You are on page 1of 8

MARXISM A N D CRITICAL THEORY

DAVID H E L D
University of York

T H Ebooks being reviewed here differ in their objectives and their degrees of success in
achieving them.’ Perry Anderson provides a lucid study of the Marxist theory that
developed in Western Europe from the early 1920s-the Marxism of, amongst others,
Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci; Adorno, Marcuse and Benjamin; Sartre and Althusser;
and Della Volpe and Colletti. His objective is to provide a ‘balance-sheet’ of these
authors’ achievements and limitations. But the enterprise is misconceived, since
Anderson’s mode of assessment prevents proper appreciation of his subject matter. The
critical reader edited by New Left Review also seeks to ‘sum up’ the contributions of
‘Western Marxism’. It contains illuminating essays on Gramsci, Sartre and Althusser.
The volume, however, is marred by the inclusion of some poorly grounded attacks on
the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, typified by Goran Therbom’s article on the Frankfurt
school and Habermas. Phil Slater’s book focuses on the ‘formative years’ of the
Frankfurt School, 1930-42, concentrating on the thought of Horkheimer, Adorno,
Fromm and Marcuse. The work is subtitled ‘A Marxist Perspective’. But because this
perspective is not elaborated at any length, many of his critical remarks are
inadequately elucidated and justified.
A more successful volume, in my view, is Andrew Arato’s and Eike Gebhardt’s
anthology. This consists of a number of important, original essays by members of the
Frankfurt School as well as a series of extremely useful introductory essays by the
editors. Two important interpretations of Adorno’s writings-interpretations which,
interestingly, diverge on many key points-are provided by Susan Buck-Morss and
Gillian Rose.’ Buck-Morss centres attention on the relationship between Benjamin’s
and Adorno’s thought; Rose presents a detailed and scholarly introduction to Adorno’s
central ideas and theories. An excellent account of Habermas’s writings can be found in
Thomas McCarthy’s book. McCarthy does not develop an over-all critical assessment of
Habermas, but his work constitutes the most reliable and comprehensive study of the
man who is one of the most influential thinkers in Germany today.
The above-mentioned works cover an enormous range of ideas and problems, far too
great a range to be satisfactorily dealt with here. Since most of them are directly
concerned with critical theory, 1 shall focus below on the radically different appraisals

Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, New Left Books, 1976), viii
+ I 2 5 pp.; Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader
(Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978), xxiii+ 558 pp. ; Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative
Dialectics: Theodor W . Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (Hassocks, Sussex,
Harvester, 1977). xiv+ 335 pp.; Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jiirgen Habermas
(London, Hutchinson, 1978), xiii+466 pp.; New Left Review, eds., Western Marxism: A Critical
Reader (London, New Left Books, 1977), 354 pp.; Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An
Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W . Adorno (London, Macmillan, 1978), x+212 pp.; Phil
Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School: A Marxist Perspective (London, Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1977), xvi+ 185 pp.
See Gillian Rose’s review of Buck-Morss’s, The Origin of Negative Dialects, History a i d
Theory, 8 (1979), 126-35.
P01ltic.l Studles, Vol. XXIX, No. 2 (292-299)
REVIEW ARTICLES 293
of this school made by Anderson, Therborn and Slater on the one hand, and Arato,
Gebhardt, Buck-Morss, Rose and McCarthy on the other. I shall use the works of the
latter authors as a resource to help sustain a critique of the writers in the former group.3
Despite the occasional generous comment Anderson and Therborn are unequivocal
in their assessment of critical theory: not only do the limitations of critical theory far
outweigh the achievements, but to remain within the ‘problematic’ of critical theory is
to risk intellectual paralysis and a failure to produce a genuine reconciliation of theory
and practice, Marxism and revolutionary politic^.^ Summing up the position of the
Frankfurt school (and other ‘Western Marxists’) Anderson writes: ‘method as im-
potence; art as consolation, pessimism as quiescence’. Therborn expresses his views of
the Frankfurt school thus: ‘there is an underlying structure. . . which involves a double
reduction of science and politics 10 philosophy’. Further, Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s
involvement in the Authoritarian Personality marks, at the level of social analysis, ‘a
complete capitulation to bourgeois social psychology in theory, method and political
conclusions’.6 Slater argues that while ‘the Frankfurt school of the 1930s and early
1940s made a serious contribution to the elucidation and articulation of historical
materialism. . . [it] failed to achieve the relation to praxis which is central to the Marxist
project’.7 On his reading, the leading members of the Institute of Social Research failed
to ‘relate concretely to the praxis and theory of the class-struggles in Germany’ and
their work lacked ‘economic concreteness’, i.e., a thorough analysis of the economic
base.* The result is that their attempts to develop, for example, a historical materialist
aesthetics, missed the vital ‘practical class ~ t a n d p o i n t ’ .In
~ the opinion of these authors,
critical theory represents a diversion both from the ‘path of true science’ (Therborn)
and from ‘a close connection with the practical activity of the proletariat’ (Anderson).
The charges made against critical theory fall into four main areas. First, there is the
view, expressed vociferously by Anderson and Therborn, that critical theory, far from
breaking with the heritage of classical German idealism, reproduces idealist positions.”
On Therborn’s account, for example, critical theory’s radical break is not as its
advocates suppose with idealism but with real, materialist science. The epistemological
basis of critical theory is ‘metaphysical humanism’. In a position saturated with the
influence of Hegel, history is portrayed as ‘an all-embracing process, in which an
historical subject realizes itself’. Society is reduced to ‘a creator-subject’. Truth becomes
objective only ‘in the metaphysical sense of being inherent in the essence of human
reality’.” Several consequences are said to follow from this, including: the neglect of
the scientific specificity of Marx’s critique of political economy; the subordination of
analyses of concrete situations to a general assessment of reality in terms of the degree
to which man’s ‘essence’ is realized; and the loss of view of social totalities as structures
of irreducible complexity involving processes of discontinuous development.12
Second, the charge is made in one form or another by each of the critics that critical

The critique is based, in part, on a number of ideas which are developed in my Inrroduction to
Critical Theory: Horkheimer 10 Habermas (London, Hutchinson, 1980).
See, for example, Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, in Western Marxism: A Critical Reader,
p. 120.
Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 93.
Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, pp. 92 and 108.
’ Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School, pp. xiii-xiv.
Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School, pp. 63 and 47. What is needed Slater
declares, ‘is a theory of organization and political action. . . a practical-critical theory’ (p. 28).
Precisely what this amounts to Slater does not say.
Marcuse is partly exempted from this charge.
l o Cf. Anderson, Considerations on Wesrern Marxism, pp. 54 ff., and Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt
School’, pp. 87-92.
Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, p. 88.
l L Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, pp. 96-9.
294 REVIEW ARTICLES
theory shows undue concern for philosophical and theoretical problems, problems
pursued at the expense of Marxist topics. A ‘constant concourse with.. . thought
systems outside of historical materialism’ (various types of idealism, psychoanalysis) is,
Anderson claims, a ‘striking feature’ of critical theorists’ work. l 3 Critical theory turns
attention away from classical Marxist issues; it neglects the essential concerns of
historical materialism: ‘scrutiny of the economic laws of motion of capital as a mode of
production; analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the
class struggle necessary to overthrow it’.14 Critical theory’s interest in philosophy
betrays a distance from practical-political concerns-a sad but inevitable result,
Anderson contends, of the rift between theory and practice, science and proletarian
insurgency, that characterized the period in which it developed.’ Third, connected with
the above is the view that an excessive amount of time was spent studying ‘super-
structural phenomena’-aesthetics and culture-thus further detracting from serious
engagement with the key determinants of social life. Finally, a general remoteness from,
rather than involvement kith, working-class politics, is said to characterize the life of
Horkheimer and the others. They were ‘isolated’ in academic settings, increasingly
concerned with a ‘second-order’ discourse-‘on Marxism, rather than in Marxism’.
Instead of moving as Marx did from philosophy to economics and politics, they turned
back ever more to abstract issues.
The above portrayal of critical theory is inaccurate and misleading. It is not only
worth examining the nature of the misrepresentation but also some of the alternative
positions suggested by the critics-their claims about the core structures of reality,
science and the key issues in politics. For critical theory developed, in part, as a critique
of precisely that kind of view which claimed to have fully captured these phenomena.
The debate over what constitutes Marxism, the essential structures of society, the
nature of scientific inquiry etc., is inseparable from the genesis of critical theory itself.
It is striking that the characterization of critical theory by, for instance, Therborn
and Slater, rests on an insufficiently differentiated analysis of the positions of each of
the critical theorists. Therborn, for example, explicates Horkheimer’s concept of history
with a quotation from Marcuse. l 7 Slater elaborates Horkheimer’s notion of critical
theory through Marcuse’s critique of Hegel and Marx. The ‘Frankfurt school’s’
analysis of fascism is expounded by Therborn with a brief summary of one of
Marcuse’s arti~1es.l~ The general conflation of positions has a number of serious
consequences. First, the very different views of, for instance, Horkheimer, Adorno and
Marcuse on Hegel and Marx remain unexplicated. Yet these three men emphasized
rather different aspects of Hegel and Marx.20 Second, the various models of critical
theory expounded by Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse are ignored. As a result, the
real break between, for example, Adorno’s final stage of development, exemplified by
works like Negative Dialectics, and Marcuse’s notion of critique, which directly

l 3 Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 58. Anderson makes this remark not just
about critical theory, but about Western Marxism as a whole.
l4 Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 44-5. Again it should be noted that
Anderson claims this is true of Western Marxism in general (with the single exception of Gramsci).
See Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 44-5 and Ch. 5.
l 6 Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 53. Cf. Slater. Origin and Significance of
the Frankfurt School, pp. 63 and 47.
Therbom, ‘The Frankfurt School’, p. 96.
Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School, pp. 31-3.
l9 Thus the very diverse contributions of the school’s members to the theory of fascism remain
undiscussed. Cf. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston, Little, Brown, 1973), Chs. 4 and
5.
* O Cf., for instance, Marcuse, ‘A Note on Dialectic’ and Adorno, ‘Subject and Object’, in Arato
and Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, pp. 444-51 and pp. 497-511
respectively.
REVIEW ARTICLES 295
preserves many of Hegel’s ideas, is bypassed.21While an argument might be made that
Marcuse’s work resembles the position outlined in the first of the four sets of criticisms,
Adorno’s bears no such resemblance. Adorno frequently attacked, as Rose shows very
clearly, the notion of a general subject in history, anthropocentric conceptions of the
historical process, and the concept of the negation of the negation.22 Adorno affirmed
the primacy of the object. He fiercely criticized attempts to articulate the ‘fundamental
structure of being’ as well as all thought-systems that claimed privileged access to
‘human destination’.
Many of Horkheimer’s views, especially from the late 1930s, were similar to
Adorno’s. But even in Horkheimer’s earlier works there is no evidence of history being
described simply as a process in which ‘a historical subject realizes itself’.23 It is
precisely because Adorno and Horkheimer saw no inescapable path for human history
and no inevitable transformation of capitalism, that they were so concerned with
critique-with criticizing ideology and thus helping to create awareness of the possiblity
of a break with the existing structure of domination. Even Marcuse’s work, which
clearly affirms the concept of the negation of the negation and a (materialistically
transformed) version of Hegel’s concept of truth, resembles only superficially the
portrait offered by critics. His writings on the concepts of species-being and labour seek
to capture the dynamic character of man’s sensuous, practical activity and make it the
foundation of the notion of essence.24 His formulation of the latter leads, in his early
writings at any rate, ‘into history rather than out of it’. Further, his conception of man
as a ‘natural’ and ‘sensuous’ being, a being that is ‘universal’ and ‘free’, does not
prevent examination of the way in which, in a capitalist mode of production, the laws of
the economy become the primary determinants of social and political conditions. On
the contrary, it allows inquiry into the nature of these laws (their appearance as natural
but their actual dependence on particular social practices) and their many effects (not
just on economy-state relations but on the nature of social relations themselves). To
reflect on historically constituted human capacities, on unfulfilled needs and wants, is
not, moreover, to ‘collapse’ into a ‘metaphysical humanism’. Rather, it is to treat
seriously the claim-the claim of all those who believe ‘things might be otherwise than
they are’-that potentialities for radical change exist. The presuppositions entailed in
this view, including the belief that certain groups have the capacity and desire to
organize their lives differently, require investigation. It is one of Marcuse’s merits to
have pursued issues such as these. Of course, none of this is to say that there are not
pronounced difficulties with some of Marcuse’s positions.
Further, the accusation of ‘idealism’ rests, as has been pointed out in one recent reply
to Anderson, on the unsubstantiated assumption that the influence of idealism was
completely negative.* The Frankfurt school’s and Habermas’s concern with idealism
(and with a variety of other traditions of social thought and philosophy) was not
motivated by a retreat to non-Marxist thinking, but by an ambition to revitalize
Marxism.z6 As Marx had turned to Hegel for a method that can be a ‘scandal and an
abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen’, and for ideas that
would bring to life ‘hitherto existing materialism’, so the critical theorists looked to

l L See my Introduction to Critical Theory, Chs. 7 and 8, for an analysis of the issues involved.
l2 See Rose, The Melancholy Science, Chs. 2 4 .
2 3 See my Introduction to Critical Theory, Ch. 5.
24 Cf. Marcuse, ‘The Foundations of Historical Materialism‘ (originally published in Die
Gesellschaft, 9 (1932)) in his Studies in Critical Philosophy (Boston, Beacon, 1973).
2 s See Jeffrey Herf, ‘Science and Class or Philosophy and Revolution: Perry Anderson on
Western Marxism’, Socialist Review, 35, No. 7 (1977), 129-44. I found this article extremely
helpful in assessing Anderson’s work.
2 b Cf. Arato, ‘Introduction to Part 1’. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, pp. 3-25, and
McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgrn Habermas, Ch. I.
296 REVIEW ARTICLES
Hegel for similar reasons.27 They were faced with an orthodoxy in Marxism
(established by the Third International in particular) that reduced the Marxian project
to an ideology that could legitimate Stalinism, a science that could steer an all powerful
state, and a body of ideas that ran directly contrary to the revolutionary, emancipatory
and fundamentally democratic dimension of Marx’s programme. At a theoretical level
the reduction of Marxism to dialectical materialism trivialized the significance of
human agency, and, at a political level, justified the exclusion of the active participation
of the mass of people in decisions that affect their lives. As Marx indicated in the Theses
on Feuerbach, idealism restores insight into the ‘active side’ of materialism.28 The
retrieval of precisely this aspect of materialism-the interplay between sensuous human
activity and nature, between human subjectivity and second nature-enabled the
critical theorists, at various stages in their careers, to restore to the centre of Marxism
some of the most radical and subversive elements of Marx’s work. The latter are
encapsulated by the view, defended by Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas,
that the process of emancipation is inseparable from the struggle for self-emancipation.
Or, as Habermas put it, ‘democratization, greater popular participation and de-
centralization of the process of formation of the collective will are essential because the
market + administration cannot satisfy a whole series of collective needs’.zQ
Therborn argues that critical theory’s real ‘innovation’ lies in its ‘radical break with
science’. In this he sees one of its most serious failings and the source of many of its
deficiencies. But while it is true that each of the critical theorists launched attacks on
various models of science (positivism), on science and technology as ideology, and very
clearly in Marcuse’s case, on modern science and technology as such, Therborn’s criti-
cism is wholly ungrounded. For it relies on a dogmatic assertion-an assertion stemming
from Althusser-that science can be neatly demarcated from ideology. The assertion is
dogmatic because Althusser and Therborn provide no plausible criteria to settle
disputes over what constitutes the ‘scientific’ and what does not.30 Critical theorists
have contributed extensively to debates on this issue.31 Therborn does not assess their
contributions. He merely calls for science against ‘critical theory’. The readiness with
which he dismisses Habermas’s concern for ‘scientific theory’ is a s t o n i ~ h i n g . ~ ~ .
The charge that critical theorists had an ‘excessive interest’ in philosophy and the
theoretical traditions of non-Marxists is also ill considered. There are a number of
separate issues involved here. Philosophical concerns, obviously, were at the heart of
part of the critical theorists’ project. But their interest in philosophy, like their interest
in idealism was not just, as Therborn implies, an interest in the philosophical per se. The
interest stemmed from a direct concern with major problems in theory and in practice.
For example, Horkheimer and Adorno were anxious to resist the degeneration of
Marxism into a form of technocratic consciousness, the increasing pervasiveness of
instrumental reason in many spheres of life, and the influence of idealism, positivism
and crude materialism. In resisting these things, furthermore, they were not simply
concerned to dismiss them out of hand. They were well aware of the contradictions
involved in rejecting the dogmatic dogmatically. The engagement with philosophy and

*’ Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth, Middx., Penguin in association with New
Left Review, 1976). pp. 102-3.
2 8 Herf, ‘Science and Class or Philosophy and Revolution’, p. 138.
2 9 Habermas, ‘Conservatism and Capitalist Crisis’, New Left Review, 115 (May-June, 1979), p.
81.
3 0 Cf. G . McLennan, V. Molina and R. Peters, ‘Althusser’s Theory of Ideology’, in Working
Papers in Cultural Studies, Vol. 10 (Birmingham, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies,
1977).
See Gebhardt, ‘Introduction to Part Ill’, The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, pp. 374-406.
32Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School‘, p. 125. Cf. McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jiirgen
Habermas, Chs. 2 4 .
REVIEW ARTICLES 297
non-Marxist traditions of thought was, therefore, a necessity-a necessity for the
struggle against misleading and pernicious doctrines.
But there are other important reasons for engaging with authors who draw their
inspiration from non-Marxist perspectives. The acknowledgement that Marxism in its
Stalinist manifestation became a repressive ideology-thereby confirming that Marxist
doctrine does not necessarily offer the key to truthbconstitutes one of the crucial
premises of critical theory. It allows recognition not only of the fact that 'classical'
Marxist concepts are inadequate to account for a range of phenomena (fascism,
Stalinism), but also of the fact that the ideas and theories of, for example, Weber and
Freud, provide vital clues to problems that face Marxists-why revolution in the West
was expected and why it had not occurred. The critical theorists concern to assess and,
where applicable, develop non-Marxist thought is, again, not an attempt to undermine
Marxism; it is an attempt to reinvigorate and develop it. Whether or not critical theory
is adequate to this task is again another question.
It is, in addition, clear from the accounts of critical theory offered by Arato,
Gebhardt, Rose and McCarthy that the pursuit of philosophical problems was not at
the expense of certain classical Marxist concerns. The central importance of Marx's
contributions to political economy is acknowledged by each of the critical theorists. In
fact, Horkheimer and Adorno tended to take the validity of these contributions for
granted.33 While they did not pursue detailed analyses of the economy themselves, such
analyses were encouraged in the Institute of Social Research. Hence it is unacceptable
when critics of the Frankfurt school ignore, or give very short shrift to, the work of
Pollock, Neumann and Gurland. If it were properly addressed, the charge that the
school neglected political economy would lose a great deal of its force.34 The view that
Habermas ignores the essential concerns of political economy also appears rather thin
in light of his analysis of, for example, crisis tendencies in capitalist society.35
But the very objection that key Marxist problems were neglected needs to be
examined carefully. For when the point is made it is usually taken for granted-as it is,
for instance, in the works by Anderson and Therborn-that these problems are
synonymous with political economy and with the theory and practice of Leninist or
Trotskyist politics. Yet this equation was rejected by each of the critical theorists. Their
positions, however, are rarely confronted by their critics. With respect to political
economy the position of critical theory is clear; political economy is crucial but too
narrow a base when taken alone for the development of Marxist concerns. I shall return
to this point again in the discussion of the focus on aesthetics and culture. The
supposed equation between Marxist politics and a Leninist or Trotskyist programme
raises additional questions. While it is the case that critical theory has not provided an
extended discussion of 'the strategy of the party necessary to overthrow the bourgeois
state', this is not an oversight or a rejection of the importance of practical concerns.
Instead, it must be understood as a result both of an explicit hostility to Leninist forms
of organization as the mode of political intervention, and as an explicit and urgent
attempt to uncover and expose the factors which currently make positive claims about
the possibility of revolutionary change in the West appear a mere fantasy. Leninist
vanguard organizations were looked upon critically because it was thought they
reproduced a chronic division of labour, bureaucracy and authoritarian leadership.

33 This can be demonstrated if one carefully reconstructs Horkheimer's contributions in the


1930s to the Zeitschryt fur Sozialforschung. See, for example, his 'Traditional and Critical Theory'
in Critical Theory, trans. J . OConnell and others (New York, Herder and Herder, 1972). Aspects
of Marx's theory of capital are also crucial for Adorno. See Rose, The Melancholy Science, Ch. 3.
3 4 See Part I of The Essential Frankfurt School Reader and Ch. 2 of my Introduction to Critical
Theory.
3 5 Therborn, 'The Frankfurt School', p. 137. Cf. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas
McCarthy (London, Heinemann, 1976).
298 REVIEW ARTICLES
Although it is true that the critical theorists did not produce a sustained political
theory, they stand in the tradition of those who maintain the unity of socialism and
liberty and who argue that the aims of a rational society must be embedded in the
means used to establish that society. Horkheimer et al. hoped that their work would
help to compel changes in consciousness and political action in a similar way to the
effects generated by Capital. Their project was a form of political praxis with significant
political implications. Far from reflecting a distance from practical-political problems,
their interest in theory and critique was directly related to an ambition to analyse new
forms of domination, undermine ideology, enhance awareness of the material con-
ditions of life circumstances, and aid the creation of radical political movements.
The view that the Frankfurt school’s studies of aesthetics and culture constitute, in
part, a distraction from the key determinants of social and political life is also
questionable in a number of respects. First, it fails to confront their arguments that the
critique of political economy does not provide a sufficient basis to investigate the
increasing encroachment of the market and bureaucratic organizations into areas of life
hitherto free of them, and that the general interlocking of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, of
civil society and the polity, seems to make radical alternatives to the present society
remote. Second, it assumes that if only the Frankfurt school had grasped ‘the objective
nature of the contradiction between the social character of the productive forces and
the private character of the relations of production’, i.e., the nature of the capitalist
mode of production, then, the collapse of their analysis into an obsession with the
‘subjective’ could have been avoided.36 In the critiques of critical theory launched from
an Althusserian perspective-a perspective adhered to, in particular, by Therborn-the
concept of ‘mode of production’ is presented as if: (a) the Frankfurt school and
Habermas had never heard of it; and (b) it can unlock all the core dimensions of
capitalism. But a careful reading of critical theory would reveal: (a) that in most of the
Frankfurt school’s substantive analysis the concept of the capitalist mode of production
is central; (b) Habermas seeks to develop an array of analytic tools which include this
concept; and (c) all critical theorists had the strongest objections to the use of a
hypostatized notion of ‘modes of production’. Their work sought to expose the complex
relations and mediations which prevent the forces and relations of production from
being characterized simply as objective-as things developing ‘over the heads’ of
human agents. An analysis of the components of culture, of identity formation etc., is
necessary because ‘history is made’-by the ‘situated conduct of partially knowing
subjects’. The contradiction between the forces and relations of production does not
give rise to a fixed crisis path. The course of the crisis, the nature of its resolution,
depends on the practices of social agents, and on how they understand the situation
they are part of. Critical theory does not downplay structure, but seeks to examine the
interplay between structure and social practices, the mediation of the objective and
subjective in and through particular social phenomena.
It is quite wrong to suggest that Habermas substitutes the notions of labour and
interaction for the complex unity of mode of p r o d u ~ t i o n .Habermas’s
~~ distinction
between two types of action is meant, as McCarthy shows, to capture the differences
between the types of action that underpin-produce and reproduce-the ‘complex
Although Habermas clearly thinks that the notion of mode of production is
insufficient to analyse social formations this is not because action concepts are
substituted for it. To infer this is simply to mistake the different levels of analysis at
which he works.
Finally, the objection that critical theory developed in an academic setting isolated

36See, for example, Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, pp. 124-5, and Tony Woodiwiss,
‘Critical Theory and the Capitalist State’, Economy and Sociery, 7 (1978), 188-91.
3 7 Therborn, ‘The Frankfurt School’, p. 129.
McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jiirgen Habermas, pp. 16-40, 232-71.
REVIEW ARTICLES 299
from working-class politics and that it became increasingly embroiled in ‘abstract
issues’ and ‘second-order’ discourse, requires comment. It is true that critical theory did
develop, as has most of the criticism of critical theory, in a n academic context.39 It is
also the case that critical theory developed largely in isolation from working-class
politics. Given that the most active years of the Institute of Social Research were also
the years of fascism, Stalinism and the Second World War, this is hardly surprising
(though it must be added that such isolation clearly suited Horkheimer as he grew more
conservative in the years following the Second World War). But the criticism of ‘lack of
involvement’ itself presupposes an attachment to the view that the only form of
legitimate political involvement is active participation in day to day working-class
politics. One of the significant achievements of critical theory is, in my view, to have
shown that there are many ways of contributing to the project of human emancipation
and that the terms of reference of the political are wider than is often thought. The
Frankfurt school and Habermas sought to extend and adapt the insights of Marx’s
work in order to reveal the complex factors which hinder people coming to conscious-
ness of themselves as capable of different action. The Frankfurt school’s criticisms of
contemporary culture, authoritarianism, bureaucracy and so on, were intended to help
foster independent thinking and the struggle for emancipation. They directed attention
to the effects of domination not only in production but in the family, the environment
and other areas of life. Consequently, their work transformed the concept of the
political; it directed attention to issues such as the division of labour, sexism, ecological
problems as well as the central question of ownership and control. This has crucial
potential significance which was recognized by sections of the New Left in the sixties.
Critical theory took Marxism into a range of new areas. The extension of the focus of
critique, the expansion of the domain of political reflection, helped to open up many
dimensions of life to critical social analysis and active intervention.
The particular contributions of critical theory’s leading spokesmen are brought out in
a general way by the commentaries of Arato and Gebhardt. The achievements of
Adorno are especially well elucidated by Rose and Buck-Morss, as are the achievements
of Habermas by McCarthy. These authors decisively advance the literature on critical
theory. But the works considered above which attempt to give a n over-all appraisal of
this tradition fail to grasp many of its most important features.

39 Rose, The Melancholy Science, Ch. 1 and Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, Chs.
1, 2 and 12.