The Changing Notion of „Labour” in the Tradition of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School

János Weiss

The present collection intends to delineate the history of changing approaches to the problem of “labour” during the theoretical evolution of various strains of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School from its early Marxian roots to Honneth’s theory of recognition.

The initial program of the Frankfurt School, first outlined by Horkheimer in the late twenties, foresaw a comprehensive (both empirical and theoretical) research in order to develop a new scientific approach which reflects on the reproduction of hegemonic order which takes place in science itself, an approach which can also be a base for developing a new language that can lay bare the mechanisms reproducing social injustices and which can have a liberating and revolutionary potential. This program, influenced by George Lukács’s early works, was formed by the empirical evidence that—contrary to the expectations of classical Marxian theory—the social cataclysm caused by the economic crisis did not led to mass social unrest, but to passive resignation within the working class. This initial program was later, in light of the ascent of fascism in Germany, the Second World War and the Holocaust, turned into a pessimistic, absolute negative philosophy of history in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored by Horkheimer and Adorno. In this book, they reverted to the anthropological roots of the Marxian notion of “labour” and reformulated this to describe the nature and evolution of human cognition in the terms of conquest and subjugation of nature, an eternal cycle which ultimately leads to the gradual destruction of reason and self-subjugation from which there is no escape and to which there is no remedy.

This approach was relativized and reformulated by Habermas in his early works (one of which features in this collection). Habermas distinguished between “labour” and “interaction” as two models of social action. While the former very much resembled the Marxian interpretation of labour, interaction was a form of action which made mutual understanding and communication possible. It was the latter which became the central notion of the reformulated critical theory in the works of Habermas and his followers. As a consequence, the attention within Critical Theory turned to the process of communication and possibilities of understanding, whereas the notion of “labour” disappeared from the writings and research project almost altogether.

Meanwhile, however, Claus Offe, a German political scientist loosely connected to the Frankfurt School, undertook an important attempt—heavily influenced by Marx—to develop a political economy of labour in the context of the post-war welfare state, especially the West-German welfare state. In his analysis he ultimately arrived at a pessimistic assessment of the viability of post-war welfare state (a lead temporarily taken up by Habermas himself in his essay on the crisis tendencies of late capitalism) in the light of declining productivity, mass unemployment and ageing society. Without the reformulation of “labour” (a now classical essay with such an attempt is part of this selection), he concluded, these factors can lead to systemic instability and might even endanger the post-war European (German) welfare states and liberal democracies. As these questions dominated the West-German public and political debate for much of the seventies, several intellectuals—not necessarily connected to the Frankfurt School—felt prompted to contribute to the ongoing discussion. One of these contributions, a highly influential and provocative essay form Ralf Dahrendorf also features in this collection.

From the beginning of the eighties, the research into labour along the Habermasian tradition seemed to be re-emerging again, mostly in the form of (partly or entirely) empirically oriented research projects within labour sociology and industrial sociology (one essay in this field has also been chosen for this thematical block).

A more important development was, however, Honneth’s attempt to reformulate Critical Theory as a theory of recognition. Honneth systematically re-analyzed the classical issues of Critical Theory in light of his recognition approach. His groundbreaking essay on the recognition theory of labour is the last text of the present collection.

Released: Replika 68, 5–140.