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Critical Theory: International Relations’ Engagement With the Frankfurt School and Marxismfree

Critical Theory: International Relations’ Engagement With the Frankfurt School and Marxismfree

  • Faruk YalvaçFaruk YalvaçDepartment of International Relations, Middle East Technical University


Critical International Relations theory (CIRT) is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. What is crucial is not only the social explanation, but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. Critical theory in International Relations (IR) is part of the post-positivist turn or the so-called “fourth debate,” which followed the inter-paradigm debate of the 1970s. The post-positivist period in IR consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened up wide-ranging critique of the neorealist “orthodoxy” that has dominated the discipline since the beginning of the 1980s. Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of IR, spurred the development of alternative forms of analysis and approaches, and emergedas the main alternative to mainstream IR. Two traditions of critical thought in IRtrace back to or are based on the views of Karl Marx. The first is the normative Critical Theory (CT) of the Frankfurt School. The second one is a structural critical tradition based on a critique and analysis of the political economy of capitalism. It is argued in the paper that the normative aspects of the critique of International Relations has to be integrated with the structural and historically specific critique of capitalism to make them politically relevant and adequate for a social critique of international relations.


  • International Relations Theory

Updated in this version

Updated and expanded.


This article presents an analysis and evaluation of critical international relations theory (CIRT). Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of International Relations (IR) and analyzes the alternative forms of analysis/approaches that have developed under the banner of critical theory. Since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of CIRT have been the main alternative to mainstream IR. After reviewing Critical International Relations Theory after 25 Years, Rengger and Thirkell-White concluded that “various forms of ‘critical theory’ . . . constitute the main theoretical alternatives within the discipline” (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007b, pp. 4–5). They argued that even “a robust, analytical and still heavily ‘scientific’ U.S. academy now has strong elements of critical theory of various sorts lodged within it” (p. 9).

Critical International Relations theory is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory political project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. Critical theorists seek to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. Therefore, what is crucial is not only the social explanation but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1977b, p. 158). In the words of one of its founders, Horkheimer, “theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (Horkheimer, 2002, p. 246). Following this argument, Horkheimer describes the aims of critical theory as “to strive for a state of affairs in which there will be no exploitation or oppression, in which an all-embracing subject, namely, self-aware mankind, exists” (Horkheimer, 2002, p. 241). One of the most well-known definitions of critical theory (CT) in IR belongs to Robert Cox (1981) who defined critical theory in the context of his famous landmark distinction between problem-solving theory and critical theory. According to Cox, problem-solving theories are preoccupied with maintaining social power relationships and the reproduction of the existing system, attempting to ensure that “existing relationships and institutions work smoothly” (p. 129). Unlike ahistorical problem-solving theories, which serve the existing social arrangements and support the interests of the hegemonic social forces, critical theory, according to Cox, is self-reflexive, criticizes the existing system of domination, and identifies processes and forces that will create an alternative world order (Cox, 1981, pp. 129–130). Linklater (2001), another key critical theorist in international relations, defined critical theory as a post-Marxist theory that “continues to evolve beyond the paradigm of production to a commitment to dialogic communities that are deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and exclusion—domestic, transnational and international” (p. 25). Similar definitions of critical theory emphasize one or more of its aspects. For instance, Steans et al. (2010) stressed that “the express purpose of Critical Theory is to further the self-understanding of groups committed to transforming society” (p. 106). Alway (1995) defined critical theory as a “theory with practical intent” oriented to the emancipatory transformation of society. According to Neufeld, the defining feature of critical theory is its “negation of positivism” and “technical reason” dominant in mainstream IR (Neufeld, 1995, pp. 129–130). For Hutchings (2007),

although critical theory takes many different forms, it always distinguishes itself from other forms of theorising in terms of its orientation towards change and the possibility of futures that do not reproduce the patterns of hegemonic power of the present. (p. 72)

Levine (2012), who focused on a more methodological reevaluation of critical theory, proposed the concept of sustainable critique, which he defined as “a practice, tied to a philosophical-normative sensibility” (p. 231) aimed at an “entente between positive theory building and critique” (p. 230), and a “practical and reflexive theory” (p. 211).

In line with these different definitions, a heterogeneous group of theories has been labeled as critical in International Relations, including feminism, poststructuralism, critical geopolitics, critical security studies, critical international political economy, postcolonialism, and international historical sociology. This article focuses on two specific traditions of critical thought in IR derived from or based on the views of Karl Marx: the normative critical theory (CT) of the Frankfurt School and a structural critical tradition based on a critique and analysis of the political economy of capitalism.

Accordingly, the article contains six sections. The first briefly locates critical theory in the context of the development of International Relations and provides an overview of the main strands of CIRT. The following two sections discuss the origins of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School of Sociology and then present the contribution of Habermas, whose work has been the most influential in IR theory. The fourth section outlines the main contributions from IR scholars to the development of a normative CIRT in accordance with Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality. This section particularly focuses on the contributions of Richard Ashley and Andrew Linklater to CIRT. The fifth section discusses some of the key strands of structural critical theory incorporating neo-Gramscianism and Marxist historical sociology counterposed with the idealist normative critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. The article concludes with an overview of the efforts to integrate critical theory into IR and directions for future development. It is argued that the normative aspects of the critique of International Relations has to be integrated with the structural and historically specific critique of capitalism to make it politically relevant and adequate for a social critique of IR.

The Critical Tradition and the Meaning of Critique

The idea of critique is a product of the heritage of Enlightenment. Basically, it involves the use of reason and critical insight in relation to the liberation of human beings. It expresses the opposition between reason and dogma, the rational and the revealed. As Shapcott (2008) summarized, “in the language of Kant, this is termed Enlightenment, in the language of Hegel, it is spirit or history (Geist) and in the language of Marx, it is emancipation” (p. 327). Kant claimed in 1781 in his Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that his era was the age of critique. Kant’s critique involved a reflection on the conditions and limits of knowledge in order to overcome the subjective constraints imposed by one’s perceptions (Connerton, 1976, p. 18). Later, Hegel, in The Phenomenology of Mind (2003), reflected on the constraints on human autonomy and how humans can liberate themselves from these constraints. Marx’s critical inquiry was based on an examination of the contradictions of capitalism, which will ultimately cause its demise, and the formation of a just global order. In his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx developed a critique of the social conditions for thinking about social reality. He argued that the categories used by classical political economists were in fact propositions that led to the legitimation of existing power structures within the liberal capitalist economy (Connerton, 1976, pp. 23–24). This Enlightenment heritage later produced different forms of critical theory under changed historical circumstances, revising and reinterpreting the insights of these key critical philosophers, adapting its categories to a new historical reality. The meaning of critique itself, therefore, has altered as the historical conditions that informed its categories.

Critical theory in International Relations (IR) (see Davies, 2014; Devetak, 2013; Ferreira, 2018; Roach, 2013; Shapcott, 2008) is part of the post-positivist turn (Lapid, 1989) or the “fourth debate,” which followed the interparadigm debate (Banks, 1985) of the 1970s. The postpositivist period consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened wide-ranging criticisms of the neorealist “orthodoxy” that has dominated international relations theorizing since the beginning of the 1980s (Ashley, 1986; Smith, 1996). In particular, the idea of a structurally determined, immutable anarchical system adopted by the neorealists was heavily criticized. Neorealism reified and naturalized the existing structure of the international system, taking it as given and immutable. This inevitably gave neorealism a problem-solving quality that sustained the existing asymmetries of power and equality in the international system (George, 1989; Lapid, 1989).

The first task of a critical theory of International Relations was to expose the assumptions that formed the basis of mainstream theoretical and empirical inquiry. Thus, the development of critical theory enabled those who were “exiled” or “excluded” from IR to start speaking their own language (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 259). Instead of trying to explain social reality in terms of transhistorical regularities and making predictions on that basis, these scholars instead emphasized the reflexive nature of theorizing, underscoring the social, historical, and contingent nature of knowledge claims, posing both an epistemological and an ontological challenge to positivist social science. Critical theorists reject the objectivist conception of truth as a correspondence to the real world. Objects of knowledge are not given as the positivists assume but are constituted by different powers and interests. This is summarized in Cox’s famous comment that “theories are for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1981). As Cox later argued

there is no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is the more important to examine it as ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective.

(Cox, 1986, p. 207)

Critical theorists also indicate how objects of knowledge are intimately linked to theoretical practice itself. Theoretical activity is not only a methodological pursuit but also closely associated with the construction of political reality (Eckersley, 2008, pp. 347–348; Neufeld, 2001, p. 138). Truth for critical theorists is, therefore, more “normative rather than objective and scientific” (Fluck, 2010, p. 266) than the positivists assume, and the commitment to normative progressive change is an essential part of critical theory.

However, a distinction needs to be made between different forms of critical theory in IR. Critical Theory (CT) with capital letters refers more directly to the critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School and mainly from the work of Jürgen Habermas (1972, 1979, 1984), which is elaborated on in the third section of this article. Critical theory in lowercase letters refers to postpositivist theories such as feminism, historical sociology, poststructuralism, constructivism, and postcolonialism, which are united in their critique of the mainstream and, particularly, of neorealism. The latter group of theories is influenced both by Marx and poststructuralist French philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida, who are themselves linked to Marxism in various ways. Although most critical theories draw their insights from Marxism (particularly their focus on change and justice), the neglect of classical Marxist works to explicitly deal with the impact of the state system on emancipatory politics has relegated Marxist critical theory in IR to a more isolated position compared with the more normative forms of critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. However, since the turn of the 21st century, more structural forms of critical theory based on historical materialism have developed, first in Neo-Gramscianism and later in international historical sociology, especially through the theory of uneven and combined development (UCD) and political Marxism. Thus, there is a rich variety of critical scholarship and theorizing today that alters the framework and substance of mainstream International Relations.

In short, critical theory has been very productive in developing alternative approaches and new areas of research in IR. One of the most important theoretical starting points and sources of inspiration for this whole development has emanated from the views of the Frankfurt School adopted by IR scholars.

Origins of Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School

Critical Theory is generally traced back to the Frankfurt School, whose origins lay in the establishment of the Institute for Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) at the University of Frankfurt in 1923 (Alway, 1995; Held, 1980; Jay, 1973; Rothe & Ronge, 2016). The members of the school were exiled to the United States during the Nazi Period and World War II but reestablished themselves in Germany in 1950. The Frankfurt School was part of the regeneration of critical thinking in social sciences due to the rise of fascism, the development of world economic crises, the New Deal, and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism. The most well-known thinkers of the Frankfurt School include philosophers such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm, second-generation theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, and a third-generation scholar, Axel Honneth.

The Frankfurt School theorists were concerned with “the dark side” of modernity and set themselves the task of understanding “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition” is sinking into a “new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). Reason, in which Enlightenment had placed all its hope for progress and emancipation, had become an instrument for dominating and destroying nature instead of liberating man. Critical theorists investigated how the conditions that produce injustice and the social pathologies of modernity could be exposed and transformed.

The Frankfurt School philosophers were particularly concerned with the proletariat’s declining and inhibited revolutionary consciousness and its support for right-wing movements in Germany. In different degrees, although still committed to Enlightenment ideals of emancipation, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas questioned the capacity of the proletariat to be the agent of revolution and placed the human species as the historical subject of emancipation. Reason had become an instrument of domination rather than critique and reflexivity, a situation that Horkheimer(1947) described as the “eclipse of reason” Horkheimer and Adorno emphasized how the instrumental rationality of positivism interested in the technical control of nature had been more successful than practical reason that was interested in the achievement of a good life. Their later work was tainted by a “politics of despair” and a “negativistic” social philosophy concerning emancipation with the Dialectic of Enlightenment “heralding the end of the emancipatory vision that had previously animated the [Frankfurt School]” (Brincat, 2011, p. 232). Thus, an immanent critique was necessary to understand the underlying social relations and the inner contradictions of society to explain why the proletariat consciousness was “limited and corrupted by ideology” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 242). Therefore, the “real social function of philosophy” was to develop a critique of itself and the prevailing social conditions not by a priori moral principles but by focusing on concrete relationships and contradictions in society for a “better order of things” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 212). Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in his seminal 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972), outlined the main premises of critical theory. Horkheimer’s starting point was the inhibition of critical and independent thinking in contemporary society for which he blamed traditional Western thought and an instrumental understanding of reason inherent in the dominant positivist understanding of science and society. In his essay, Horkheimer contrasted traditional theory with critical theory. Traditional theory adopts the model of natural sciences and sees knowledge as an instrument of control rather than the basis for human happiness. Facts are separated from the activity of theorizing; science is separated from the world it studies. Traditional theory is not self-reflexive, as it does not question the social context of the activity of theorizing nor the social conditions with which it deals. By contrast, according to critical theory, theories and theoretical activity are socially conditioned. Therefore, inquiry into emancipation requires an immanent critique of social life to provide insight into existing social contradictions and act as a guide for the social conditions necessary for an emancipated future. Horkheimer emphasized that critical theory “never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (Horkheimer, 2002, p. 246).

Cox did not mention Horkheimer when he made a distinction between problem-solving theory and critical theory (Cox, 1981). However, Cox also disputed the notion that problem-solving theory is value free, claiming that it is conservative (Cox, 1981, p. 129). In other words, for both Horkheimer and Cox, what is important is the political consequences of this distinction. This is reflected in Cox’s famous sentence “theory is always for someone and some purpose”: It is critical because it criticizes social arrangements. It demonstrates that problem solving is not value free but serves the status quo. Critical theory, by contrast, “does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing” (Cox, 1981, p. 129). The aims of critical theory

are just as practical as those of problem-solving theory, but it approaches practice from a perspective which transcends that of the existing order . . . Critical theory allows for a normative choice in favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing order, but it limits the range of choice to alternative orders which are feasible transformations of the existing world.

(Cox, 1981, p. 130)

Habermas and Critical Theory

Habermas (1972, 1979, 1984, 1987), who started the communicative turn of critical theory, is the most well-known of the second-generation critical theorists, and his views have been the most influential in International Relations (IR). Amy Allen (2016) argued that it is even possible to make a distinction between a pre-Habermasian and post-Habermasian critical theory.

Habermas continued the critique of reason and rationality initiated by the Frankfurt School, developing and remolding it into new dimensions. His theory of communicative action, discourse ethics, and analysis of the relation between knowledge and human interests have proved to be very productive in understanding and evolving alternative critical positions within IR.

The ideas of Habermas center on the radical democratization of society. In line with his ultimate belief in the ideals of Enlightenment, he believes that universal moral principles can be the basis of the resolution of conflicting claims concerning social and political life (Griffiths et al., 2008, p. 61). Unlike the negativistic philosophy of Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas treats modernity as an unfinished project and wishes to find a way that the promises of modernity can once again be realized. According to Habermas, although modernity has achieved technological progress, it has not yet brought freedom, solidarity, and human emancipation. Therefore, he seeks a path whereby freedom and progress can once again be united under modern conditions. He believes that historical materialism should also be reconstructed in a way that emphasizes the potential for social communication and expansion of mutual understanding rather than labor as the rational guiding element of social and political organization. Classical Marxism elevated the importance of labor but ignored the significance of the symbolic reproduction of capitalism through communication. Habermas therefore criticized the “production paradigm” of the early Frankfurt School for ignoring the “normative structures” of society, which “do not simply follow the path of development of reproductive processes” (Habermas, 1979, p. 117).

Accordingly, Habermas makes an ontological distinction between the system and the lifeworld, which are “two opposed principles of societal integration” (Habermas, 1987, p. 345) and “differently structured domains of social reality” (Habermas, 1991, p. 255). The system has objective features and consists of the economic, the political, and the sociopolitical spheres run by an instrumental / strategic rationality. Lifeworld on the other hand is the symbolic and normative space of moral development and emancipatory communication, which is the main focus of Habermas. It has interpretative and intersubjective features and is based on communicative rationality. The cognitive-instrumental rationality that is dominant in the system has, according to Habermas, “colonized” the lifeworld in modern society (Habermas, 1987). Therefore, it is necessary to “erect a democratic dam against the colonializing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the life world” (Habermas, 1992, p. 444). However, the relation between the system and the lifeworld is not one of a dialectical relation where the normative is linked to the social. It is more like a relation of functionality whereby the normative level serves to resolve the problems that emerge at the system level, which is itself accepted as given.

One of the most significant contributions of Habermas in terms of developing his theory of communicative rationality was the move he made from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy of language, thus changing the focus of Western philosophy for the first time since Descartes (Fluck, 2012; Habermas, 1984, 1987). This implies a shift of emphasis from the subject, the main agent of Enlightenment philosophy, to intersubjectivity in which the communication between language users is the fundamental cognitive form (Alway, 1995, p. 107; Fluck, 2012, p. 7). Therefore, in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, it is not the “relation of a solitary subject” to an objective world but the subject-subject relation that is primariy. The subject in this conceptualization is no longer concerned only with pursuing his own private interests but also interacts with other subjects in an intersubjective setting to further common interests. Thus, communication itself becomes “a source of praxis, and therefore a means of emancipation” (Fluck, 2012, p. 1) and rational progress. Since it allows for the communication and understanding of diverse identities and interests, this conception also facilitates a pluralist understanding of social reality, therefore rendering Habermas’s position compatible with some of the ideas of postmodern thinkers without sacrificing reason as the basis of social organization.

Habermas based his analysis on what he called a “pure communicative sociation,” defined as an Ideal Speech Situation, in which the actors can freely and truthfully communicate (Habermas, 1984, 1987). In this situation, the “force of the better argument” prevails. “The only regulations and ways of acting that can claim legitimacy are those to which all who are possibly affected could assent as participants in rational discourses” (Habermas, 1996, p. 458). Thus, rationality is formulated so that it does not solely imply a universality of norms but a discursive but nevertheless formal and procedural context of an ideal speech situation. History itself is reconceptualized as a collective learning process whereby the species not only acquires technical knowledge oriented to the instrumental domination of nature but also develops new norms of communication in the moral-practical sphere, avoiding the “asocial universalism of more traditional accounts of reason and progress” (Fluck, 2012, pp. 6–7; Habermas, 1987, p. 148).

Habermas links his views on communicative rationality to what he calls knowledge constitutive interests (Habermas, 1972), which pertains to the role of knowledge in achieving different forms of social arrangements. He argues that knowledge generated by positivism is not the only type of knowledge oriented to fulfill the needs of social life. Positivism conceives of social problems as technical problems that require technical solutions. However, knowledge of the social world should be based not only on social control but also on communication and human emancipation. Recognizing this problem, Habermas (1972) makes a distinction between different technical cognitive interests in which knowledge interests are the basis for controlling one’s environment, practical cognitive interests that seek to further intersubjective communication between different subjects, and emancipatory cognitive interests, a guiding communication that deals with the conditions of distorted communication and the conditions necessary to achieve autonomy and freedom.

Due to the limitation on the length of this work, a thorough critique of Habermas’s complex arguments cannot be presented here; however, some of the criticisms from IR scholars concerning the application of Habermas’s theory can be summarised as follows. . The first criticism relates to his idea of communicative reason and intersubjectivity. If human reason is only communicative, then a detachment from the objective and the particular inevitably occurs (for discussion, see Knafo, 2010). Therefore, the problem with most accounts of intersubjective formulation of emancipation is that although they adopt a critical outlook, it is not sufficiently critical because they take for granted the objective structures that impose limits on human action. As Joseph argued, “We must move beyond intersubjective practices to look at how these themselves are grounded in deeper structural relations” (Joseph, 2008, p. 128).

Another objection to Habermasian accounts of International Relations is whether his interpretation of Marx and historical materialism is a correct starting point from which to develop a critical theory of IR (Anievas, 2005, 2010). Anievas, for instance, has argued that Habermas’s philosophy “reconceptualizes production relations as a dimension of consensual, norm-governed social interaction” and subsumes relations of production under the concept of communicative action (Anievas, 2010, p. 151). However, capitalist relations of production refer to underlying structures of inequality and irreconcilable social struggles that cannot be conceptualized as part of consensual relations (Anievas, 2010, p. 151; also see Callinicos, 1989, pp. 114–115). Indeed, other scholars have also joined this criticism in arguing that without altering the objective conditions underlying capitalism, it would be futile to expect changes in social reality as a result of intersubjective consensus or what Habermas would later call discourse ethics (Fluck, 2010, p. 264). It is also argued that the separation of the economic from the political, or the normative and symbolic reproduction of society from the material sociopolitical structures, has the effect of naturalizing and legitimizing the system rather than developing a critical analysis of structures. Similarly, Anita Chari in criticizing Habermas’s theory has argued that in taking the system as an autonomized and denormativized structure, Habermas’s theory implicitly takes the existing forms of economy and state as necessary, and therefore cannot put forth a transformative politics (Chari, 2010, p. 600).

Normative Critical International Relations Theory: From Ashley to Linklater

Habermas’s theory of communicative action and his description of knowledge constitutive interests have been very influential in developing a normative/critical theory of International Relations (IR; Diez & Steans, 2005). In one of the first attempts to formulate a Habermasian inspired IR scholarship, Ashley in his Political Realism and Human Interests (Ashley, 1981) used Habermas’s concept of knowledge constitutive interests to understand different traditions of IR. Following Habermas, Ashley started with the assumption that “knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests” (Ashley, 1981, p. 207). Then he made a distinction between technical realism, practical realism, and what he called a dialectical competence model as reflecting different interests embedded within different traditions. According to Ashley, technical realism is represented in IR by neorealism, and it is oriented to the control of the international system by the most powerful. Practical realism is associated with an interest in communication and cooperation and is best represented by classical realism and the arguments of the English School. Ashley argued that although practical realism is an advance over structural realism, it still shares many of the assumptions of the realist understanding of IR. The dialectical competence model, however, incorporates both technical and practical realism but goes beyond them in favor of a more emancipated form of International Relations. As Brincat argued, this initial attempt to develop Habermasian categories in the context of International Relations did make a very important contribution to IR critical theory by “offer(ing) a number of advances on the sociology of the early [Frankfurt School], which was problematically confined to the examination of Euro- and state centric possibilities for emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 218). “Ashley’s dialectical competence model,” Brincat argued,

overcame the tendency of the [Frankfurt School] towards an endogeneous, state focused and Euro-centric form of critical theorizing and offered a way for CT to revitalize the project of emancipation by taking into account global forces in the dialectic of oppression and emancipation.

(Brincat, 2011, p. 237)

The most developed form of critical theory in international relations is the normative theory of Andrew Linklater (1990, 1998, 2001, 2007). The importance of critical theory for Linklater is to “facilitate the extension of moral and political community in international affairs” beyond the state and to “institutionalize cosmopolitan principles of morality” (Griffiths, 2007, p. 61). The existing international system according to Linklater is based on ethical particularism and intersocietal estrangement ; therefore, it is necessary to form a more inclusive and just system based on new moral principles that advance the civilizing process in IR. Based on, but extending Habermas’s concept of an ideal communication community, Linklater attempted to outline the conditions for the criticism that Marxism overemphasizes production; he wanted to develop a theory that is “beyond the paradigm of production,” one that is “deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and unjustified exclusion—domestic, transnational, and international” (Linklater, 2001, p. 25). For the realization of this project, Linklater envisaged a “triple transformation” of the political community that is more universal, less unequal, and more sensitive to differences (Linklater, 2001, p. 25) and to human beings’ fears about injury, vulnerability, and suffering (Linklater, 2006; Linklater & Suganami, 2006, p. 277). The realization of such a political community implies questioning the moral significance of national boundaries and developing post-national and post-sovereign or post-Westphalian forms of life (Linklater, 2001). According to Linklater, “the highest stages of moral-practical learning should promote a post-conventional ethic which defines the prima facie moral responsibility of engaging the whole of humanity in open dialogue about matters of common interest” (Linklater, 1998, p. 121).

Linklater considered that globalization has significantly intensified the instances and possibilities of “transnational harm,” rendering nation-states incapable of providing citizens with their basic needs of justice, social welfare, and physical security. Hence, there is an immanent possibility for the creation of a post- Westphalian community as represented by the European Union (Linklater, 1998).

Linklater’s critical project presented difficulties both at the theoretical and practical level, which are equally problematic in relation to the perspective taken by Habermas. One difficulty is the commitment to a form of rationality that assumes a universal subject committed to universal values. A central objection to this assumption is the totalizing nature of this reasoning bringing together diverse identities under one universal totality (Diez & Steans, 2005, pp. 134–136). This raises the issue of whether it is possible to conceive of a form of intersubjectivity that is sensitive to different voices leading to a common understanding.

A more crucial critique relates to the idealist conception of social change in Linklater’s normative project. The transformation of the political community toward more cosmopolitan forms of association is made possible through a learning process that has results that are inevitably indeterminate (Linklater, 1998, p. 86). As Anievas indicated,

The material conditions necessary for any functioning dialogic community within and between political communities would necessitate some form of social struggle forcibly translating the existing social order. A forceless ‘force of the better argument’ is not much help achieving universal human emancipation.

(Anievas, 2010, p. 154)

Shilliam (2002, p. 3) also suggested that Linklater takes an “essentially metaphysical” conception of social struggle and resistance where the primary force for the resolution of conflicts is attributed to “moral capital.” These observations can be linked to an overall lack of sociological sensitivity in analyzing historical change in Linklater’s work. According to Anievas, Linklater’s arguments fail to specifically address the “material prerequisites” (e.g., the substantive levels of political, economic, racial, and gender equality) for “the force of the better argument” to be effective in a dialogic community and “detaches” emancipatory practices from the “material and social” relations of capitalism (Anievas, 2010, p. 154). In a similar vein, in discussing critical theory, Norman Geras argued that social structures of capitalism do not make the participation of all classes possible in the discursive construction of norms (Geras, 1999, p. 163). Linklater’s analysis is thus similar to Habermas’s theory of communicative and discourse ethics, separating the concept of emancipation and moral learning from a structural critique of social domination in capitalism (Chari, 2010, p. 591).

An unresolved tension exists between universality and difference in the foundation of the claims of discourse ethics. Theoretically, the arguments for communicative rationality aim to discover the universal conditions of communication to avoid the morally relativist posture of the postpositivist approaches. Poststructuralists have been particularly critical of attempts to reach consensus because they see this diversity as the basis of freedom and emancipation. Linklater has also been quite attentive to the way in which the standpoint of the “others” should be considered, arguing thus for a “historically self-conscious universalism” sensitive to differences (Diez & Steans, 2005, p. 135). However, as Shapcott argued, “The notion of emancipation is too culturally specific, reflecting only the values of the European enlightenment” and this leads “to a problematic universalism that threatens to assimilate and legislate out of existence all significant differences” (Shapcott, 2008, p. 336).

Another issue is the way different cultures or communities come to interact with each other to arrive at a common ground or consensus and how this interaction is to be conceptualized. Historical sociologists have for some time argued that this interaction is not between equal social circumstances but takes the form of an uneven and combined development. Furthermore, it is not possible to imagine a dialogue that does not take this structural unevenness as its initial premise. Therefore, as Anievas argues, there is a Eurocentric bias in Linklater’s arguments, which “merely states a Euro-centric ‘inside-out’ bias by attributing the West’s development of higher levels of rationalization and morality to its own unique ability to learn and borrow from other cultures” (Anievas, 2010, p. 153)and does not take the uneven, multilinear, and interactive nature of social development into account. This results in a “rather ‘uncritical’ political project, often difficult to distinguish from ‘liberal’ IR analyses” (Anievas, 2010, p. 155). Thus Habermas’s and Linklater’s ideas are influenced by the notion of moral regulation and advancement at the global level, making them susceptible to Amy Allen’s (2016) criticisms of the Frankfurt School for its Eurocentrism and the need for decolonization.

Eckersley, in contrast, offered a critique on the Habermasian applications of critical theory from the perspective of green theory. Arguing that Habermas’s critical theory is “ultimately based on respect for the relative autonomy of the human subject,” she maintained that “the treatment of the other as moral subjects should be extended to nature, regardless of its level of communicative competence” (Eckersley, 1999, pp. 44–45).

At the practical level, the most obvious related difficulty is the various power differential in international society that makes negotiation and consensus difficult to achieve. In addition, the type of political activity required for the formation of a universal communication community is abstract and vague. Therefore, as Eckersley commented, it is not clear whether “the discourse ethic” is “always the best, or only, means for achieving transformation, or emancipation in general” (Eckersley, 2008, p. 353).

Structural Critical Theory : Gramscianism, Uneven and Combined Development and Political Marxism

Structural critical theory is the other well-known line of critical thinking in IR that provides a more materialist and social-structural understanding of critical theory compared to those approaches influenced by the normative idealism of Habermasian critical theory. It focuses on the political economy of capitalism and corrects the “Frankfurt School’s problematic tendency to abandon a rigorous critique of capitalism” (Leeb, 2018, p. 777). It is also different from other forms of critical IR approaches that define the social in intersubjective terms (such as constructivism). Here the problematique of international relations is formulated not as a normative, epistemological or philosophical issue but as a problem of social theory ( Nichols, 2018). What here is called structural critical theory in IR is generally associated with different forms of neo-Gramscian analysis (Bieler, 2005; Bieler & Morton, 2003, 2004; Burnham, 1991; Cox, 1983; Gill, 1993; Morton, 2007b, 2013), Marxist historical sociology of IR (HSIR) represented by political Marxism (Knafo & Teschke, 2021; Teschke, 2003), and neo-Trotskyist theory of Uneven and Combined Development (UCD) (Matin, 2013; Rosenberg, 1994, 2006, 2010) as well as with some recent historical sociological approaches that adopt different forms of Marxian historical materialism emphasizing the importance of transnational production processes and relations of production (Morton, 2013; van der Pijl, 1984; Van Apeldoorn, 2002, 2004).

The following two sections first outline neo-Gramscian theory and then consider the main issues involved in Marxist international historical sociology. Viewed from the perspective of IR theory, the most important aspect of neo-Gramscianism is its understanding of state and hegemony. The way neo-Gramscians see these concepts provides alternative starting points for developing a CIRT (Cox, 1981, 1983, 1986; Joseph, 2000, 2008). In contrast to the mainstream, which has an abstract and ahistorical understanding of the state, the state is understood as a form of social (class) relation. In the mainstream, an ontological exteriority (Morton, 2013) is assumed in terms of its analysis of the relation of the state to the society ignoring the internal relation between the two. However, in the historical materialist analysis, the separation of the public from the private or the state from civil society is a structural aspect of the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the state is not taken only in its institutional aspect but also in terms of its relations with other social forces in society and the way they influence the functioning of the state (Gramsci, 1971, p. 261). Thus, the class nature of the state can be understood from the way that the state maintains and supports the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. Gramsci labeled this unity of the political and civil society as the integral state “through which ruling classes organize their hegemony and moral superiority” (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 258, 271).

The Gramscian understanding of hegemony is also different from its use in the mainstream. In contrast to the accounts proffered by (neo) realists, which define hegemony as the concentration of material power in one dominant state, hegemony is defined with reference to the social relations of production and the way dominant social classes organize their domination. Furthermore, hegemony is conceived not only in terms of force but also as consenting to the legitimacy of existing institutions with respect to the reproduction of the existing social relations of production (see Joseph, 2000, 2008).

Neo-Gramscian thought entered International Relations primarily through the work of Robert Cox (1981, 1983, 1986), who extended the Gramscian categories of analysis especially the concept of hegemony to IR to develop an emancipatory approach to world politics. As opposed to the “deterministic and ahistorical” analysis of the mainstream, the concern of Cox is to “provide . . . a non-deterministic yet structurally grounded explanation of change” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 5). Cox also shared the concerns of the CT held by the Frankfurt School theorists about the way knowledge has been conditioned by the social, political, and historical context. Knowledge of IR, Cox argued, had become instrumental to furthering the interests of the dominant states that reflect the interests of their hegemonic classes. Cox generalized the Gramscian concept of hegemony to cover not only systems of domination in domestic societies but also those in the international. Similar to Gramsci, he was more interested in the “social basis of hegemony” and “its inherent points or moments of contradiction” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 6). According to Cox, world hegemonies are based on the universalization of the state-society complexes of a hegemonic state. Hegemony at the international level links the dominant mode of production within the world economy with “subordinate modes of production,” thus connecting “the social classes of different countries.” Like the domestic hegemony of a social class, world hegemony of a state is based not only on force but also on consent and its acceptance as legitimate by those participating in the system. Hegemony within a world order is consequently “based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality” (Cox, 1981, p. 139).

Cox developed what he called a world structures approach to analyze different world orders (Cox, 1981, 1989). To overcome the limitations of a state-centric approach, he applied this method to the following three levels or spheres of activity: (a) organization of production, more particularly with regard to the social forces engendered by the production process; (b) forms of states, which are derived from the study of different state/society complexes; and (c) world orders, that is, the particular configurations of forces. According to Cox, the dialectical relation between these three levels of activity constitutes different historical structures. Each of these structures, in turn, is affected by a configuration between dominant ideas, institutions, and material capabilities. These elements are irreducible and dialectically related and concretized in each of the elements of the historical structures (social forces, forms of states, and world orders) forming different world hegemonies.

At the core of these different world hegemonies is a dominant structure of accumulation (Cox, 1989), which is then projected outside state boundaries by a hegemonic class with the help of an increasingly internationalizing state apparatus. The hegemonic class disseminates and consolidates its ideology through different international organizations (e.g., the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G8, and United Nations), leading to the formation of a nascent global civil society (also see Gill, 1993; Gill & Law, 1988; van der Pijl, 1984). Together, these transnational forces exert pressure on other states to adopt the accumulation strategies of the hegemonic state. These states become “transmission belts” (Cox, 1981, 1989) between the hegemon and their domestic societies and become part of the hegemonic structure of the world system. Modern world history is then periodized with respect to different hegemonies such as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The internationalization of production has led to the formation of a new class of transnational labor, thus creating new forces for antihegemonic struggles. However, according to Cox, as the working classes are still nationally organized, antihegemonic struggles are bound to begin within national societies.

Cox’s approach has attracted a variety of criticism. For example, Teschke (2008, p. 174) argued that there is a problem with Cox’s concept of structures of accumulation, which he used instead of Marx’s concept of mode of production. These structures of accumulation, the starting point of Cox’s analysis, are actually “historical variations” within the capitalist mode of production, but these are taken as a given by Cox and not properly theorized. Teschke, therefore, criticized Cox for taking the development of capitalism in a pre-constituted state system without questioning its formation. Cox is also criticized for emphasizing inter-ruling class relations and ideology formation rather than class conflict as the primary contradiction of capitalism leading to a lack of understanding of its main dynamics (Teschke, 2008, pp. 173–175). Another criticism is related to the presence of an inherent Eurocentrism in Cox’s approach in his explanation of the geographical expansion of capitalism from the West to the East (Hobson, 2007).

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of different forms of Weberian (Hobden & Hobson, 2002) and Marxist historical sociology (Rosenberg, 1994; Teschke, 2008, 2014). However, it was particularly the Marxist historical sociology that contributed most to theoretical discussions within IR. Marxist international historical sociology has revised some of the unfinished themes in Marx’s work and incorporated the dynamics of the interstate system in the analysis of the reproduction and contradictions of capitalism (Lacher, 2002, 2006; Teschke & Lacher, 2007; Wallerstein, 1974). Indeed, the relation between capitalism, the state, and the state system has been a key topic of discussion in Marxist historical sociology (Callinicos, 2007; Morton, 2007a; Pozo-Martin, 2007). This topic contains an echo of some of the controversies of the 1970s concerning the connection between the economic and the political—Althusserian totality. The focus of the current discussions is, however, an expanded understanding of the concept of totality, which now covers the whole world system rather than one nation-state or society. Inevitably, this raised the relative autonomy versus determinism discussion that had previously been analyzed in the context of one state or society and elevated this discussion to a new context of an internationalized capitalism and its relation with geographical multiplicity.

In his early work, Justin Rosenberg (1994) developed an alternative Marxist analysis that argues for a structural correspondence between different geopolitical systems and different modes of production and/or social structures. According to Rosenberg, despite the presence of anarchy in most geopolitical systems, there is a “structural discontinuity” between pre- and modern capitalist systems. Both sovereignty and anarchy are “social forms arising out of the distinctive configuration of capitalist social relations” (Rosenberg, 1994, p. 172). Following Wood’s arguments, Rosenberg argued that, whereas precapitalist modes of production are based on personalized domination, the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an impersonal form of sovereignty resulting from the separation between the economic and the political in capitalism. It is this generalized differentiation between these two spheres within capitalism that creates an abstract understanding of the state and a realist discourse and makes independent power politics possible.

In his later work, rather than a structural analysis of the development of different state systems, Rosenberg (2006, 2009, 2010, 2012) altered his focus, attempting to integrate the international into social theory by developing Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD). UCD is a critical materialist framework for analyzing the “international.” Rosenberg’s aim was to develop an international dimension of social theorizing while at the same time advancing a social theory of the international (Rosenberg, 2006, p. 312, 313). He utilized UCD as a general transhistorical abstraction to explain the development of world history through the interactive dynamics of a multiplicity of political units and their uneven and combined development across time and space (Rosenberg, 2006, p. 312). Rosenberg criticized the “ontological singular” (Rosenberg, 2009, 2010) conception of society and limited conception of social change dominant in traditional social theory, which is based on the idea that societies develop in a linear fashion either through catching up or emulating the social structures of the West. Instead, he develops a neo-Trotskyist approach in demonstrating the constitutive and causal nature of the “international” or “inter-societal” relations in understanding development, replacing the methodological nationalism of social theory with the methodological internationalism of UCD. The emphasis on “interactive multiplicity” allegedly avoids the universalist and essential assumptions of stadial conceptions of international development. Other scholars have joined Rosenberg in outlining different aspects of international development through the concept of UCD. For instance, Kamran Matin applied this concept to the process of state formation in premodern Iran (Matin, 2007), arguing that UCD provides “a deeper theoretical foundation for a non-Eurocentric international historical materialism . . . highlighting the constitutiveness of the international both to the emergence and the expansion of capitalism” (Matin, 2013, p. 370).

Political Marxists, in their effort to avoid accusations of developing transhistorical abstractions in their explanations of international relations, have advanced more historicist accounts of international development that focus on class and particularly on social property relations and the conflicts they create (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). The key representatives of the Political Marxist tradition are Robert Brenner (1977) and Ellen Meiksins Wood (1981). Their views also form the background to the political Marxist thinkers in IR. The key thinker of political Marxism in IR is Benno Teschke (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). Unlike the claimed transhistorical arguments of UCD, Teschke presented an agency-centered historicist account of Marxism (Knafo & Teschke, 2021). In developing his views, Teschke started from a philosophical divide within Marxist discussions between critical Marxism and scientific Marxism (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). The scientific Marxists believe that Marxism is a science, and their paradigm is the mature political economy of Capital (Marx, 1977a). They look for objective and structural determinations, stable ontologies, and theoretical generalizations, and they seek to formulate transhistorical laws (Teschke, 2014, p. 2). Critical Marxists (Hegelianizers), however, “conceive of Marxism as critique rather than science” and they are more “historicist, looking for the historicisation of ontologies and study contextualised rationalities and intersubjectivities” (Teschke, 2014, pp. 46–47). According to Teschke, when considered in the context of International Relations theorizing, neorealism, rationalist neo-Weberian historical sociology, and the UCD share a structuralist and positivist meta-theoretical orientation, whereas political Marxism, hermeneutic forms of Weberianism, and constructivism abide by non-positivist meta-theoretical premises.

The backbone of the argument of political Marxism has been the way the development of capitalism affects the dynamics of the international system (Lacher, 2002, 2006; Teschke, 2002, 2003; Teschke & Lacher, 2007). For instance, unlike the world systems perspective (Wallerstein, 1974), in their analysis of the link between geopolitical dynamics and the development of capitalism, Teschke and Lacher avoided any direct association between political multiplicity and the development of capitalism. According to them, capitalism developed in the context of a preexisting state system, which then remolded and internalized it to its own dynamics. The diachronic process of development between capitalism and the interstate system shows that the 17th-century Westphalian international system did not represent the beginning of modern international relations because it was based on the dynamics of “geopolitical accumulation” between dynastic states. Only after the formation of fully developed capitalist states and “after the European wide spread of capitalism” (Teschke, 2002, p. 37) was the dynamics of geopolitical accumulation replaced by the dynamics of capital accumulation linking the global process of capitalist development with imperialism and colonialism. Therefore, according to Teschke, the idea that the Westphalian system of states was the beginning of the modern international system is one of the most persistent myths of international relations (Teschke, 2003).

There are important challenges within the Marxist historical sociology. One important issue concerns the Eurocentric nature of both the UCD theory and political Marxism and to what extent their arguments can be framed in a non-Eurocentric problematique (Bhambra, 2010; Hobson, 2011a; Matin, 2013). With reference to UCD, one of the main axes of discussion is whether UCD has a limited historical application relevant only to the capitalist development or whether it is “transhistorical” beyond the confines of any specific mode of production (Rosenberg’s and Matin’s position Allinson & Avienas, 2010). According to Hobson , the “failure to historically generalize the concept—at least to a certain extent—leads ultimately into a Eurocentric cul-de-sac” (Hobson, 2011b, p. 147) and “to fetishizing Europe with the unintended consequence of naturalizing, if not eternalizing, Western capitalist domination, while simultaneously denying agency to the East” (Hobson, 2011b, p. 165). Therefore according to Hobson, if UCD is to be a non-Eurocentric theory of IR, it should be considered a transhistorical generalizable approach.

Political Marxism has also been charged with being Eurocentric for focusing on the exceptional and unique nature of Europe in the development of capitalism. There are, however, attempts to reconcile the arguments of political Marxism with postcolonial and decolonial arguments to remedy the charges of Eurocentrism. Knafo and Teschke (2021), as indicated, advocates “an agency-centered historicist Marxism” that is compatible with and advances the arguments of postcolonial theory by focusing on the struggles and resistance of the subaltern classes. According to Knafo and Teschke (2021, p. 55), this makes it possible to “account (for) historical specificities in the differential trajectories of historical capitalism without subsuming these under one common explanatory denominator.” Salgado (2021, p. 17) argued that the Marxist historicism of Knafo and Teschke make it possible “reinvigorat(ing) the potential of historical materialism for an anti-Eurocentric critique beyond the traditional accusations of structuralism and economic determinism” and decolonial historicism. These recent interventions relating to the concept of UCD and political Marxism both demonstrate the potential of historical materialism for developing an anti-Eurocentric critique HSIR.

Criticisms and Prospects

This article charts the development of critical theory in International Relations (IR) since the 1980s, highlighting the intellectual roots of critical International Relations theory (CIRT) and its expansion into different strands in IR. CIRT has been very successful at directing criticism at the rationalist, structuralist, and positivist forms of IR theorizing and in demonstrating how dominant discourses serve the interests of the powerful. Indeed, CIRT has made it possible to “rethink” International Relations (George, 1989) by making it possible to develop alternative conceptions of the international that are sensitive to history and to a sociological understanding of the international.

However, critical theory is still very dynamic and developing in new directions. The legacy of the Frankfurt School critical theory has been revived in recent years by philosophers such as Rahel Jaeggi (2014, 2018), Axel Honneth (1995, 2007, 2008, 2012), Asgar Sørensen (2019), Amy Allen (2016, 2018), and Anita Chari (2010, 2015). Although second-generation thinkers such as Habermas had a much greater influence on IR, the views of the third-generation Frankfurt School theorists such as Axel Honneth (1995, 2012) have also inspired new discussions on Habermasian CIRT (Brincat, 2010, 2013). In Honneth’s theory of the struggle for recognition, the moral conflicts, which the lack of recognition may create and which have an effect on the process of uncoerced dialogue, have led to discussions on the effectiveness of the functioning of global institutions (Haacke, 2005). The methodological achievements of the first-generation Frankfurt School philosophers as well as the earlier views of Adorno and Horkheimer are also subject to new interpretations in relation to the development of CIRT. Based on Adorno’s methodological contributions, Levine (2012), for instance, has developed the concept of sustainable critique attempting to operationalize Adorno’s thoughts on identitarian thinking, negative dialectical critique, and nonidentity for the development of CIRT.

Nevertheless, CIRT is not without its problems, raising questions as to whether the “promise of critical theory” is only “partially kept” (Murphy, 2007). Critical theory has been criticized for failing as a project, lacking political and practical relevance for the problems of this age, losing its original radicalism and emancipatory appeal, abandoning its intention of critique and transforming capitalist society, and adopting a reformist attitude based on existing norms and practices, and its insights have been appropriated by the New Right for non-progressive purposes (Davies, 2014; Kim, 2014; Koddenbrock, 2015; Zambrana, 2013, 2018; also see Drolet & Williams, 2022; Ibsen, 2022; Jahn, 2021a, 2021b; Michelsen, 2021; Schmid, 2018; Sørensen, 2019).

One of the significant criticisms raised in recent years has been the inherently Euro/Western-centric nature of CIRT (Hobson, 2004, 2007, 2011a, 2011b). In The End of Progress, Amy Allen (2016) argues that because of its Eurocentrism, critical theory needs to be decolonized. For Allen, the normative perspectives of critical theorists like Habermas and Honneth are based on a Eurocentric notion of “historical progress and development” (Allen, 2018, p. 781). She argues that their arguments are “deeply wedded to the idea that European Enlightenment modernity represents a developmental advance over premodern, nonmodern, or traditional forms of life, and, crucially this idea plays an important role in grounding the normativity of critical theory for each thinker” (Allen, 2016, p. 3). Seen in this light, the ideas of Habermas, Honneth and Linklater informed by the idea of moral regulation and progress on a global scale are susceptible to Allen’s critique of Eurocentrism and the need for decolonization. Habermas’s, Honneth’s, and Linklater’s ideas shaped by the notion of moral regulation and advancement at the global level make them susceptible to Allen’s criticisms of Eurocentrism and the need for decolonization. For Allen, the normative principles of modernity need to be disentangled from the backward-looking idea of progress, allowing a new normative orientation toward other subjects. This is possible, she argues, if we “adopt a stance of modesty or humility, not one of superiority toward our own moral certainties” (Allen, 2016, p. 33). This will “suspend the assumption that my form of life is superior to those of the cultural Others with whom I am in dialogue” (Allen, 2016, p. 76).

In an exchange on Allen’s arguments, Nichols (2018, p. 782) pointed out that there is an underlying “idealism” in Allen’s work in that the idea of progress Allen criticized in Frankfurt School theorists “is formulated from the standpoint of epistemology and /or moral philosophy” rather than “as a problem of social theory,” that is, “a mode of thinking about imperialism as a complex set of social processes.” The Marxist tradition, however, analyzes imperialism as a “set of social processes that are not reducible to the normative or epistemic claims held by the individuals within them” (Nicols, 2018, p. 783). As Leeb also argues commenting on Allen’s arguments, “a turn away from Marx might not serve critical theory’s opening to postcolonial theory, insofar as post and de-colonial theory has itself found central resources in Marx to theorize colonial domination and the possibility to counter such domination” (Leeb, 2018, pp. 777–778).

This exchange of views between Allen and Nichols demonstrates that to reanimate the radical potential of critical theory, it is necessary to synthesize the normative aspects of the critique of capitalism with its political economy to make it politically relevant for emancipatory struggles. Sørensenlikewise argues that critical theory must “seek to reintegrate the perspective of political economy” if it is to “offer an appropriate diagnosis of” capitalism’s injustices (Ibsen, 2022, p. 156). Finally, “The central challenge that critical theory faces today “comments Anita Chari,” is to formulate a politically relevant and historically specific critique of capitalism” (Chari, 2010, p. 588).


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