Karl Marx and Critical Theory

Critical theory is a theory about society aimed at not only criticizing it but also changing it. It is inspired by Marxism, the ideology that came about as a result of Karl Marx’s theories about society and economy, and how the power structure promotes domination and oppression. Unlike conventional theories, critical theory is concerned with explaining the forces underlying people’s lives in society. It tries to penetrate beyond appearances and tries to understand the beliefs that keep people from gaining a clear picture of how the world operates. 

The main goal of critical theorists is to use philosophy to shed light on social concepts used to weigh down and subjugate people. Critical theorists claim that science has been employed as a tool to dominate people. They warn against total trust in science and unthinking belief in scientific progress. Instead, people should keep in mind that science should only be an instrument to improve people’s lives and free them from the hardships of living. Critical theory has been in use since the 1970s and has been incorporated into areas such as literature, law, the social sciences, and history.


Karl Marx profoundly influenced the philosophers Antonio Gramsci and Gyorgy Lukacs, and the two subsequently formulated theories that examined the ideology of power and oppression. Gramsci and Lukacs concentrated their analysis on the forces that keep people from comprehending how the power structure moves their lives. After Gramsci and Lukacs advanced their thoughts, The Frankfurt School of critical theorists was established in association with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. The members of the Frankfurt School of critical theorists produced their own works, which are now considered essential to understanding critical theory. 

Following in the footsteps of Gramsci and Lukacs, they aimed to identify cultural factors that enabled oppression and prevented people from enjoying freedom. These critical theorists wrote under the influence of great forces that pervaded their time — the rise of the Nazi Party, the culture of mass production, and state capitalism. 

Aims of Critical Theory

The German philosopher and critical theorist Max Horkheimer stated that critical theory has two important goals: it has to explain society according to history, and it should come up with extensive analysis by using knowledge from the social sciences. Horkheimer said that in order for a theory to qualify as a critical theory, it should be able to explain the problems it set out to investigate and then offer realistic, workable remedies to those problems. Horkheimer looked down on conventional theorists because, according to him, their ideas never investigated the nature of power, oppression, and the existing conditions. 

In the years following the influence of the Frankfurt School, many social philosophers took on the aims and doctrines of critical theory. Critical theory continues its influence today in areas such as feminism, cultural theory, and gender issues.