Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas

By Joan Alway | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Departures from Traditional Marxism: Origins and Early Development of Critical Theory

[I]t must be added that even the situation of the proletariat is, in this society, no guarantee of correct knowledge.

Max Horkheimer "Traditional and Critical Theory," in Critical Theory, 213

In its origins as well as in its development, Critical Theory represented a departure from Marxist canons, and in this chapter I will be concerned with identifying and discussing the early indications of this departure. Because certain institutional and historical factors had a significant bearing on the substantive development of Critical Theory, the discussion begins with the institutional basis out of which it developed, the Institute for Social Research. Critical Theory itself is generally understood as taking form during Max Hokheimer's tenure as director of the Institute. Therefore, after the preliminary discussion of the founding and unique features of the Institute, attention will shift to an examination of characteristics and orientations of Critical Theory as they were articulated or anticipated in Horkheimer's inaugural address and in his 1937 essay "Traditional and Critical Theory." Finally, I turn to the question of Critical Theory's movement away from Marxism. While this movement is evident in Horkheimer's changing views on the proletariat, his insistence on a necessary degree of separation between theory and practice and between theorists and the revolutionary class--an insistence that precedes any overt rejection of the proletariat as revolutionary subject--already indicates a departure from the Marxist emancipatory vision. The critical theorists' separation of theory and practice reflects an emphasis on independence and autonomy, an emphasis that characterizes Critical Theory as a whole and was itself made possible and reinforced by its institutional origins.

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