As its French title suggests (La critique défaite: émergence et domestication de la Théorie critique, forthcoming English translation by Verso, 2025), the book is about the way left theory reacts to situations of political defeat. It provides a study of “Critical Theory”, emerging as a response to the rise of Nazism, seen through the trajectory of three of its major representatives: Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. This trajectory saw the unfolding of a process of deradicalisation through which the initial research programme, based on a heterodox reworking of historical materialism, is abandoned in favour of various forms of return to traditional thinking. Neither linear nor written in advance, this course appears as the outcome of an interplay between conjunctural factors and theoretical developments. The currently dominant versions of Critical theory have turned their back on the analysis of the regressive potential inherent in capitalist modernity. But they are not without alternatives. Reconnecting with the initial project can help us forging the kind of theoretical response which the impending disaster of contemporary capitalism asks for.
Stathis Kouvelakis is an independent researcher living in Paris. He has taught political theory at King’s College London and published on Marxism, critical thought and social movements. He’s also a lifelong militant of the radical left in Greece and France.
Moderated by: Leonardo Kovačević