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Too much Marxism-

-You needed a specific revolutionary agent for change

            “The existing state of society, Horkheimer and Adorno feared, allowed no truly transformative critique, provided no bases for revolution or other practical action that would end the reproduction of a dehumanizing, repressive, and dangerous social order.”- pg. 25, CST

            “No social group-proletariat, intellectuals, artists- seemed altogether immune from this deadening of capacity to use reason to grasp the ends of social processes.” Pg. 26 CST

            Marcuse thought the successor to the proletariat was the Third World. “He thought still within the Frankfurt paradigm that expected radical social change to emerge from radical negativity, from those most objectively disempowered by existing arrangements, those whose existence was most opposed to the established order.” -pg. 27. CST

“It is striking that critical theory acknowledges no central revolutionary agent… They present a revolutionary theory in an age which, on their account, is non-revolutionary… They offer a theory of the importance of fundamental social transformation which has little basis in social struggle.

… a thesis which leads them to underestimate both the significance of certain types of political struggle and the importance of their own work for these struggles.”

…In trying to account for the absence of revolution the critical theorists tend, in my view, to underrate the complexity of political events. Their assumption that change should have occurred through a decisive break with the existing order, leads them to give undue weight to the power of the forces operating to stabilize society.”

”- Held, pg. 399

“…critical theory loses sight of a range of important social and political struggles both within the West and beyond it- struggles which have changed and are continuing to change the face of politics.”

-Held, pg. 400

“Contrary to Left conventional wisdom, according to which the quandaries of critical theory are the result of its having jettisoned fundamental Marxist assumptions, the real problem was the exact opposite: the unwarranted retention of too much traditional Marxist baggage. Initially operating within a framework that promised a socialist pot of gold at the end of the capitalist rainbow, early critical theorists… could only see Fascism as the infamous last stage of capitalism, and Stalinism, despite all its internal shortcomings, as a transitory stage to authentic socialism… their analyses of American society remained caught within this framework- minus the happy ending.”

            - EFSR, pgs. xv

 

 

 

 

Question: If the Frankfurt school was so concerned with society, why were they so pessimistic? (What repercussions has this had on theory and its relation to practice today?)

 

Importance of question: Immense influence of Frankfurt; immensely important contributions (see Virtues of Frankfurt Notes below…)- yet their influences have also been negative. Inadequate challenge of their pessimism (see Calhoun), leaving theory to the academy (though could material conditions contributed to this as well…?). What are the origins of it?

 

“While left intellectuals discourse polysyllabically to one another, truths that were once understood are buried, history is reshaped into an instrument of power, and the ground is laid for enterprises to come.”-Chomsky, Year 501. pg. 286

 

Tentative thesis: THEIR SHORTCOMINGS CAN BE LARGELY JUSTIFIED BY THEIR HISTORICAL LIMITATIONS. FRANKFURT REPRESENTS THE DRIFT FROM IDEOLOGY, MARXIST DOGMA. STILL CLINGS TO SOME OF THE MISCONCEPTIONS. - THE FACT THEY WERE GERMAN JEWS, DISILLUSIONMENT WITH MARXIST PRACTICE. UNDERRATED COMPLEXITY OF POLITICAL EVENTS.

 

 

Theory, spelling out thesis: Historical limitations-

“…crisis in critical theory after the war. The fear of barbarism would remain acute even after Nazism was defeated. Critical theorists would search in vain for social agents with the capacity to succeed in projects of real transformation…” ” e.g. German proletariat more authoritarian that oppositional – Calhoun, pg. 22

 

 

-Conscious attempts to disallow its conversion to ideology, fear of reification

“ …To provide a general evaluation of critical theory that does not violate its spirit, one must first and foremost grasp the particularity and specifity of its problematic without forcibly reconciling internal contradictions, conflicts and shifts. Simultaneously one must critically locate its one-sidedness, from the privileged vantage point of the present, by clarifying the relationship between the confused and ambiguous aspects of the theory’s formulations and its historical context. Such an account must explain the consciously esoteric thrust… their ‘planned’ failure to have a broad lasting impact, and the reasons why a different social analysis can avoid the self-contradictions which a more popular presentation of the original critical theory would have precipitated.…

…a consequence of some of the more paradoxical features of the theory itself, first its attempts to conceal its Marxian character, and subsequently, in its American phase, its effort to prevent its instrumentalization by those very forces that the theory had sought to oppose.”

-Essential Frankfurt Reader, pgs. xiii- xiv

 

-Marxism had become Stalinism

            “The acknowledgement that Marxism in its Stalinist manifestation became a repressive ideology…”- David Held, pg. 359

 

-Necessitating rejection of Leninism, contributing to hesitancy to provide a political program

            “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 labor, bureaucracy and authoritarian leadership. 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… 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 conditions of life circumstances, and to aid the creation of radical political movements.”

            -David Held, pgs. 360-361

“This paradoxical state of affairs tended to become ontologized in such a way the political impotence it presupposed was turned into a theoretical virtue, and all possible alternatives tended to tended increasingly to be ruled out in principle. Ultimately, critical theory was forced to justify itself in terms of a future emancipation which was otherwise shown to be unrealizable. Adorno’s final confrontation with those very students that he himself had helped to radicalize typifies the unfortunate political corner into which critical theory had managed to paint itself: it tended to help create an explosive audience which it had to subsequently defuse…”- EFSR, pgs. xiv- xvi

“Critical theory does not even attempt to prefigure the future by elaborating the mediations necessary to bring it about, and becomes purely defensive: it ultimately retreats to defend particularity, autonomy and nonidentity against an allegedly totally administered society where thinking itself appears as a dispensable luxury. To the extent that politicization of the productive process and the development of the culture industry lead to the colonization of consciousness, thus systematically ruling out any form of internal opposition, the logic of domination unfolds unchecked toward the even more disastrous manifestations of Auschwitz, the Gulag and Hiroshima. The psychoanalytic theory of socialization and the analysis of the “totally administered society” combine to checkmate all the remaining hopes of social emancipation. In the late 1950s, critical theory becomes increasingly hermetic, with its analysis of one-dimensionality becoming the pervasive theme, except for occasional detours through politically impotent esthetic maneuvers. The subject disappears, society becomes all-powerful and intellectuals can only escape into abstruseness and isolation to avoid homogenization, instrumentalization, or in extreme cases, even annihiliation.”

-EFSR pgs. xvi- xvii

Both One Dimensional Man, and Minima Moralia- “eventually converge on a similar pessimistic evaluation of emancipatory prospects.”

-They were German Jews

            “’To write poetry after Auschwitz,’ Adorno wrote in one of his more bitter moments, ‘is barbaric.’ To write social theory and conduct scientific research was more tolerable only if its critical and negative impulse was maintained. For, so the Frankfurt school always insisted, it was only by refusal to celebrate the present that the possibility might be preserved of a future in which writing poetry would no longer be an act of barbarism.”

            -Martin Jay, pg. Last page of book

 

Their idea of the ‘totally administered society’ was transhistorical

-Misreading of origins of domination (see Bookchin)

“…Horkheimer and especially Adorno had largely abandoned the attempt to offer a historically and culturally specific account of the contradictions of modern capitalist society.” Pg. 22 CST

“Ambivalence to historical specificity” (Calhoun, pg. 23)

 

 

Too much Marxism-

-You needed a specific revolutionary agent for change

            “The existing state of society, Horkheimer and Adorno feared, allowed no truly transformative critique, provided no bases for revolution or other practical action that would end the reproduction of a dehumanizing, repressive, and dangerous social order.”- pg. 25, CST

            “No social group-proletariat, intellectuals, artists- seemed altogether immune from this deadening of capacity to use reason to grasp the ends of social processes.” Pg. 26 CST

            Marcuse thought the successor to the proletariat was the Third World. “He though still within the Frankfurt paradigm that expected radical social change to emerge from radical negativity, from those most objectively disempowered by existing arrangements,  those whose existence was most opposed to the established order.” -pg. 27. CST

“It is striking that critical theory acknowledges no central revolutionary agent… They present a revolutionary theory in an age which, on their account, is non-revolutionary… They offer a theory of the importance of fundamental social transformation which has little basis in social struggle.

… a thesis which leads them to underestimate both the significance of certain types of political struggle and the importance of their own work for these struggles.”

…In trying to account for the absence of revolution the critical theorists tend, in my view, to underrate the complexity of political events. Their assumption that change should have occurred through a decisive break with the existing order, leads them to give undue weight to the power of the forces operating to stabilize society.”

”- Held, pg. 399

“…critical theory loses sight of a range of important social and political struggles both within the West and beyond it- struggles which have changed and are continuing to change the face of politics.”

-Held, pg. 400

“Contrary to Left conventional wisdom, according to which the quandaries of critical theory are the result of its having jettisoned fundamental Marxist assumptions, the real problem was the exact opposite: the unwarranted retention of too much traditional Marxist baggage. Initially operating within a framework that promised a socialist pot of gold at the end of the capitalist rainbow, early critical theorists… could only see Fascism as the infamous last stage of capitalism, and Stalinism, despite all its internal shortcomings, as a transitory stage to authentic socialism… their analyses of American society remained caught within this framework- minus the happy ending.”

            - EFSR, pgs. xv

 

CONCLUSION:

Summarize points of paper.

Describe lack of theory in activism today. Radical politics have become cliché, e.g. socialists selling their papers. Eyes roll when you mention capitalism. New approaches are desperately needed which are explicitly against ideology, e.g. Zapatista’s “one no, many yeses.”

 

To the Zapatistas, the indigenous people’s movement in Chiapas, Mexico, this is expressed as “one no, many yeses:” no to the capitalist order, yes to the versatile nature of the global resistance. Unlike the Marxism of yesteryear, today’s resistance is yet to fall under one rigid, doctrinaire banner of change. Whether this is a fatal weakness of the movement, or its enduring strength, the argument certainly rages; nevertheless, resistance continues. 

 

PROBLEM WITH THIS? “While left intellectuals discourse polysyllabically to one another, truths that were once understood are buried, history is reshaped into an instrument of power, and the ground is laid for enterprises to come.”-Chomsky, Year 501. pg. 286

 

-Virtues of Frankfurt

            Ability to think beyond ideology

            Established need for unity of theory with empirical research

            Established need for interdisciplinary theory

            Historically grounded awareness of social, political, cultural problems

            “The recovery for human beings of the full capacities of humanity”

(Calhoun, pg. 20)

Self-critical

Explored the realm of possibility

Very diverse body of ideas      

Elaboration of critique, which informed activism:

“Critical theory became a key element in the formation and self-understanding of the New Left…

directed attention to areas such as the state and mass culture, areas which are only just beginning to receive the study they require.

Their writings point to the possibility- a possibility often sought after today- of an alternative path for social development.”-pg. 13 David Held, Into to Critical Theory

 

“the way in which social interests, conflicts and contradictions are expressed  in thought, and how they are produced and reproduced in systems of domination.”

 

“hoped to enhance awareness of the roots of domination, undermine ideologies and help to compel changes in consciousness and action.”

 

“systematically distorted accounts of reality which attempt to conceal and legitimate asymmetrical power relations.

 

“Inspired by Marx’s famous ‘Theses on Feurbach,’ that whereas until now ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

 

Marxian ideology critique. Not just systematically concealed interests behind theories, but also and even primarily

 

Calhoun quotes:

 

 

Critical theory was the name chosen by the founders of the Frankfurt School in the period between two world wars to symbolize their attempt to achieve a unity of theory and practice, including a unity of theory with empirical research and both with an historically grounded awareness of the social, political, and cultural problems of the age.”  

-pg. 13 CST

 

“The notion that the Frankfurters encompass rather than only exemplify critical theory has left their own preoccupations and limits too dominant and as a result left their pessimistic conclusions inadequately challenged.”  …”their legacy has been mainly a highly abstract form of theoretical work that has kept their critical tradition isolated from much of the mainstream of empirical social science.”

-Pg. 34 CST

 

“Theory is not only a guide to action in the way in which engineering principles guide the construction of bridges. It helps practical actors deal with social change by helping them see beyond the immediacy of what is at any given moment to conceptualize something of what could be.” –pg. 9, CST

 

Craig Calhoun-

 

Combined influences including Marxism, psychoanalysis, German idealist philosophy and theology, the Romantics, Nietzsche, and the nascent discipline of sociology.

 

“They wanted to distinguish critical theory from the sort of “traditional theory” that accepted the self-definition of the familiar and failed to look more deeply at 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.” Pg. 14 CST

 

-“concerned that the transcendence of alienated society not mean the fixation of the individual as mere moment of an administered totality.” Pg. 16 CST

 

20. For Horkheimer, critical theory’s project: “Recovery for human beings of the full capacities of humanity; it was in this respect a direct extension of Marxism.” Pg. 20

 

Alienation of human capacities such that social institutions and creatures of human action, being somehow beyond human change/action

 

Reified relationships of capital constituted, maintained by a form of consciousness

 

Bottommore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought: Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.

 

“sought to keep alive the possibility of an alternative path for social development.”

 

Frankfurt’s “critique of ideology- of systematically distorted accounts of reality which attempt to conceal and legitimate asymmetrical power relations.”

 

“concerned with the way in which social interests, conflicts and contradictions are expressed  in thought, and how they are produced and reproduced in systems of domination.”

 

“hoped to enhance awareness of the roots of domination, undermine ideologies and help to compel changes in consciousness and action.”

 

“to break the grip of all closed systems of thought and to undermine traditions which had blocked the development of the critical project.”

 

“engage with and synthesize aspects of the work of, among others, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Lukacs and Freud.”

 

“lay the foundation for an exploration, in an interdisciplinary research context, of question concerning the conditions which make possible the reproduction and transformation of society, the meaning of culture, and the relation between the individual and society, and nature.”

 

“ideology as objectively and necessary social illusion, fetishism.”

- The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, pg. 201

 

 

“What is still missing, however, is a large-scale reconstruction of this heritage in accordance with the needs of the new political and social situation.

            In other words, the older, highly selective and limited, reception of the Frankfurt School failed to lead to a deep understanding of its theoretical trajectory; the new reception, which fully reconstructs the tradition only in the realm of the history of ideas, has not yet opened the way to new theoretical departures.”

-Essential Frankfurt Reader, pg. xii

 

 

 

 

This quarter, my first in college, I enrolled in a class, “Society & the Individual,” for which two texts were assigned: Soul of Citizen, by Paul Loeb, and Critical Social Theory by Craig Calhoun. Immediately after purchasing them I noticed how dissimilar the two books were. Soul of a Citizen appeared to be a typical self-help tract, the only difference being the remedy provided- political and social activism. Critical Social Theory, on the other hand, had obviously abandoned the layman’s road for that of the academic, extensive footnotes and all. When the instructor determined the first week of class that the book was, in fact, too academic for an introductory classes, and removed it from the curriculum, most students shed a collective sigh of relief.

            I sympathized with the students, understanding how most work coming out of academic circles is often a verbose, irrelevant pain in the neck. Yet, browsing through Critical Social Theory I found it was my interest that was piqued rather than my bullshit detector. Obviously unsatisfied with contemporary academic theory, Calhoun spoke of the potential of theory to help “practical actors deal with social change by helping them see beyond the immediacy of what is at any given moment to conceptualize something of what could be.”[1] As that quotation help illustrate, the book was still quite a trial to read, and it was several weeks time before I fully navigated its opening chapter.

            In contrast, Soul of a Citizen proved to be smooth sailing. It told the personal stories of individuals who overcame adversity to become the “practical actors” Calhoun only gave lip-service to. In doing so, it taught inspiring lessons in social and political activism, lessons embodied by the title’s byline: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. Consequently, it was enjoyed by the majority of the class.  I, on the other hand, was dissatisfied with the books simplicity. It spoke of how to change society, yes, but aside from brief descriptions of a cynical American culture, it chose not to explore the framework activism operates within. This oversight reproduced itself in class discussion when the assignment was to define various “isms.”  With the time came to define consumerism, many students shared stories of irony, e.g., “alternative” shopping-mall stores selling rebellion to teenagers who find “popular” stores to be conformist. What struck me as interesting was that no one shared these stories earlier when we had defined capitalism. Soul of a Citizen served as a fantastic argument for activism; yet, the larger picture was somehow being overlooked.

            Obviously, that hole in the class was meant to have been filled by Calhoun’s Critical Social Theory. What benefits it may have had for the class remains a matter of speculation, but the likeness of this situation to political and social activism in the United States is telling. Since November 30, 1999, when 50,000 people took to the streets of Seattle in protest of the World Trade Organization, an anti-globalization movement has been spawned whose main accomplishment, it has been said, is its ability to bring together “turtles and teamsters.” Different factions of a fragmented, issue-oriented activism have been brought under one banner.[2] Yet this single-issue “reform” approach still remains today, in utter disregard for the need of a “reconstructive” politics; that is, a politics which aims to develop a coherent analysis and critique of flawed social institutions, while drawing on the possibilities for a better world.[3] If, as Craig Calhoun asserts, critical theory is an “attempt to achieve a unity of theory and practice” through an historical awareness of social, political and cultural problems,[4] why the large schism between theory and activism? It is a terribly difficult question, and certainly the answer can be found in shortcomings of both theorists and activists.  It is an answer which demands a radical evaluation of both theory and practice- radical taken in its strictest sense, from Latin, meaning root. This may translate through activism as the accumulation of grassroots organizing and experience. As for theory, which is what concerns us here, we must look to the Academy, theory’s historic (and often imprisoning) “citadel.[5] From there we may direct our attention to back into history, the period between two great wars; to Frankfurt, Germany and Institute for Social Research, the birth place of modern critical theory-what has come to be known as the Frankfurt School.

Established in 1923, it was not until 1931 that the framework was built for the work the Institute and its best known theorists, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, would come to be known for. In his inaugural speech as director of the school, Horkheimer outlined his vision of an interdisciplinary research project uniting sociology, philosophy, psychology and others under the umbrella of a shared theoretical view.[6]

Eventually coined as “critical theory,” their “shared theoretical view” was generally a form of Marxism, a feature the theorists often tried to conceal in their work.[7] What appealed to those of the Frankfurt school, however, was not the “scientific,” rigid and mostly economic work of the older Karl Marx. Instead they chose to focus on the work of the younger Marx, and particularly the influence on him by the German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel. One way this interest appeared in the work of the Frankfurt school was in their critique of ideology- not only an understanding that all knowledge is informed by its place and time, but the ways in which society reproduces itself, its beliefs and functions, and how those change over time.[8]

 

 

            To some, the end of the Cold War was not simply the conclusion of a conflict between two state super-powers; it also saw the end of the conflict between ideologies, Marxist State Socialism versus Free Market Capitalism. Thinkers like Francis Fukuyama went so far as to say it was “the end of History:” Free Market ideology was the victor, the means by which the world will henceforth develop. What Fukuyama and others ignored, however, is a new conflict: not a war of ideologies, but rather a war against ideology per se.

 

 

Frankfurt School, Critical Theory research paper-

 

http://home.cwru.edu/~ngb2/Pages/Intro.html

 

 



[1] Calhoun, Craig. Pg. 9

[2] “Turtles and Teamsters” By Paul Rauber <http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200003/lol1.asp#turtles>

[3] “On Radicalism and Reform: Activism in the Post-Seattle World” by Arthur Foelsche <http://www.social-ecology.org/learn/library/dc/rad.html>

[4] Cahoun, pg. 13

[5] Herbert Marcuse, in reference to student demonstrations on college campuses. <http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/m/a.htm#marcuse-herbert>

[6]pg. 147. Ramsay, Anders, “The Frankfurt School.” In Classical and Modern Social Theory, edited by Heine Andersen and Lars Bo Kaspersen. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

[7] Pg. xiii, Essential Frankfurt Reader

[8] pg. 209, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought