Academic journal article Capital & Class

Marx, Cole and the Frankfurt School: Realising the Political Potential of Critical Social Theory

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Marx, Cole and the Frankfurt School: Realising the Political Potential of Critical Social Theory

Article excerpt


The most prominent members of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists (Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse) have explicitly sought to exclude the elaboration of a clearly defined political form from their theoretical frameworks. (1) They have, instead, limited the task of their social critique to a merely diagnostic one. Critical theory, they argued, can only be expected to negate the socio-political institutions causing humanity's domination of itself and external nature. However, with the theoretical developments undertaken by Jurgen Habermas, critical theory came to develop into a theoretical exercise partly aimed at drawing the contours of the democratic processes through which individuals can find the practical means for the emancipation of their internal nature from the repressive mechanisms of 'advanced capitalism'. One could indeed find a significant concern with the institutional arrangement making such a form of emancipation possible as early as The Structural Transfarmation of the Public Sphere (1989). Critical theory, Habermas thought, should not only seek to identify the emancipatory potentialities inherent in modernity (communicative action), but must also seek to conceptualise the basic institutional framework and the various democratic processes through which they can be realised (the public sphere). It will nevertheless be shown in this article that, by locating democratic decisionmaking processes outside the sphere of material reproduction, Habermas fell short of elaborating a political form capable of yielding human emancipation. A revisited interpretation of Marx's historical-materialist approach will reveal a need to reorganise the sphere of material reproduction itself. It will then be shown how and why the libertarian socialism of G. D. H. Cole provides an adequate basis for achieving the latter and realising critical theory's political potential.

Democracy and the reconciliation of humanity and nature

Guiding Habermas's project can be found the notion of control, which, as a notion deriving from his concerns with moral autonomy, has significantly shaped the political content of his critical theory. Key to such a content, in fact, is the view that human emancipation is only possible under democratic control. Here is how Habermas briefly defined his conception of democracy:

We shall understand democracy to mean the institutionally secured forms of general and public communication that deal with the practical question of how men [sic] can and want to live under the objective conditions of their ever-expanding power of control. (Habermas, 1971: 57)

Whilst the development of the productive forces increases humanity's capacity for technical control, Habermas contends that it remains an insufficient condition for the emancipation of humanity from repression. Indeed, as a sphere involving actions oriented towards the efficient mastery of external nature, it is thought to fall short of satisfying all human needs. Individuals must also be in a position to make decisions regarding the best course of action to follow in order to realise the common good, or as Habermas would put it, to answer questions of a practical nature. Alongside such a development, therefore, must be secured the institutionalisation of communicative channels through which the normative concerns related to matters regarding 'how men can and want to live' are addressed. Furthermore, since the very idea of emancipation implies that individuals must be in a position to exert control over decisions on matters regarding the common good, decision-making processes ought to assume a democratic form. How, then, does Habermas expect the democratic decision-making processes to perform their emancipatory function alongside the sphere of material reproduction?

According to Habermas's own theoretical framework, the task facing humanity once it has reached a particular stage in the development of the productive forces consists in reaching a consensus on 'how men can and want to live'. …

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