Right-Wing Populism and the Limits of Normative Critical Theory

If one wants to address the question of what Frankfurt School Critical Theory can still teach us about the resurgence of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States in recent times, one must call the very concept of the “Frankfurt School” into question and look more closely at how Jürgen Habermas’s efforts to “reconstruct” Critical Theory on normative foundations transformed the intellectual tradition he inherited from Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and the other members of the Institute for Social Research.

In a short essay like this, I can only discuss a few key points. I would like to say a few words about how Habermas’s theory of history – which was originally very similar to that of the early Horkheimer – shifted in the 1960s and 1970s and how his move away from the Freudian-Marxist foundations of early Critical Theory, more generally, has attenuated his ability to grasp the regressive social and irrational political developments we have witnessed in Europe and the U.S. in recent times. Subsequently, I would like to discuss briefly how and why the early model of Critical Theory is still more helpful than normative approaches in grasping and combating right-wing populism. This short essay should be read in conjunction with the piece that appeared in the previous issue of Logos, in which I provided a more detailed analysis of contemporary right-wing populism and authoritarianism in the United States from the standpoint of early Critical Theory.[1]

In his 1962 study, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (STPS), Habermas relied upon an interpretation of modern history as a dialectic of bourgeois society.[2] He examined the origins, development and transformation of the public sphere in Western Europe in relation to the uneven development of modern capitalism in England, France and Germany. During the period of the ascendance of bourgeois society, the public sphere was characterized primarily by its critical and – especially in France – even revolutionary function vis-á-vis the absolutist state and the remnants of feudalism. In English coffee houses, French salons and German universities, discussions of current events, literature, theater and philosophy sharpened the critical intelligence of the rising bourgeoisie and contributed to the creation of new forms of civil society which would assert themselves with increasing vigor and success against the arbitrary decrees, restrictive mercantilist economic policies, artistic and intellectual censorship of absolute monarchies.[3] With the triumph of bourgeois society in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the consolidation of its hegemony throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, this critical function of the bourgeois public sphere was – according to Habermas – increasingly undermined, as it was transformed from a forum for active rational debate to a platform for the passive consumption of advertising, political marketing and the “public relations” industry.[4]

If one reads Horkheimer’s lectures and essay from the late 1920s and 1930s with an eye to the interpretation of modern history that underlies them, one finds the same basic model of a dialectic of bourgeois society. This model emerges with particular clarity in a series of unpublished lectures on the history of modern philosophy that Horkheimer delivered in the late 1920s, but it also remains present in many of his published essays in the 1930s. In the lectures Horkheimer delivers a materialist interpretation of the history of modern philosophy as the mediated expression of the uneven development and transformation of bourgeois society.[5] He demonstrates, for example, that the Enlightenment attained a more radical form in France than in Britain, because of the later development of bourgeois society in France and the crucial role of Enlightenment ideas in preparing the way for the French Revolution – a role that was no longer necessary in Britain in the 18th century. Conversely, in Germany, where the development of bourgeois society lagged behind that of France, eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy assumed a more abstract rationalist – even metaphysical – form, which Horkheimer viewed as an expression of the relative weakness of bourgeois society there and its inability seriously to challenge feudal and absolutist institutions. In these lectures Horkheimer also seeks to demonstrate how, after the death of Hegel – whose writings he interprets as a belated expression of the critical tendencies of the Enlightenment – philosophy entered into a period of decline. He interprets the dominant tendencies of late 19th and early 20th-century philosophy – such as positivism, neo-Kantianism and vitalism – as falling behind the insights attained by Hegel. He argues that these insights were preserved outside the sphere of philosophy: theoretically, in Marx’s critique of political economy and, practically, in the new socialist movements. Similarly, in essays published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in the 1930s, such as “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” and “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” Horkheimer demonstrated how the critical function of early modern philosophical ideas, such as empiricism and skepticism, was transformed into affirmations of the status quo in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of bourgeois hegemony.[6] If one reads Dialectic of Enlightenment carefully, attentive to the traces of Horkheimer’s early model of Critical Theory that remain there, one can find a similar interpretation of the concept of reason itself, whose critical function is undermined by the dialectic of bourgeois society.[7]

The striking parallel one sees, in other words, between Habermas and Horkheimer’s interpretation of modern history lies in their emphasis on the socially regressive and politically irrational tendencies that gain the upper hand with the establishment of bourgeois hegemony in the nineteenth century. It is precisely these tendencies which are largely lost from view when Habermas moves – in later 1960s and 1970s – toward a new interpretation of modern history as the evolutionary and progressive differentiation of value spheres. Without being able to elaborate my argument in detail here, I would like to advance the claim that this crucial shift in Habermas’s interpretation of modern history should be understood as a response to particular historical conditions in West Germany after World War II, but also as a particular interpretation of the historical roots of National Socialism.

Habermas’s move away from the pronounced Hegelian-Marxist dimensions of his early work, towards a theory of communicative action and an effort to recover the theoretical foundations of modern liberal democracies, parallels the efforts of the Federal Republic of Germany in the postwar decades to achieve a Westanbindung – a regrounding of Germany in the liberal-democratic traditions of Western Europe and the U.S.[8] According to this interpretation, Habermas’s theory from the mid-1960s onwards can be seen as a philosophische Westanbindung – an attempt to carry out a philosophical attachment to the West. The interpretation of German history that lies – implicitly or explicitly – beneath Habermas’s “normative” turn in the 1960s and 1970s is that of the Sonderweg thesis, namely, that fascism took root in Germany – and not in Britain or France – primarily as a result of a modernization deficit in Germany, that is, the failure of the German middle class completely to destroy anachronistic feudal institutions, which prevented the establishment of stable, modern, liberal-democratic political institutions.[9] From this point of view, then, the main task facing the Federal Republic in the post-war period was a Nachholbedarf – a need to make up for this historical deficit in Germany’s liberal-democratic political traditions.

From this point of view, the strong Marxist and socialist traditions in Germany – which had never forgotten about the ways in which social domination reproduced itself within liberal democratic institutions – came increasingly to seem like an anachronistic liability, especially in the optimistic years of the post-war Wirtschaftswunder, when it seemed to many like the earlier crisis tendencies of capitalism had been overcome. The FRG’s rapid economic recovery in the 1950s and 1960s provided the legitimation for the new democratic political institutions, which had been so sorely lacking during the Weimar Republic.

West Germany’s ban on the KPD (German Communist Party) in 1955 and the decisions of the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) in 1959 to eliminate any reference to Marxist theory in their party program, were further expressions of the new “militant democracy” in the Federal Republic.[10] Habermas’s early work, up to and including STPS, was critical of these tendencies to curtail democracy and suppress Marxist theory in the FRG – so much so, that the now much older and more conservative Max Horkheimer viewed Habermas himself as a dangerous Marxist and forced him to leave the Institute in 1959.[11] But by 1968 at the latest, when Habermas notoriously accused Rudi Dutschke and other members of the German Socialist Students Union – which had formed in response to the SPD’s shift to the center in 1959 – of “left fascist” tendencies, it was clear that the center of gravity of Habermas’s theory had shifted and that he was now more concerned about recovering and defending the foundations of liberal-democratic political institutions than highlighting the ways in which social domination reproduced itself within such institutions.[12] Habermas’s turn during this time to Talcott Parson’s whiggish reinterpretation of Max Weber’s theory of modernization would play a key role in the reinterpretation of modern history as an evolutionary differentiation of value spheres, which was fully articulated in his 1980 magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Although Habermas criticized Parsons (and Luhmann) from the standpoint of communicative rationality and communicative action, his evolutionary model of history ultimately remained closer to their structural functionalism than to Marx or the early Horkheimer’s critique of the exploitative, antagonistic and regressive tendencies inherent in modern bourgeois society.[13]

Habermas’s sharp criticisms of postmodern and poststructuralist theory in the 1980s also demonstrated his abiding concern with defending the positive achievements of “modernity.”[14] His 1992 magnum opus on political theory, Between Facts and Norms, could be seen as the culmination of his earlier efforts to reconceptualize and defend the foundations of modern liberal-democratic political institutions.[15]

Habermas’s move away from the historical model of a dialectic of bourgeois society was accompanied by a move away from Freudian psychoanalysis, which had played such a central role in the Critical Theory of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. In the late 1960s Habermas praised Freud as a critic of positivism, who restored an important dimension of cognitive self-reflexivity to the sciences.[16] But his reluctance to move beyond this rather superficial, rationalist interpretation of Freud and to tarry with the full implications psychoanalysis – as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse had done, with their stubborn insistence upon Freud’s drive theory as a materialist corrective to rationalist epistemologies and theories of subjectivity – emerged more clearly in the 1970s, when he began to draw more heavily on Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg’s theories of developmental psychology, which theorized subjective cognitive development in much the same linear, evolutionary terms as Habermas’s objective model of historical modernization.[17] Freud’s focus on the powerful irrational forces at work in human psychic life, and the constant threat of individual and collective regression, were marginalized in Habermas’s normative-rationalist model of subjective development.

In his efforts to place Critical Theory on firm normative foundations, his move away from a Marxist theory of modern capitalism, and his replacement of psychoanalysis with developmental psychology, Habermas has forfeited many of the most important theoretical concepts upon which the early Critical Theorists had relied to grasp and combat fascism, right-wing populism and authoritarianism. In his efforts to recover the positive achievements of “modernity,” Habermas builds critically upon Talcott Parsons and Max Weber’s theory of modernization as the differentiation of value spheres. In his mature work Habermas does criticize the illegitimate incursion of one value sphere into another, and the excessive proliferation of means-ends rationality, which leads to a “colonization of the lifeworld,” but he doesn’t call into question the rationality of modern capitalist society as a whole, insofar as it is guided at the most fundamental level by what he sees as a progressive, evolutionary logic of social differentiation and a decentering of subjective worldviews. He views our task as the continuation and “completion” of this basically benevolent “project of modernity.”

But Habermas’s theory is less helpful when it comes to explaining phenomena that fall outside the realm of such a progressive march forward in the unfinished project of modernity, such as the return of capitalist crises, massive increases in inequality and the proliferation of right-wing populist movements we have witnessed in Europe and the United States in the past few decades. To be sure, Habermas has been a keen observer and vigilant critic of such tendencies; and he has a right to be proud of the significant contributions he has made to liberal democracy sinking deep roots in West Germany.[18] Yet, the question remains, how well equipped is his particular version of Critical Theory to grasp the aforementioned regressive socio-economic and political tendencies, which far transcend the German context?[19] My contention here is that the early model of Critical Theory first developed by Horkheimer, and then continued – in different ways – by Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, is much more helpful in grasping and countering such tendencies. The so-called first-generation of the “Frankfurt School” placed such regressive tendencies at the very center of their theory. In marked contrast to Parsons’ and – to a lesser extent – Habermas’s largely positive appropriations of Weber’s theory of modernization, Horkheimer wrote in 1936, “Max Weber stressed the rationalistic trait of the bourgeois mind, but irrationalism is from the start no less associated with its history.”[20]

After dedicating much of their energies in the 1930s to understanding the social, historical and ideological origins of National Socialism and fascism more generally in Europe, the Institute for Social Research turned their attention to empirical studies of right-wing populist and authoritarian political movements in the United States in the 1940s. They carried out not only the well-known Studies in Prejudice project, but also a lesser known, but almost equally ambitious study of anti-Semitism among American workers.[21] One of the main questions that guided both the anti-Semitism project and the two volumes of the Studies in Prejudice that were shaped most directly by Institute members – Theodor Adorno and Leo Lowenthal’s contributions to The Authoritarian Personality and Prophets of Deceit, respectively – was whether or not fascism, or a similar authoritarian political movement, could succeed in the U.S. In his preface to Prophets of Deceit, Horkheimer made clear that the Institute did not think that the objective conditions in the U.S. at that time were favorable to authoritarianism.[22] For Horkheimer and his Institute colleagues the fact that liberal-democratic political traditions were more deeply rooted in the U.S. than in Germany, provided an important bulwark against authoritarianism, which must be defended; but it did not mean that the U.S. was exempt from the powerful subjective and objective tendencies toward authoritarianism that were created and constantly reproduced in all modern capitalist societies. For Horkheimer and his colleagues, the threat of authoritarianism was not unique to countries that modernized late or incompletely, or had relatively weak liberal-democratic political traditions – such as Germany and Italy. As Horkheimer pointed out, it was important to study the methods and rhetorical devices of proto-fascist agitators in the U.S. because objective conditions could change in the future and they could become a greater threat. As I argued in the last issue of Logos, the continuing growth of right-wing populist parties in Europe, the emergence of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. are a clear indication that decades of neo-liberal policies and the Great Recession of 2008 have created objective conditions much more favorable to authoritarian movements.[23]

In 1972, at the dawn of the current neo-liberal period, Herbert Marcuse wrote an essay in response to the re-election of Richard Nixon, in which he discussed “The Historical Fate of Bourgeois Democracy,” and the persistence of “neo-fascist” tendencies in the U.S.[24] Marcuse wrote:

The historically new features of bourgeois democracy in its most advanced form (in the USA) are (a) the strength of its popular base, and (b) its militantly reactionary character. The popular base is fortified by an instinctual structure which reproduces the capitalist system in the individuals. The base includes the large majority of the working class. Now it is of course not at all a new development that the working class is “bourgeoisified” (verbürgerlicht). New is the remoteness of conditions under which this process could be reversed, the absence of a labor party and labor press, the rejection of socialism even as an end.[25]

Marcuse draws explicitly on the concept of identification, which Freud develops in his Group Psychology and Ego Analysis, to explain these regressive tendencies in the world’s oldest and “most advanced” democracy: “government of the people and by the people […]now assumes the form of a large-scale identification of the people with their rulers – caricature of popular sovereignty.”[26] In the essay, Marcuse also recognizes the crucial role of racism, which has facilitated and lent a different historical dynamic to the Verbürgerlichung, or “bourgeoisification” of the (white) working class in the U.S. He writes:

In 1972, considerable sections of labor in the densely industrial states of the USA voted for […] Nixon because of his stand against school busing. […] A “cultural” issue superceding the material economic issues? Is it the quality of education which is the concern of these workers or it is rather the racist morality motivating the political act?[27]

Here and elsewhere in this essay, Marcuse points back directly to the Institute’s earlier work on the formation of group-specific character structures within the historical emergence and transformation of bourgeois society as still very much relevant to understanding the persistence of right-wing populism and authoritarianism in contemporary “bourgeois” democracies. According to Horkheimer and Fromm’s analyses in the 1930s, such character structures were “relatively autonomous” from the socio-economic “base” of society, and thus persist, as a barrier to progressive historical change, long after the specific social and historical conditions that gave rise to them had disappeared.[28] As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, such analyses can certainly help us understand (and counter) reactionary and irrational attitudes among the white working class– irrational, insofar as they empower a political agenda at odds with their own material interests – which seemed to have played such a decisive role in the election of Donald Trump.[29]

Marcuse was not the only Critical Theorist who insisted that the Institute’s analyses of fascism and authoritarianism remained relevant, even after the unconditional surrender of National Socialism in 1945. In the immediate post-war period Adorno developed a concept of pseudo-conservatism, with which he linked the Institute’s empirical studies of authoritarianism in the U.S. to their earlier, theoretical analyses of the historical and social-psychological roots of authoritarianism in modern bourgeois society as a whole.[30] Adorno explicitly rejected the naïve belief that once a country had successfully attained a certain level of “modernization” – marked by the establishment of stable liberal-democratic political institutions – it was immune to the threat of authoritarian regression. For Adorno, the inability of normative models of liberal-democracy to adequately grasp the deeper causes of social domination in modern capitalist societies, posed a serious threat to the popular legitimacy of these democracies. He writes:

It cannot be disputed that formal democracy, under the present economic system, does not suffice to guarantee permanently, to the bulk of the population, satisfaction of the most elementary wants and needs, whereas at the same time the democratic form of government is presented as if […] it were as close to an ideal society as it could be. The resentment caused by this contradiction is turned by those who fail to recognize its economic roots against the form of democracy itself. Because it does not fulfill what it promises, they regard it as a “swindle” and are ready to exchange it for a system which sacrifices all claims to human dignity and justice, but of which they expect vaguely some kind of guarantee of their lives by better planning and organization. [31]

Adorno continued to develop this line of argumentation in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, it stood behind his well-known claim, in 1959, that “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”[32] Having actively participated in the Group Experiment – an empirical study of West Germans’ attitudes about political and social issues, and their own recent past, which was carried out by the Institute in the early 1950s – Adorno realized that Germans’ seeming embrace of democracy often concealed older and deeper authoritarian attitudes, which could easily reemerge if the Wirtschaftswunder began to falter. In fact, one could say that the desire to prevent the recurrence of authoritarianism moved to the very center of Adorno’s thought in the post-war period. Without much exaggeration one could say that, since the question of socialism or barbarism had been decided in favor of the latter in the first half of the twentieth century, the foremost task of Critical Theory shifted in the second half from the active attempt to realize socialism, to the “more modest” goal of preventing barbarism from recurring.

This shift registered in Adorno’s thought not only in his arguments that praxis in the emphatic Marxian sense was not possible in the current historical period,[33] but also in his reformulation of Kant’s categorical imperative in a way that reflected the ongoing threat of authoritarianism under the conditions of “late capitalism.”[34] In his philosophical magnum opus, Negative Dialectics, Adorno wrote: “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[35] To be sure, Adorno’s greater appreciation in the post-war period of liberal-democratic institutions – he counted this shift in his thinking as one of the lessons he learned during his exile in the U.S. – as a bulwark again authoritarianism went hand-in-hand with this new categorical imperative.[36] Much of Habermas’s mature work can be seen as developing this insight. But in contrast to Habermas, Adorno’s trenchant theoretical gaze remained trained on the powerful regressive tendencies that continued to exist in a society that was still best understood, in his eyes, as explicitly capitalist. The ultimate sources of these tendencies must still be sought, according to Adorno, not in the illegitimate incursion of one value sphere into another, or the colonization of the lifeworld, but rather in the antagonistic dynamic of bourgeois society.

The materialist method of the early Critical Theorists was a form of critical historicism.[37] Philosophical ideas (and works of art) were not seen as “free-floating,” or as providing a transcendent or transhistorical basis for normative critique; instead, they were interpreted as relatively autonomous expressions of historically specific social conditions. They could either passively reinforce – as ideology – existing forms of social domination, or they could – as critique – self-consciously and actively contribute to the abolition of social injustice.[38] To effectively accomplish the latter, the concepts of Critical Theory must always keep pace with changing social conditions in the present – without losing sight of the deeper structures that have remained constant throughout the modern bourgeois epoch. What I have suggested here is that Habermas’s “reconstruction” of Critical Theory also needs to be historicized. In the mid-1960s he moved away from a Hegelian-Marxist model of modern history as a dialectic of bourgeois society toward a theory of modernity as the differentiation of value spheres. During this same time he moved from a defense of democratic socialism to a long-term project of recovering and defending the theoretical foundations of modern liberal democracy.

Furthermore, he moved away from political economy, as he has himself stated.[39] All of these shifts can and should be seen as a philosophical attachment to the West, which paralleled the Federal Republic’s political attachment to the West in the post-war period. In that context, Habermas’s theory undoubtedly played an important progressive role and contributed to a transformation of German political culture, which has made it – despite numerous setbacks and delays – a leading exemplar of liberal (and social) democracy in Europe today.[40] Nonetheless, one should not shy away from posing questions about how Habermas’s model of Critical Theory holds up when transported geographically and/or temporally out of the West German context, in which it took shape. Does not Habermas’s theory become much more affirmative when transported into an Anglo-American context, in which liberal democracy has been the dominant political (and ideological) tradition for much longer? To what extent can Habermas’s theory, which took shape before the consolidation of neo-liberal globalization and the “Washington Consensus,” still help us understanding the frightening negative consequences of these neo-liberal forms of “modernization,” such as the Great Recession of 2008 and the resurgence of right-wing populism in Europe and the U.S.?

Following up on an argument I made in more detail elsewhere,[41] my contention here has been that the early Critical Theorists’ greater attention to irrational underpinnings of modern bourgeois society and to the ways in which social domination reproduces itself within the institutions of liberal democracy make their model more appropriate to grasping return of crisis tendencies, massive inequality and right-wing populism that have emerged in Europe and the U.S. during the new historical period of neo-liberal globalization.



[1] John Abromeit, “Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism,” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, vol. 15, no. 2 (September, 2016). https://logosog.chrismordadev.com/2016/abromeit/.

[2] To be clear, this is my own concept, not Habermas’s. For an elaboration of the concept of a dialectic of bourgeois society in relation to Horkheimer’s early work, see John Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 4, 394-95, 429-32.

[3] Critics of Habermas’s study have pointed to the ways in which the structure of the public sphere as a bourgeois institution systematically excluded women and the lower classes even before its critical function was undermined in the nineteenth century. See, for example, the essays by Joan B. Landes and Marie Fleming in Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, ed. J. Meehan (New York: Routledge, 1995), 57-116; and Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, trans. P. Labanyi, J. Owen Daniel and A. Oksiloff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[4] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 181-221.

[5] For an overview of these fascinating lectures by Horkheimer, see Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School, 85-140.

[6] Max Horkheimer, “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. M. J. O’Connell (New York: Continuum, 1992), 132-87; and “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. J. Torpey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 265-312.

[7] See John Abromeit, ““Genealogy and Critical Historicism: Two Concepts of Enlightenment in the Writings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno,” Critical Historical Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (Fall, 2016), 283-308.

[8] In his important study, which provides both a sweeping overview and an insightful contextualization of Habermas’ long intellectual trajectory, Matthew Specter provides a substantial defense of this historicizing interpretation of his work. He concludes the study with the following sentence: “Not only his explicit political and legal thought but also his social theory bear the unmistakable imprint of its genesis over four decades in the Bonn Republic.”   Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 212.

[9] The literature on the Sonderweg thesis is immense. For the classic statement of the thesis, see Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918, trans. Kim Traynor (Dover, NH: Berg, 1985). For a substantial critique of the thesis, see Geoff Eley and David Blackbourne, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[10] For an insightful discussion of the Federal Republic as a “militant democracy,” see Jan-Werner Müller, Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 147f .

[11] On Horkheimer’s critique of – and later reconciliation with – Habermas during this time, see Martin Beck Matuštík, Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 23-31, 45-61; and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, “Horkheimer’s Habermas-Kritik von 1958,” in Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung, von der Flaschenpost zum Molotowcocktail, 1946-1995, vol. 3, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Zweitausendeins, 1998), 267-72.

[12] Habermas did later apologize for his use of the term “left fascism” to describe Dutschke and other students activists. See Jürgen Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, ed. Peter Dews (London and New York: Verson, 1986), 233.

[13] Although Habermas stated as late as 1989, that “I mostly feel that I am the last Marxist,” [Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. C. Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 469] many Marx scholars have questioned his reading of Marx, which stresses Marx’s indebtedness to an “objectivist,” evolutionary philosophy of history and his claim that Marx focused to exclusively on labor – rather than communication – as the potential site of social emancipation. For one penetrating critique of Habermas’s interpretation of Marx, see Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 226-60.

[14] For a perceptive examination in the shift of Habermas’s theory of history away from a Hegelian-Marxist critique of the transformation of bourgeois society within the modern period, to a sweeping defense of the achievements of “modern” societies against preceding (and contemporary) “pre-modern” societies, see John P. McCormick, Weber, Habermas, and the Transformations of the European State: Constitutional, Social and Supranational Democracy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 43-49. For Habermas’s criticisms of postmodernism and poststructuralism, see his The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. F. G. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987).

[15] Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. W. Rehg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). For a critique of the reformist assumptions underlying this study, see William E. Scheuerman, “Between Radicalism and Resignation: Democratic Theory in Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms,” in Habermas: A Critical Reader, ed. P. Dews (Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 153-77.

[16] Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon, 1971), 214-45.

[17] For recent, insightful critique of the evolutionary assumptions underlying Habermas’s theory, see Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 37-79.

[18] During the so-called “Historians’ Debate” in the 1980s, in which Habermas admirably defended liberal-democratic principles against the conservative-nationalist opinions of revisionist historians, such as Ernst Nolte and Michael Stürmer, Habermas gave a clear statement of the new liberal-democratic “constitutional pride” of West Germany. He wrote, “The unconditional opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the greatest intellectual achievement of our postwar period; my generation should be especially proud of this.” Jürgen Habermas, “A Kind of Settlement of Damages: The Apologetic Tendencies in Germany History Writing,” in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, trans. J. Knowlton and T. Cates (Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993), 43.

[19] In a recent interview, Habermas presents his views on the causes of and possible remedies for the resurgence of right-wing populism in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Tellingly, he admits that he was surprised by these developments, but also insists that they do not “indicate a uniform tendency towards a new authoritarianism.” Demonstrating his unbroken allegiance to his evolutionary model of modernization as the differentiation of value spheres, he argues these tendencies should be seen as an outgrowth of powerful neo-liberal tendencies that emerged after 1989, which “inform the dynamic of social modernization, but are linked to functional imperatives that repeatedly clash.” He also points out that the political approach he has favored in recent times, “the left-wing pro-globalisation agenda of giving a political shape to a global society growing together economically and digitally can no longer be distinguished from the neoliberal agenda of political abdication to the blackmailing power of the banks and of the unregulated markets.” He also points out that, “since Clinton, Blair and Schröder, Social Democrats have swung over to the prevailing neoliberal line in economic policies because that was or seemed to be promising in the political sense.” Finally, he suggests that, “the puzzle has to be solved as to how it came about that right-wing populism stole the Left’s own themes.” These suggestions all makes sense, but one wonders how effectively they can be pursued on the basis of a normative approach to Critical Theory, which submerges the antagonistic tendencies of modern capitalism to larger, evolutionary theory of modernization. See Jürgen Habermas, “For A Democratic Polarisation: How To Pull The Ground From Under Right-wing Populism,” in Social Europe, November 17, 2016: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/11/democratic-polarisation-pull-ground-right-wing-populism/.

[20] Max Horkheimer, “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Epoch,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. G.F. Hunter, M.S. Kramer and J. Torpey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 87.

[21] The most extensive scholarly treatment of the Institute’s study of anti-Semitism among American workers is: Mark Worrell, Dialectic of Solidarity: Labor, Antisemitism, and the Frankfurt School (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008). For my own review of Worrell’s study, see Journal of Modern History, vol. 85, no. 1 (March 2013), pp. 161-168.

[22] Max Horkheimer, “Introduction,” to Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), xi-xiii.

[23] “Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism,” https://logosog.chrismordadev.com/2016/abromeit/.

[24] Herbert Marcuse, “The Historical Fate of Bourgeois Democracy,” in Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, vol. 2, Towards a Critical Theory of Society, ed. Douglas Kellner (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 163-86.

[25] Ibid., 175.

[26] Ibid., 167.

[27] Ibid., 180.

[28] See, for example, Max Horkheimer, “History and Psychology,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science, 111-28.

[29] John Abromeit, “Whiteness as a Form of Bourgeois Anthropology? Historical Materialism and Psychoanalysis in the Work of David Roediger, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse.” Radical Philosophy Review, vol. 16, no. 1 (2013), pp. 325–343.

[30] Theodor Adorno, et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 675f.

[31] Ibid., 678.

[32] Theodor Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry Pickford (New York: Columbia, 1998), 90 (emphasis Adorno’s own), 90.

[33] John Abromeit, “The Limits of Praxis: The Social Psychological Foundations of Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno’s Interpretations of the 1960s Protest Movements,” Changing the World, Changing Oneself: Political Protest and Collective Identities in the 1960s/70s West Germany and U.S., eds. B. Davis, W. Mausbach, M. Klimke, and C. MacDougall (Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), pp. 13-38.

[34] For Adorno’s defense, in 1968, of the concept of “late capitalism,” see “Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft?” in Theodor W. Adorno, Soziologische Schriften, vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972), 354-70.

[35] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 365.

[36] For his own account of how his estimation of liberal-democratic institutions increased during his exile in the U.S., see Adorno’s essay, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,”in The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930–1960, eds. D. Fleming and B. Bailyn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 338-70.

[37] On the concept of critical historicism, see my essay cited in footnote 2, above.

[38] It is precisely this concrete interest, of concrete, suffering individuals in the abolition of social injustice that provides the “normative foundations” of Critical Theory, according to Horkheimer. He writes, “Critical Theory has no specific authority on its side, except concern for the abolition of social injustice. This negative formulation […] is the materialist content of the idealist concept of reason.” Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory, 242 (translation amended).

[39] In 2005 Habermas stated that in the 1960s, “my interest in political economy, in which I have never felt at home, declined.” Cited by Specter in Habermas: An Intellectual Biography, 209.

[40] From its relatively liberal asylum laws, to its willingness to critically work through its catastrophic past, to changing its antiquated citizenship laws in 1999 to its more recent opening to large numbers of refugees from the Middle East, Germany has undoubtedly demonstrated its willingness to embrace liberal democratic principles. Germany has, until recently, also been one of the few countries in Europe without a large and successful far right party. But the recent success of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, also raises questions of how effective such changes in Germany’s political culture will be in immunizing it against deeper and broader tendencies in the global capitalist economy.

[41] “Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism,” op. cit., https://logosog.chrismordadev.com/2016/abromeit/




Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Judith Stein: Wall Street v. Main Street within the Trump Cabinet

By Dan Krier: Behemoth Revisited: National Socialism and the Trump Administration

By James Block: Beyond the Collapse: Clearing the Ground for What is to Come

By Harriet Fraad: Women, Class, Gender and the Trump Agenda

By Chip Berlet: Alt-Right: A Primer on the Online Brownshirts

By Jefferson Decker: The Ends of Reform: Liberalism, Trumpism, and American Politics

By Mark Worrell: The Twilight of Liberal American Imperialism: Trump, Debt, and War

By Stephen Eric Bronner: Back to Basics: Trump’s Counter-Revolution, Resistance, and Solidarity

By Chris O’Kane: “A Hostile World”: Critical Theory in the Time of Trump

By Werner Bonefeld: Authoritarian Liberalism, Class and Rackets

By John Abromeit: Right-Wing Populism and the Limits of Normative Critical Theory

By Samir Gandesha: “The Neoliberal Personality”

By Darren Barany: Explaining ‘Cult45’: What Can WWII-Era Research on Authoritarianism Tell Us about the Political Rise of Trump?

By Kim Scipes: Black Subjugation in America

By George Lundskow: White Like Them

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Andy Blunden, The Origins of Collective Decision Making. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

By Aidan J. Beatty: Stuart Jeffries. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016)

By Brian Caterino: Martin Jay, Reason After It’s Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

By Matthew H. Bowker: Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself. City Lights Books, 2016

By Nate Liederbach: Vincent Czyz, Adrift in a Vanishing City, Rain Mountain Press, New York City 2015