At the moment I’m reading about the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, something I’ve been ignoring for 20 years since missing that lecture on my university course. It’s covered both in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” and an essay by Goran Therborn in “Western Marxism: A Critical Reader” – although I must confess to having read neither Horkheimer, Adorno, nor other Frankfurt School thinkers directly. As described by Kolakowski and Therborn, Critical Theory is an essentially negative proposition. A critique of modern society built around Marxian thinking about society and the place of theory within it, but without the imperative of a revolutionary class. The result is a gap that leaves the analysis sterile, without the driving energy of Marx. As Kolakowski remarks in his section on Adorno’s “Negative Dialectics”:
“We can only negatively ‘transcend’ existing civilisation as a whole. In this way the ‘negative dialectic’ has provided a convenient ideological slogan for left wing groups who sought a pretext for root-and-branch destruction as a political programme”
What I find interesting is that this description could be applied to some of the ‘Occupy’ movements of recent years. Each of those movements seemed to embody exactly that unformed cry of protest, seeming to know what it thought was wrong with modern society and economy but with no clear focus on what might replace it and we might make the transition. Without a political programme or a directing goal the movements variously withered away, resurfacing occasionally to protest against the current state of things. This is the conclusion to which Critical Theory is driving us: disorganised protest which understands that society needs to be reshaped but with no means to understand how or into what new shape. What is missing is an organised party of the revolutionary left to harness, educate, direct. As Marx remarked “In the past philosophers sought only to interpret the world, the point is to change it”. The failure of the modern left to harness the upsurge of protest into a truly revolutionary consciousness is palpable.
As a side note, Kolakowski also provides one of my favourite academic insults: “As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.” Ouch.
- Western Marxism A Critical Reader (New Left Review, 1977)
- Main Currents of Marxism, L Kolakowski (Norton, 2008)
- Karl Marx Selected Writings, D McLellan (Oxford University Press, 1990)