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The Frankfurt School and the Problem of Critique

The Frankfurt School and the
Problem of Critique:

A Reply to McCarney
Peter Dews and Peter Osborne

The question of the possibility, form, and validity of a
‘critical’ social science, of its relation to Marxism and to
the ideas of dialectic and contradiction, received
considerable attention on the pages of Radical Philosophy
in the late 1970s, in a series of articles beginning with
Roy Edgley’s ‘Reason as Dialectic: Science, Social
Science and Socialist Science’ (RPI5, Autumn 1976) and
ending, somewhat abruptly, with-]oseph McCarney’s ‘The
Trouble with Contradictions’ (RP23, Winter, 1979) [1]. A
striking feature of this debate-;-ln retrospect, is the total
absence of any reference to the work of the Frankfurt
School – that group of thinkers who, as McCarney has
recently pointed out (‘What Makes Critical Theory
“Critical”?’, RP42, Winter/Spring 1986), have, more than
anyone else, made the idea of a criticial theory of society
their own. McCarney’s recent survey of this work is thus
to be welcomed not only for its intrinsic interest, as a
contribution to the literature on the School, but also for
the way it fills what now appears to have been a serious
gap in the earlier debate [2].

McCarney’s recent article also seems to imply
dissatisfaction with the basic terms of the earlier debate.

In his previous piece, he argued the need for a theory of
the conditions for the ‘proper exercise’ of practical
reason, at the level of philosophical anthropology, as a
basis for theorising the practical function of a dialectical
social science. He now suggests that the very project of
social critique as ‘rational appraisal’ not only lies
‘outside the limits of what can be significantly designated
as Marxist’, but also represents a ‘reversion to a ~­
Marxist conception of how thought is to be radical in
relation to society’ (RP42, pp. 21-22; emphasis added).

The argument of’What Makes Critical Theory
“Critical”?’ is twofold. It provides an exposition and
critique of a variety of models of critical social theory
developed by members of the Frankfurt School. And it
suggests an alternative view of the conceptual structure
and practical function of a dialectical social science,
which maintains a Hegelian-Marxist framework, ‘while
dropping the assumption that within it social theory must
be conceived as criticism’ (RP42, p. 20). The work of the
Frankfurt School, the lesson~eems to be, has nothing
positive to contribute to the development of this science
since, despite its initial concern to form ‘a dynamic unity
with the oppressed class’, it is constructed from a
-theoretical standpoint divorced from that of the
revolutionary – or at least potentially revolutionary subject: the proletariat. The problem with ‘the familiar,
and facile, verdict that the theory of the School is
“Marxism without the proletariat”‘, McCarney argues, is


that ‘it appears to assume that Marxism may be viewed as a
simple aggregate of elements of which the proletariat is
one. But the proletariat is not so loosely inserted into
the original structure of thought as to make this
assumption tenable’ (RP42, p. 20).

McCarney’s case-against the Frankfurt School is a
comprehensive one. It deploys a variety of arguments
across a wide range of material to produce a critique
which is both incisive and, purportedly, decisive. There is
much in its argument that we have found both illuminating
and challenging. However, in our view there are major
problems in its presentation both of the work of the
Frankfurt School, and of Marxism, which risk seriously
misrepresenting the historical and theoretical significance
of the Frankfurt School, on the one hand, and the general
set of relationships between knowledge, critique and
political practice in Marxism, on the other. The most
important of these problems concern:

(1) The interrelation of explanation and critique, in the
Frankfurt School conception of a critical social theory;
(2) The content and function of the Frankfurt School
concept of ideology;
(3) The .supposed impasse of the ‘Dialectic of
(4) The relation of Hegelian to materialist. dialectics;
(5) Marx’s idea of the ‘standpoint of the proletariat’ and
its relation to what McCarney calls the ‘universalist
rationalism’ of the idea of critique;
(6) The dialectic of class consciousness and the
formation of political subjectivity.

The following response – organized with reference to
these six issues – is offered as a preliminary exploration of
these problems, with the intention not so much of
providing a ‘defence’ of the Frankfurt School, as of
reaffirming the continuing theoretical significance of their
work, in the context of the prevailing theoretical and
political blockage of classical Marxism. Whatever the
problems of this work (and there are certainly many, if not
of quite the character that McCarney suggests), it
addresses a series of major difficulties which have been
posed for Marxism by the course of European history over
the last sixty years. To the extent that many of these
remain unsolved, and indeed are in some ways being
exacerbated by current social developments, aspects of
the work of the Frankfurt School remain a valuable
resource, although one whicll may require transplantation
into a different theoretical context to be made effective.

The idea of social critique, we would like to argue, is one
such resource.

1. Explanation and Critique
It should be stated at the outset that McCarney’s

presentation of the Frankfurt School as concerned with
the justification of a ‘system of negative evaluation’

seriously distorts the basic character of their project.

Critique simply in the sense of ‘criticism’, or mere
denunciation, was by no means a primary, or separable,
preoccupation for the School. Rather, from the beginning
of Horkheimer’s directorship in 1930, until the early 1940s
at least, the project of the Frankfurt School was to
integrate the results of the specialized social sciences
into a comprehensive account of the development of
contemporary capitalist society. It is within this project
that the idea of critique arises. The nature of the project,
and the diagnosis of intellectual (trends to which it formed
a response, are clearly presented by Horkheimer in his
Inaugural Lecture of January 1931. Horkheimer’s
fundamental aim was both to overcome that explanatory
deficiency of the individual social sciences, which
resulted from their very specialization (but was masked by
a positivistic self-consciousness), and to correct the
dogmatism of traditional philosophy by confronting it with
the results of empirical research. The conception,
Horkheimer argues,
according to which the specialized researcher can
only consider phIlosophy as a perhaps beautiful,
but scientifically fruitless, because uncontrolled
exercise, while the phllosopher liberates himself
from the specialized researcher, because he
believes his wide-ranging conclusions cannot wait
for him, is currently being overcome through the
thought of a continuous, dialectical
interpenetration and development of phllosophical
theory and individual scientific practice [3].

The research programme which this conception impJied was
concretely embodied in the organizational structure of the
Institute for Social Research. Economists, political
scientists, social psychologists, critics of art and
literature, collaborated on research activities
coordinated, unified and animated by philosophy,
conceived as ‘a theoretical impulse aiming towards the
universal and the “essential'” [4].

As Helmut Dubiel has pointed out, in his study of the
early Frankfurt School, the initial name for this project
was simply ‘materialism’ [4]. According to Horkheimer in
the early thirties,
Materialism requires the unification of philosophy.

and science. Of course it recognizes technical
differences between t,he more general research of
philosophy and the more speciaJized research in the
sciences, just as it recognizes differences of method
between research and presentation but not between
philosophy and science as such [6].

It was not until 1937, with the publication of Horkheimer’s
programmatic essay on ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’,
that the term ‘Critical Theory’ came into currency to
describe the distinctive intellectual activity of the
Frankfurt School. It is with this essay that certain
developments take place which foreshadow the apparent
disintegration of the basis for immanent critique, and the
retreat into utopian generalities, which McCarney
describes. However, despite Horkheimer’s sense of the
increasing isolation of the oppositional intellectual,
summarized in his argument that there is now no ‘social
class by whose acceptance of the theory one could be
guided’ [7], the basic model of a philosophical synthesis of
empirical disciplines remains. The only significant
difference here, at the epistemological level, is that
Horkheimer now sees the desired collaboration of
scientific and philosophical perspectives as already
embodied in Marx’s critique of political economy, where
‘the conception of the interaction between nature and
society… the idea of a unified social epoch, of its selfmaintenance, and so on, already derive from a

fundamental analysis of the historical process which is
guided by an interest in the future’ [8].

Given this historical background, it would seem that
the problem of the relation between explanation and
critique, which McCarney presents at the beginnifg of his
article as the ‘chief question of philosophical interest
which arises in this area’, can best be clarified by
examining the logical structure of the empiricalphilosophical synthesis which early Critical Theory was
intended to be. For Horkheimer, the general model for the
relation between scientific research and its phllosophical
integration is provided by Hegel, and by the contrast
between ‘research’ (Forschung) and ‘presentation’

(Darstellung) which Marx derived from Hegel. Horkheimer
liked to quote the following passage from Hegel’s
lectures on the history of philosophy:

Empirical science prepares the empirical material
for the dialectical concept, so that the dialectical
concept can receive it ready for use. The process
of the origination of science is different from its
process in it~elf when it is complete, just as the
process of the history of philosophy differs from
that of philosophy itself… The development of the
empirical side has been •.• the essential condition
of the Idea, so that it can reach its full
development and determination [9].

A materiaJist appropriation of this procedure clearly
cannot dissolve the distinction between the a priori and
the a posteriori in the HegeJian manner, but it must retain
Hegel’s central insight into t,he explanatory inadequacy of
partial perspectives. This is how Horkheimer presents the
matter in ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’:

The isolated observation of individual activities
and branches of activity, along with their contents
and objects, requires a concrete consciousness of its
own limitedness in order to be true. One must pass
over to a conception in which the one-sidedness,
which is necessarlly produced by the detachment of
partial intellectual perspectives from the total
social practice, is cancelled in its turn [10].

However, such an argument inevitably raises the problem
of the philosophical status of the overaJl, integrating
conception. Essentially this is the problem – to which we
find ourselves returning throughout this essay – of the
critical appropriation of Hegel by materialism.

The general attitude of the first generation Frankfurt
School to Hegel emerges clearly from Horkheimer’s 1935
essay ‘On the Problem of Truth’. Horkheimer considers the
HegeJian procedure of determinate negation to be the
crucial philosophical advance which makes possible an
overcoming of the oscilJation of bourgeois thought
between dogmatism and relativism. However, in Hegel’s
own thought, the vision which enables each partial
standpoint to be revealed in its truth within an unfolding
whole itself culminates in a particularly supine form of



The dogmatic assertion that all the particular
views which have ever entered the lists against one
another in real historical combat, all the creeds of
particular groups, all attempts at reform are now
transcended and cancelled out, the notion of an
all-embracing thought which is to apportion its
partial rightness and final limitation to every point
of view without consciously taking sides with
anyone against the others and deciding between
them – this is the very soul of bourgeois relativism

For Horkheimer, the constitutive lIJusion of this position is
expressed in Hegel’s declaration that
It is ••• simply lack of consciousness not to see that
precisely the description of something as finite or
limited contains proof of the real presence of the
infinite and unlimited, that knowledge of
boundaries is only possible insofar as the unbounded
is here in one’s consciousness [12].

From a materialis~. standpoint, which does not imply for
the Frankfurt Schb61 any sort of metaphysical monism, but
simply an insistence on the irreducible non-identity of
thought and being, real constructions and confJicts cannot
be overcome purely in thought. This- means that
philosophy must once more become partisan – not in the
sense of adopting a particular metaphysical conception of
reality, but in the sense of conceiving itself as a moment
in the process of practical overcoming of limitation and

‘To conceptualise a defect’ Horkheimer argues, ‘is •••
not to transcend it’; rather, ‘concepts and theories form an
impulse to its removal, a prerequisite of the proper– procedure, which as it progresses is constantly redefined,
adapted and improved’ [13].

For Horkheimer:

correspondence of cognition and its object ••• is
neither a simple datum, an immediate fact, as it
appears in the doctrine of intuitive, immediate
certainty and in mysticism, nor does it take its
place in the pure sphere of spiritual immanence, as
it seems to in Hegel’s metaphysical legend. Rather
it is always established by real events, by human
activity [14].

It is thus in the course of attempts to produce a
comprehensive synthesis of social theory that the need for
a practical transformation of society is revealed. For the
Frankfurt School, a theory which wishes to overcome the
explanatory deficiency of the specialized sciences is
necessarily forced into a critical stance, since an
adequate theory of existing society must be internally
linked to a consciousness of that society’s inadequacy. In
other words, it is not so much – as McCarney suggests
that the Frankfurt School critique is dialectical because
only a relation of immanence can solve the problem of
the normative foundations of critique, as that any postHegelian dialectic must be critical.



2. Ideology and Ideologiekritik
The second major issue is McCarney’s criticism of the
Frankfurt School concept of Ideologiekritik. He is
undoubtedly correct to suggest that the concept of the
criticism of ideology at work in the writings of the
Critical Theorists is most closely derived from the work
of the early, ‘young Hegelian’ Marx. He is also right to
argue that, as Marx’s thought developed, indeed as early
as The German Ideology, he began to move away from this
conception to one centred less on the notion of critique
than that of positive science. To discuss the relative
merits of these conceptions ~ se would carry us too far
afield in the present context, and would involve us in a
consideration of the Frankfurt School critique of the
positivist strain in Marx’s own work. For our present
purposes, it is suffi~ient to make the following two points:

(1) appeals to Manc’s position at any particular period in
his career cannot be sufficient to clinch an argument
concerning the most appropriate concept of ideology for
use in present circumstances (despite its evident
weaknesses, there might be a ‘rational kernel’ to the
young Marx’s concept of Ideologiekritik which ought to be
incorporated into any more fully rounded Marxist theory
of ideology); (2) it is only because of a misunderstanding
of the Frankfurt School conc,ept of ideology that
McCarney is able to accuse it of the failures which he

In McCarney’s interpretation, the Frankfurt School
model of ideological critique implies the use of the
value-contents of bourgeois ideology as the basis for a
denunciation of the injustices of capitalist society. It is
for this reason that he suggests that the School’s critique
of ideology could be more appropriately described as an
‘ideological critique of society’. This conclusion is only
made possible by overlooking the specificity of the
Frankfurt School concept of ideology and the complexity
of the process of Ideologiekr i tik.

In his ‘Beitrag zur Ideologienlehre’ (Contribution to the
Theory of Ideology) Adorno suggests that ‘Ideology, as an
objectively necessary and yet false consciousness, as an
intertwining of the true and the untrue, which is as distinct
from the full truth as it is from mere lies, belongs if not
to the modern, then at least to a developed urban market
economy. For ideology is justification’ [15]. It is because
of this argument that Adorno, in the same essay, refuses
the title of ideology to fascist propaganda: in its cynical
functionalism, in its failure even to raise a claim for
autonomy and consistency, the discourse of fascism lacks
any argumentative element with which a critique could
come to grips. The only appropriate question in this
context is: cui bono? [16]
In otherwords, for the Frankfurt School, ideology is
essentially a transflgurative transcription of social
reality, and both elements of this process contain a
moment of falsehood and a moment of truth. Ideology is
true to the extent that it transcribes the social, but false
in the way in which it portrays it. Ideology is false to the
extent that it believes a utopia could be realized in terms
of the dominant understanding of concepts such as ‘justice’

and ‘freedom’, but true to the extent that – by virtue of its
very possession of such concepts – it retains a utopian
dimension which transcends the existing social order.

This brief sketch should be enough to make clear that,
for the Frankfurt School, immanent critique can never be
simply a matter of holding the values of ideology
constant as a yardstick for the deficiencies of society.

These values are themselves systematically ambiguous.

Immanent critique focuses first of all on the internal
incoherence of the ideological interpretation of
fundamental concepts, which is seen as an expression of
social antagonism., . Social reality, of course, necessarily
fails to match up t6 the utopian content of ideology – but
the implications of this failure do not reflect simply on
society, but also on ideology,which is unable to grasp

that its ideals could never be realized in the terms in
which they are formulated. Ideology, in other words,
expresses human desires and aspirations which are rational
and legitimate In themselves, but which are rendered
unreallzable by the very social system which the ideology
justifies. Indeed, without sQme such assumption – for
example, on McCarney’s view that the function of
bourgeois ideology is primary anti-cognitive – it is
difficult to explain the tenacity of ideological
consciousness. Raymond Geuss makes this point
powerfully when he states that it is ‘the particular
insidiousness of ideology that it turns human desires and
aspirations against themselves and uses them to fuel
repression’ [17].

Thus, for the Frankfurt School, it can never be simply a
matter of criticizing social reality from the standpoint of
the normative content of ideology, even given their
assumption that this content implicitly bursts the bounds
of those desires and aspirations which are currently
recognized as legitimate. Rather, the target of
Ideologiekritik is the entire system of ‘socially necessary
delusion’ – the antagonism and irrationality betrayed by
the fact that society is functionally obliged to generate
such internally incoherent representations of itself. In
consequence, McCarney’s contrast between ‘ideological’

and ‘moral’ critique must be considered misleading.

All ideology-critique is ideological critique insofar as
it reveals the objects of ideological thought to be
inadequate to the implicit content of their own concepts.

But it is also moral critique, insofar as it derives its own
normative content – which is perhaps better captured by
the concept of ‘practical necessity’ than that of moral
velue – by a process of retrieval from the distorted forms
of ideolgy. It is perhaps also worth pointing out in this
context that Ideologiekritik should not be equated – as
McCarney seems to assume – with all the specialized
enquiries which together constitute the critical theory of
society. For example, Fromm’s development of an
analytical social psychology, or PoJlock’s theory of
fascism, were not inherently ideology-critical. Rather,
Ideologiekritik finds its particular application in the
domain of culture, where it is a matter of rescuing the
rational content of bourgeois traditions. However, the
general critical theory will have an ideology-critical
dimension, insofar as its task of developing an adequate
knowledge of society is inseparable from the enlightening
of its addressees about the true nature of the aspirations
which are currently siphoned into ideological forms.

3. The ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ (I): History
We have already noted that the distinction between
‘ideological critique’ and ‘moral critique’, as a means of
analysing phases in the development of the Frankfurt
School, cannot be sustained in the form which McCarney
proposes. Nevertheless, McCarney is correct to suggest
that a decisive transformation of the original Frankfurt
School project takes place some time between the late
1930s and the early 1940s. In McCarney’s account,
In the era of liberal capitalism it was possible •••
to confront reality with its own aspirations. But in
the total, one-dimensional world of administered
capitalism no such possiblllty appears. Ideological
critique presupposes a gap between what thought
projects and what it actuaJly performs. But
thought has now become a reflex of the established
order and projects nothing beyond it: ideology in
the original sense has evaporated (gf 42, p. 13).

McCarney is also correct to suggest that the
disappearance of the transcendent dimension of ideology
poses severe problems for the Frankfurt School. This is
because there appears no longer to be any link at all
between the utopian projections of Critical Theory and
everyday consciousness. However, this development
represents not so much a move from ‘ideological’ to
‘moral’ critique, as a problematization of the very concept
of critique. Even the Critical Theory of the late 1930s, in
what Marcuse terms the ‘more intensive phase’ which
resulted from the eclipse of any apparent revolutionary
agency, and which was therefore forced into a reliance on
the emancipatory content of critically appropriated
cultural traditions, was no longer possible by the early
1940s, in the face of a history which appeared to have lost
even any semblance of rationality. It could be said that,
from now on, the central problem for the first generation
Frankfurt School – in the absence of any dialectical
tension within the historical process itself – wlll be to
show that there might stiIJ be some standpoint from which
the state of society could be portrayed as irrational.

It is at this point that McCarney introduces his account
of Adorno’s distinctive version of immanent critique,
suggesting that Adorno’s position is closer to the original
Hegelian model, in which dialectic may focus on the gap
between both the object’s self-image and its present
existence, on the one hand, and ‘the object as it is, in its
concept and in truth; that is, in the fulfilment of its role
in the development of rational-spirit’ (RP 42, p. 15), on
the other. In fact, as our earlier discussion will have
already suggested, there is a false contrast at work in this
account of two different versions of immanent critique.

Frankfurt School Ideologiekritik implied from the very
beginning a criticism of both the ‘object’ and its ‘selfimage’ – it is an untrue society which generates the
untruths of ideology. Nevertheless, there is a sense in
which immanent critique, in the form of a dialectical
confrontation of subject and object, attains a heightened
importance in Adorno’s work after 1941. Both Horkheimer
and Adorno abandon any hope in an emancipatory dimension
of traditional scientific knowledge. The former
constructive and collaborative version of Critical Theory

In ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ Horkheimer had
admitted that conventional scientific activity is informed
by ‘the necessities and purposes, the experience and
capacities, the habits and tendencies of the present form
of human existence’. Nevertheless, he had then gone on to
argue that ‘In the same way as a material instrument of
production, it represents – in terms of its possiblllties – an
element not only of the present, but also of a juster, more
differentiated, more harmonious cultural whole’ [18]. By
the time that Dialectic of Enlightenment was completed
in 1944, this belief that traditional theory could be
integrated in Critical Theory had been shattered. In the
Introduction to Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and
Adorno write:


Even though we had known for many years that the
great discoveries of applied science are paid for
with an increasing diminution of theoretical
awareness, we still thought that in regard to
scientific activity our contribution could be
restricted to the criticism of extension of specialist
axioms ••• However ••• in the present collapse of
bourgeois civilization, not only the pursuit but the
meaning of science has become problematical •••
It is only at this point that Critical Theory begins to

approximate to that ‘system of negative evaluation’,
albeit one underpinned by a substantive philosophy of
history, which McCarney takes it to have been from the
very beginning. It is at this point that immanent critique in the Hegelian sense, which McCarney outlines – becomes
the only possible form of ‘true’ knowledge, and the
project of a collaQ~ration between philosophy and
empirical social science collapses •.

As far as McCarney is concerned, however, this is a
desperate and inadequate manoeuvre. In Hegel’s case the
ability to confront the object with the truth of its concept
is dependent on a construal of the his tor ical process as
the rational unfolding of spirit. But in Adorno’s case,
history is conceived as precisely the inverse of this. For
Adorno, the only unity of history is
that which cements th~ discontinuous, chaotically
splintered moments and phases of history – the unity
of the control of nature progressing to rule over
men, and finally to that over men’s inner nature.

No universal history leads from savagery to
humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the
slingshot to the megaton bomb [20].

For Adorno, the world spirit – the continuity in
discontinuity of the historical process – would have to be
defined as ‘permanent catastrophe’. On the basis of these
remarks, McCarney believes it possible to argue that,
given the ontology and the philosophy of history, ‘critique
may be either immanent or emancipatory, but not both’ (RP
42, p. 16). Within the framework of Adorno’s thought, ‘the
critical project cannot, it seems, be reconciled with the
vision of history as universal domination. The dialectic of
enlightenment annuls dialectical critique’ (ibid.).

The problem with this argument is that it fails to make
clear why Adorno’s history of enlightenment should be
described as dialectical at all. It is true that we cannot
write a history of unequivocal progress, since – under the
antagonistic conditions of class society – any technical
advance increases the potentiality for repression and
disaster. But this is not to say that, for Adorno, history is
no more than an accelerating sequence of catastrophes.

Adorno never denies that technical control over nature,
and the scientific knowledge which makes such control
possible, possess a moment of rationality. It is entirely
rational for human beings to strive to overcome their
subjection to the contingent forces of nature. Rather,
what is irrational for Adorno is that, up till now, the
development of technical control has been accompanied
by the repression of that spontaneity of inner nature which
is the core of the subjectivity which was to be preserved in
the first place. As a result, the advancing control of
outer nature has taken the form of a historical extension
of precisely that natural compUlsion which was to have
been overcome. To criticize this compUlsive aspect of the
process, however, is not to denounce the development of
the productive forces as such.

Adorno is only too aware that mockery of the idea of
progress ‘belongs in the treasure chamber of ideology’

[21]. If the blind, compUlsive character of human history
is revealed in cyclical repetition (in that stasis of
subjection to unalterable, recurrent natural forces which
Adorno finds embodied in mythical thought), then the idea
of progress, far from being an illusion, must be considered
as the ‘purely anti-mythological, breaking open the circle
to which it belongs’. Progress means;


to step out of the spell, including that of progress,
which is itself nature, through a process in which
human beings become aware of the natural basis of
their own existence and put a stop to the domination
which they exercise over nature, and through which
nature itself is contin,ued [22].

Progress is no more to be ontologized, to be
attributed unreflectively to being itself, than what
admittedly pleases our modern philosophers more disintegration [23]
Yet even though, for Adorno, history is precisely a
dialectic of the rational and the irrational – albeit one
whose overal1 contours are determined by the
fundamental irrationality of the structure of domination
itself – McCarney is justified in contending that Adorno
has little substantive basis for assuming that its
catastrophic momentum can be stopped. Here we enter a
complex area, and it is by no means our intention to defend
Adorno’s philosophy of history ~ se. However, there are
three points which are worth making. Firstly, to
demonstrate that Adorno’s conception of history tends to
undermine the possibility of critique is not to annul the
concept of critique as such. There is no reason to suppose
that many of Adorno’s insights could not be integrated into
an account of the development of contemporary capitalist
societies less overshadowed by the disastrous experience
of the 1930s and 1940s. Secondly, even in the case of a
text as extreme as Negative Dialectics, McCarney is wrong
to argue – as he has done in another recent essay – that
‘what is necessary to constitute the project [of critical
enquiry] as rational is that the critic be rational: any
rationality on the part of the object of criticism is
redundant for the purpose [24]. On the contrary, Negative
Dialectics revolves around the insight that a practical
orientation can be derived neither from the description of
a ‘rational’ state of reality, nor from a principle of pure
practical reason. As Adorno puts it: ‘Dialectics is in
things, but would not be without consciousness, which
reflects on them; any more than it can be evaporated into
consciousness’ [25]. Despite many obvious weaknesses of
Adorno’s position, his critical stance cannot be understood
as simply subjectivist, since his emphasis on the subjective
moment is itself the result of his understanding of the
historical process. Final1y, Adorno provides an indirect
defence of the concept of critique, insofar as Negative
Dialectics is centrally directed against what McCarney
takes to be the only viable alternative: a more robustly
objective and immanent form of dialectics. It is to the
amplification of these last two points that we now turn.

4. The ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ (11): Dialectics
The central problem of Adorno’s later thought is how to
preserve a consciousness of the irrationality of existing
society, at a stage when ideology has lost any
transcendent promissory dimension, and has been reduced
to a mere reduplication of the status quo; a stage when as Adorno liked to put it – reality has· become its own
ideology. Adorno’s strategy in this situation is to argue
that, even when any substantive utopia has been
abandoned, the characteristic. structure of ideology, the
almost inextricable interweaving of promise and illusion,
is preserved in the form of conceptual thought as such.

From Nietzsche, Adorno derives the idea that the very
success of objectlfying thought in dominating nature – far
from being a testimony to its truth – reveals its
deceptiveness and violence. However, he departs from
Nietzsche in suggesting that even the abstract universality
of concepts, which betrays the particularity which they
subsume in the enforced identity of subject and object,
reveal an aspiration towards a non-antagonistic identity of
thought and reality. In Adorno’s view, the very experience
of the inability of conceptual thought to reach its own
aims opens the possibility of a ‘second reflection’ which
will reveal the concept, not as the structuring principle

of all reality, but as a moment of the natural-historical

On occasions Adorno can even give this argument from
the loss of transcendence an optimistic turn. At the end
of his ‘Beitrag zur Ideologienlehre’, for example, he
writes that ‘Since the time when ideology hardly says
more than that things are the way they are, its own untruth
collapses into the meagre axiom that things could not be
other than they are. While human beings bow down before
this untruth, they also secretly see through it at the same
time. The glorification of the power and irresistibility of
mere being is at the same time the condition for its
disenchantment [26].

It should be noted that this is not simply a matter of a
conceptual dialectic. Whereas Hegel’s phenomenological
dialectic consists in the sublation of successive forms of
reason into their concept, through a process of reflection
on that concept, Adorno’s dialectic of Enlightenment
employs an account of the natural-historical genesis of
conceptual thought in order to arraign the authority of
theoretical and practical reason as such. Since for
Adorno the primacy of the concept begins with the
repression of nature, human suffering is the necessary
complement of the domination of identity-thinking,
whether in directly physical, or in velled and psychically
introverted forms. The theoretical development of
critical consciousness is ultimately driven by that same
impulse of suffering nature which is also the motor of
practical attempts to overcome historically obsolete
coercions and repressions. This is one of the primary
senses in which A,dprno’s dialectic is a materialist rather
than an idealist one.

Once this aspect of Adorno’s thought is appreciated,
McCarney’s contention that Adorno is ‘far from any
outright rejection of Hegelian ontology and, in particular,
its problematic of the subject’ (RP 42, p. 15) becomes
highly implausible. In fact, McCarney’s interpretation of
Adorno can be seen to derive from his misunderstanding of
the basic structure of appropriate critique, which was
outlined above. For Adorno. Hegel’s phllosophy is
precisely a transflgurative transcription of the historical
process: what Hegel celebrates – with a sadisticaJJytinged triumphalism which Adorno perceptively pinpoints as the rationally-determined onward march of Geist, is in
reality the as-yet-unbroken coercion which the social
structure of domination exerts over human beings, a
coercion which blocks that true realization of spirit which
would be a community of free individuals. As Adorno

writes, in the Introduction to Negative Dialectics:

The untruth of the context of immanence itself
revealed in the overwhelming experience that the
world, which is as systematically organized as if it
were the world of actualized reason which Hegel
glorifies, at the same time – in its ancient unreason
– perpetuates the powerlessness of spirit, which
appears to be all-powerful [27].

Furthermore, for Adorno this critique of Hegel follows
directly from what he takes to be the core of Marx’s
materialism – an insistence on the non-identity of thought
and being. What this insistence implies is that any attempt
to portray the world as rationally transparent – whether
idealist or materialist in ostensible intention – will
conclude by instating a delusive primacy of thought:

[Marx’s] line that consciousness depends on being
was not a metaphysics in reverse; it was directed
against the delusion that mind is in itself: that it
lies beyond the total process in which it flnds
itself as a moment [28].

As already suggested, this argument of Adorno’s casts
severe doubt on McCarney’s solution to the intractable
difficulties which he believes to be posed by the concept
of critique. In McCarney’s view, these difficulties derive
from the fact that ‘in its essential meaning the critique of
society is precisely a bringing of reason to bear on the
object from the side of the subject’ [29]. McCarney
contrasts what he takes to be this hopelessly
undialectical standpoint of critique with Hegel’s view

dialectic is not an activity of subjective thinking
applled to some matter externally, but is rather
the matter’s very soul putting forth its branches
and fruit organically. This development of the
Idea is the proper activity of its rationality… To
consider a thing rationally means not to bring
reason to bear on the object from the outside and so
to tamper wIth it, but to find that the object is
rational on its own account [30].

Accordingly, for McCarney, the central, still-to-becompleted task of a materialist dialectic is to find a
functional substitute for the Hegelian Idea [31]. However,
as we have already discovered, to set up the problem of
the relation between critique and dialectics in this way is
seriously misleading. Far from entrusting critique to the
powers of subjective reason,. the central, agonizing
problem for the Frankfurt School is precisely that· of
whether there is any meaningful sense in which history can
still be regarded as an objectively rational process. To
assume, as McCarney does, that the task is simply one of
flnding a materialist substitute for Hegelian reason, is to
foreclose an enquiry which is central to the Marxism (and
to many of the anti-Marxisms) of the twentieth century.

After the disasters of our era, which Adorno condenses
emblematically in his discussions of Auschwitz, it seems
difficult to believe that we can return to some version of
Hegel’s view that:

If the Objective is itself Rational, human insight
and conviction must correspond with the Reason it
embodies, and then we have the other essential
element – subjective Freedom – also reallzed [32].

Adorno’s argument here could be expressed in the
following way: to understand dialectics as a purely
immanent dialectics of the object is itself to set up an
undialectical exclusion or claim to exhaustiveness. To
avoid becoming undialectical, dialectics must transcend
itself towards a subjective spontaneity which nevertheless
draws its strength from the logical context of immanence
with which it breaks. Adorno expresses the situation thus:

When idealism is criticized strictly from within, it
has the handy defense of being thus sanctioned by
the critic – of virtually having the criticism within
itself, by the critic’s use of its own premisses, and
accordingly being superior to the criticism.

Objections from without, on the other hand, will be
dismissed by idealism as pre-dialectical, belonging
to the philosophy of reflection. But there is no
need for analysis to abdicate in view of these
alternatives. Immanence is the totallty of those
positings of identity whose principle fails before
immanent critique. As Marx puts it, idealism can be
made to ‘dance to its own tune’. The non-identity
[of thought and being] which determines it from


within, in accordance with the criterion of identity,
is at the same time the opposite of its principle,
that which it vainly claims to be controlling. No
immanent critique can serve its purpose wholly
without outside knowledge, of course – without a
moment of immediacy if you will, a bonus from the
subjective thought that looks beyond the
dialectical structure [33].

Because of his general philosophy of history, Adorno can
theorize this escape from the compulsive context of
immanence only in terms of subjective spontaneity.

However, we would argue that when one rejects Adorno’s
historically over-determined conclusion that critical
consciousness is thrown back entirely on the resources of
the individual, the kernel of his critique of idealist
dialectics remains. The space which Adorno opens up and which McCarney appear,s to want to collapse again can equally well be occupied, on different historical
assumptions, by a form of reflection on political goals
and strategies, which allows for both the detection of, and
a building upon, the traces of reason in history, without
commitment to the view that ~ political orientation can be
directly derived from ~ hypostatized historical dialectic.

5. The Standpoint of the Proletariat
It was noted above that one of the main problems with
McCarney’s presentation of Critical Theory is its
counter position of the idea of critique as ‘criticism’ or
‘negative evaluation’ to the idea of explanation. This
opposition is maintained and reinforced in the brief outline
of an alternative conception of the practical function of
Marxist theory that McCarney offers at the end of his
article, in the section entitled ‘Marx and Critique’. It is
argued there that the object of critique in Marx’s mature
work is not bourgeois society as such, but only bourgeois
ideology; in particular, its ‘most inteHectually
formidable version’ – political economy. The scientific
critique of ideology, moreover, is not taken to be, even
implicitly, a way of ‘criticising’ any particular form of
social practice. Its practical effectivity is taken to be
direct. Such critique is said to be practical by being
directly transformative of the consciousness, ‘and thereby
the agency’, of revolutionary subjects. This model of a
direct transformation of knowledge into practice is
presented as a materialist counter to the ‘universalist
rationalism of the critique idea’. The force of McCarney’s
arguments against the Frankfurt School is dependent, at
least in part, upon the plausibility of this model.

The central issue here is how we are to conceive of the
relation between social scientific knowledge and social
transformation, or, as McCarney puts it rather more
narrowly, between a ‘revolutionary theory’ and a
‘revolutionary subject’. McCarney offers two
alternatives: (1) the relation of a critique to its audience
(as in the work of the Frankfurt SchooJ); (2) the relation
of a mode of knowledge expressive of the standpoint of a
revolutionary subject to that subject, which in the case of
Marx’s work is the proletariat. It is this latter model
which McCarney adopts.

The problem with the former idea, it is argued, is that
its abstr”act rationalism ‘dissolves the specificity of the
link between a class and its theory’ (RP 42, p. 20). This
link, it is suggested, is actually best understood as
operating along the lines of the model of a dialectic of
consciousness provided by Hegel’s Phenomenology of
Spirit, in which:

the general form of the contradictions is that of a
conflict between the idea of the object by which the
subject consciousness is initially possessed and the
object as it is actuaHy encountered in experience
(RP 42, p. 21).

The concept of critique, McCarney maintains, is not
required in order to theorize the practical effectivity of
knowledge on this model, since the acquisition of


knowledge is not effected through negative evaluations of
successive moments of consciousness, but solely by the
discovery that these moments involve contradictions. This
discovery, it is argued, ‘is assumed to be directly practical
for a subject consciousness meeting minimal conditions of
rationality’, since such a consciousness ‘cannot rest in the
awareness of its own contradictions but is necessarlly
driven beyond, towards their resolutions’. The difference
between this scheme and its Marxist variant, in
McCarney’s view, is that ‘the phenomenological subject
becomes the social class and the dialectic of
consciousness becomes a dialectic of class consciousness’

(gf 42, p. 21; emphasis added). There are thus, according
to McCarney, ‘categorial distinctions of status between
different groups’ in relation to the procedures and findings
of Marxist theory, and within these categorial distinctions
it is the proletariat which is the privileged class. For
Marx’s work is not ‘to be taken as addressed to the
universe of rational beings as such. In its self-conception,
it is formulated from, is expressive of, and, in turn,
reflexively transforms the standpoint of the proletariat’

(RP 42, p. 20). The connection between the theory and the
cTass is ‘internal’, and it is the internal character of this
relation, according to McCarney, that is the basis of the
dialectical character of the theory.

There is of course, as McCarney acknowledges, a
problem here with regard to the theorization of social
class. Once one rejects (as McCarney does) the inherent
idealism of an ontology of the proletariat as identical
subject-object of history, which underlies Lukacs’s direct
appropriation of the phenomenological model in History
and Class Consciousness, the need arises for an
alternative account of historical agency. McCarney is
undoubtedly correct both when he describes this as ‘the
chief problem bequeathed by History and Class
ConSCiOusness to Marxist theory’ (RP 42, p. 21), and when
he chastises the tradition of ‘Western Marxism’ for its
failure fully to face this difficulty. His discussion,
however, impJies that the basic structure of the
phenomenological model may be maintained, despite the
idealism of the early Lukacs’s employment of it. The
only adjustment required for its successful utilization is
‘a properly articulated account of the nature of the
revolutionary subject which would render intelligible its
role as the agent of a materialist dialectic of history’ (RP
42, p. 21). The reformulation of the proletariat’s
-historical agency, which McCarney admits to be necessary,
is not taken to require any corresponding reformulation of
the character of its internal relationship to Marxist
theory. Indeed, it is precisely the directness of this
relationship that is taken to indicate the materialism of
the conception of the theorY:’practice relation which it

The simplicity of this classical model is appealing. Its
adequacy to reality, and to the theoretical insights of

Marx’s own mature historical writings on the class,
however, must be questioned; not least because of the
extremely attenuated conception of politics, and of
political possibility, that it implies. There are three
main, closely-related, problems here. All three concern
McCarney’s conception of the ‘specificity’ of the link
between Marxism and the proletariat (‘a class and its
theory’). And aJJ three are relevant to his treatment of
the Frankfurt School. First, there is the question of the
sense in which the theory is ‘expressive’ of the standpoint
of the class, to the exclusion of some more ‘universalistic’

perspective. Secondly, there is the question of its
directly practical, non-‘critical’ force. And finally,
there is the question of the sense in which the proletariat
may be considered the revolutionary subject of capitalist
societies. All threeof these problems are central to
current political debates on the left, both at a general
theoretical level and at a strategic level, since they bear
directly on both the disjuncture between class structures
(defined at an economic level) and class formations
(defined at a political level), and the necessity for, and
limits and character of, alliances.

With regard to the first problem, the sense in which
Marxist theory is expressive of the standpoint of the
proletariat, there are, broadly speaking, two
interpretations available. One identifies the standpoint of
the theory with that of the class by virtueof the
identification of the scientific universality of the former
with the historical universality of the latter. The othe’r
identifies the two standpoints in a more particularistic,
and ultimately irrationalistic, way, by maintaining the
truth content of the theory simultaneously with its social
particularism only on the basis of a pragmatic dissolution
of the concept of truth. McCarney clearly holds the
former position, for he argues that the standards required
by Marx’s theory are purely ‘cognitive’ (the values
constitutive of inquiry in science and logic). Elsewhere he
has addressed the issue directly: ‘for Marx, to adopt the
standpoint of the proletariat is precisely what it means to
adopt the standpoint of the whole’ [34]. But if this is so,
how can the stark contrast between the class character of
Marx’s theory and·.the bogus ‘universalism’ of the idea of
critique be maintained? Especially when, with the
Frankfurt School, it is precisely the adoption of the
standpoint of the whole that grounds the critical
character of their work. Everything depends, of course,
firstly upon the precise conceptualization of the
proletariat’s universality, and secondly ‘upon the way in
which the universalism of the idea of critique is
understood to be vitiated by its abstractly rational

There are a number of distinct, if related, aspects to
the idea of the universality of the proletariat in Marx’s
work. None are given an extended theoretical exposition
by Marx, nor are the relations between them explored in
any detall. Furthermore, his views on the topic clearly
changed in line with the general development of his
thought. Nonetheless, three aspects of the idea may be
fairly uncontentiously identified as central to Marx’s use
of it. All concern the sense in which the proletariat may
be said to be the potential agent of a ‘universal’ or
‘human’ emancipatory project. These are, in the order in
which they first occur in Marx’s work:

(1) the universality of the proletariat’s interest in
(2) the universality of the knowledge it must acquire
in order to be able to carry out such an emancipation
(both in the sense of the self-knowledge of the
universality of its interest, and in the sense of
knowledge of the total social process, necessary to
provide it with an adequate account of the conditions
for its emancipation);
(3) the universality of its more general class
capacity or power necessary to achieve its

Each is an essential component of the classical Marxist
conception of proletarian revolution, and each may be
derived from Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the
collective subject of alienated labour, the collective
capitalist worker.

Within this model, Marxian theory is ‘expressive’ of the
standpoint of the proletariat in two closely related, but
rarely adequately distinguished senses, corresponding to
the primacy of labour within Marx’s social ontology, on
the one hand, and to its totalising perspective, on the
other. It is expressive of the standpoint of the proletariat
independently of the proletariat’s status as the agent of
universal emancipation (a status which is currently being
questioned), insofar as it is constituted from the standpoint
of the ontological primacy of labour in human lifeactivity. It is further expressive of the standpoint of the
proletariat insofar as the theory’s totallsing perspective is
that necessary for universal emancipation, and the
proletariat is considered to be the agent of such an
emancipation. The general theoretical framework of
historical materiallsm is thus relatively independent of,
because conceptually prior to, any particular solution to
the problem of historical agency – although it is not, as
we have seen, independent of the presumption of the
possibiJity of and necessity for universal emancipation.

Nor is it devoid of implications for, or structural
limitations upon, the question of agency. There was thus
nothing wrong, epistemologicaJJy, with the Frankfurt
School’s detachment of critical theory from the fate of
the proletariat as an historical agency, so long as they
continued to constitute their work from the standpoint of
labour. One may, of course, disagree with the character
of their judgment regarding the form of the transformation
of the working class in advanced capitalist societies; or
castigate them for their failure to address themselves
with sufficient seriousness to the question of agency. But
this is another matter.

To claim, as McCarney does, that Horkheimer suffered
‘a complete failure of nerve’ in ‘Traditional .and Critical
Theory’ when he falled to identify a revolutionary subject
is to misrepresent the character of the problem. It is to
present the key theoretical and political problem posed
for classical Marxism by European history as a problem of
individual psychology. To suggest that the characteristic
fluctuations between optimism and pessimism in Marcuse’s
work simply represents ‘an inabiJity to make up one’s
mind’ (RP 42, p. 18) is to do likewise.

Regarding the supposed rationalism of the idea of
critique, that is, its supposedly essential abstract
universalism, it has already been argued above that this is
not an essential feature of the idea of critique as such, but
solely the result of its connection to a particular set of
historical assumptions (the total administration thesis) in
the Frankfurt School’s later work.

6. Phenomenology, Class Consciousness and
Political Subjectivity
McCarney’s account of a ‘direct’ transformation of
knowledge into an impulse towards transformative
practice runs together two rather different, if related,.

claims. The first concerns the normative character of the
process – the claim that on a phenomenological model
transitions between forms of consciousness do not require
the concept of critique for their theorisation. The second
concerns the directness, in the sense of the immediacy, of
the impulse towards the resolution of contradictions which
is said to arise once they have been experienced. The two
claims are related within McCarney’s account in that the
redundancy of critique is seen to follow from the
immediacy of the impulse toward the resolution of
contradictions: in Hegelian phenomenology ‘transitions are
not effected through negative evaluations of the
successive moments’ (RP 42, p. 21, emphasis added). Such
evaluations, McCarneyargues, ‘could only represent a


superfluous layer of mediation’.

Two points need to be made here. Firstly, that
phenomenological transitions do not in general require the
mediation of self-conscious reflective judgments does not
imply that they can be adequately theorised without
reference to the idea of evaluation. Nor, secondly, does
the immediacy of the impulse to resolve contradictions
mean that no ‘critical’ reflective judgments wlll be
required in actually resolving them.

McCarney’s position commits him to denying that the
necessary impulse of a subject ‘meeting minimal conditions
of rationality’ towards the resolution of contradictions
within its consciousness can be understood as a form of
negative evaluation of such contradictions by the subject.

Yet if the idea of evaluation is really not required, even
implicitly, for the comprehension of this process, in what
sense can it be considered to be a rational process at all?

What, in other words, distinguishes its necessity from that
of any other kind of natural event? And how are we to
understand the idea of ‘minimal conditions of rationality’,
1£ it does not refer to the capacity of a subject to
recognise contradiction as a form of deficiency? It seems
that McCarney has fallen prey to the positivist delusion
that all values are in some sense moral values, and that
reason is value-free. For the attempt to eliminate the
idea of evaluation from the theorisation of
phenomenological transitions is based on a refusal to
accept the normative content of strictly cognitive norms
as ‘evaluations’ at all. This is a regressive move within
the debate on the character of social scientific
knowledge, since even Popper, like Weber before him,
acknowledges that science has a normative component
(even if he misident1£ies its basis).

What McCarney has done is confuse the standpoint of a
‘natural’ consciousness within an Hegelian phenomenology
with that of the ‘observing’ or narrative consciousness.

Natural consciousness need not conceive of its impulse
toward the resolution of contradictions as an ‘evaluative’

process, or even be aware of it at all, for it to be so.

However, the whole point of Hegelian phenomenology, i~s
educative intent, and the basis for using it as a model for
political experience, is that it aims to ‘raise’ the natural
consciousness of the actual subject (the reader) to the
standard of the ‘observing’, narrative consciousness, and
this is precisely the standpoint of self-conscious,
reflective, ‘critical’ knowing. On the original Hegelian
model, this is the only way in which natural consciousness
can make the final transition to absolute knowing. On the
Marxist model, or at least, on its Leninist, Lukacsian
variant, proletarian revolution is to be simiJarly
distinguished from all previous forms of revolution by the
historical self-consciousness of its agency. Such selfconsciousness, moreover, is taken to be a condition of
historical agency, in. the full sense.

McCarney’s use of Hegelian phenomenology as a
general model for theorising the practical effectivity of


Marxist theory is peculiar in another respect as well. For
it locates the dialectical character of Marxist theory
solely in its internal relation to a particular class
subject, rather than in anything inherent in the form of
knowledge that it produces. This was not Marx’s own
position. For Marx, it is rather the dialectical character.

of the knowledge itself that ‘grounds its practical
function. In its ‘rational form’, dialectic is ‘in its essence
critical and revolutionary’,
because it includes in its comprehension and
affirmative recognition of the existing state of
things, at the same time also, the recognition of the
negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking-up;
because it regards every historically developed
social form as in fluid movement, and therefore
takes into account its transient nature not less than
its momentary existence; because it lets nothing
impose upon it … [35].

This is the result, as Lukacs was the first to point out [36],
of the adoption of the standpoint of historical
totalisation; a standpoint which, in its portrayal of reality
in terms of the development of a series of structural
contradictions between inherent developmental
tendencies, depicts the present as pregnant with a
determinate set of possible futures. It was, of course,
Hegel’s Science of Logic, not the Phenomenology of Spirit,
that was the decisive influence on Marx’s use of this
model. The contradictions laid bare in Capital are not
just those between the projections of political economy
and reality, but those internal to the capitalist system of
production itself. The potential political function of
Marx’s theory, moreover, crucially depends upon the real
effects of these contradictions.

It is not just the revelation of contradictions ~ se that
has a practical effectivity, but the revelation of specific
contradictions that (1) engage the interests of the subjects
in question (as McCarney himself pointed out elsewhere
[38]), and (2) contain within their exposition as !!!.

objectively demonstrable potentiality ~ projection of
their resolution in a new social form. This latter
requirement, emphaSlsedby McCarney himself in his
discussion of Adorno, is decisive. Yet it cannot be
theorised within the narrowly phenomenological model
that McCarney espouses. The problem with this model is
that it is tied, structurally, to an idealist ontology. The
experience of contradiction to which it refers is directly
practical because, as Marx points out: ‘The only labour
that Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental
labour’ [39]. It cannot be appropriated for Marxism
without falling back into the errors of History and Class
Consciousness in which, as McCarney himself notes, the
relations between historical materialism, proletarian
class consciousnesS~ ‘and the revolutionary process are
secured only at the cost of a systematic conflation of
basic theoretical categories.

The Frankfurt School’s development of the concept of
critique was the result of their attempt to maintain the
early Lukacs’s basic project of theorising the practical
effectivity of different kinds of knowledge without
relying upon either the ~ priori identification of Marxist
theory with the true ‘imputed’ class consciousness of the
proletariat, or the reduction’ of the revolutionary process
to the ideological maturation of the class. Its basis is the
materialist critique of Hegel, which, in this context, may
be equally effectively deployed against the early Lukacs.

Its consequence is the necessary abandonment of the direct
appropriation of the model of Hegelian phenomenology.

‘Theory is practice,’ McCarney writes, ‘in being formative
of the consciousness, and thereby the agency, of the
subjects who make history. In being so, it is itself a form
of historical change, not a device for securing a base for
ratiocination about its desirablIlty’ (RP 42, p. 21),
emphasis added). But changes in consciousness of the form
he describes are not necessarily transformative of the
subject’s agency. Nor do they have a sufficiently concrete

content to determine the actual course of historical
change. In this respect, although McCarney claims that
his model has no need of the normative dimension
attributed to all genuine knowledge by critical theory
(because of the ‘immediacy and immanence’ of the
relationship he posits between theory and practice), such a
dimension can actually be seen to have smuggled its way
back into his position. For his description of the immediate
translation of theory into practice can only be understood
as a description of what ought to happen, not what
actually does happen. The divorce between theory and
practice which McCarney mistakenly takes to be the
‘constituting principle’ of critical theory’s ‘category of
historical understanding’ is an historical fact. What the
Frankfurt School did was attempt to theorise its
determinants and implications, from the standpoint of a
commitment to overcoming it – a standpoint which, like
Hegel, but for different reasons, they found to be implicit
in the very structure of consciousness itself. They were
thus led to recognize a critical, utopian dimension in all
forms of human experience, the demonstration of which
became the task of critical theory.

The political implications of such a position are twofold. In the first place, it suggests a considerable
widening of the range of emancipatory politics in terms of
both its potential participants and the kinds of activity to
which it may be directed. Secondly, it provides a model of
the formation of political sUbjectivity centred not upon
the abstract rationality of a consciousness impelled to
overcome contradiction, but upon the reflective
recognition and articulation of hitherto distorted
structures of inten~~t the pursuit of which may be shown to
conflict with the existing social form. This model, we
would like to suggest, has much to contribute to current
debates in Marxist political theory in Britain.

These debates – about the potentialities of ‘populardemocratic’ versus ‘class’ politics; of ‘ideological’ versus
‘economic’ struggles; and about the role of the state in
the transition to socialism – have tended to polarise

around two positions, each of which derive in their current
form from aspects of Althus5er’s work; and each of which,
in their different ways, is equally untenable. On the one
hand, the formation of political subjectivity is not
problematised at all. Political subjects are assumed to
be always already constituted, and waiting to be
addressed. Politics is reduced to the transmission of
explanatory theory to groups whose interest in social
transformation is presupposed. No attempt is made to
theorise the transition from theoretical to practical
reason, or the manner in which theory becomes formative
of agency. The main problem appears as the establishment
of the cognitive adequacy or ‘scientificity’ of the theory to
be transmitted. On the other hand, recognition of the
practical inadequacy of this model, and of the active,
subject-constitutive character of political activity, has
led to the almost complete abandonment of explanatory
theory in favour of a ‘pure’ politics of the discursive
construction of SUbjectivity. An acceptance of ‘the
essential instablllty of political spaces, in which the very
identity of the forces in struggle is submitted to constant
shifts’, veers off into an assertion of the essential
‘indeterminacy of the social’ [40]. Suddenly, anything is
possible. Every antagonism is a ‘floating signitler’,
dependent for its political meaning upon an articulation
with the rest of political discourse in which there are no
fixed subject positions – no material basis the determinacy
of which could provide a ground for the objective
determination of political meanings [41].

The value of the concept of critique lies in the way in
which it avoids both of these complementary reductions.

Between a position that considers the revolutionary
subject to be ‘ready-made’, and a position which assumes
that more or less any form of political subjectivity can be
conjured up by the appropriate interpellations, it insists
that only a theory which is at once explanatory and
critical can contribute to theformation of a political
SUbjectivity adequate to the tasks of an emancipatory
social transformation.


Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 1980, p. 41.

[22) Ibid., p. 37.

[23J Ibid., p. 34.

[24J Joseph McCarney, ‘Recent Interpretations of Ideology’, Economy and
rclety, Vol. 14, no. I, February 1985, p. 92.

25 Gesammelte Schriften 6, p. 205.

[26J Gesammelte Schriften 8, p. 477.

[27] Negative Dia~. 30.

[28J Ibid., p. 200.

[29J ‘Recent Interpretations of Ideology’, p. 92.

[30J Cited from Hegel’s Philosophy ~ Right in ibid., p. 91.

[31] See ibid., p. 92.

[32] G. w.F .•Iegel, The Philosophy ~ History, Dover, New York, 1956, p.


[HJ Negative Dialectics, pp. 181-82.

[34] ‘Recent Interpretations of Ideology’, p. 90.

[35] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1954, p. 29.

McCarney actually refers to this passage (viz. his note 94), immediately ~
before going on to outline a phenomenological model of Marxian

[36J Cf. Georg Lukacs, ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’, in History and Class
Consciousness, Mer lin Press, London, 1971.

Cf. Marx to Engels, 14 January 1858, in Marx/Engels, Selected
Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 197.5, p. 93.

08] Joseph McCarney, ‘The Trouble with Contradictions’, RP 23, Winter

[39J Karl Marx/Frederick Engels, Collected !~ Vol. 3; Lawrence and
Wishart, London, 197.5, p. ))3. The increasingly common retort to this
arglJment, with reference to Hegel’s discussion’ of labour In his Jena
Realphiloso~ and in the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology
01 ~J!:!!, that Hegel, did indeed acknowledge the importance of material
IabolJr, does not invalidate Marx’s point since these discussions take place
within an idealist ontology for which nature is itself merely the
externalisation of the Idea in its particularity. (Viz. Hegel’s Logic,
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 197.5, para. 244). For a recent attempt to lay the
foundations of a new Left Hegelianism on the basis of a reading of the
master-slave dialectic, see J. M. Bernstein, ‘From Self-Consciousness to
Community: Act and Recognition in the Master-Slave Relationship’, in Z.

A. Pelczynski (ed.), The State and Civil Society: Studies l!! Hegel’s
Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 198.5.

[40] Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy:

Towards .! Radical Democratic Politics, trans. Winston Moore and Paul
Cammack, Verso, London, 198.5, pp. 151-.52.

[41] Ibid., p. 171.

[I] Also see: Russell Keat, ‘Comment’, ~~ 16, Spring 1977; Peter Dews,

‘Misadventures of the Dialectic’, ~~ 18, Autumn 1977; Roy Edgley,
‘Dialectic: A Reply to Keat and Dews’, RP 21, Spring 1979; Russell Keat,
‘Scientific Socialism: A Positivist Delusion?’, RP 23, Winter 1979.

Edgley’s first piece is reprinted in R. Edgleyand R. Osborne (eds.),
Radical Philosophr Reader, Verso, London, 1985.

12rFOr a continuation of the debate that does draw upon some work of the
Frankfurt School, however (notably that of Habermas), see Roy Bhaskar,
‘Scientific Explanation and Human Emancipation’, RP 26, Autumn 1980.

Russell Keat subsequently addressed himself to lIabermas’s work in The
Politics ~. Social Theory, Blackwell, Oxford, 1981.

0] Max Horkheimer, ‘Die Geganwartige Lage der Socialphilosophie und die
Aufgaben eines Institut fur Social forschung’, in Social-philosophische
Studien, Fischer, Frankfurt/Main, 1972, p. 40.

14nbTd., p. 41.

[5J See Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies l!!. the Development ~
Critical Theory, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985, pp. 11-35.

[6J Max Horkheimer, ‘Materialism and Metaphysics’, in Critical Theory,
Herder & Herder, New York, 1972, p. 34.

[7) Max Horkheimer, ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ in ibid., p. 242.

[8J Ibid., p. 22.~.

-[9) -e:-W. F ••Iegel, Lectures ~ the History ~ Philosophy, Vol. Ill, K.

Paul, Trench, Truber, London, 1896, p. 176.

[I01 ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, p. 199 (translation altered).

[I t] Max 1I0rkheimer, ‘On the Problem of Truth’, in Andrew Arato and Eike
Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, 81ackwell,
Oxford, 1978, pp. 417-18.

[I2J G. w. F. liegel, Encyclopedia, para. 60. Cited in ‘On the Problem of
TrlJth’, p. 419.

[13J Ibid., p. 419.

[I4J Ibid.

{l5J Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte SchriIten 8, Suhrkamp,
Frankfurt/Main, 1980, p. 465.

[16] Gesammelte Schriften 8, p. 466.

[17J Raymond Geuss, The Idea ~.! Critical Theory, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1981, p. 88.

[l8J ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, p. 205 (translation altered).

[l9J Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic ~ Enlightenment,
Verso, London, 1979, p. xi.

[20J Theoclor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, RoutJedge and Kegan Paul,
London, 1973, p. 320.

[21) Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Fortschritt’, in Stichworte: ~ Modelle 2,



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