The Frankfurt School : the crisis of subjectivity and the problem of social change

Maddox, Christopher Guy

Philosophy; Religion; Sociology; Human services; History
February 1989

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© 1989 Christopher Guy Maddox. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The crisis of subjectivity and the problem of social change is the underground history of the European Revolution of 1917-23. Its final signal in the inter-war years came with the defeat of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War in the years preceding the Second World War. The defeats of progressive social forces in the inter-war years, leading to the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Holocaust brought the original Western Marxists into a socio-political terrain involving new developments and unexpected setbacks in the struggle for a rational society (socialism). Stalinism and Fascism blocked the route to socialist democracy on an international scale.

In the dialectic of hope and despair the Second World War can be understood as representing the great terminus of accumulated defeats of the working class internationally in the inter-war period. For the Frankfurt School the Second World War was not only the lowest point humanity had reached at the height of technical progress, the sheer technological efficiency of the destructiveness it unleashed seemed to foreclose any impetus for optimism. Hope and despair, progress and reaction, became increasingly intertwined and at times impossible to distinguish in the succession of events. For Horkheimer and Adorno this was the dialectic of Enlightenment, the apotheosis of Western rationality dominating and consuming its own progress in an orgy of regression leading to barbarism. Midnight in the twentieth century became, for Horkheimer and Adorno at least, the eclipse of reason itself.

The Frankfurt School, it has been argued here, expresses a tendency of Western Marxism and has to be analysed in this context. The notion that Western Marxism and thus the Frankfurt School were a simple product of defeat has been shown to be mistaken and ultimately dismissive of the complex interplay between theory, politics, and history. For the events in the inter-war years did not 'give rise to' the Frankfurt School as if thought were merely a reflection of historical events. The critique of orthodox Marxism must be applied to the sociology of the Frankfurt School: in other words, thought is not an 'affect' propelled by historical laws. The examination of the role of philosophy in the restoration of the subjective factor in ideology critique and the analysis of social change - and hence the reconstruction of the Marxian project - has shown that the Frankfurt School's major contribution to such a reconstruction was in restoring the dynamic concept of subjectivity as pioneered by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology [1845/46].

This study has attempted to show the continued relevance of this School of Western Marxism in terms of its contribution to solving the crisis of subjectivity and the problem of social change, and as an important guide in the struggle for a humanist renaissance of Marxian socialism which, it has been argued, forms the essential dimension of this solution.

Department of Sociology, The University of Hull
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Shaw, Martin, 1947-
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