by John D. Abromeit

In their recent commentaries on the centenary of the founding of the Institute for Social Research, Chris O’Kane and William Scheuerman both criticize what they see as a one-sided dominance of philosophy and political theory in the development of the Frankfurt School since Jürgen Habermas “reconstructed” Critical Theory in order to place it on firmer normative foundations. Both O’Kane and Scheuerman argue that Critical Theory can regain its lost bearings by returning to political economy, which played a central role at the Institute at least until 1940, and well after that, according to O’Kane. For Scheuerman, such a return to political economy would need to avoid the “crude and reductivist view of politics and law” (412), which he finds in the work of the central figures of the early Frankfurt School. At the same time, Scheuerman praises the Critical Theory of the 1930s for its emphasis on empirical social research, and on the social sciences, more generally. He argues that this crucial aspect of Critical Theory has atrophied after the “normative turn” and needs to be reinvigorated.

I would like to argue here that O’Kane, Scheuerman and many other recent commentators on the history of the Frankfurt School have not fully recognized that early Critical Theory was a form of critical historicism. Revisiting the critical historicism of the “early model of Critical Theory” is crucial in order to think through some of the problems raised by O’Kane and Scheuerman, such as the relationship between political economy to politics and law. In order to grasp this critical historicism, one must distinguish it clearly from two other ideal-typical models of Critical Theory that one finds in the history of the Frankfurt School, which I will briefly outline.

The first model (CT1) was developed primarily by Horkheimer in the late 1920s. After he became director of the Institute in 1930, this model was put into practice and refined, primarily by him and Erich Fromm, but also by Herbert Marcuse and Leo Lowenthal, in the 1930s. The second model of Critical Theory (CT2) was developed in the late 1920s and 1930s by Adorno, primarily through a critical appropriation and synthesis of the work of Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Adorno emphasized the mythical over the progressive features of the bourgeois Enlightenment and he argued that, in the present age of a “new kind of barbarism” and “triumphant calamity” (xvi, 1), Critical Theory and dialectics had to seek refuge in and be rethought from the standpoint of the concrete particular, whether that be individual subjectivity (Minima Moralia), the autonomous work of art (his writings on music, literature and aesthetics), or self-reflexive concepts (Negative Dialectics).

As has been mostly forgotten today, the young Horkheimer was quite critical of Adorno’s model of Critical Theory and would not reconcile himself to it until around 1940, when he began to work much more closely with Adorno. As I have argued elsewhere, the first substantial product of this new collaboration was Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was much closer to CT2 than CT1. The crucial differences between these two models are reflected not only in the greater skepticism towards empirical social research and the bourgeois Enlightenment, but also towards the early Horkheimer’s critical historicism, which was the subject of an intense—and largely forgotten—debate between Horkheimer and Adorno in the late 1930s (350–60). As Moishe Postone and Barbara Brick have argued, the pessimistic assumptions of CT2 were also shaped by Horkheimer and Adorno’s acceptance of the “state capitalism” thesis of Friedrich Pollock, to whom they dedicated Dialectic of Enlightenment. Chris O’Kane is correct to point out that Pollock’s argument did not lead them to abandon Marx altogether, but it did lead them to the conclusion that praxis in the emphatic sense was foreclosed for an indeterminate amount time (15). Horkheimer’s “racket theory,” Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Adorno’s dispute with radical student activists were all based on the premise that the majority of the working class had been integrated into capitalism during its Keynesian “Golden Age” in the 1950s and 1960s.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, a third model of Critical Theory was developed by Jürgen Habermas, which found its most elaborate expression in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981) and Between Facts and Norms (1992). I propose to call Habermas’s model “Normative Theory” (NT) in order to mark its rupture with many of the basic assumptions of CT1 and CT2. Suffice it to say, as Matthew Specter has shown, that NT carried out a philosophische Westanbindung (philosophical attachment to the West) that paralleled the socio-political “attachment to the West” that marked the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. For example, in the 1950s the German Communist Party was banned in the FRG, and the West German Social Democratic Party conspicuously severed any remaining ties they had to Marxism. Not long afterwards Habermas turned away from the historically-oriented analysis of the dialectic of bourgeois society—strongly reminiscent of CT1—that one finds in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), to a new, more positive model of modernity as a whole as the progressive differentiation of value spheres. Habermas’s turn to American pragmatism and modernization theory, and (later) liberal-democratic political and legal theory ran parallel to the Sonderweg thesis of contemporary West German historians, according to which fascism had resulted from a “modernization deficit” in Germany. A full, or even “militant” embrace of liberal democracy and further economic modernization along Western lines seemed the surest way to banish the specter of fascism once and for all. While Habermas was generally sympathetic to the radical democratic impulses of the protest movements of the late 1960s, he had little patience for (45–61) the neo-Marxist currents in the New Left, which sought to recover the lost democratic elements in the socialist tradition in order to criticize both Western capitalism and authoritarian Soviet Marxism. From the 1970s onwards, Habermas explicitly rejected the characterization of modern societies as inherently antagonistic. To be sure, he criticized the impersonal “steering mechanisms” of modern societies—the market and state bureaucracy—when they overstepped their proper boundaries, which results in a “colonization of the lifeworld,” a technocratic usurpation of democratic procedure, or a political legitimation crisis. But he viewed the underlying infrastructure of modern Western societies as structurally sound (386). He rejected arguments of the New Left—which were also central to both CT1 and CT2—that traced historical fascism and the persistent threat of authoritarianism in contemporary societies to the antagonistic social totality of capitalism.

On the one hand, I agree with Scheuerman that Habermas deserves credit for addressing a democratic political deficit that existed in CT1, if not quite so much in CT2. In light of the success of fascism and the authoritarian character of Soviet communism, Horkheimer, Adorno, and even Marcuse (178) all came to recognize the importance of defending democratic political institutions as a historical achievement and a necessary basis for any further struggle for socialism. On the other hand, Habermas’s rupture with CT1 and CT2 was so thorough that it eliminated those aspects of CT that have made it so relevant again since the 1990s. NT was ideally suited to grasp the transition from “real-existing socialism” to liberal-democratic capitalism in Eastern Europe, but it has had little to say about the link between neoliberalism and the resurgence of authoritarian populism, which has occurred not only in Eastern Europe but globally. One cannot imagine CT1 or CT2 without a Marxist critique of capitalism supplemented by the insights of a psychoanalysis grounded in Freudian drive theory. NT is ultimately closer to the evolutionary theories of modernity of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann than to Marx’s dialectical critique of modern capitalism. Similarly, NT replaces the materialist interpretation of psychoanalysis of CT1 and CT2 with evolutionary psychological theories of Piaget and Kohlberg. But it is precisely the Freudian-Marxist foundations of CT that give it such powerful insights into the irrational manifestations of modern capitalist societies.

I want to further emphasize here the unfortunate rupture in both CT2 and NT with the critical historicism of CT1. A close examination of the theoretical origins of CT1 reveal that Habermas’s central objection to it—namely, that it remained trapped in the “paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness” (390)—simply is not true. In fact, CT1 develops in Horkheimer’s early writings precisely as a critique of consciousness philosophy, but one that leads—as had Hegel’s critique of Kant—beyond consciousness into history and society. Habermas argues that the “subject-object” paradigm of consciousness philosophy should be replaced by a “subject-subject” paradigm, but one could counter that the new intersubjective paradigm remains trapped in a formalistic realm of procedures and norms, severed from the objective realms of history, society, and nature. Habermas himself recognized these weaknesses in earlier versions of NT and sought to correct them. But the question remains as to whether these corrections go far enough, particularly regarding the question of the relationship between NT and history.

Many interpretations of Horkheimer’s early writings have focused too much on the “method” or “program” of CT, particularly in his 1930 inaugural address as the new director of the Institute and in his seminal 1937 essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory.” What is almost always lost from view in such interpretations is the fact that these “methodological” essays were embedded in a larger theory of history and society, captured by the concept of a “dialectic of bourgeois society” (see discussion in 4, 394–95, 428–32). With this theory of modern capitalism, Horkheimer moves decisively beyond any “timeless” philosophical or methodological reflections to a historically specific theory of the actual course of modern society during the “bourgeois epoch” (47–68). Since he was convinced that we are still living in the “bourgeois epoch,” reflections upon its history are not merely academic exercises in portraying the past “objectively”—in the manner of traditional historicism—but instead exercises in theoretical self-reflexivity. Herein also lies the crucial difference for Horkheimer between truly dialectical, as opposed to merely normative, concepts. The former are both critical (or “negative”) and historically mediated; they aim to grasp the historically specific conditions that are responsible for the perpetuation of social domination and injustice, while at the same time pointing to a future society in which such conditions would be abolished. Such dialectical concepts aim, in other words, for a future in which they would no longer be necessary, insofar as the repressive conditions they described have disappeared. Think, for example, of Marx’s concepts of commodity fetishism or surplus value, or Horkheimer’s concept of the “anthropology of the bourgeois epoch.” The oft-overlooked essay, “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Epoch,” in which Horkheimer unfolds the latter concept, provides an excellent example of the thoroughly historical foundations of CT1. Similarly, very few commentators on CT1 have bothered to examine his rich 1920s lectures on the history of modern philosophy—spanning from the Renaissance all the way up through contemporary currents when the lectures were delivered. In addition to providing decisive clues to CT1 during this period of its formation, the lectures give an exemplary model of materialist intellectual history, in which the history of modern European philosophy is not approached in the manner of what Nietzsche called monumental history—with one “great thinker” passing the spiritual torch to the next—but rather viewed as a mediated—that is, relatively autonomous—expression of the historical development and transformation of bourgeois society, with all of the social conflicts it entailed.

In conclusion, I agree with Scheuerman and O’Kane’s call for Critical Theory to move beyond a one-dimensional focus on normative philosophy and political theory, and to reincorporate a focus on political economy, empirical social research, and the social sciences more generally. But I would also like to suggest that historians need to be included in this much-needed reorientation of Critical Theory. In many ways, they are already ahead of the game. Long before it fell into the clutches of positivist quantification, political economy was itself a historical discipline. One of its most able contemporary practitioners, Thomas Piketty, is urging economists to return to historical investigations (32–33). Piketty’s project is a good example of what can be accomplished with critically and historically-minded empirical social research. Despite his own assumptions and conclusions—which are social democratic, rather than democratic socialist—his research confirms Horkheimer’s model of a dialectic of bourgeois society. In the decade following the Great Recession of 2008, a whole new literature on the history of global capitalism emerged, placing political economy and the concept of capitalism squarely at its center. Those calling for Critical Theory to return to political economy should also engage seriously with this literature. Finally, with their firmly interdisciplinary approach, intellectual historians are also very well positioned to carry forward the legacy of Critical Theory. What other (sub-)discipline necessitates broad knowledge of the histories of philosophy, social theory, political theory, economics, not to mention psychoanalysis, literature, art history, and other branches of the social sciences and humanities? Materialist-minded intellectual historians—a title that fits almost all of the “first generation” of Critical Theorists—will also strive to relate these relatively autonomous fields to the larger course of modern history and society.

John D. Abromeit is a modern European intellectual historian and Professor of History at the State University of New York, Buffalo State. He has written widely on the Frankfurt School and is the author of Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, 2011) and co-editor of Siegfried Kracauer: Selected Writings on Media, Propaganda, and Political Communication (with Jaeho Kang and Graeme Gilloch, Columbia, 2022) and Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: History and Recent Tendencies (with Bridget Chesterton, York Norman, and Gary Marotta, Bloomsbury, 2016).

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured image: A 1970 reprint of all nine volumes of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the journal of the Institute for Social Research from 1932 to 1941. Photo courtesy of the author.