Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory

By Jean L. Cohen | Go to book overview

Preface

This book is not intended as a work in Marxology. Rather, I seek to make a contribution, however modest, to the development of a new critical theory of society.

Why a new critical theory of society? Why proceed through the oeuvre of Marx at all? The old Critical Theory, the project of the Frankfurt School, had, despite its many revisions of Marx, a deep orthodox Marxist strain. Its vision of the underlying contradictions of modern society involved the simple alternative: either the increasing crisis of capitalism and the victory of the industrial proletariat or a "one-dimensional" society containing all social change, occasioning the decline of the subject and of culture itself. The original Marxian project sought to assess, account for, and address the major social movement of its time, the workers' movement. The economic contradictions of capitalism, the social struggles of workers against capitalist rationalization and for the democratization of both economy and polity were the dominant themes. Despite the continuities between contemporary Western societies and their nineteenth-century counterparts—they are still capitalist, still civil societies, with states that are even more fully formally democratic than before—the transition from liberal to late capitalism has decisively altered all the key terms of the classical project. Yet clearly what we are confronted with is not the final vision of Critical Theory: a one-dimensional universe in which the culture industry and successful economic expansion and growth have succeeded in papering over all contradictions, suppressing conflict, and creating the happy consciousness.

On the contrary, social movements are proliferating in nearly every sector of society. New social actors are addressing an entirely original range of issues and challenging the cultural model (progress and growth) and hierarchical structures of contemporary Western society. Although the workers' movement has been "institutionalized," welfare-

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