A Short Introduction to Critical Social Theory: An interview with Professor Yves Winter
Etienne Lee recently had the opportunity to interview Yves Winter, a professor in the department of political science. Winter is a member of the Critical Social Theory interdisciplinary research group at McGill, which frequently hosts panels and events seeking to promote concepts of critical theory across campus. It therefore plays an integral role in the fight for leftist values at McGill. Professor Winter gave a brief introduction on critical social theory and how it fits in to academia today.
Etienne Lee (EL): Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I would like to begin with a question of definition. Critical theory can seem an incredibly nebulous concept, one which people use in various different manners. How would you define critical social theory?
Prof. Yves Winter (YW): The label “critical social theory” is an umbrella term to describe a diverse series of currents in social, political, and cultural theory, from the social sciences and the humanities, that share emphasize critique and that support radical social change. It includes various Marxist traditions, certain strands of gender and sexuality studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial theory, as well as some forms of literary theory and cultural studies that understand themselves to be working in a critical relation to dominant ideas and ideologies.
The Frankfurt School tradition has some very significant blind spots: a cultural elitism and a condescending attitude to popular culture; a failure to theorize gender as a matrix of power; an extraordinary Eurocentrism and obliviousness to colonialism.
EL: What role does the Frankfurt School play in critical social theory?
YW: The Frankfurt School is a very important source and tradition of critical social theory. The Frankfurt School refers to a circle of intellectuals and a school of thought associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded in Frankfurt in 1923 and still affiliated with the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Starting in 1930, the Institute was directed by Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher and sociologist, who turned it into a unique school for social research. Intellectuals associated with the Frankfurt School developed critiques of modern capitalist society, European fascism, and mass culture. Horkheimer was also the author of a famous essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory”. In that essay, Horkheimer distinguishes critical theory from conventional scholarship. Conventional scholarship is often considered neutral and apolitical, insofar as it is conducted by researchers who separate their academic specialization from their political life as citizens. Critical theory, by contrast, regards the idea of a disinterested and apolitical social research as its own form of ideology. For the Frankfurt School, there is no such thing as pure research that is unadulterated by social interests. In contrast to conventional scholarship, critical theory is upfront about its political commitments, which consist in an orientation toward freedom and social change. For Horkheimer, it describes a theoretical activity that is historically situated rather than abstract and universal; and that takes as its starting point not a collection of isolated and atomistic individuals but definite individuals in their relations to other individuals and groups.
The traditional horizon of critical social theory is emancipation: the realization of social freedom that overcomes the contradictions between the individual and the collective, between labor and thought, and between humans and non-human nature.
While I would accord the Frankfurt School a central and foundational role in the critical social theory, I would also note that the Frankfurt School tradition has some very significant blind spots: a cultural elitism and a condescending attitude to popular culture; a failure to theorize gender as a matrix of power; an extraordinary Eurocentrism and obliviousness to colonialism, to neocolonial relations of domination, and to the social processes of race and racialization. Critical social theory, in other words, does not conclude with the Frankfurt School.
EL: What is it about Critical Social Theory that makes it exclusively a domain of the political left?
YW: The traditional horizon of critical social theory is emancipation: the realization of social freedom that overcomes the contradictions between the individual and the collective, between labor and thought, and between humans and non-human nature. Emancipatory movements have traditionally had their origins on the political left. This goes back to the French Revolution, which is where our conception of the political spectrum comes from. During the Revolution, in the National Assembly, the supporters of absolute monarchy sat on the right while the revolutionaries took their seats on the left. This seating arrangement—revolutionaries on the left and reactionaries on the right—has provided the schema for the modern political spectrum.
Marxism has been central not only to the socialist and revolutionary imaginary but also to anticolonial politics. That said, I think critical social theory also includes theoretical currents that engage critically with Marxism or seek to transcend it.
EL: Based on my rudimentary understanding of critical social theory, many critical theorists are frequently referred as “Marxist Intellectuals.” I’m curious to know if you agree with this statement.
YW: Well, as you know, Marx once famously quipped that “if there is one thing that is certain, it’s that I myself am not a Marxist”. I bring up this remark, because there is little agreement on what “Marxism” exactly means. It is a remarkably heterogeneous and internally fractured discursive and political tradition, one that even its supposed founder at one point disavowed. Leaving that aside, I think that Marxism has been one of the most important modern political traditions, perhaps the political movement that has defined radical emancipatory social change for the past 150 years. Marxism has been central not only to the socialist and revolutionary imaginary but also to anticolonial politics, which have been strongly informed by Marxist ideas and movements. As such, Marxism is central to critical social theory. That said, I have a broad view of critical social theory and would not want to define it as coterminous with Marxism. I think critical social theory also includes theoretical currents that engage critically with Marxism or seek to transcend it.
EL: Just one final question: who are some prominent intellectuals you suggest that students who are interested in developing their understanding of critical theory should read?
YW: I would invite interested students to attend the events of Critical Social Theory at McGill! Our events are open to all. We host an interdisciplinary speaker series and are delighted to welcome students at all levels. This semester, we have hosted events on post-fascism, on new interpretations of Marx, on the actuality of Lenin, and on the Frankfurt School’s study of authoritarianism. We have upcoming events that focus on capitalism and the environment, on unemployment, and on time. Our events are announced by email and on our Facebook site, and signup instructions for the email list are available on our website: http://www.mcgill.ca/critsoctheory/