The Frankfort School: Brief Introduction to Critical Theory

During the past week, one weekly reader made a suggestion, a suggestion I want to begin responding to in this week’s blog. His suggestion had to do with Critical Theory, which many thoughtful people wish they knew a bit about. Not more than a few weeks earlier, another friend related a very tense small group meeting in which the subject came up. He did not know what to say because he had no background. This week, I hope to provide that background for readers. [1]

These blogs attempt to give a sympathetic reading of even those writers about whom I have significant doubts. Readers will have to decide for themselves how successful or unsuccessful I have been. I was and am saving some of the more controversial blogs for later; however, as I have warned readers in recent months, as we come closer and closer to today, that becomes harder and harder to delay. One day in 2022, it will become no longer possible. Nevertheless, the goal of this blog series remains exploration and understanding.

Most readers have heard the term, “Critical Theory.” As late as five years ago, however, few ordinary church members had heard of the term “Critical Theory” and almost no one outside of academia of the term “Frankfort School.” I barely knew what the term, “Critical Theory” meant. Today, things are different. Interestingly, the Frankfort School and Critical theory are not new. In fact, scholars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have at least known something of the existence of such a school, and the story of its emergence perhaps helps understand a bit of the cultural situation in which Bonhoeffer lived and died, for critical theory has its roots in Germany after the First World War when he was reaching maturity and preparing for a career in theology.

History of the Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” of social theory, known as “Critical Theory,” is a philosophical and sociological movement that originated in Germany after World War I. Since. World War II, the movement has become influential among intellectuals throughout the world and perhaps especially in the United States. It is called the “Frankfurt School” because it was founded as the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 by the son of a prosperous Jewish family. The objective of the founder was to develop Marxist studies in Germany.

After the Russian Revolution of 1918, it was the hope of Marxists all over the world that the day of the proletarian revolution foreseen by Marx had come. Germany was devasted by its loss of the war and faith in its essential institutions destroyed. In November 1918, as a consequence of the German defeat there was a naval mutiny. Within a few days, disturbances spread throughout the German Empire. The situation developed into a mass protest against the monarchical system as the working classes joined forces with the troops to create a new order in Germany. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were formed and assumed political and military powers, similar to what occurred in Russia. Various social democratic parties unified their efforts and became the key political players in the November revolution. [2]

For a time, it looked as if a Russian-style communist revolution was in the making. However, this was not to be. The various factions that had united to overthrow the Kaisers’ regime eventually fell apart due to political infighting. The military, which had supported the revolutionaries became disenchanted, and fell away from their support. Perhaps most importantly, the German working class did not, as expected, join in supporting revolutionary change. This was devastating to conventional Marxist thinking.

An election for the National Assembly on 19 January 1919 resulted in formation of a parliamentary democracy. Although the following months saw bitter confrontations with the radical left, including local uprisings and wildcat strikes, a Soviet style revolution was not to be. On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly was constituted and elected the first President of the Reich.

Unfortunately, the victors in the First World War did nothing to assist the fragile new democracy in Germany. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, required financial restitution by Germany to the victors of 132 billion gold marks (about $270 billion today). There was no way Germany could repay such a huge sum, and it was plunged into poverty. The average German felt humiliated by the actions of the victorious allies, resented their treatment, and desired a government that would restore the grandeur of the German state as it had been before the War, when Germany was the principal nation of Europe. This was the root cause of Hitler’s ability to gain power.

It was in this social milieu that the Frankfort School was formed. As Germany and the West entered into the Great Depression, there was continuing division in German society and growing anger at the humiliation of the nation. It was in that context that National Socialism, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party emerged. Hitler was violently anti-communist as well as being anti-Jewish. At the time, the leadership of the Frankfurt School was primarily Jewish and in personal danger in Germany. After 1933, when the Nazi party gained complete power, the Nazis forced closure of the Frankfurt Institute. The institute and many of its leadership moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City.

Fundamental Tenants of the School

As mentioned above, the roots of the Frankfort School and Critical Theory are found in its interpretation of Marxist thought. It is fundamentally a reaction to the perceived failures of capitalism and the economic injustice that was observed by thinkers, Christian, non-Christian, Marxist and otherwise. What troubled those inclined towards Marxism in the early 20th Century was the failure of the prophesies of Marx to be fulfilled. There was no definite crisis of free market capitalism as predicted. The working class in Western Europe did not join the revolution as expected. Capitalism seemed to many to be providing a gradually (and sometimes rapidly) increase in the standard of living of most people.

Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Originally, the Frankfort School was interested in responding to Marxist thought in the context of German society and the failure of Marxist ideology to succeed in transforming German society. Its original leader was a Marxist thinker. However, as years proceeded, under its second leader Max Horkheimer, this approach was supplemented by an interest in the economic and political implications of the psychoanalytic theory of Freud under the influence of Eric Fromm (1900-1980), who tried to unify Freudian analysis and Marxist thinking.

Critical Theory evolved as a multi-disciplinary interpretation of society and culture grounded in a Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political ideas.’ [3] On a broader scale, Critical Theory makes a multifaceted critique of Post-Enlightenment modernity, liberal democracy, and thought emanating from the Enlightenment. As to modern capitalist society it seeks ways to free Western culture from its perceived bondage to what it perceives as inhuman and alienating social structures.


Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II, though he was educated in pre-World War II Germany and taught there until he left because of the persecution of Nazi regime. He left at the same time that Paul Tillich, who had been one of his academic advisors, left Germany. Adorno, with Horkheimer, wrote one of the earliest critiques of Enlightenment thinking.

In his view, the Enlightenment had attempted to liberate human beings from oppressive regimes but ended up trapping them in a kind of thought that made fascism possible. [4] Fundamental to this way of thinking is the idea that all of Western and traditional thought has been corrupted, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Muslim, Jewish, Eastern and Western. A complete revolution is needed in thinking to overcome the repression of culture. It is easy to see how this notion has influenced the attempts in modern academia to remove the Western Canon from study, to denigrate the institutions of Western democracy, to reject all religious influences (not just Christian), and to seek revolutionary changes in social roles of all kinds.

Despite their critique of the Enlightenment, Adorno and most of the critical theorists do not finally reject the Enlightenment. They do not seek either a retreat into pre-Enlightenment society nor a kind modified Enlightenment that recognizes the importance of traditional religion, morality and values. What they seek is an “Enlightenment of the Enlightenment.” This strand of Critical Theory seeks ways to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern secularization, but without denying that the Enlightenment involved human progress. It might be best to say that Adorno and Horkheimer sought a new stage in human society that involves true post-Enlightenment in which human beings create a new society free of the barriers that caused prior attempts to humanize Western culture to fail.

Marcuse and Critical Theory

One of the best known of the members of the Frankfurt school is Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Marcuse represents the romantic component of Critical Theory. For Marcuse, Western civilization has been shaped by the political, economic, moral and scientific theories grounded in an exaltation of a particular form of human reason. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle’s (and even before) Western thinkers sought knowledge via a continual progressive rationalization of reality. In such a culture, feelings are repressed and sensual gratification considered an evil to be overcome.

According to Marcuse, the conflict between reason and sensuality expressed in the works of Plato and Aristotle greatly contributed to the development of repressive morality and hierarchical social organization. Such repression also justifies a capitalist mode of economic organization. As a Marxist, Marcuse was dedicated to a social and economic revolution undergirded by Marxist ideas. In his view, a key aspect of overturning capitalism involves the elimination of repressive sexual morality.

Marcuse was opposed to the Viet Nam Ear and became a kind of philosophical guru to the American radical left during the protests against that war. His work became extremely popular on American college campuses during that period. I can remember reading his work in the early 1970’s. His thought has fallen into some disfavor in Europe, but remains an important influence on Critical Theory in the American context.

Paul Tillich and Critical Theory

As mentioned, Theodore Adorno studied under the philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965). After the First World War, Tillich embraced socialism and taught at Frankfurt, where he was involved with the founders of the Frankfurt School. He published a study of Marxism, The Socialist Decision in 1933. [5] The book was later both banned and burned during Nazi demonstration in the streets of Frankfurt. Tillich’s thought analyzed the dialectics of Marxism and the doctrines of Christianity with a view towards finding a common ground and a religious basis for Marxist thought. In The Socialist Decision, Tillich concluded that the mutual hostility between religion and Marxism flows from a misunderstanding of science and the kind of knowledge science produces. Tillich writes:

The attitude of socialism toward religion could never have been as negative as it has become, if socialism had not thought that it had a substitute for religion as its disposal, namely, science.[6] 

The problem is, therefore, two sided: (i) secular socialists substituted science for religion and (ii) religious people became hostile toward Marxism because of Marx’s tendency to make science and religion inevitable enemies.

Tillich undertook to find ways to undo what he viewed as the false opposition of science to religion and religion to science in hopes of finding a way to undo the mutual hostility and open up Christians to Marxist and Socialist ideals. Tillich’s solution was to see in science an explanation of material reality and in religion as the confrontation of the human subject with the ultimate (what he called “Ultimate Concern.” [7]

Habermas and Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, (born June 18, 1929) is considered the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. Habermas studied under Adorno and eventually took Horkheimer’s chair at the Frankfurt Institute. Born just before Hitler took over the German government, Habermas’ childhood was spent in Nazi Germany. He was a member of the Hitler Youth in his childhood. At age 15, during the last months of the war he was sent to the Western Front. After Germany’s defeat in May 1945, he completed his education. He studied under Adorno, and was deeply influenced by his work.

This is perhaps a good place to introduce the term, “skeptical generation.” After World War II, as the German intelligentsia came to grips with the evil of Naziism, many became permanently suspicious of the history and tradition of German culture that led to Hitler’s rise to power. Habermas was one of these, as was Adorno. Part of their critique of the Enlightenment had to do with the impact of the German Enlightenment and its inexplicable  powerlessness to criticize and prevent the Nazi rise of power.

Habermas has been critical of thinkers who cooperated with the Nazi regime (Heidegger), supportive of nuclear and other disarmament initiatives, critical of the sometimes-fascist tendencies of the political left, supportive of Israel, and sympathetic with the emergence of the European Union. In all this, we see a consistent attempt to reject the nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and power dominated ideas with which he was bombarded in his early years.


Critical theory was, in its origin another outgrowth of the social upheaval created by the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals saw the brutality and injustice of much of the emerging capitalistic economic system and the societies most influenced by its emergence—those of Western Europe. Critical Theory evolved as a response to the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1918 to take root in Western Europe and the failure of the “proletariat” to support, the revolution. Its evolution has been as a critique of Western culture in total, and especially since World War II of the primary Western democracy, the United States, where it has gained many adherents.

Critical Theory is clearly Marxist in its inspiration. While it is broader than the work of Karl Marx, it has its roots in Marx’s approach and his critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, Critical Theory recognizes the failures of some of Marx’s predictions and the inadequacy of some of his ideas. Most critical theorists modify Marx to some degree, returning to a reading of Kant and Hegel and what might be called an “idealist application” of Marxist materialism. Over time, the movement has engaged with anthropology, Freudian psychology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, and a variety of sources in its critique of Western and traditional cultures.

At the center of its analysis lies the notion that only by exposing the regimes of oppression that undergird capitalist and traditional societies can the revolution that Marx anticipated finally become real. For this to happen, the supports of traditional societies that impede social progress (in their view), familial, social, economic, moral, philosophical, religious, and political need to be overthrown so that a more human world can be created. Unfortunately, its analysis sits under much of the social tensions of our day, violence, and the misplaced moralities of some contemporary revolutionary movements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For more than three years, I have written a weekly blog on political philosophy and theology. For most of that time, the blog has proceeded chronologically beginning with the early Greeks. The idea has been to follow the development of political philosophy from its beginning until today. Originally, I intended to finish by January 2023. That goal will not be reached. I hope to be substantially done by May 30 of next year. It is then my hope to write the weekly blog for at least most of the remainder of 2023 reflecting on what has been learned over the years of this series.

[2] Historical Exhibition Presented by the German Bundestag, “November1918-19 Revolution” found at (Downloaded October 17, 2022).

[3] See, “The Frankfort School of Critical Theory” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy October 17, 2022).

[4] See, “Theodore Odorno” in the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia at (downloaded October 17, 2022). One factor that must always be kept in mind in understanding critical theory and some of its current pronouncements is that many of its founders and early proponents had been deeply traumatized by the fact that Germany, the most “enlightened nation in Europe, produced the Nazi Party and its inhumanity.

[5] See, Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012). This book was originally published in 1933.)

[6] The Socialist Decision , 81.

[7] It is impossible to adequately or fairly describe any of the thinkers covered by this blog. There will be other blogs on each of these thinkers. In particular, the thought of Tillich on political matters needs a broader treatment in the future. As a Christian, he cannot be ignored by Christian thinkers.

One thought on “The Frankfort School: Brief Introduction to Critical Theory”

  1. We didn’t know any of this,Chris. Ian arrived in Union TheologicalSeminary, NY, shortly after Tillich’s retiral.

    He thanks you for sharing this.

    Blessings and regards from both. Of us to you and Cathy.

Comments are closed.