Lessons in Critical Theory

Marx, Benjamin, Braudel, Bakhtin, Thompson, Ginzburg and Wallerstein

by Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVI, 166 Pages


Contemporary critical thinking was founded by Karl Marx approximately a century and a half ago. Later, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, various critical thinkers (some Marxist, others not) further developed this perspective in studying the most important issues of their day: for instance, the future death of art, the conditions and limitations of how we understand and perceive time, the essential questions of how popular culture functions and expresses itself, the role of popular protest and the “moral economy of the crowd”, the limits and crises facing modern bourgeois reason and how to characterize today’s capitalist world. This book is a careful, rigorous review of these fundamental lessons in critical theory and critical thought as developed by some of the most important social thinkers of our age: Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Fernand Braudel, Mikhail Bakhtin, E. P. Thompson, Carlo Ginzburg and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Karl Marx’s Lessons on the Universe of Contemporary Politics
  • Resituating The Civil War in France
  • Defining the Essence of the Paris Commune
  • The Paris Commune as a Government Based on Direct Democracy
  • The Commune and the Radical Destruction of the State
  • The Paris Commune and the Revolution of the Political Superstructure and Political Power
  • Recovering the Universal Historical Value of the Paris Commune
  • Chapter Two: Walter Benjamin’s Lessons on the Present and Future of Art
  • Chapter Three: Fernand Braudel’s Lessons on Historical Time
  • Longue Durée Historical Time
  • The Longue Durée and Eastern Temporality
  • The Many Forms of Pre-Capitalist “Lived Time”
  • Capitalist Time and the Capitalist Temporal Framework
  • The Line of Analysis Established by the Theory of Different Historical Times
  • Chapter Four: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Lessons on the Codes of Popular Culture
  • Bakhtin: Mysterious Figure and Transparent Theorist
  • Mikhail Bakhtin and the Relevance of the Dialogic Principle
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Theorist of Popular Culture
  • Chapter Five: E. P. Thompson’s Lessons on Rebellion and the Moral Economy of the Crowd
  • On the Evolution of the Concept of the “Moral Economy of the Crowd”
  • The Moral Economy of Latin American Crowds
  • Chapter Six: Carlo Ginzburg’s Lessons on the Limitations of Modern Bourgeois Rationality
  • Chapter Seven: Immanuel Wallerstein’s Lessons on Explaining the Contemporary World
  • So-Called “Globalization” and Its Key Avatars
  • The Age-Old Content of “Globalization”
  • The “Dark Sides” of the Concept of Globalization
  • The Pending Agenda of Globalization


The common thread that connects the authors studied in this book—connecting, too, their many different contributions to the development and progress of critical theory—is the fact that they all belong to the same great current of contemporary critical thinking. This current began with Karl Marx in the second half of the 19th century and has evolved with other writers, some Marxist and others not, throughout the 20th century and into our present day. The authors expressly defend the specific panorama of critical thinking in their respective works, which confront the dominant perspectives of their time and continuously demand other explanations, approaches, and interpretations of the subjects they address.

As a result, the title of this book is Lessons in Critical Theory. One of our primary objectives (but by no means the only one) is to clearly establish some of the fundamental teachings that the authors in question—who are among the key representatives of contemporary critical thinking—have offered us. We could define critical theory as the theory produced by the systematic exercise of critical thought: a distillation process, which makes it, too, the general result, elevated into the abstract and the universal, of the specific discoveries, contributions, and explanations developed by the authors in their respective critical inquiries. All of this being said, it is important that we take up the diverse lessons of critical theory—general lessons that make it possible to use, re-use, test, modify, and even enrich critical theory through the study of new “cases”—and make them explicit. In this ←ix | x→way, we will be able to apply critical theory at times and in spaces and conditions that differ considerably from those of their initial gestation, elaboration, and use.

If we want to continue understanding and explaining the world around us in a genuinely critical way, then it makes sense for us to carefully revisit the teachings of contemporary critical thought: the lessons in critical theory that such thinking has gradually established over its century and a half of existence. Our starting point is the idea that this critical thought, in its still-relevant contemporary form, clearly emerged with the critical project of Karl Marx. Indeed, it is through Marx’s work that critical thinking acquired its general characteristics, which the work of the other authors discussed in this book has continued to express, explore, and develop.

According to Marx, critical thought swims against the current of dominant ideas. In many senses, it moves in the opposite direction and diverges from those ideas. It uses many different epistemological methods to distance itself from false evidence, as well as from biased and far-from-innocent theorems, statements, and explanations of the world and the reality that have produced established, dominant thinking. Therefore, critical thought emerges from “lapses” in dominant ideas, focusing instead on their specific “silences” and selective “oversights.” It then exposes the bias and self-interest at work in the thinking of the ruling classes, examining its “flaws,” “errors,” or “insurmountable contradictions” (both voluntary and involuntary) to access the true essence of things.

At stake, then, is the complex, even tortuous ingress into the nature of reality that moves, as Walter Benjamin says, against the grain of dominant discourse. Through a proper, rigorous critical study of the world’s essential nature, we are thus able to reconstruct and propose other explanations—critical ones—of the events, realities, and processes discussed.

These other explanations reveal the “defeated pasts” and the elements that, however fundamental they may be, have nonetheless been forgotten, marginalized, and ignored by dominant perspectives. In returning to these defeated pasts and elements—once forgotten, now recovered—we can restore the essential complexity and richness of the human social fabric as a whole. Which means that we can also restore the remarkable variety of the entire human past, defying the reductive accounts of history that the victors have created and circulated as an obvious weapon of their biased and dishonest self-legitimization.

To overcome commonplaces and the supposedly irrefutable evidence of dominant theorems, critical thinking employs, for example, the device of “making things strange,” in Carlo Ginzburg’s terms. “Making things strange” involves establishing a distance from the reality being studied, and thus from the false hierarchies of dominant bourgeois thought. This distance helps us better relativize and re-contextualize the true relevance and true role of each individual element. ←x | xi→It also allows us to recover each element’s most essential meanings—not only in the immediate situation at hand, but also more generally, within broader temporal perspectives.

Fernand Braudel theorized these differentiated temporal perspectives: the multiple levels of historical and social time. For one thing, his work raised the possibility of systematic removal from the sites of dominant thinking, which are continually trapped in the short-term, immediate time of the événementielle. This removal allows us to relocate or reposition ourselves, and thus to study reality from other vantage points that are more relevant in accessing its essence and in moving away from the short-sightedness of still-dominant modern bourgeois perceptions.

As Braudel has discussed, relocating and de-centralizing our perspective away from the dominant bourgeois gaze allows us, for instance, to stop regarding the Mediterranean as a mere “appendix” of Europe. Instead, it helps us see Europe, among other civilizations, as a true “creation or offspring of the Mediterranean Sea.” Another example: it permits us to consider consumption not as a simple conclusion or ultimate objective of production, but the other way around. Thus, it allows us to study production as a lever, premise, and condition of the deepest transformations affecting structures of consumption. From there, too, we can examine the fundamental changes in material life that are caused by the very same modifications of said consumption. In this way, preceding by several decades the supposedly “anti-Eurocentric” or “Eurocentrist” perspectives that are now empty and superficial in their present-day forms, Fernand Braudel offers us a profoundly critical view of European society. Such a perspective has been historically relativized and resituated into a new perspective, one derived from its also new and “reoriented” observation point: the Mediterranean Sea.

This reorienting shift away from the hegemonic perspective helps us discover entire universes that had previously been ignored, marginalized, and sometimes even suppressed by the dominant forces’ biased views. One example is the rich, vast, multifaceted culture of the popular or subaltern classes across history and societies. This universe has been studied, among other authors, by Mikhail Bakhtin, and was treated until just a few decades ago as an irrelevant or anecdotal subject. Indeed, the dominant lens viewed popular cultures as mere “folklore,” as “popular traditions and customs,” or as curious, incidental features of a peculiar lifestyle—but certainly not as true “culture” in any sense.

Edward Palmer Thompson is another thinker who has deeply and critically explored working-class or subaltern culture. His work emphasizes the important dimension of “the moral economy of the crowd”: the barometer or specific measure of popular conscience. Among every people and in every society, this criterion of ←xi | xii→popular spirit or conscience sets the boundary between what is considered socially tolerable and acceptable and what is not. An essential measure of working-class behavior, it explains the degree to which popular discontent will be manifested in every historical circumstance. The scale starts with one-time ephemeral riots to more organized, enduring riots. From there, it continues on to broader demonstrations with farther-reaching demands. The measure then escalates to direct confrontations and more radical demands. At its highest level is true social revolution. This barometer or thermometer of popular protest, centered on the “moral economy of the crowd,” also allows us to critically rewrite and reinterpret the history of all subaltern classes, groups, and sectors in society.

As Immanuel Wallerstein suggests, critical thinking must be capable of “unthinking” the non-explicit premises of the ideas at work in society’s dominant and exploitative groups. By rendering these premises explicit, by demonstrating them, critical thought also shows the necessary limitations, oversights, biases, and failures of hegemonic thinking—and allows us, by following the new pathways of critical thought, to transcend them. These new pathways retrace the routes taken by today’s prevalent modern bourgeois logic, but they also explicitly present new routes as alternatives. In Michel Foucault’s terms, these alternative paths lead to the construction of true counter-histories and counter-memories, as well as radical counter-discourses: forged in part out of insurgent, always marginal, and always persistently silenced knowledge.


This book does not seek merely to summarize or recapitulate certain essential theses of Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Fernand Braudel, Mikhail Bakhtin, E. P. Thompson, Carlo Ginzburg, and Immanuel Wallerstein; its objective is far more ambitious. The following chapters are grounded in a careful, attentive, and faithful reading of these authors’ texts, with the goal of responsibly revisiting some of their most important contributions. (They do so against the grain of numerous hasty interpretations and frequent vulgarizations and deformations of their key theorems and discussions.) In addition, and just as importantly, these chapters seek to critically re-situate the contributions of each thinker by analyzing them relationally: that is, to discuss each author’s work in conjunction with other essential theorizations, both previous and subsequent to his own oeuvre, of the topic or question at hand. Moreover, the chapters in this book also directly question the critical contributions of each author or thinker in dialogue with our contemporary circumstances—and with the crossroads or dilemmas those circumstances pose—by viewing them through the lens of the theorized subjects and quandaries in question.


XVI, 166
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVI, 166 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas (Author)

Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas is a full-time researcher in the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He specializes in the theory of history in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries and in the new antisystemic movements in Latin America.


Title: Lessons in Critical Theory