Critical theory

Last updated, 21 Apr 2012


Critical Theory (Frankfurt School) and Critical Management Studies

Appendix to M. Alvesson and H. Willmott, Making Sense of Management, 2nd edition, London: Sage, 2012


by Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott


Critical Theory (CT) draws its inspiration from a tradition of critical thought that emerged during the Enlightenment. At this time, knowledge based upon empirical investigation and philosophical reflection began to challenge established dogmas sanctified by religion (McCarthy, 1978; Schroyer, 1973). Key thinkers of the Enlightenment (e.g. Newton, Descartes) sought to set knowledge upon a more rational, (e.g. scientific) basis. The favoured form of this knowledge and ‘rationality’ was positivistic or non-dialectical. That is to say, reality was conceptualized as an ahistorical object-world that exists independently of the scientific methods that have the power to disclose and represent this world. 

In the physical sciences, Einstein and especially Heisenberg have drawn attention to the limits of non-dialectical knowledge. In philosophy, Hegelian dialectics had earlier provided the first, Western problematization of Cartesian dualism. Hegel’s critique was confined to the realm of ideas and was itself challenged by the ‘young Hegelians’ – notably Feuerbach and then Marx. They argued for the dialectical production, or reproduction, of social reality in which the material and ideal are intertwined and mutually constitutive. It is this left Hegelian stance that is the chief source of inspiration for Critical Theory (see Horkheimer, 1972).

Building upon the material dialectics of the left Hegelians, Critical Theory incorporates and addresses the major historical shifts and social and economic development of the intervening century. These include consideration of the worldwide expansion of capitalism, the rise of fascism, the degeneration of Marxism into Stalinism and Maoism – as well as critiques of mass society (Friedman, 1981). Intellectually, engagements with phenomenology and psychoanalysis have stimulated critical reflections upon the residues of materialism, determinism and rationalism in left Hegelianism (e.g. Fromm, 1970; Marcuse, 1955). This openness of CT to a range of intellectual traditions was initially prompted by a critical appreciation of the limits of orthodox Marxism, such as its failure to anticipate, and make coherent sense of, the development of welfare capitalism and the expansion of consumerism. The materialist correction of Hegelian idealism is seen to underplay the formative role of images and ideas – and of communication and consumption, more generally – in processes of socioeconomic development and domination (Habermas, 1979; Marcuse, 1964; see also Chapter 2). 


The Early Years


The funding for what was to become known as the Frankfurt School was provided by Felix Weil, the son of a successful businessman. Attracted to leftist thinking when a student at Frankfurt University, Weil persuaded his father to make an endowment sufficient to employ researchers from a variety of disciplines – philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology. This private endowment enabled the Institute of Social Research, established in the early 1920s, to be more intellectually and politically independent than centres funded by the German State. So began a pioneering and exceptionally fruitful inter-disciplinary collaboration that continues to have far-reaching impacts, especially in Western Europe and North America.

After somewhat uncertain and shaky beginnings, the Institute established a clearer identity after Max Horkheimer was appointed as its Director. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Institute combined social science and philosophy into a politically and practically committed social philosophy. Its mission involved a sustained challenge to the orthodox assumption that social science can and should produce objective, value-free knowledge of social reality (see Chapter 2). Instead of feeling obliged to discover universal, invariant regularities and law-like patterns in social behaviour (or at least to dress up empirical findings in these terms), members of the Institute sought to show how seemingly ‘given’ patterns of activity (e.g. consumerism, authoritarianism) take shape within specific historical and societal contexts; and to argue that the methods of representing these patterns are themselves inextricably embedded within these contexts. Such patterns and methods, it was contended, should be perceived as a dialectically constituted moment in the historical movement of mankind – and not as the final form of society or of science. Underpinning this critique was an intent to engender reflection upon, and emancipation from, the contradictions and restrictions inherent in advanced capitalist societies. The ‘politically and practically committed social philosophy’, which was increasingly identified as the distinguishing feature of ‘Frankfurt School’ analysis, was directed at exposing and challenging the myths and irrationalities of modernity.

A strong thread of critique links the dialectical thinking of the Frankfurt School to that of the left Hegelians, whose most influential member was Marx (see Jay, 1973). However, its leading members were not activists in any Leftist political party, programme or movement. For Horkheimer and his colleagues, the erratic path of capitalist development, with its unexpected degeneration into fascism during the 1930s, made it doubtful, and even improbable, that the proletariat would emerge as the revolutionary agent of change. The industrial proletariat, they believed, had long since become divided and weakened – if, indeed, it ever had the capacity to overthrow capitalism and/or the vision to establish a genuinely socialist society. Nonetheless, members of the Institute identified themselves, perhaps rather romantically, with the emancipatory intent of the left-Hegelian tradition. But, instead of focusing upon the revolutionary potential ascribed to the proletariat, members of the Institute directed their attention to a more generalized sense of frustration, oppression and confusion that they associated with the contradictory claims, perverse priorities and divisive effects of modern capitalist societies. These feelings were seen to render many people and diverse groups potentially receptive to the revitalization of Enlightenment ideas about expanding their autonomy in relation to modern dogmas for which an important condition of possibility was the fostering of responsible citizenship.


Critiques of Totalitarianism


In the Germany of the 1930s, members of the Institute did not have to look far to find modern, capitalist institutions and ideologies that systematically suppressed and impeded the realization of autonomy and responsible citizenship. Focusing upon the rise of fascism in Europe and the increasingly authoritarian cast of the Soviet state, they asked: how could the critical reason which produced the Enlightenment become eclipsed by such irrational beliefs and ideologies? Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm and others considered a large number of factors: from nationalist struggles that developed out of the crisis-ridden capitalist economy to oppressive social relations and forms of socialization that fostered the mass formation of authoritarian personalities (see Adorno et al., 1950; Fromm, 1941). Institutionalized nationalism, expressed as gross prejudice, was seen to be a condition and consequence of the development of authoritarian personalities. People with these personalities, it was argued, compulsively construct rigid and reified status hierarchies from which they derive a strong sense of identity and security. Obedient and loyal upwards, they are inclined to be intolerant and punitive downwards.

Such thinking was not welcome in the repressive climate of 1930s Germany. As the grip of the Nazis upon the German State and the activities of its intelligentsia tightened, many members of the Frankfurt School went into exile in the USA. In America during the 1940s and 1950s, they were exposed to, and deeply impressed if not traumatized by, the hyper-materialistic culture of the most advanced of the capitalist democracies. This experience of rampant consumer capitalism where responsible citizenship was worn away by competitive pressures stimulated renewed critical reflection upon the seductive power of market freedoms. Notably, Marcuse took an increasingly close interest in the (totalizing) impact of mass culture, especially in the industrialized production and distribution of news and entertainment. The mass media were seen to exert a numbing and homogenizing effect upon the consciousness of the population. There was a disturbing parallel with the mass psychology of fascism and state socialism in which normalized conformism inhibits or domesticates critical reflection. Accordingly, proponents of Critical Theory paid increasing attention to the power of the media, sponsored by business and/or the State, in shaping the population’s ideas, beliefs and wants (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947a; Marcuse, 1964). At the same time, the new culture industries were recognized to contain a potential to become positive sources of education, enlightenment and life-enhancing pleasure. The mass media were not regarded as inherently pacifying or ‘evil’ since, in principle, they could provide a powerful channel for challenging dogmas and raising consciousness, in much the same way that potential for using the internet and especially social networking sites is viewed today. However, the commercial and ideological priorities of consumer capitalism were seen by Marcuse and others routinely to displace, or at least marginalize, these emancipatory possibilities. The culture industry was found to operate primarily as an instrument of escapism and social control in which the values and power of social elites were celebrated and institutionalized.

Following the defeat of the Nazis, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Germany while others, notably Marcuse and Fromm, remained in the USA. The horrors of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes starkly revealed the magnitude of human barbarism and irrationality. They had also demonstrated how science, technology and social organization could be harnessed to destructive and oppressive ends. In particular, the Holocaust, with its use of technologies of mass annihilation and its efficient dissemination of authoritarian ideology, demonstrated how the development of scientific knowledge is, at best, double-edged in its capacity to foster more rational forms of social and economic organization (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947a, b). By the early 1950s, optimism about the chances of radical change in modern capitalist societies was draining away. Fascist regimes had been defeated but a new spectre now haunted the world, in the form of the Cold War and a seemingly unstoppable escalation of the nuclear arms race that threatened untold destruction. For Horkheimer and Adorno, in particular, it was difficult to comprehend how critical social science could facilitate, let alone justify, emancipatory change. 


The Resurgence of Critical Theory


Marcuse, who remained in the USA, was somewhat less pessimistic about the possibilities of emancipation – even though he was broadly in agreement with Horkheimer and Adorno’s prognosis of an ever-more ‘administered world’. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Marcuse (1955, 1964) explored the shaping and sublimation of people’s drives, instincts and wishes as capitalism developed into a mass consumer society. Through a radical reinterpretation of Freud, he identified negative (i.e. constructive) potentialities in the raw energy of libido (Marcuse, 1955), suggesting that deep instincts and drives – the pleasure principle of sexuality – could never be completely domesticated by the taboos and controlling forces of society. The biological anchoring of sexuality, Marcuse argued, meant that people could never be totally subordinated to the conformist-shaping powers of the mass media, business and government.

During the post-war ‘boom’ years of growth and comparative political stability, attentiveness to Marcuse’s critical analyses of consumer capitalism or to his radical reinterpretation of Freud was confined to a small circle of intellectuals. Then, following the political radicalization of educated sections of the post-war ‘baby boom’ youth, Marcuse’s analysis of consumerism and his attentiveness to sexuality were found to resonate deeply with the libertarianism of 1960s counter-culture. His ideas became influential in supporting and legitimizing the development of the New Left and associated movements (e.g. Students for a Democratic Society) as young affluent people became increasingly disaffected with what they regarded as the inane acquisitiveness and sham liberalism of Western society and also, if American men and women, faced being drafted into a seemingly interminable Vietnam War. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Marcuse’s books – especially Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) – were widely read (or at least were bought!) by hundreds of thousands of young people in the West. His thesis on the one-dimensionality of modern life – in which youth were trained and induced, as consumers and as producers, to become the fodder that fed the capitalist (military-industrial) machine – found a receptive audience among a generation who had become disillusioned with the life mapped out for them as cogs in ‘the system’. Marcuse’s message struck a chord with young people who had become dependent upon, yet were also bored with, consumer culture, and so were readily captivated by the easy pleasures and idealism of the ‘flower power’ phenomenon.

The wholly unexpected appearance of a mass audience for his ideas prompted Marcuse to review his opinion about the pacifying powers of the mass media and the prospects of liberation. The idea that the working class would become a collective agent for emancipatory transformation had, as we noted earlier, long been abandoned; and no plausible replacement had been found. Marcuse (1969) now contemplated the possibility that people on the margins of the mass consumer society – especially students and others who were seemingly less dependent, materially or psychologically, upon the flow of mass goods and services – might be capable of challenging and refusing its values and materialistic lifestyle. It can be said, with the benefit of hindsight, that Marcuse’s hopes for radical change were wildly (and naïvely) optimistic – not least because he did not adequately appreciate the superficiality and faddishness of much experimentation with, and indeed consumerist orientation to, alternative lifestyles. He did not recognize the shallowness of the commitment to alternative values and institutions, and so did not anticipate how rarely these would be sustained beyond college years. On the other hand, amongst the leading members of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse can be credited with anticipating and facilitating growing expressions of ‘revolt’ from diverse groups – principally the peace, gay, feminist and environmentalist movements – that have inspired, championed and institutionalized social and cultural changes during the past 50 years. It is therefore somewhat surprising that Marcuse’s ideas have not enjoyed sustained popular appeal. In contrast, there has been a continuing mass readership for the writings of Erich Fromm, whose gently radical humanism and willingness to address popular topics such as love and freedom, while minimizing explicitly political analysis, have appealed to people with an interest in personal development rather than to activists involved in emancipatory social movements.1 It should be added that Fromm’s writings are much more accessible than Marcuse’s or indeed any of the other core members of the Frankfurt School.

Since the 1960s, the tradition of Critical Theory has been carried forward by Jürgen Habermas, who had been Adorno’s assistant upon the latter’s return to Germany (see McCarthy, 1978). In these early years, Habermas struggled to gain the respect and support of Horkheimer, who questioned Habermas’ efforts to engage more directly with the practical politics of 1950s Germany. Throughout a long career, Habermas has consistently sought to reach a wider audience – notably, by giving many interviews (see, for example, Habermas, 1986) and by publishing newspaper articles concerning inter alia the reality and significance of National Socialism and the Holocaust,2 the process of (re)unifying Germany, the meaning of the Gulf War (Habermas, 1994), the implications of 9/11 (Borradori, 2003) and the place of Islam in a post-secular society (Habermas et al., 2010). 

Outside his native Germany, Habermas’ influence has been largely confined to academia, as the deluge of secondary literature on Habermas bears witness,3 and to which Making Sense of Management aspires to make a specialist contribution. In particular, Habermas has addressed directly the complaint repeatedly directed at the work of earlier Critical Theorists (e.g. Horkheimer, Marcuse), namely, that CT engages in mere moralizing as it lacks any rational basis for the normative standards and judgments that guide its critiques. To this accusation, some might add that this moralizing is propagated by privileged intellectuals who are simply nostalgic for a mythical past when humanistic ideas enjoyed some currency, and when academics exerted some influence. In response to this criticism, Habermas has sought to establish rational foundations for critique. His justification is based upon the conjecture that the structure of human communication at once anticipates and provokes an emancipatory impulse towards the development of a more rational society in which communication is no longer distorted by relations of power and domination (see Chapter 2). This ‘quasi-transcendental’ conjecture has, in principle, enabled Habermas to rebut the moralizing charge. More specifically, it is intended to provide a rational basis for supporting more optimistic assessments of possibilities for counteracting the negative features of the modern technological-capitalist society, such as those advanced by Fromm and especially Marcuse, as contrasted with the rather pessimistic prognoses offered by Adorno and by Horkheimer.

Regarded as one of the most original and influential of living Western social philosophers, Habermas has made the rationalization/technocratization of modern society – the domination of science, technology, administration and groups of experts over the lifeworld of its citizens (see Chapter 1) – the butt of his criticisms. As we argue throughout this book, modern forms of management and organization are media of such rationalization/technocratization and, so, are highly relevant targets of critique. The Habermasian emphasis upon the role of communication and the importance of unconstrained dialogue also resonates with broader contemporary ‘turns’ which emphasize the role and significance of language and discourse, including those that have occurred within the field of management and organization studies. Yet, the abstract and complex character of Habermas’ major writings limits dissemination of his thinking to a wide audience, such as that reached by Marcuse (and Fromm), whose impassioned contributions engaged more directly with experiential issues such as consumption, freedom, sexuality, etc. 

This concern to connect with everyday life and daily frustrations has been taken up by Habermas’ most influential student, Axel Honneth. Indeed, Honneth has characterized his Hegelian-inflected focus upon ‘the struggle for recognition’ as ‘an attempt to set Habermas’ ingenious conception of [a communication theoretical turn] ‘“back on its feet”’ (Honneth, 2003: 242). More specifically, he commends a shift from Habermas’ (comparatively abstract or ‘heady’) explication of conditions (and claimed normative presuppositions) of communication as a basis for his discourse ethics to (comparatively earthy) experiences of mis-recognition – in the form of ‘feelings of humiliation and disrespect’ (ibid.: 245) – that, Honneth contends, engender social change. These immanent negations, he argues, are ‘the engine of social change’ (ibid.). And yet Honneth is lamentably silent on the question of whether, when and how such feelings are productive of developments that are progressive, rather than reactionary, in inspiration and effect.4 So, questions remain open with regard to how emancipatory change occurs and also with regard to how emancipatory claims are to be justified. In this respect, at least, such openness points to the relevance, and perhaps inevitability, of immanent forms of critique and transformation that, being suspicious of the authority vouched in every positivity or normative framework, demand that full responsibility is taken for every act of resistance or revolt. To put this another way, ethics is prioritized over the (ostensibly authoritative) warranting of assumptions about epistemology and ontology.





1. Following an acrimonious exchange with Marcuse, principally over the latter’s reading of Freud, Fromm distanced himself from the Frankfurt School (Willmott and Knights, 1982; see also Wiggershaus, 1994). Fromm, who was the first to combine the insights of Freud and Marx, challenged the Freudian emphasis upon sexuality and the death instinct. He also criticized Freud’s crude materialism and patriarchal thinking. Fromm increasingly emphasized the importance and precariousness of the existential basis of human freedom (Fromm, 1961). For those who were sceptical about Marcuse’s belief in the power of libido and/or Fromm’s humanistic appeals, aesthetics (e.g. the work of writers like Katka and Brecht) remained as a possible medium through which the sensibility and emancipatory praxis of the audience might be aroused (e.g. Adorno, 1967; Benjamin, 1973).

2. For an English language overview of the historian’s debate on the Holocaust, see Holub, 1991, Chapter 7.

3. For overviews, many of which focus upon the work of Jürgen Habermas, see inter alia Bernstein, 1985; Finlayson, 2005; Friedman, 1981; McCarthy, 1978; and Thompson and Held, 1982. There are also a number of collections that contain illuminating articles on particular aspects of Critical Theory. See, for example, Bronner and Kellner, 1989; Fay, 1987; Kompridis, 2006; Sabia and Wallukis, 1983; Scheuerman, 2008; Wexler, 1991; Wheatland, 2009.

4. Honneth’s ideas have yet to be widely taken up by critical students of management.