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Charisma and Critique: Critical Theory, Authority, and the Critique of Political Theology

The Diversity of Social Theories

ISBN: 978-0-85724-821-3, eISBN: 978-0-85724-822-0

Publication date: 12 October 2011


For the Frankfurt School, what most decisively distinguished critical from traditional theory was that critical theorists refused to celebrate the working class uncritically. The early critical theorists accepted the premise that the working class is the most likely agent of social transformation, but unlike orthodox Marxists (and even such mavericks as their forerunner Georg Lukács) they did not assume that workers are progressive by nature. In other words, they disputed the metaphysic of the charismatic proletariat, a class “destined” for transcendence and glory. This essay sketches the emergence of this perspective in the early writings of Herbert Marcuse. Initially a partisan of the Lukáscian view, which he spiced with Heideggerian accents, Marcuse broke with transcendentalism when he repudiated existentialism and political theology. He concluded that relying on any kind of charismatic savior, whether a class or a leader, is an abdication of sociological realism and political responsibility. Reaching this conclusion placed Marcuse in agreement with Max Horkheimer, and enabled him to assist Horkheimer in the elaboration of the founding principles of critical theory. The ultimate results of this collaboration included the formulation of a new critical research agenda, which placed inquiry into the roots of authority on a new foundation. By means of critical inquiry into personal “authoritarianism,” the Frankfurt theorists were able to shed new light on political authority. This remains a seminal contribution and continues to animate a major contemporary research tradition.


Norman Smith, D. (2011), "Charisma and Critique: Critical Theory, Authority, and the Critique of Political Theology", Dahms, H.F. (Ed.) The Diversity of Social Theories (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 29), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 33-56.



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