What role does culture play in Western Marxism?

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One of the major contributions of the Frankfurt School is the spawning of critical theory, the term first being coined by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. One other leading intellectual of the Frankfurt School (which was founded in 1923), is Max Horkheimer. In his 1937 essay titled ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, he made important connections between mass culture and political economy. He noted that while ‘stored-up knowledge’ is the basis of traditional theory, critical theory “sought to understand the social world as changeable, thereby stripping reality of its character as ‘pure factuality’.” (Horkheimer, as quoted in Arato, 1993, p.221) He stressed the idea that critical theory is a broader project that mere increase of knowledge. In other words, its goal is no less than humankind’s liberation from slavery. In modern times, where the chattel-slavery system is now defunct, slavery manifests in the form of economic oppression. It is in light of this view that policymakers in Australia should seek to liberate the underprivileged sections of its population from suffering.

In this sense, critical theorists such as Horkheimer shared with other Frankfurt Schoolers the idea of mass culture as an

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ideology. And the inspiration they drew from Marx is limited to the subtitle of his monumental work Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. (Browitt & Milner, 2002, p.58) What separated the Frankfurt Schoolers from other members of Western Marxist tradition is their “radically culturalist version of the Marxian tradition, which, ‘came to concentrate overwhelmingly on study of superstructures … It was culture that held the central focus of its attention’ The characteristic thematics were human agency, subjective consciousness, and hence also culture.” (Browitt & Milner, 2002, p.67)

Herbert Marcuse is another Frankfurt Schooler, whose seminal works Eros and Civilization & The Aesthetic Dimension have focused on art as an expression of culture. He thought that art must retain both its negativity and its autonomy so as to be a potent political tool. He agreed with other Frankfurt Schoolers that “high art is privileged as the site of authenticity, mass culture anathematised and sociologically ‘explained’ as the site of manipulation.” (Bottomore, 2002, p.9) It wasn’t until the emergence of ‘second generation’ Frankfurt Schoolers, led by critical theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, that the institutional basis of all culture got duly recognized.

Finally, coming to the most recent flag-bearerss of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, his work on the sociology of culture has added to the growing literature of Western Marxism. His contemporary Pierre Bourdieu, talks at length about culture in his book Distinction. In it, Bourdieu “takes as the object of its critique precisely the same kind of high modernism as that privileged in Frankfurt School aesthetics.” (Bottomore, 2002, p.9) While Horkheimer and Adorno underscored a deep divide between capitalist mass culture and avant-garde modernism, Bourdieu paid more attention to modernism’s inextricable links to powerful and imposing social institutions.

Hence, as the broad review of literature on the subject of Western Marxism amply reveals, culture does play an important role. Different theorists discussed above have made unique contributions to our understanding of culture’s role in Western Marxist discourse. The Frankfurt Schoolers and their conception of critical theory is especially vital to understanding the role of culture. Their contribution lies in bringing a sense of optimism to the subject of Marxism. Although many Frankfurt Schoolers would not identify themselves with any particular political philosophy, their critical appraisal of traditional Marxism makes them Marxists by association. And by bringing fresh perspectives to the subject, they have induced a feeling of optimism among modern students, academics and politicians. As a result, contemporary political discourse in the academia is no longer dragged down by the failures of former Communist regimes or the in-built contradictions of laizze-faire capitalism. Instead, a sense of liveliness and optimism pervades academic circles. Thanks largely to the body of work under Western Marxism and the more esoteric concerns of the Frankfurt School, the dismay and hopelessness created by traditional Marxism is overcome. What remains to be done is to extend this new-found optimism and hope to government policy circles, which is where practical political decisions are taken.


Alway, J. (1995). Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Arato, A. and Gebhardt, E., eds (1978) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edn. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Arato, A. (1993). From Neo-Marxism to Democratic Theory: Essays on the Critical Theory of Soviet-Type Societies. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Bottomore, T. (2002). The Frankfurt School and Its Critics. London: Routledge.

Cook, D. (2004). Adorno, Habermas, and the Search for a Rational Society. New York: Routledge.

Farrands, C., & Worth, O. (2005). Critical Theory in Global Political Economy: Critique? Knowledge? Emancipation?1. Capital & Class, (85), 43+.

Harrington, A., ed (2005) Modern Social Theory: An Introduction, edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Habermas, J., & Michnik, A. (1994). Overcoming the Past. New Left Review, a(203), 3-16.

Milner, A., & Browitt, J. (2002). Contemporary Cultural Theory (3rd ed.). Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Tate, J. W. (1997). Kant, Habermas and the ‘Philosophical Legitimation’ of Modernity. Journal of European Studies, 27(3), 281+.

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