What role does culture play in Western Marxism?

One of the major contributions of the Frankfurt School is the spawning of critical theory, the term first being coined by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt.  One other leading intellectual of the Frankfurt School (which was founded in 1923), is Max Horkheimer.  In his 1937 essay titled ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, he made important connections between mass culture and political economy.  He noted that while ‘stored-up knowledge’ is the basis of traditional theory, critical theory “sought to understand the social world as changeable, thereby stripping reality of its character as ‘pure factuality’.” (Horkheimer, as quoted in Arato, 1993, p.221)  He stressed the idea that critical theory is a broader project that mere increase of knowledge.  In other words, its  goal is no less than humankind’s liberation from slavery.  In modern times, where the chattel-slavery system is now defunct, slavery manifests in the form of economic oppression.  It is in light of this view that policymakers in Australia should seek to liberate the underprivileged sections of its population from suffering.

In this sense, critical theorists such as Horkheimer shared with other Frankfurt Schoolers the idea of mass culture as an ideology.  And the inspiration they drew from Marx is limited to the subtitle of his monumental work Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.  (Browitt & Milner, 2002, p.58)  What separated the Frankfurt Schoolers from other members of Western Marxist tradition is their “radically culturalist version of the Marxian tradition, which, ‘came to concentrate overwhelmingly on study of superstructures … It was culture that held the central focus of its attention’  The characteristic thematics were human agency, subjective consciousness, and hence also culture.” (Browitt & Milner, 2002, p.67)

Herbert Marcuse is another Frankfurt Schooler, whose seminal works Eros and Civilization & The Aesthetic Dimension have focused on art as an expression of culture.  He thought that art must retain both its negativity and its autonomy so as to be a potent political tool.  He agreed with other Frankfurt Schoolers that “high art is privileged as the site of authenticity, mass culture anathematised and sociologically ‘explained’ as the site of manipulation.” (Bottomore, 2002, p.9)  It wasn’t until the emergence of ‘second generation’ Frankfurt Schoolers, led by critical theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, that the institutional basis of all culture got duly recognized.

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