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Test Your Theory

In response to:

Three Authors in Search of a Proletariat from the April 6, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

The eventual test of any ‘critical theory’ or ‘sociology of opposition’ can only be the development, or failure to develop, of large-scale social movements which aim to create, and begin to create in practice, an egalitarian, noncoercive form of social life. In the meantime, the theory remains hypothetical. What justifies its existence at present, and makes such theoretical inquiry worthwhile, is the potentiality that has been revealed in the labor movement and in the new social movements of the past decade for a renewed activity to transform society” (Professor Tom Bottomore, NYR, April 6).

Professor Bottomore’s intention, surely, is generous. He asks that no matter how abstract or profound a social theory, it express a human project—the radical transformation of social existence. He is right to imply that, in many circumstances, a theory unrelated to a project of this sort may prove sterile or worse, a legitimation of existing conditions. Are there not, however, other relationships between a critical theory of society and a project of social transformation?

Firstly, a sociology engendered by a despairing conservativism may also produce truths (often enough, unpleasant ones) about social existence. An aristocratic disdain for bourgeois market relations found its way, in the nineteenth century, into aesthetic doctrines which were later transmuted into the elements of an oppositional social theory. The young Marx, after all, began as an unpublished romantic poet.

Even reformist meliorism, frequently so despised, has developed a sociology or sociologies which have had important critical functions. Some of the best American sociology has been done by the Chicago School, an academic ancillary of middle-class social reform. There were similar trends in Germany with the “socialists of the lecture platform” and in France, where Durkheim and his followers constituted a social Jacobin party in the universities. Reformist sociologies of this type usually exhausted themselves: reform never seemed enough. Radical sociology has often begun, however, precisely after such defeats—and not necessarily in the context of a larger social movement.

A critical or oppositional sociology often arises precisely when we despair of changing society. As Professor Bottomore points out, this was the origin of the work of the Frankfurt School. Were its insights into late capitalist society gratuitous, because it could not attach itself to a social group or class capable of transforming the social order? Are we to reject its work on the nature of industrial culture, on the modern personality structure, on new modes of domination and exploitation, because these do not issue in any direct way in a political program? The German student movement has uttered this criticism of its teachers in Frankfurt. Curiously—and interestingly—enough, that movement is now working its way back to something like a traditional alliance with the working class within the framework of conventional party and union politics. It has renounced, in other words, a direct connection between its critical theory and its political possibilities. All the same, its vision of these possibilities has been enriched by its theory.

The demand that we understand the constraints upon us, even if we cannot immediately alter these, is an honorable one. The ability to reflect is a difficult, and fragile, human achievement. No social movement in a knowledge-based society can dispense with systematic reflection. Reflection, however, has its own rights and its own autonomy. Projects of transformation may well begin with insights seemingly utopian or futile. The theory may create a not inconsiderable piece of reality, and may itself evoke the beginnings of a social movement. If it does not, it may still retain its dignity and much of its value.

Norman Birnbaum

Amherst College

Amherst, Massachusetts

Tom Bottomore replies:

I don’t think Norman Birnbaum and I have any profound disagreement. He is right to point out that social criticism may originate in a variety of different circumstances; for example, from a conservative reaction against change, or from the defeat of a radical movement. But the appearance of a comprehensive critical theory—Marxism being the obvious example—does seem to me to be intimately linked with the rise and development of a new social movement aiming to change society in a radical way. In my review, however, I was not mainly concerned with the origins of criticism, but with questions, raised especially by Wellmer, about how a critical theory might be tested; and from this aspect it is crucial to consider whether social movements are developing which confirm, in some sense, the prognostications of the theory.

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