Hegel Summer School 2007
Dialectical Social Theory in the Postmodern

The Roots of Critical Theory – Resisting Neoconservatism Today

Friday 16 / Saturday 17 February 2007
at The University of Melbourne

Speakers: Geoff Boucher, Julie Connolly, Jean-Philippe Deranty and Matt Sharpe


9:30am:    Geoff Boucher: Wrong Turn: A Critique of Habermasian Liberalism
1:45pm:    Julie Connolly: In Defence of Critical Theory: Reply to the “Critique of Habermasian Liberalism”


9:30am:    Matt Sharpe: The Young Horkheimer
1:45pm:    Jean-Philippe Deranty: From Adorno to Recognition Ethics: Critical Theory with Bite

Register by email with Geoff Boucher.

There will be 4 sessions, beginning 9:30am and 1:45pm Friday and Saturday. Each session will include a major presentation, then a short break, followed by extensive discussion with all participants.

The Summer School is open to the general public.
Registration is $40/$20, and morning and afternoon refreshments will be provided. Pay at the door.
Background material is linked to each talk for preparatory reading.
See also material on 2006 Summer School and 2005 Summer School.


The turn in the advanced capitalist countries towards a belligerent neo-conservatism, lined up against reactionary fundamentalism in the semi-colonial countries, but also preparing emergency legislation for use on their own populations, represents a call to action. Today, the defence of democracy, the struggle for human rights and the promotion of cultural tolerance are urgently mandated by an increasingly obvious slide towards authoritarianism. But at this very moment, the former socialist and the social democratic parties increasingly represent only an effort to meliorate the effects of imperial aggression and ecological destruction, and not a real alternative at all.

Any Critical Theory – any critical social theory with an emancipatory intent – measures itself against the pressing tasks of the day. Politically, it is necessary not only to present democracy, human rights, redistributive justice and cultural recognition as defensible, but also to know how it is possible to go beyond a defensive position and recover some of the political liberties and social conditions lost in the last 30 years. Intellectually, it is crucial to break out of the sterile enclosure of scholastic debates over postmodern theory, the academic descriptions of micropolitical processes and the utopian evasions of present responsibilities, and articulate a powerful, credible alternative. It is necessary to challenge the hegemony of the neo’s: the neoliberal economic orthodoxy and the neoconservative political movement, embraced by both sides of mainstream politics. In short, what is needed is a dialectical social theory with intellectual scope and the ability to meaningfully shape political strategy.

The Critical Theory elaborated by the pioneers of the Frankfurt School once presented such a vision and strategy. But Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and the researchers in political economy such as Friedrich Pollock and Otto Kirchheimer all lost their way, in one way or another, in the postwar era. Today, Critical Theory is fragmented into specialised disciplines and politically diluted into a form of moral stiffening for social democracy. Often now, in the English-speaking world, Critical Theory is regarded as merely a variety of “Theory,” a recent branch of speculative Romanticism divorced from the political urgency of its Marxist origins and attached to the intellectual abuses of most postmodern theory. If this is so, this is because the giants who dominate the field of Critical Theory today, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, for all the impressive reach of their intellectual contributions, are political liberals. Nature, abhorring a vacuum, provides for it that hot air rushes into the empty space of radical critique, and so the many gaudy balloons of postmodern theory ascend towards the ether, unencumbered by serious political commitments. Somewhere, somehow, Critical Theory took a wrong turn. As a provocation, this year’s Hegel Summer School proposes that only a politically-motivated and intellectually-searching engagement with the roots of Critical Theory – with the work of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer – can provide an answer to this question and thus an alternative to the sheer moderateness, the political lack of bite, of Critical Theory’s current direction.