In France and Italy, the post-War period has seen the emergence of new schools of Marxist thought (Althusser, Della Volpe). In the German-speaking world, on the other hand, there is a complete continuity from the pre-War years. The veterans Lukács and Bloch are still active and influential, but the centre of the stage is firmly occupied by the group of theorists who have become known as the ‘Frankfurt School’. Moreover, while the influence of recent French and Italian Marxism has been largely confined within its country of origin, the ideas of the Frankfurt School have spread, first, thanks to the emigration of the 1930’s, to the usa, and in the last few years all over the world. Indeed, one of the most prominent of the members of the School, Herbert Marcuse, has become one of the bourgeoisie’s latest bogey-men. Of course, Marcuse’s influence is not so great as myth suggests. Nevertheless, in North America and Italy at least, the student movement has certainly been more affected by Marcuse’s thought than by that of any other living Marxist, and the sds in Germany has never emancipated itself intellectually from the Frankfurt tutelage, despite the fact that most of the members of the School teaching in Germany denounced it, often in the most violent terms. Moreover, in France, where the influence of the School was negligible until a spate of translations after the events of May 1968, student militants associated with these events have often spontaneously reproduced typical Frankfurt ideas in their own theory and ideology. This tenacity of the Frankfurt School, and the reflorescence of its ideas in a situation so unlike that of its origin (Germany in the 1930’s) is remarkable. This article is an attempt to summarize and analyse the basis of these ideas,footnote1 and to provide some explanation for their reflorescence.

The School takes its name from the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) set up in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1923.footnote2 A young left-wing philosopher, Max Horkheimer, became the Director of this Institute in 1930, and continued to direct it in exile after 1933, first in France and then in the usa, until it closed down in 1941. He was joined by the philosopher and musician, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno and an ex-student of Heidegger’s, Herbert Marcuse.footnote3 Friedrich Pollock, Leo Löwenthal, Franz Neumann and Erich Fromm were closely associated with the Institute in the 1930’s, as was Walter Benjamin, though more distantly. After the War, Marcuse remained in the usa, while Horkheimer and Adorno returned to West Germany, reestablishing the Institute in Frankfurt in 1950. Here it has found new adherents, most notably the philosophers Alfred Schmidt and Jürgen Habermas. The core members of the School are Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Some of the original members died during the War, others drifted away (e.g. Fromm), while the younger members have only been active for a few years. Hence this article is devoted almost exclusively to the work of these three core members.footnote4

The denomination ‘Frankfurt School’ was not chosen by the members, but has been applied to them by others. Members of the group prefer their work to take its name from what they regard as their theoretical programme: ‘critical theory’. An examination of what they, and particularly Horkheimer, who coined the phrase, have meant by critical theory therefore serves as a convenient introduction to their work as a whole.

The term ‘critical theory’ does not appear in the early numbers of the Institute’s journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. ‘Materialism’ is used instead. ‘Critical theory’ was first discussed in an article by Horkheimer in the journal in 1937, entitled ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’.footnote5 Adorno explains, thirty years later, that ‘the Horkheimerian formulation “critical theory” is not an attempt to make materialism acceptable, but to bring it to theoretical self-consciousness,’footnote6 and this is plausible, because the substitution of the vaguer term for historical materialism is accompanied by a considerable radicalization of Horkheimer’s position. In fact, critical theory is Horkheimer’s conception of Marxism, and the phrase derives from the conventional description of Marxism as the critique of political economy. I shall attempt to situate and systematize critical theory in three respects: its relationship to traditional theory, to science and to politics.

The basic dividing line between traditional and critical theory in Horkheimer’s conception is determined by whether the theory assists in the process of social reproduction, or whether, on the contrary, it is subversive of it. Traditional theory is embedded in the specialized work processes by which the existing society reproduces itself. It ‘organizes experience on the basis of problems arising from the reproduction of life within present society’.footnote7 In the prevailing division of labour, the personal views of the individual scientist and his efforts for a free science have as little real significance as the individual entrepreneur’s views of free enterprise. Both are allotted determinate roles in the process of social reproduction: ‘The apparent independence of work processes which ought to derive their movement from the inner essence of their objects corresponds to the apparent freedom of the economic subjects, in bourgeois society. They think that they act according to their individual decisions, whereas, even in their most complex calculations, they are really only exponents of an obscure social mechanism’ (kt ii, p. 146).

Critical theory, on the other hand, was for Horkheimer an immanent critique of the existing society itself. For it was designed to bring the basic contradictions of capitalist society to consciousness, by placing itself outside the mechanisms of its reproduction and the limits of the prevailing division of labour. ‘There now exists a human attitude which takes the society itself as its object. It is not merely oriented towards the removal of particular abuses, for the latter appear to it as necessarily bound to the whole arrangement of the social structure. Although this attitude has arisen out of the social structure, it is no concern either of its conscious intention or of its objective significance that anything in this structure should function any better than it does’ (kt ii, pp. 155 ff.). The intentions of this critical attitude ‘go beyond the prevailing social praxis’ (kt ii, p. 158). Critical theory is primarily a prise de position (Haltung) and only secondarily a theory of a specific type. ‘On the whole, its opposition to the traditional concept of theory derives from a difference of subjects rather than from one of objects. The facts as they arise from work in society are not so external to the bearers of this attitude as they are to the academic (Gelehrte), or to the members of the other professions, who all think as little academics’ (ibid.). The critical theorist is ‘the theoretician whose only concern is to accelerate a development which should lead to a society without exploitation’.footnote8

Hence the content of critical theory was essentially indeterminate: ‘There are no general criteria for critical theory as a whole, for such criteria always depend on a repetition of events and thus on a self-reproducing totality . . . Despite all its insights into individual steps and the congruence of its elements with those of the most advanced traditional theories, critical theory has no specific instance for itself other than its inherent interest in the supersession of class domination’.footnote9 The only properties of critical theory are a political position and a place in the history of philosophy seen as a reflection of social development: ‘The categorical judgement is typical of pre-bourgeois society: that is how it is, man cannot change it at all. The hypothetical and disjunctive forms of judgement belong especially to the bourgeois world: this effect may occur under certain conditions, it is either like this or otherwise. Critical theory explains: it must not be like this, men could alter being, the conditions for doing so already exist’ (kt ii, p. 175n.).