John Grumley on George Márkus’s ‘Four Forms of Critical Theory’

This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40




by John Grumley

Personnages (Figures) (1926) by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hauser & Wirth

George Márkus’s ‘Four Forms of Critical Theory’ was first published in Thesis Eleven no. 1 in 1980. Reading it again meant revisiting a paper that I had first read forty years ago with fresh eyes. I always thought George was a special person and a great philosopher. He supervised my PhD and became my senior colleague after I was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. We became close friends after his retirement.  

As Márkus mentions in the introductory remarks to the paper, it was based on a book written by Márkus and his two most talented Hungarian students, János Kis and György Bence, in 1973. The book could not be published at that time because its radical character was not lost on the reigning Communist Party. It would finally be published in Hungary in 1993 after the collapse of the Communist regime. At last, an English translation of the book is about to be published later this year with Brill.[1] Since his death in 2016, Márkus’ reputation has steadily risen both internationally and in Australia.[2] His work was always characterised by exhaustive scholarship, great conceptual rigor, and continual intellectual re-examination of his previous ideas.

When Márkus first arrived at the University of Sydney as a political refugee in 1978, the Philosophy Department was split into two theoretical groups, the more conservative Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, and the other, which proudly called its democratic collective, the Department of General Philosophy. The immediate philosophical/political issue that caused the split was that the sole Professor, David Armstrong, was opposed to the teaching of the newly emerging feminist literature and ideas by senior female tutor/students like Elizabeth Jacka. The other major contention was a course on Marxism taught by Wal Suchting and Michael Devitt. Both controversial courses were products of the student cultural revolution during the late sixties, and the growing worldwide opposition to the Vietnam War and especially the Australian support of US policy. At that time, Suchting was ‘the Pope’ of Marxism in Sydney Philosophy. Marxism meant the work of Louis Althusser.

This was the immediate context for Márkus’ paper. It begins with a cultural hermeneutics of the history of the interpretation of all Marx’s works, and the ideologically charged character of these interpretations. Since World War Two, two theoretical camps had dominated an ongoing debate over Marx’s work. Those who argued for the ‘continuity’ of his writings associated with terms like ‘alienation’, ‘objectification’ and ‘human essence’ prompted by the cultural revolution in the 1960s, and by a more left-liberal relation to the modern world; and those who argued for a ‘rupture’, associated with the works of the French philosopher Althusser. In response to both camps, Márkus argues for an underlying humanism in all Marx’s works, that is disavowed by a scientific reading of an ‘epistemological’ rupture. At the same time, Márkus’ forensic scholarship also contested the terms of a counter-cultural reception of Marxism as a utopian humanism that had lapsed into a finalistic ‘end of history’ as the meaning of communism. Against this, Márkus continued to emphasise Marx’s humanism as an investment in living historical subjects as agents and actors.  

Obviously, contemporary critical discussion has moved on. Much of the revolutionary optimism produced by the student movement and its protest at existing structures of power, capital and patriarchal authority has dissipated, but many progressive reforms have been integrated into Social Democratic legislation and are manifest in gay rights and marriage equality. We have seen that social democratic institutions are available to progressive reforms despite their shortcomings. This is evident in recent political controversies in Canberra about sexual violence, maintenance of patriarchal power and continuing debate over climate change and greenhouse gas reductions. The political program that sustained the cultural revolution that is evident throughout Márkus’ paper is no longer contemporary. For example, the discussion about the democratic generation of radical needs is an echo from a past epoch. No one was more responsive to these changed historical conditions than Márkus himself, as is evident in his later works. Márkus was the first to use Marx’s concept of ‘radical needs’ from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) but it was made famous in Agnes Heller’s The Theory of Radical Needs.[3] The creator of the concept of radical needs herself came to repudiate this concept as a politically dangerous utopianism. For Márkus such ‘radical needs’ were simply empirically incorrect, they were living real needs. We might also, then, consider the contribution made to Australian intellectual and cultural life by the European political refugees, who played such a significant part in assisting the birth of Thesis Eleven itself forty years ago. 

In my view Márkus’s paper remains worth reading because its intellectual and political virtue are still most evident. A critique of the existing social and political world is needed as much as ever, and his intellectual virtues of rigor, profound knowledge of history and commitment to contribute to a better world remains perennial.

George Márkus’ article, ‘Four Forms of Critical Theory: Some Theses on Marx’s Development’ is free to download from the Sage website for a limited time as a part of the Thesis Eleven ‘Top 40’ special.


[1] Markus, G., Kis, J. & Bence, G. (2021). Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? Brill, London. See my Foreword to the book.

[2] Grumley, J. (2020). ‘Towards anIntellectual Biography of György Márkus’. Constellations, 28(3), 293–305. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.12519

[3] Heller, A. (1974). The Theory of Needs in Marx, Allison & Busby, London.

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