[Essay] Why Marxism and Critical Theory Still Matter — Dan Formby

The world that we now inhabit – characterized by a vast and almost unrestricted flow of information, the global triumph of consumer capitalism and the absence of viable political alternatives – is so remote from the world that produced the classical texts of Critical Theory that some critics see its insights as having little relevance to the study of contemporary culture.  This essay will survey some of the canonical texts in the Western Critical tradition, suggesting that whilst the cultural specificity of thinkers like Karl Marx and Theodor Adorno is open to question, contemporary cultural criticism discards these foundational critical theorists at its peril.

The essence of ideological theories (and almost all Critical Theory emerges from, and has as its object, a particular ideology) is, in simple terms, an examination of both culture and politics, and a critique of their structural integrity. The point of these critiques is to offer suggestions of improvement or alternative options on a fundamental level to these cultural and political paradigms. The ‘classical texts’ in the Marxist/Frankfurt School tradition, written specifically for their time, could be argued to be outdated very quickly after their publication. However, a proper understanding of the texts comprising this strain of thought bears out the continuing relevance of these modes of critique.

Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was a direct reaction to the capitalist industrialisation of Britain and other countries in the nineteenth-century; and his theorem suggests his expectations of what could happen if things carry on in the way he proposed they would. He offers a viable alternative in communist reformation and explains how it could succeed where (and, importantly, when) capitalism fails. Theodor Adorno’s theory that  early/mid-twentieth century capitalism deployed mass culture as a culturally homogenizing tool, and that capitalism engendered de-individualisation (that idea of subjectivity constructed in power was to be picked up Michel Foucault, another influential critical theorists of the mid-late twentieth century) to preclude the possibility of popular revolution from the masses is, in many ways, a direct reaction to Marx’s critique. The two are not in complete harmony, however. As Adorno tells us at the beginning of Negative Dialectics[1], philosophy is still necessary because the time to realize it has been missed – countering Marx’s belief that revolutionary action would one day be required on the grounds that the chance to take such measures had passed.

Karl Marx believed that Georg Hegel’s theory of dialectical movement of thought, in which one takes an idea, compares it with its contradiction and refines it until an the idea is as perfect as possible, was problematic because of its confusion over differences between the ideal and the real: Marx believed that it was the ideal itself that was the problem. Marx stipulated that the organisation of ‘society’ works to maximise the economics of survival and growth – the industrialised capitalist system of workers, bourgeois and aristocracy was essential to the development of the country as a whole. However, this begs the question: why would the workers would work at all? Why work for less than you deserve? The reason, Marx believed, was ideology. The working classes invested their belief in the righteousness of the capitalist superstructure that surrounded them. Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, who is credited with coining the term, called this a ‘false consciousness’ – in other words the belief, held by the oppressed working classes, that the bourgeois superstructure of society, works for their benefit. Tony Bennett, in Formalism and Marxism, offers an explanation of false consciousness:

The class which controls the material production controls the means of mental production. These ideas are the ideal expression of material expression fronted as mental ideals… the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling class.[2]

Bennett’s point is that the ruling class can control the ideological outlook of the working classes through its material productivity. As long as the workers agree with the ideology that they are subject to, they will acquiesce to their place in the structure of society. This behaviour has been called historical materialism, and in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) Marx says:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development, of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure.[3]

‘Historical Materialist’ critics insist that, through no choice of their own, men will be affected by the ‘material forces of production’ that surround them. According to Marx, it is these relations that form the foundations of society – the economic base upon which we found our ‘legal and political superstructure’. Marx’s final point is that eventually the relations of production that have been affecting society so far and the productive force that is currently affecting society will clash – it is this change in ideology that, according to his theory, is the basis for the revolutionary transformation of the superstructure. Despite Marx’s ostensible distaste for Hegelian idealism, then, his idea of social change remains resolutely dialectical in flavour.

This theory, according to some critics, as I have mentioned, is now painfully out of date. Set in an era in which capitalism was beginning to come to fruition, it lacks now the integrity of contemporaneity which it possessed at the time of its production. Further, Marx expected a revolution to happen because of industrialisation. However, the fact that this has not happened in the way Marx envisaged does not make his theories useless in today’s world. The superstructure itself, in the UK at least, may have moved away from the kind of literal industrialisation that Marx knew; our contemporary lower and middle classes and those in lower-paid white-collar services exist in complex relationships with the blue-collar workers that we would previously presume to be the occupants of the lower classes. This shift in class denomination does not mean that Marx is no longer necessary, however; rather it adds a new dimension to the same system. The educational opportunities available to the contemporary working class – the class that would be expected to catalyse popular revolution – gives an edge to Marx’s theory of revolution that he could not have foreseen. That shift in education, unthinkable in the mid-nineteenth century, went on to be a fertile ground of Marxist debate in the twentieth-century, particularly in the work of those critics, such as Louis Althusser, who sought to theorise ideological networks as multiple, varied and shifting.

However, there are theorists who see Karl Marx’s theory of the rise of capitalism and the possibilities of socialism are flawed, for a variety of reasons. The Frankfurt School (whose prominent members included Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer, amongst others) took Marxist theory as a base, but built upon Marx’s ideas of social reformation through their own research. The Frankfurt School, however was more concerned with the idea of social development and critique than with the Communist revolution Marx envisaged: the school remain a vociferous critic of Soviet ‘Socialism’ throughout its history.

Adorno, in his canonical study Aesthetic Theory, discusses the relationship between art and society. His argument is that modern art – as opposed to the mass culture produced and circulated by the culture industry – had a responsibility to act as a social commentary and to be used in some sort of critical capacity. His views on art are inherently Hegelian, with its fundamental characteristic being that of a product of history. As far as Adorno is concerned, proper art exists to experiment and test the boundaries in which it lies.

The dual nature of artworks as autonomous structures and social phenomena results in oscillating criteria: Autonomous works provoke the verdict of social indifference and ultimately of being criminally reactionary; conversely, works that make socially univocal discursive judgments thereby negate art as well as themselves.[4]

Adorno’s point here is that art is one of two things – it is either reactionary to its social context, or it is meant to be no more than an aesthetically pleasing piece of work with little or no critical functions; an inoculating piece of mass produced culture designed only to distract those to whom it is sold from the real conditions of their existence. Despite the massive transformation of culture, in all its forms, since Adorno’s time, the pervasion of mass culture – its structural place within the sociality totality – has survived into the twenty-first century.

The need for theorists such as Marx, Adorno, the Frankfurt School and many others is still pressing; although their theories may be ‘outdated’, the critical force of their ideas persists. As can be seen from the relationship between Marx and Adorno, many critical thinkers are reactionary to the thinkers that came before them, Marx himself both taking influence and departing from Hegel. Although the capitalist superstructure and mass culture remains the dominant network of ideological meanings in contemporary social life, and although this may preclude the ambition to find a monolithic socio-political alternative (as most-modern theorists have suggested), the need for the critical practices found in the classical texts of Marxism and Critical Theory is paramount because they offer, in the very least, an alternative thought process, a way of reading, not just consuming culture. It is in the relationality of the various oppositional reading practices – feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonialist, cultural materialist, affect theory, cybernetics, and so on – that the future of critical theory lies. In other words the classical texts of critical theory, despite their age, still contribute the idea of radical reading which forms the basis of much contemporary cultural criticism; and contemporary critics would do well to remember that.


Daniel Formby is a writer and the editor of Front Lines, an anthology of short stories published by Valley Press (2012) and Avis Magazine.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Continuum) , p. iv

[2] Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (New Accents) (London: Routledge) p. 42

[3] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Oxford: Forgotten Books) p. 28

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Continuum) p. 65

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