Critical Theory, Marxism and International Ethics

Authored by: Steven C. Roach

The Ashgate Research Companion to Ethics and International Relations

Print publication date:  September  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671015
eBook ISBN: 9781315612935
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043546


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‘Critical theory’ was first coined in 1937 by the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research or the ‘Frankfurt School’. It represents a rich synthesis of social and liberal theory (Kant, Hegel, Marx and Weber) and today encompasses a wide range of contemporary radical perspectives, including poststructuralism, feminism and communicative action theory. While some have referred to critical theory as a so-called ‘second stage of Marxism’, 1 1

Andrew Arato, for instance, refers to the Frankfurt School’s extension of Marxism as a so-called ‘second stage of Marxism’ (Arato and Gebhardt 1993, 6).

Frankfurt School critical theory has been criticised for lacking a coherent and systematic structure. 2 2

For a discussion of this point, see Bronner (2002).

Although this lack has allowed critical theory to serve as a pliable, self-reflective alternative to positivist approaches, it also underscores critical theory’s abstract and highly obscure orientation. The obscurity of critical theory, however, serves an important purpose: it helps to ensure that the ideas and research of critical theory do not turn into the political tools for ascertaining facts and asserting political authority.

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