This article outlines how the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has influenced some key debates within social movement studies. The impact of Jürgen Habermas's sociology is widely acknowledged, especially with regards to our understanding of ‘new social movements'. There have however also been several lesser-known attempts to bring the concerns of Theodor W. Adorno's negative dialectics and Herbert Marcuse's critique of one-dimensional society to bear onto social movement research. For this reason it makes sense to outline the relevance of the ‘first generation' members of the Frankfurt School - something that is often missing from the most authoritative overviews and textbooks on social movement theory. Presenting a body of literature that often appears as fragmented or only on the periphery of social movement theory in this way reveals a number of common themes, such as negation, refusal and co-optation. To this end, the article provides a comprehensive theoretical overview of the multiple ways of how critical theory has made sense of social movements and argues that its concerns can be brought into a rewarding dialogue with contemporary social movement studies.