The Institute for Emancipatory Constructionism

The "neo-Marxisms" include analytical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony, Marxist feminism, ecological Marxism, post-Marxism, the various critical social theories (the original Frankfurt School, new critical theory, etc.), critical pedagogy, and many others. [note by Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.]


A term loosely applied to any social theory or sociological analysis which draws on the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but amends or extends these, usually by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions—such as, for example, psychoanalysis (as in the case of critical theory), Weberian sociology (as in Erik Olin Wright's theory of contradictory class locations), or anarchism (as in the example of critical criminology).

Marshall, Gordon and Scott, John. A Dictionary of Sociology. New York. Oxford University Press. 2005. Retrieved on April 28, 2009.


The Frankfurt School has become one of the mostly widely adopted forms of neo-Marxism. It grew out of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. It is sometimes referred to as critical theory, meaning a special kind of social philosophy. It gathered together people who were severe critics of capitalism but believed that Marxism had become too close to communism. They believed Karl Marx's followers were supporting only a narrow selection of his ideas.

Neo-Marxists view class divisions under capitalism as more important than gender/sex divisions or issues of race and ethnicity. Neo-Marxism encompasses a group of beliefs that have in common rejection of economic or class determinism and a belief in at least the semiautonomy of the social sphere. They also claim that most social science, history, and literary analysis works from within capitalist categories and say neo-Marxism is based on the total political-economic-cultural system.

During the Nazi regime, the members of the school fled first to Geneva, Switzerland, then to the United States. They became attached to the department of sociology at Columbia University in 1935. In 1941, they relocated to California. In 1949, some of them—Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Pollock—returned to Germany and 2 years later reestablished the Institute for Social Research. Horkheimer served as director and believed in a holistic approach, combining theory and practice.

The neo-Marxists, after seeing the failure of working-class revolutions in Western Europe after World War I, chose the parts of Marx's thought that might clarify social conditions that were not present when Marx was alive. They filled in what they perceived to be omissions in Marxism with ideas from other schools of thought.

McCarthy, Pat, "Neo-Marxism." H. James Birx (ed.). Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Volume 4. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Reference. 2006. Page 1546.

The Neo-Marxian Schools ("Radical Political Economy")

There have been numerous "offshoot" Neo-Marxist schools which have taken on many of the themes and conclusions of the Marxian school, although they should not be considered rigorous applications of classical Marxian theory. We note only the related "Dependency School" of development associated with Raul Prébisch and Andre Gunder Frank, the "World Systems" school associated with Immanuel Wallerstein and the work on radical political economy of David M. Gordon, Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis and others. A separate (and unrelated) school is the "Analytical Marxian" school, normally associated with the work of John E. Roemer and John Elster, which attempts to reduce some of the Marxian propositions to conventional, methodological individualism (i.e. with utility-maximizing rational agents, etc.).

The New School. The Neo-Marxian Schools ("Radical Political Economy"). Retrieved on May 1, 2009.

Barry Smart (1985) makes the contentious point that Michel Foucault’s theoretical insights can be labelled as ‘neo-Marxist’ in highlighting how surveillance is a critical feature of modern education policy and schools. Whilst traditional Marxist scholarship has an awareness of economics and ideology in the context of social relationships in education; a neo-Marxist perspective grounded in Foucault’s work can illustrate how surveillance and discourses of power impact the positioning of children as educational objects of control, domination and subordination. It would be wrong to deny the impact of ‘subjectivity’ as a core concept in the process of education (Ball, 1990; Powell and Edwards, 2003). However, in offering an alternative and critical exploration of ERA we can address C.W. Wright Mills (1959) powerful argument that sociological theorising must focus on how individual biographies are shaped by the wider social forces within a particular period in history and culture. Similarly, Fairclough (1992) suggests that a critical perspective opens up ‘common sense assumptions’ that lie at the heart of western culture about social institutions. Fairclough (1992) further suggests that Foucault’s (1967) work on ‘discourse’ has similarities with the Gramscian concept of “hegemony”. This assertion is evidenced by Foucault (1984:110) himself, when he states, “Discourse in not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which there is struggle. Discourse is the power to be seized.”

Nevertheless, there are certainly tensions between Foucault’s neo-Marxism and variants of structuralist Marxism. Foucault side-steps the binary relationship set up by the Marxist educational theory of Bowles and Gintis (1976) for example, between true and false realities, ways of knowing and political consciousness. Foucault has the theoretical reflexivity of loosening knowledge, ideas and subject positions from categories of social totality, such as social formation, the mode of production, history, economy and society (Ball, 1990). Thus suspended from their ostensible connections, social ideas are re-articulated in Foucault's thought to historical and societal features ignored in Marxist models of social reality based on the labour process and modes of economic exploitation. Hence, Foucault’s neo-Marxist perspective on discourse, power and surveillance provides a rich seam of theorizing as an addition to Marxist scholarship (Smart, 1985). Indeed, whereas Marxism has focused on the ‘macrophysics of power’ (Powell and Edwards, 2002), Foucault’s (1977) work complements such an approach by focusing on the ‘microphysics of power’; relationships between social actors and institutions. Coupled with this, Granovetter (1985) stressed the importance of linked socially embedded networks as a way of theorizing relations between macrostructures and microlevels of action.

Powell1, Jason L. and Edwards, Margaret, "Surveillance and Morality: Revisiting the Education Reform Act (1988) in the United Kingdom." Surveillance & Society: The International, Interdisciplinary, Open Access, Peer-Reviewed Journal of Surveillance Studies. 3(1): 96-106.

The initial meaning of the term critical theory was that defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of social science in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory: Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian theory, critiquing both the model of science put forward by logical positivism and what he and his colleagues saw as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and communism. Core concepts are: (1) That critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and (2) That Critical Theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. Although this conception of critical theory originated with the Frankfurt School, it also prevails among other recent social scientists, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser and arguably Michel Foucault, as well as certain feminist theorists and social scientists.

The Praxis school was a Marxist humanist philosophical movement. It originated in Zagreb and Belgrade in the SFR Yugoslavia, during the 1960s that in many ways closely linked to Frankfurt School and Critical theory. Prominent figures among the school's founders include Gajo Petrovic' and Milan Kangrga of Zagreb and Mihailo Markovic' of Belgrade. From 1964 to 1974 they published the Marxist journal Praxis, which was renowned as one of the leading international journals in Marxist theory.

This version of "critical" theory derives from Kant's (18th-century) and Marx's (19th Century) use of the term "critique", as in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Marx's concept that his work Das Kapital (Capital) forms a "critique of political economy". For Kant's transcendental idealism, "critique" means examining and establishing the limits of the validity of a faculty, type, or body of knowledge, especially through accounting for the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible concepts in use in that knowledge system. Early on, Kant's notion associated critique with the disestablishment of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs, because Kant's critique of reason involved the critique of dogmatic theological and metaphysical ideas and was intertwined with the enhancement of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment critique of superstition and irrational authority. Marx explicitly developed this notion into the critique of ideology and linked it with the practice of social revolution, as in the famous 11th of his "Theses on Feuerbach," "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point is to change it".

In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests, by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation.

The term critical theory, in the sociological or philosophical and non-literary sense, now loosely groups all sorts of work, including that of the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, disability studies and feminist theory, that has in common the critique of domination, an emancipatory interest, and the fusion of social/cultural analysis, explanation, and interpretation with social/cultural critique.

"Critical Theory." Wikipedia. Retrieved on June 11, 2009.

[Saul] Alinsky adapted the Marxist approach to conflict as an organizing tool, but without using the explicit Marxist approach to class struggle. This was accomplished by crystallizing support in minority and low-income communities by attacking the local community power structure and making demands on them for things such as jobs. Not only was this considered impertinent, but it was also usually done by explicitly making it clear who the individuals in the local power structure were. For example, instead of just picketing an important local company at its factory gates, Alinsky would organize pickets at the boss's home, embarrassing the person in his own neighborhood. Tactics such as these were considered outrageous but usually helped define a “we” (of the minority and low-income population) versus a “they” (of the local power structure). During the civil rights movements of the 1960s, Alinsky's approach to organizing was popular in Chicago; in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester in New York State; in St. Louis, Missouri; and in various places in California....

The Alinsky approach had its most dramatic manifestation when the organizer Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) adopted it in organizing the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.

Friedland, William H. and Rotkin, Michael, "Community Organizing." Encyclopedia of Community. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2003

Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have.

Tactics are those conscious deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then...conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

Second: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

Sixth rule: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.

A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment.

Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.

The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his suddenly agreeing with your demand and saying “You’re right – we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

In conflict tactics there are certain rules that the organizer should always regard as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.” By this I mean that in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck. The target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target.

One of the criteria in picking your target is the target’s vulnerability – where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, the target can always say, “Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?” When you “freeze the target,” you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all others to blame.

Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. Excerpt.

Contemporary usage of the term Marxist sociology varies considerably. In the United States, for example, the term Marxist is often used rather loosely, to designate virtually any type of radical or critical approach influenced by Marxian concepts ....

"Marxist Sociology." Encyclopedia of Sociology. Stamford, CT. Macmillan Reference USA. 2006.