong political aspect to the economic sphere and many aspects of the economy are administered. 


iii. Totalizing Societies.   An important part of critical theory related to their critique of totality and totalizing forces.  They were always opposed to any form of totalitarianism, whether it was the totalitarian society of fascism in Germany or the totalizing form of administered socialism in the Soviet Union (Calhoun, p. 522).  Their arguments here make sense given the systems that emerged in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, where the structures to “control more and more aspects of life” (Kellner, 1989, p. 54) were established and acquired great power.  Totalitarian here could mean any system which attempts to govern many or all aspects of social life. 


Since the critical theorists came from, were living in, and were affected by the fascist form of political and social organization (Calhoun, p. 523), it is no surprise that they developed a model of this totalitarian system.  Their intimate knowledge of this system and their later observation of it from exile in the United States each provided them with useful insights concerning the nature of totality.  Critical theorists looked on fascism as a new form of monopoly or state capitalism, whereby “the state assumed functions previously carried out by a market economy and thus became the primary arbitrator of socio-economic development” (Kellner, 1989, p. 67).  They looked on this system as a result of political and economic disorder, a system that capitalism developed to survive in the face of challenges from the working class and its own inability to govern itself.  This was then a new phase of capitalism, “a new synthesis of monopoly capitalism and the totalitarian state which threatens to dominate the world and to eliminate its opponents and all vestiges of the earlier forms of liberal economy and politics” (Kellner, 1989, p. 67).  Attractive as this analysis was, this prediction turned out to be incorrect and capitalism has taken a different form, perhaps totalizing, but in a different manner.  However, the experience of the critical theorists with fascism and totalitarianism helped shape their later analysis.  In particular, they focus on the ways such a political-economic system achieves a rational, efficient form of production, but eliminates alternatives and debate over them.  The reading from Marcuse will show how he interpreted and developed these ideas of totality and administered society as applying to societies that are normally considered more democratic and liberal.


An additional aspect of the discussion is the relative autonomy of the political and economic.  Marxists tended to argue that the state and political forces operate in the interest of the owners of capital.  Some of the arguments of the critical theorists questioned this, pointing out that the political sphere sometimes was dominant, and the interests of the administered, totalitarian society might dominate the economic in some aspects.


Another aspect of the analysis of such a system was the “socio-psychological analysis of the cultural roots of fascism in attitudes toward the family and authority” (Kellner, 1989, p. 66).   For Marxists, this was a new direction for social analysis to take and Erich Fromm, one of the key critical theorists, incorporated Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories into the social theory of the Frankfurt School. 


iv. Individual and Human Nature.  (pp. 137-40 and 517).  For the Frankfurt theorists, human nature existed, but it was always related to the historical conditions in which it emerged.  Humans are creative, but capitalism creates certain conditions that appear to be natural and unchanging – these dominate and limit human creativity.  The critical theorists argued with the model of the absolute individual consciousness and identity that characterized much enlightenment, liberal thought and considered individuals to be social “constituted by intersubjective relations with others” (Calhoun, p. 517).  In addition to identity, non-identity and multiple involvements of the individual meant that self-identity took many different forms.  It was in this that the individual can develop creativity and reach beyond an unchanging individual identity.  If society allowed the individual to explore and critique different ideas and situations, this would allow the individual to be free.  But more and more the increased sameness and uniformity of society is forced on individuals and prevents this freedom from occurring.


Calhoun also notes that critical theorists looked on essential human characteristics as “the pursuit of happiness, the need for solidarity with others, and natural sympathies” (Calhoun, p. 517).  These, of course, were developed in particular ways in each specific form of social organization, since people are products of the historical conditions in which they live.  But they connect a critical form of reason to this, with Horkheimer arguing that “a form of reason implicitly critical of civilization” is part of human nature.  The problem is that  administered and totalizing societies attempt to stifle and constrain this and channel it in particular directions.  Fromm argued that there is an essential human nature that is “repressed and distorted by capitalist patterns of domination” (Elliott, p. 138). 


Erich Fromm’s contribution to critical theory involved an analysis of the individual, the family, sexual repression, the economy, and the social context of the individual.  His writings outline one way in which the work of Freud and Marx can be integrated.  Fromm argues that there are basic instincts or motive forces for human behaviour, but that these are adapted, both actively and passively, to social reality.  For Fromm, “psychoanalysis … seeks to discover the hidden sources of the obviously irrational behavior patterns in societal life – in religion, custom, politics, and education” (Kellner, 1989, p. 37).  In this way, he combined social psychological approaches with the materialism of Marx – that is, synthesizing the instinctual, psychological forces in humans with the effects of economic and material forces on human life. 


For Fromm, the nuclear family as it exists in capitalist society is key to understanding the connections between these.  That is, the individual is raised in a family, and the family stamps a specific part of the social structure on the child.  This is the manner in which “society reproduces it class structure and imposes its ideologies and practices on individuals” (Kellner, 1989, p. 37).   While individuals growing up in a different society would develop differently, the particular effects of modernity create forms of domination and inner struggles in each individual.  Forms of social behaviour such as being “submissive, self-effacing, and powerless” (Elliott, p. 138) become part of the self in these circumstances.


One of the concerns of the Frankfurt school was to develop an idea of how authority emerges in modern society, given that traditional forms of authority have been eclipsed.  Fromm connected the acceptance of authority with the family and with the larger society.  The individual learns to accept the authority of the father in patriarchal society and develops an inner censor which internalizes commands and prohibitions.  This plus fear of punishment are constantly reinforced by other representatives of authority, so that people learn to submit to these authorities and internalize this.  Fromm looked on people as developing weak egos as a result and argued that the ego has to be strengthened and that there should be “rebellion against irrational authority and development of strong egos which do not derive pleasure from either subordination or domination, and which are independent of dominant authority, yet able to recognize rational authority” (Kellner, 1989, p. 43). 


The idea of authority was later taken up by Theodor Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality (published in 1950).  This was a quantitative study conducted in the United States in the late 1940s.  The major concern of the study was to determine “the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (Kellner, 1989, p. 115).  Kellner argues that the questions associated with this study and the findings can be useful in analyzing the new right conservatism that has emerged in recent years. 


In this study, Adorno argued that there was a particular character type that could be considered authoritarian – individuals who “had a deep psychological need for an ‘imaginary foe’ on which to project all forms of evil and aggression, a foe which would serve as a scapegoat for explaining the world’s (and individual’s) major problems, fears and obsessions” (Kellner, 1989, p. 116).  Some of the characteristics of the authoritarian personality are adherence to conventional values, authoritarian (uncritical) submission to idealized authorities, and aggression toward those who violate conventional values.  For Adorno

Ignorance about the complex conditons of modern societies leads to a general uncertainty and anxiety, while creating favorable conditions for the projection of paranoid fears onto imaginary enemies.  It also leads to … ‘ticket thinking’ and ‘personalization in politics’, whereby the confused, anxious authoritarian personality buys into an entire political agenda and projects hostile and aggressive tendencies on personalized enemies, while idealizing authoritarian leaders.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 117).

Kellner argues that Adorno’s findings are still useful and can be used to describe and analyze contemporary attitudes and movements of the conservative right in the United States – their characteristics today are essentially the same as in the late 1940s.


v. Dialectic of Enlightenment.  (Notes for this section are mostly from Kellner, 1989, Chapter 4).  The most famous single work of the critical theorists was the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in 1947 by Horkheimer and Adorno.  This book “combined a novel critique of Western civilization and rationality with a powerful critique of ‘the administered society’ … shift[ing] the focus of Critical Theory to philosophy of history, philosophic anthropology and a philosophical critique of culture” (Kellner, 1989, p. 83).  This book not only distanced these writers from Marxism, emphasized philosophic concerns, and made the domination of nature the main focus of their analysis.  This book and the writings that follow it also represent the strong influence of Adorno, who had a more philosophical approach than did Horkheimer and, until Habermas emerged as a leading writer, Adorno was the leading figure in the Frankfurt School.  The shift in approach may have occurred because these theorists now viewed it as extremely unlikely that the working class would be the agent for revolution and socialism.  Being in exile in the United States, where critical theorists had little connection to social movements, may also have contributed to this different approach.  Whatever the reasons, the result was to focus their analysis on the critique of instrumental reason, so that this dialectic of enlightenment replaced class struggle as the central feature of their analysis. 


The question Horkheimer and Adorno (HA) asked was “why humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Kellner, 1989, p. 85).  HA considered scientific thought to have become increasingly formalist, conformist, and instrumental, rather than raising critical questions concerning society and being skeptical toward systems of thought.  They consider the enlightenment to have been a long development from the Greeks on, where enlightened thought “emancipates human beings from the despotism of myth and helps them to control and dominate nature” (Kellner, 1989, p. 87).   Kellner argues that what HA were attempting to do is how the ways in which enlightened thought contained traces of myth and irrationality, although being seemingly rational in content.  Further Kellner looks on this work as “a history and pre-history of the bourgeois subject and that subject’s project of the domination of nature” (Kellner, 1989, p. 87). 


While rationality and domination of nature to pursue human interests is usually considered the aim of enlightenment, HA note that “what men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominated it and other men.  This is the only aim” (Kellner, 1989, pp. 87-8).  As a result, they consider enlightenment reason to not be liberating, but to be a form of totalitarian thought – with reason serving the interests of domination by being part of existing society.  While HA considered there to be a progressive element to enlightenment thought and reason, they regarded such reason as mostly instrumental and based on a formal rationality, rather than being critical reason.  As a result, truth becomes identified with certain forms of science and technology, mathematics, logic, calculation, efficiency, quantification – with these forms of rationality privileged over other forms.  HA provided the first real critique of science and technology from a left or radical point of view; previously Marxists had generally defended these as progressive.  But HA saw these as limiting forms of thought, where everything needed to be calculated and have formal equivalence, thus creating a new form of totalitarian thought and limiting human creativity, individuality, and uniqueness.  The influence of Weber is notable here, with HA taking his arguments much beyond Weber’s analysis.


Not only does enlightenment limit thought and reason, it leads

logically to fascism, which applied enlightenment principles of order, control, calculability, domination and system to the totalitarian administration of society: ‘For the rulers, men become material, just as nature as a whole is material for society.  After the short intermezzo of liberalism, in which the bourgeois kept one another in check, domination appears as an archaic terror in a fascistically rationalized form’ (Kellner, 1989, p. 97). 

The idea here is that forms of pure reason developed by Kant and other philosophers were applied by the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere to the problem of organizing production more efficiently, then to more rational forms of prisons, and ultimately by the Nazis to the rational organization of concentration camps. 


Taken to this extreme, there are obvious deficiencies to the approach of HA, in that capitalism has not uniformly taken the route that developed in Nazi Germany.  HA were undoubtedly overly impressed with what happened in Germany and viewed it as the future of modernity everywhere.  At the same time, the tendencies that HA describe do exist in capitalism and modernity, and it is worth considering their analysis in order to focus on the positive and negative features of modernity. 


vi. Art and Culture.  (Notes primarily from Kellner, 1989, Chapter 5, “From ‘Authentic Art’ to the Culture Industries”).  In contrast to Marxian theories, critical theorists made analysis of art and culture a central focus of their studies, and noted developments in culture that were not purely economic in origin.  Rather, the dialectic of enlightment was used as critique of culture.  Kellner notes that they argued that

Culture, once a refuge of beauty and truth, was falling prey, they believed, to tendencies toward rationalization, standardization and conformity, which they saw as a consequence of the triumph of instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life.  Thus while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting conformity and was a crucial part of the ‘totally administered society’ that was producing ‘the end of the individual’. (Kellner, 1989, p. 121).

For the most part, critical theorists developed critiques of mass or popular culture.  For example, Adorno “criticized popular music production for its commodification, rationalization, fetishism and reification of musical materials” (Kellner, 1989, p. 124).  In particular, Adorno attacked jazz as being standardized and commercialized, arguing that “seeming spontaneity and improvisation are themselves calculated in advance, and the range of what is permissible is as circumscribed as in clothes or other realms of fashion” (Kellner, 1989, p. 126).  While Adorno’s critique has some truth to it, he is unable to explain innovation and new developments using this one-sided approach.  Adorno tended to look on traditional forms of ‘high culture’ such as the art of art galleries or the music of German composers as more authentic and creative than were forms of popular culture.  In my view, Adorno adopted a very elitist approach to culture, one that would lead to limiting accessibility to and understanding of culture by large parts of the population.


Walter Benjamin, one of the individuals associated with the Institute, disagreed with Adorno and argued that there were not such dramatic differences between high culture and popular culture.  Benjamin was interested in the copy, the mechanical reproduction of artistic images, a relatively new development in the early part of the twentieth century.  While Benjamin regarded the copy as questioning the authenticity of the original work of art and the aura and aesthetic quality of the work of art, he also argued that


For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. (Kellner, 1989, p.124).

Benjamin considered there to be progressive features of this new development, with the new forms becoming more accessible to more people, becoming more politicized, and possibly leading the situation where many images could be brought to the masses could raise political consciousness.  This was particularly the case with film where Benjamin is somewhat reminscent of Simmel:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.  Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished room, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly.  Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.  (Kellner, 1989, p.125).

The copy and mechanical reproduction have proceeded much further than in Benjamin’s day, with digital images being endlessly reproducible and splicable, thus presenting many new possibilities. 




Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction., March 8, 2000.

Braaten, Jane. 1991. Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Farganis, James. 1996. Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.  from Illuminations,

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London and New York: Routledge.

Turner, Bryan S.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.


Last edited April 4, 2003