Critical theory and post colonialism

Posted: 16/05/2011 |Comments: 0 | Views: 211 |

The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School is a critique of capitalism, its appropriation of the surplus value collective, and every aspect of our modern society. It provides a better understanding to present social conditions, how these conditions evolved, how they are transformed, how they interact with each other, what laws govern their transformation, and how they maintain their validity. This complex task is achieved through a multi-discipline approach that combines perspectives drawn from many different fields of study. These fields include economical, historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and sociological studies. However, this does not mean that the Critical Theory is limited to only these fields. Contrary to the belief of many scholars, the Critical Theory is self-reflective in its nature and value driven. The ultimate goal of the Critical Theory is to transform our present society into a just, rational, humane, and reconciled society. The Critical Theory has several basic tasks, but is not limited to only these tasks, which are all equally important in our present historical situation. Some of the tasks of the Critical Theory are:

  • To promote a diversified education for all individuals in order to steer them away from over-specialization. This will create individuals with strong mental faculties who will be able to think critically about the forces that affect their daily lives.
  • To create a social balance between the personal autonomy of the individual and universal solidarity of the collective.
  • To promote revolution against all forms of discrimination including those based on sex, sexual orientation, race, and religious belief.
  • To preserve the good moral values that promote universal solidarity and will help bring about a more just, humane, rational, and reconciled society.

Critical theory has two goals: to bring to consciousness the awareness of capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic domination; and to create a popular demand for liberation--a demand, desire, and need for a better world. Critical theory is critical in two senses: it brings to our consciousness oppression of which we may or may not have been aware, and it calls for "criticism of life" to resist and change the existing system of domination and exploitation. Some versions of Marxism are critical theory and some are not: other theories are used critically from time to time such as phenomenology, psychoanalysis and existentialism.

In Herbert Marcuse's analysis of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the connections between the Frankfurt School's critical theory and the Hegelian humanism of Marx are perhaps most clear. It is also clear from this exposition by Marcuse that the old Marx who wrote Capital and is the scientist and economist par excellence, developed his scientific categories for the analysis of capitalism from philosophical foundations.

According to Herbert Marcuse (1973), the critical theory of the young Marx already contained revolutionary pr axis- "The theory in itself is a practical one; pr axis does not only come at the end but is already present in the beginning of the theory." Pr axis is the philosophical basis of the theory presented by Marx, which includes a demand for the overthrow of the capitalist social relationships involved in production (like wage work and capitalist investment and profit) by an economic and political struggle of the working class (people who work for wages or salary).

The critical theory of Marx implies much more than just a political revolution, and certainly it does not imply an authoritarian tyranny of state capitalism. It does imply a revolution in the very being of humankind. Marcuse quotes Marx as follows: (1973:5):

"This communism ... is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man--the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution."

Marx criticized the categories of political economy because those categories were posed as the "scientific" explanation of the economy which exploited and oppressed people through forced wage labor, economic exploitation, and the com modification of social relationships into exchange relationships. Capitalist economic relations required misery, hunger and toil. The oppression that people feel in capitalist society is not caused by naturally-given "laws" of capitalism which can be discovered scientifically, but by political and social structures which were created by human beings. What humans have created, humans can change, not simply "discover."According to Herbert Marcuse (1973:5-6):

"This kind of political economy scientifically sanctions 'L-,he perversion of the historical/social world of man into an alien world of money and commodities; a world which confronts him as a hostile power and in which the greater part of humanity ceases to be anything more than abstract' workers (torn away from the reality of human existence), separated from the object of their work and forced to sell themselves as a commodity."

Attempting to follow Marx's methodology in criticizing the "Natural Laws"of capitalism, the critical theory of society conceives of itself as critique (Howard, 1971). Rather than accepting the categories of social being as they exist in the East or West, critical theory posits the possibility and potential of a freedom which has yet to be realized.

Both positivist sociology and classical political economy are grounded in a faith in the scientific method, or in the "epistemic" of Western rationalism (Foucault, 1970). The critical theory of society, as a moment of self-reflection of western culture, achieves its most progressive intellectual insight with its criticism of the Enlightenment (Goldman, 1971), and of the Western concept of reason and rationality from which scientific ideology develops (Marcuse, 1964). The advances of technology and science have themselves undermined the humanistic roots of science. Science and technology are today "alien creations" out of popular control or understanding. They are ideology--the new God which, combined with the State's power, appears to be "omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient" like the God of Moses. The social sciences, in an attempt to appear as powerful and true as science and technology, have attempted to adopt their methods and rules of verification. By developing a philosophical critique of science, critical theory unravels a hidden essence of capitalism--the system of "rational" domination. Below are the three main examples of critical theories:


The debates among the liberal reformers (Prebisch), the Marxists (Andre Gunder Frank), and the world systems theorists (Wallerstein) were vigorous and intellectually quite challenging. There are still points of serious disagreements among the various strains of dependency theorists and it is a mistake to think that there is only one unified theory of dependency. Nonetheless, there are some core propositions which seem to underlie the analyses of most dependency theorists.

Dependency can be defined as an explanation of the economic development of a state in terms of the external influences--political, economic, and cultural--on national development policies (Osvaldo Sunkel, "National Development Policy and External Dependence in Latin America," The Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 6, no. 1, October 1969, p. 23). Theotonio Dos Santos emphasizes the historical dimension of the dependency relationships in his definition:

[Dependency is]...a historical condition which shapes a certain structure of the world economy such that it favors some countries to the detriment of others and limits the development possibilities of the subordinate economics...a situation in which the economy of a certain group of countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy, to which their own is subjected (Santos, 1971, p.226)

There are three common features to these definitions which most dependency theorists share. First, dependency characterizes the international system as comprised of two sets of states, variously described as dominant/dependent, center/periphery or metropolitan/satellite. The dominant states are the advanced industrial nations in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The dependent states are those states of Latin America, Asia, and Africa which have low per capital GNP's and which rely heavily on the export of a single commodity for foreign exchange earnings.

Second, both definitions have in common the assumption that external forces are of singular importance to the economic activities within the dependent states. These external forces include multinational corporations, international commodity markets, foreign assistance, communications, and any other means by which the advanced industrialized countries can represent their economic interests abroad.

Third, the definitions of dependency all indicate that the relations between dominant and dependent states are dynamic because the interactions between the two sets of states tend to not only reinforce but also intensify the unequal patterns. Moreover, dependency is a very deep-seated historical process, rooted in the internationalization of capitalism. Dependency is an ongoing process:

Latin America is today, and has been since the sixteenth century, part of an international system dominated by the now-developed nations.... Latin underdevelopment is the outcome of a particular series of relationships to the international system


Post-structuralists Marxism, or post-Marxism, is a theoretical viewpoint that elaborates and revises the work of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. Unlike traditional Marxism, which emphasizes the priority of class struggle and the common humanity of oppressed groups, post-Marxism reveals the sexual, racial, class, and ethnic divisions of modern Western society.


"Modernity" is that period - nearly a century - beginning well before WW2 and ending well after it, in which science established facts, political theory established the social state, secularism overcame religious opinion, and the notion of shame was denied or explained away with various social conventions. It was an era dominated by the thought of Freud and Marx. Its tendency was toward the legitimacy of the social welfare state.
"Post Modern" embraces a period from about 1980 to the present, characterized by the emergence of the postindustrial information economy, replacing the previous classes of aristocracy, middle class, and working class with the new paradigm: information elite, middle class, and underclass. The phrase also implies a nation-state challenged by new world views: feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, etc; old scientific certainties called into question; the replacement of mechanical metaphors with cybernetic ones.
Postmodernism rejects the modernist ideals of rationality, virility, artistic genius, and individualism, in favor of being anti-capitalist, contemptuous of traditional morality, and committed to radical egalitarianism. The most recent feature of Post modernism is the rise of Political Correctness and the attempt to purge dissenting opinion from the ranks of the academic/artistic, together with a systematic attack on excellence in all fields. Post modernism is an anti-Enlightenment position wherein adherents believe that what has gone before, as "Modernism", is inappropriately dependent on Reason, Rationalism, and Wisdom, and is, furthermore, inherently elitist, non-multicultural and therefore oppressive.

Critical theory has various researchers done on it and as a result various scholars have quoted it in their work. These scholars have come to be known as proponents as they have argued in favor of this theory. These include

Max Horkheimer (1940's) – who wrote a book called, ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment' (1947), with Theodor W. Adorno. He felt that enlightenment and modern scientific thought had become an irrational force that dominated nature and humanity. The rationalization of human society had ultimately led to Fascism and other totalitarian regimes that represented a loss of human freedom.

Jurgen Habermas (1980's) –A German and also best-known  critical theorist, who developed an epistemology that shows how human interests relates to knowledge, medium and science. Habermas also developed the "theory of communicative action" where he indicated that the validity of claims about truth and authenticity are tested through argumentation. Only arguments that are approved by those involved can be accepted.

Theodor W. Adorno (1940's) - Focused on rationalization and its impact on human society. He believed rationalization led to Fascism and other totalitarian regimes that represented a loss of human freedom.

Erich Fromm (1920's - 1950's) - A Psychoanalyst and social philosopher. He explored the interaction between psychology and society. He believed that an understanding of the psychological needs of human beings was necessary to build a healthy society. He wrote a book, Escape from Freedom (1941), which examined the growth of human freedom and self-awareness from the middle ages to modern times.

Jonathan Kozol (1960's) – He wrote a book, Death at an Early Age (1967), in which he made radical claims about the status of education in America. He also initiated a connection between critical education theory and classroom practice.

Michael W. Apple (1980's) – In his book, Education and Power (1982) he discusses how school systems are set up to keep capital and power under control of the dominant order. He has done a lot of writings on critical theory.

Paulo Freire (1970's) –He  was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical teachings, he coined the term "culture of silence" which indicates that within a culture of silence, people are unable to distance themselves from their life activities, so it is impossible for them to become empowered or to control their own destiny. He viewed learning and literacy as political projects, and believed that poverty and illiteracy were related to the oppressive social structures and dominate powers in society. He instigated adult literacy campaigns that aimed at empowering individuals to engage in social analysis and political activism.

Herbert Marcuse (1940's- 1970's) - Identified cultural forms of repression and the role of technology played within them. He also saw the growth in production of consumer goods as a means to support capitalism and claimed that post-war prosperity kept people intellectually and spiritually captive.

Henry Giroux (1980's, 1990's) – He separated  ideas of critical theory from a Marxism approach which saw teachers and students as victims, and argued that educational communities are autonomous and are capable of resistance and hope.


Critical theorists believe that a certain group of people in the society are oppressed they therefore seek out contradictions and social inequalities in a variety of disciplines in order to empower those oppressed and bring them to freedom realization. Critical theorists thus emphasize democracy which they have it as a celebration of differences.

Critical theorists also have it that all fundamental categories of all disciplines should be questioned to achieve emancipation and that International relations should be emancipatory politics, by this they mean people should always have efforts to obtain political rights and equality. Whatever knowledge critical theorists have is mainly geared toward social and political transformation

Finally critical theorists have it that technology is not always bad, there is a good side to it too. They reason out that when technology takes precedence over ones values and beliefs only then is it termed as unethical


An interdisciplinary perspective that encompasses economic, political, social and cultural aspects of decolonialization and afterward, highlighting the importance of race, gender, and ethnicity in understanding anti colonial struggles (Viotti & Kauppi, 2010, pg.471).Post colonialism goes beyond the era of colonialism.

Earlier approaches designed to maintain power during direct colonial rule (exploiting ethnic and racial divisions among subject people, co-opting activists into colonial administrations, and extending judicious concessions in trade) have been supplemented by more subtle mechanisms of domination ranging from the use of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to manipulation of language designed to encourage "mental colonialism".

The post colonial world still exhibits neocolonial forms of cultural, economic, and even political-military dominance over these former colonies. Independence has not really brought liberation when former colonies are still so linked to the metro pole-the seat of power in the former colonial country. Thus to understand politics in any African country, it remains important to identify the former colonial power, whether Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain or Portugal. Neocolonial patterns of dominance remain important in the postcolonial period.

At the social and cultural level, there are many features which aid in keeping underdeveloped countries integrated into the capitalist system and at the same time hanging on to the apron strings of the metropoles.The Christian church has always been a major instrument for cultural penetration and cultural dominance in spite of the fact that in many instances Africans sought to set up independent churches. Equally important has been the role of education in producing Africans to service the capitalist system and subscribe to its values. Recently the imperialists have been using new universities in Africa to keep themselves entrenched at the highest academic level.

There were a few farsighted Europeans who all along saw that the colonial education system would serve them if and when political independence was regained in Africa for instance, Pierre Forcin,a founder of the Alliance Française stated at the beginning of this century that  "it is necessary to attach the colonies to the metro pole by a very solid psychological bond, against the day when their progressive emancipation ends in a form of federation as is probable-that they be  and they remain French in language, thought and spirit." The French introduced a few African representatives into their own parliament in France, so as to try and keep African territories tied to France, the British began to prepare to hand over to certain selected Africans.

Something as basic as language has come to serve as one of the mechanisms of integration and dependence. The French and English that are so widely used in Africa are more for the purpose of African communication with exploiters than for Africa within Africa. Actually, it would be difficult to find a sphere which did not reflect the economic dependence and structural intergration.At a glance, nothing could be less harmful and more entertaining than music, and yet this too is used as a weapon of cultural domination. The American imperialists go so far to take the folk music, jazz and soul music of oppressed black people and transform this into American propaganda over the voice of America beamed at Africa.

During the colonial period, the forms of political subordination in Africa were obvious. There were governors, colonial officials and police. In politically independent African states, the metro Politian capitalists have to ensure favorable political decisions by remote control. So they set up their political puppets in many parts of Africa, who shamelessly agree to compromise with the vicious apartheid regime of South Africa when their masters tell them to do so.

The changeover from colonialism to what is known as neo-colonialism did have the element of conspiracy in it. In 1960,the then British Prime minister, Harold MacMillan ,made the oft –quoted statement that "a wind of change was blowing across Africa. " That was the bourgeois way of expressing what Chinese premier Chou En – Lai was soon to assert: namely that "Africa was ripe for revolution." In order to delay or hijack the African revolution, the colonizing powers turned to a group which they had created for a different purpose –the elite of colonially educated Africans, from among whom were selected wherever possible those who were most suitable for elevation of political leadership, and the administration and military apparatus were left in the hands of similar trustworthy cadres.


The integration of colonies into the international capitalist economy. It enables African elites to consume products of western civilization without having to go through the difficult and long-term process of building the productive base of their societies. It is far easier to shop in the global market than try to build industries yourself.

Colonialism saddled the most colonies with mono-crop economies. During the colonial period, each colony was made to produce a single cash crop or two and no attempts were made to diversify the agricultural economy. The habit of producing these single cash crops appears to have become so ingrained that it has not been changed to any appreciable degree since independence. Africans were encouraged to produce what they don't consume and to consume what they don't produce. It is lamentable that the legacy has not changed materially in most of the African states. To this day they have to rely on the importation of edible oil, rice, maize and other food stuff to survive.

Africa's exports are concentrated in a narrow range of commodities, with volatile prices that have declined since the 1960s. The deterioration in the terms of trade for such commodities has undoubtedly contributed to Africa's growth slowdown.

In recent decades, African governments adopted exchange rate and trade policies which were atypically anti-export and accumulated large foreign debts. On a range of indicators, Africa has had much higher trade barriers and more misaligned exchange rates than other regions. Exchange rates were commonly highly overvalued, reflecting the interest of the political elite in cheap imports. Tariffs and export taxes were higher in Africa than in other regions of the world, partly because of the lack of other sources of tax revenue to finance the expansion of the public sector.

By the 1990s, several African economies had accumulated unsustainable international debts, largely from public agencies. Clearly, this is one way in which poor decisions of the past become embedded in the present. There is a good theoretical argument that high indebtedness discourages private investment due to the fear of the future tax liability.


The worldwide increase in the number and violence of open conflicts revolving around ethnic or religious identities during the 1990s provides a strong reminder that communal identities are not a residue of the past, but a live force in today's politics. Africans are relaxed to identify the negative impacts of ethnic differences in the populations. Most Africans as a whole remain reluctant to recognize the inevitability of ethnic identities that divide the population of the overwhelming majority of states (Joseph, 1998, p.299).

Ethnic differences are one of the main challenges in independent African States today. Tribalism is the red devil of contemporary Africa. It was condemned by nationalists at the first All African Peoples conference as an ‘evil practice" and "a serious obstacle" to the unity……the political evolution and rapid liberation of Africa (Sklar & Whitaker, 1991, p.13).

In the pre-colonial period, Africans did not identify themselves in terms of tribe. African states ethnic divisions arose from the time of slave trade. This was later continued in periods of colonialism. Example the Yoruba people, or "nationality" of Western Nigeria comprise a number of tribal sections that have long history of conflict with one another attributed largely to pre colonial effects of the slave trade (Sklar, 1991, p.14).
Ethnic tensions has become the order of Africa and it is likely to take centuries' before it fades away. After a long time of independence, ethnicity is central in the politics of African states. Political openings and multi party elections have led to a drastic formation of innumerable overtly or covertly ethnic political parties.

Just like in any other continents, Africa the causes of ethnic conflict have sought more in the present than the past, no matter what imagery or myths are used by the participants to defend their stance and explain their enmities. This is because ethnic conflict is rooted in the present, its dynamics and the possible solutions. One cannot compare ethnic politics in the 1990s and the one that existed in 1960s.This means there is a new ethnicity in Africa today.

The basic idea that should be made simple is that human beings belong to natural groups, which share common culture and language and sometimes the myth of common ancestry, and which provide their members with a sense of common identity. The fact is that these natural groups should not serve as entities of conflicts in politics or any development of an area. African states should accept that ethnicity is a problem as this will help in finding means of preventing violent conflicts such as the one that divested Rwanda and those that are threatening similar catastrophes in several countries (Joseph, 1998, p.300).

Below are the major actors, proponents and assumptions of post colonialism:



Whether, the post colonial state already emerges as transitional state, through the privatization of politics of private actors. The separation of the political and economical sphere is very hard to be withdrawn. For example the common wealth countries were countries colonized by the British and till to date continues to have a tie politically, economically and even socially.


Leaders can be seen as actors of post colonialism. An example of this is clearly seen when the postcolonial development aid from the Western support is causes more harm than good. This occurs when the autocracy and poor leadership which contribute to the downfall of the people. African leaders are to blame when it comes to the failure of the great International extent factors.



Said, took the term Orientalism which was used in the West neutrally to describe the study and artistic depiction of the Orient and changed its meaning to a constructed binary division of the word Orient and Occident. The binary also referred to the East/West binary. Said argued that the Occident could not exist without the Orient and vice versa. In other words they are mutually constitutive. Notably, the concept of the East i.e. The Orient was created by the ‘West' suppressing the ability of the Orient to express themselves. Western depiction of the ‘Orient' constructs an inferior world, a place of backwardness, irrationality and wildness. This allowed the West to identify themselves as the opposite of these characteristics; as a superior world that was progressive, rational and civil. Said, stated that power and knowledge are inseparable. The East claim to knowledge o the East gave the West the power to name and power to control.


Spivak's main contribution to Postcolonial theory came with her specific definition of the term Subaltern. Spivak also introduced terms such as essentialism. The former term refers to the dangers of reviving subaltern voices in the ways that might simplify heterogeneous groups, creating stereotyped impressions of their diverse group. Spivak however beliefs that essentialism can sometimes be used strategically by these groups to make it easier for the Subaltern to be heard and understood when a clear identity can be created by the majority. It is important to distinguish that ‘Strategic essentialism ‘does not sacrifice its diversity and voices but they are being downplayed temporarily to support the essential element of the group. Spival also created the term ‘epistemic violence' which refers to the destruction of non-western ways of understanding. This concept relates to Spivak subaltern must always be caught in translation, never truly expressing herself. Because the destruction and marginalization of her way of understanding.


Fanon is one of the realist writers associated with post colonialism. Fanon analyzed the nature of colonialism and those subjected by it. He describes colonialism as a source of violence rather than reacting violently against resistors which had been the common view. His portrayal of the systematic relationship between colonialism and its attempt to deny "all attributes of humanity" to those it suppressed laid the ground work for related critiques of colonial and postcolonial systems.


1) The colonizedare savages in need of education and rehabilitation.

2) The culture of the colonized is not up to standard of the colonizer and it's the moral duty of the colonizer to do something about polishing it.

3) The colonized nation is unable to manage and run itself properly and thus it needs the wisdom and expertise of the colonizer


Bodenheimer, S (1999).Dependency and Imperialism: The Roots of Latin South American Underdevelopment. United States, Hodges.

Fann, K.T & Donald C (1971). The Structure of Dependence:Readings in U.S. Imperialism. United States, Boston.

Kagia, R. (Friday, October 16, 1998)Social Challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa.The World Bank,Special to the Daily Yomiuri

Karis, T.G & Gerhart, G.M (1997).From protest to challenge; A documentary history of African politics in South Africa, 1882-1990.US.

Okigbo,C & et al. (1998).State, conflict and democracy in Africa. U.S, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, Nairobi: Retrieved on March 2, 2011 at

Sklar, R.H, &Whitaker C.S (1991).African politics and problems in development.U.S, Lynne Rienner Publishers.

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