What is Critical Theory?

The foundational motto of critical theory is Karl Marx’s famous statement that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach). The neo-Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt School set out to apply this dictum to an analysis of the social sciences as a whole. Their method, a “critical mix of Marxism and psychoanalysis” (Storey, Cultural Theory, p. 62), aimed at uncovering and diagnosing the state of society as well as offering a means by which it can be fundamentally transformed into a more just, less exploitative environment for all of its members.

The neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School originally grew out of the disaffection experienced by Marxists in the West as they watched the Soviet experiment in establishing a society along Communist lines degenerate into totalitarianism with a “policy of catering to the interests of elites combined with a growing welfare state for the population at large” (Riasanovsky and Steinberg, p. 566). They were “dismayed by the actual development of Marxism as orthodoxy and dogma” (West, 62).
In addition to the failure of Soviet Communism, the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt school also noted that circumstances elsewhere had changed drastically since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Marx had originally uttered his prognostications of an imminent uprising of the proletariat against their oppressors and the establishment of a new society along Communistic lines. On the contrary, the situation for the working people of the West had significantly improved, rather than degraded as Marx predicted.
In an attempt to salvage Marxism, or at least a kernel of it as found in Marx’s methods, the members of the Frankfurt School abandoned traditional Marxism in favor of an approach they saw as less dogmatic and more adaptable to changing social situations. To this end, they applied their new “critical theory” throughout society in a search for the underlying “human potentialities neglected within the existing social order” (West, 65). In so doing, they sought to “uncover the ‘negative’ moment of existing reality – that moment, in other words, which promises further dialectical transformation” (West). One side of this approach was to expose the ways in which elements of society sought to oppress and exploit the people while the other side, in fulfillment of Marx’s order to “change” the world through philosophy, was to find those elements which held out the hope of a better future and direct them toward the cause of a socialist utopia.
In pursuit of the first end, members of the Frankfurt school accused what they referred to as the “culture industry,” the forces behind the production and distribution of popular culture, of acting to “maintain social authority” (Storey, 62). Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for instance, claimed that the content of mass cultural productions, through their homogeneity and predictability, “discourages the ‘masses’ from thinking beyond the confines of the present” (Storey, 63). Through their consumption of popular culture, according to the members of the Frankfurt School, people were restrained from formulating hopes for a better future and were instead chained to the present. Because of these circumstances, the people entered a state in which they were incapable of being concerned with and working to transform their situation. In addition, according to Leo Lowenthal, they were also ingrained with particular tastes and habits which chained them not only to the present but to the capitalist system and its products.
Having diagnosed the problem, the Frankfurt School theorists went on to formulate a cure as well. The cure, they postulated, is found in “authentic” culture (as opposed to “mass” culture). For the Frankfurt theorists, authentic culture, or high culture, presented a vision of a better tomorrow. In so doing, it raised one’s hopes for the future and, they thought, led one to become actively engaged in bringing about this better future, which they pictured as a socialist utopia. While this example of the Frankfurt School’s analysis of popular culture is only a single example of the application of critical theory, it is a telling example in a number of ways. As can be seen from this example, the Frankfurt School theorists detected the means and modes of exploitation nearly everywhere they looked. This example also demonstrates that the Frankfurt School had also developed its own orthodoxy in its insistent clinging to the need to find exploitation in the present and posit a messianic vision of a socialist utopia in the future. As David West (p. 62) points out, the Frankfurt School’s development of critical theory seems to be little more than an attempt, “desperately” done, to save Marxism from the dustbin of history and to continue to make relevant a philosophy the greater bulk of which had been outmoded not long after it had first been uttered.


Marx, K. (2005). Theses on Feuerbach. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm
Storey, J. (2009). Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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