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Frankfurt School and the Impact of Critical Theory on American society



In 1923, a group of ideologues inside Western Europe started what is called the Frankfurt School. They are credited with establishing, in sociological and political circles, a school of neo-Marxist and Freudian influenced philosophical thought referred to as Critical Theory. This theory stresses a reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and humanities towards changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory that is oriented only to simply understanding society.


Overall, these people of the Frankfurt School had been uncomfortable with all systems of society at the time, whether it be capitalist, socialist, fascist, or communist. They believed that traditional theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the 20th century, hence their philosophy pointed to the possibility of an alternative path to society’s development other than capitalism.

Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher and sociologist and a member of the Frankfurt School, described Critical Theory as critical insofar as it seeks to “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” Martin Jay, the current Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, stated that the first generation of Critical Theory is best understood as not promoting a specific philosophical agenda or a specific ideology, but as "a gadfly (criticism) of other systems.”


Following the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the growing interest in German Nationalism, the Frankfurt School made the decision to move to Geneva, and then NYC from 1935 until 1953, where it affiliated with Columbia University. With the university affiliation, the Frankfurt School philosophers were more than able to openly express their thoughts. At the time there was no internet or TV, so they did so through the printed and spoken word. The Frankfurt School's school of Critical Theory caught on quickly and spread from Columbia University across what many consider the American elite universities, with the help of like-mind wealthy benefactors and foundations that established professorships and grants to extend and perpetuate the philosophical foundation of Critical Theory through educational curriculums, think tanks, and eventually into action-oriented government policy.


Some of the philosophical preoccupations of Critical Theory involve the critique of modernity and capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation, as well as the detection of the pathologies of society. To them and their followers, Critical Theory provides a specific interpretation of Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political notions like commodification, reification, fetishization and critique of mass culture. Unlike pure Marxism, which merely applies a standard approach to critique and action, Critical Theory differs in that it attempts to place itself outside of philosophical strictures and the confines of existing structures. However, as a way of thinking and recovering humanity's self-knowledge, Critical Theory and other critical theories tend to often look to Marxism for methods and tools.


Since the 1960s, and its return to Germany, the Frankfurt School’s philosophies have increasingly been guided by Jurgen Habermas’s work on communicative rationality, linguistic intersubjectivity, and what he calls “the philosophical discourse of modernity.” What Habermas is saying is that all speech acts have inherent purpose, which is the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding. While Critical Theory is often thought of narrowly as referring to the Frankfurt School that begins with Max Horkheimer and fellow critical theorist Theodor Adorno and stretches to Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas, any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism.


Those critical of Critical Theory see it as having been a key foundation of thought that has helped make or twist American society (depending on your leanings) into what it has become today.  They see Critical Theory as nothing more than Cultural Terrorism, which is a Marxist-based dialectic fused with Freudian theory and applied to identity and culture.  Like all forms of Marxism, Cultural Terrorism it is based upon categorizing people into abstract groups and then creating a narrative of historical oppression between them.  The strategy of Marxists is always to cultivate a victimized group and then convince its members that solidarity is required against the oppressors. The power to carry out the desired social engineering, these types of Marxists believe, must be given, of course, to a politically-correct elite determined to remake society along ideological lines.


We would not be paying attention to the political discourse in society today to think that this victimization tactic is not in full use. Often, the true goals of those seeking radical change are often cloaked in high-sounding utopian rhetoric. Yes, there are some who truly want to change society, but some have less than altruistic intentions. Their desire and agenda to change society often has nothing to do with true diversity, social harmony or universal tolerance. It's up to us as individuals to discern the truths from the lies.


Almost people today are not schooled in different theories of social construct, whether capitalism, socialism, communism, the school of Marxist thought, or the variants of each. Our world view in this country tends to be limited to what we are presented by educators, the news media, film and entertainment, and by our politicians, and some of what we are told may not be entirely truthful. There are many aspects of our society that are far from optimal and it would be naive to this that perfection can be attained regardless of social construct. But thinking critically about that fact and trying to do something to improve ourselves and the lives of others and the planet is not such a bad thing.

© 2019 by Scott Forbes