What is Critical Theory?

Critical theory, to many, was then and is now, both revolutionary and intoxicating. The “Frankfurt school” hoped that their work would create practical implementations for a proletarian revolution. As Marx said, a philosophical theory is not meant to help us understand the world, but to change it. These neo-Marxists took that idea to heart, and sought to form a weapon, not of flesh and blood, but an ideological weapon to use against the oppressors of society.

Critical theory is the sad and cynical philosophy that the world is nothing but competing claims and diverging dreams, contradictory principles, and variegated interests of individuals.

Building on the ideas of alienation and reification from Karl Marx, the Frankfurt school applied these ideas (that is, in simple terms, of class oppression) to culture broadly instead of economics more narrowly. Thus was born “cultural Marxism.”

Though not monolithic, we can find seven consistent doctrines amongst the critical theorists:

  1. The division of labor creates alienation and is inherently exploitative.
  2. “Facts” are not so much “isolated depictions of reality” but “products of social action.”
  3. “Instrumental rationality” of the Enlightenment is oppressive. (“Instrumental rationality is nothing more than a mathematical technique for dealing efficiently with scarcity.”1  “Capitalism, bureaucracy, and science – all expressions of instrumental rationality – constitute the real core of enlightenment.”2
  4. The shared goal of transforming “private troubles into public issues.”
  5. The belief that as early as the 1920’s and ‘30’s that “the welfare state has been under siege, thereby undermining economic equality and social justice.”3
  6. And “no prefabricated harmony is possible between the individual and society. Creating an identity between subject and object is self-defeating.”4
  7. Time is cyclical, an “eternal recurrence” as Nietzsche put it. 

Critical theory sought then and still does, to obliterate differences of status and power, since all differences are purely and artificially constructed not by God, but by man. Therefore, the structures of power are inherently unnatural and “imbalanced.” Instead, they say, we should project new forms of equality and freedom, where man is never treated as a means. Professor Stephen Bronner explains:“The critical method becomes the tool by which the servants and the slaves – and the masses of the proletariat – realize their power as producers of the particular order for which their lords and masters alone genuinely benefit. Abolishing alienation thus depends upon transforming the consciousness of the slave – or, better, the worker.”5 Modern offshoots of critical theory have not strayed far; they all treat power as an artificial social system or a mere construct of language.6 In other words, this is what has given rise to the feminist claim of being oppressed by the very natures and structure of the language. Interestingly, it was Paul Piconne, the editor of the journal Telos, who brought critical theory to America. But looking at some of the big names as a helpful sketch serves as a sufficient introduction.

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse believed that the “modern world of scarcity was being artificially maintained.” The structures of 1st world industrial societies are actually a self-sustaining form oppression. According to Rutgers University Professor Stephen Bronner, Marcuse understood, “Imperialism, militarism, economic exploitation, patriarchal family structures, religious dogmatism, and the false needs generated by consumerism all render it [structure of industrial societies to be] irrational.”

Ernst Bloch

Wrote Atheism in Christianity (1968), which emphasized the purported religious roots of communism. Naturally, it fueled the fire of the liberation theology that became popular in the Latin American regions of the globe.7 Ernst Bloch not only wrote Atheism in Christianity but he also endorsed Stalinism in the 1930s and became a professor at the University of Leipzig after World War II. He hoped to renew an interest in the theology of the “forgotten” Protestant revolutionaries like Thomas Muntzer (a radical Anabaptist).

According to critical theory, every man has his own idea of justice, and it’s bound to be one that is inherently unfair, prejudiced to his own advantage.

Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno’s work focused on authoritarian and conformist inclinations in society. Being overly skeptical and radically cynical of all systems and narratives, he sought to awaken the individual from his “intellectual slumber” into which he has been socialized.

Adorno presented his lecture, “The Actuality of Philosophy” in 1931, laying the groundwork for a postmodern worldview. He argued that the totality of any theory or system offers “no structured narrative or overarching logic” that people may agree upon. Each person can “put an interpretive stamp on the fragments” as he sees fit, since looking at truth is like “looking at a collage surrealist painting.”Adorno was obsessed with the flawed character of civilization, which he thought was solved by the rejection of identifying the individual with the collective (ie. tradition, nation, church) in any way. In short, radical individualism was the answer.


Critical theory is the sad and cynical philosophy that the world is nothing but competing claims and diverging dreams, contradictory principles, and variegated interests of individuals. They treated all universal categories and truth claims as artificial social constructs. Concepts like “mankind” are only oppressive and totalitarian. “Truth” and “justice” are lies. Every man has his own idea of justice, and it’s bound to be one that is inherently unfair, prejudiced to his own advantage.

The neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt school believed that the ideologies and structures within society are the principal causes of our own enslavement. Therefore, critical theory must deconstruct the ideologies and structures of every civilization if man shall truly be free.In short, while critical theory felt something of the reality of total depravity and original sin, it had no concept for common grace. Therefore, being one-sided, critical theory is unable to escape its own claims; after all, if critical theory is true, it’s just another power play.

Citations & References
  1. Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory, Oxford University Press, p. 106.
  2. Ibid., p. 57.
  3. Ibid., p. 116.
  4. Ibid., p. 97.
  5. Ibid., p. 43.
  6. Ibid., p. 101.
  7. Ibid., p. 70.

Daniel Mason

See More Essays

Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

read more: