The Frankfurt School

Last week I wrote about how Max Horkheimer coined the term Critical Theory and founded a school of thought we conventionally call the Frankfurt School. But he founded the school of thought, not the physical school it was housed in.

It was Felix Weil that actually founded the Institute for Social Research in 1923 when this wealthy student at the University of Frankfurt financed a conference named The First Marxist Workweek (Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche) in the German town of Ilmenau. Well attended by many leading Marxist intellectuals of the time, Weil used an endowment from his father and the academic credentials of his friend Friedrich Pollock to found a Marxist think tank. They hired Carl Grünberg, a Marxist professor of law at the University of Vienna, to become its first director. Grünberg suffered a debilitating stroke in 1929 and was succeeded by Horkheimer.

It was Horkheimer that took an institution devoted to fairly orthodox Marxism and hired the renegade intellectuals that would move their school in a different, more bourgeoisie-friendly direction: Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. There were, of course, several others, but these two were the most influential in moving Horkheimer’s concept of Critical Theory forward into a worldview that has such influence today.

They were forced to leave Germany in 1933 for obvious reasons. Horkheimer first moved the school to Switzerland, but then got a surprising offer to locate at Columbia University in New York.

In a certain sense, the Frankfurt School, despite its German origin, became as American as apple pie, finding a better reception in the American academy than Teutonic higher education. The Frankfurt School basted in the juice of post-modernism, offering an outlook on life that made sense to privileged college students, moving the American left beyond anything that would unite blue-collar labor in revolution. The Frankfurt School churned out a series of books from the 1940s to the 1960s that served as the canonical foundation of what became known as the New Left.

  • Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) – This book addresses the authors’ perceived equal failures of free market economics and Marxism which have a shared root in the Enlightenment. Marxist theory sought a scientific explanation of history, scientific socialism. Free market economists are postulating social scientific laws. This book set the Frankfurt School on the course of rejecting Enlightenment rationality. Marx was a modernist. This book helped form a New Left that was post-modernist. The authors rejected Marxist dialectical materialism and instead argued that the ultimate outcome of history is the collapse of reason. Modern philosophy has gotten too rigorous and logical, these authors claimed, as they went for the jugular of the Vienna Circle. Horkheimer and Adorno also went after American popular culture, coining the term “cultural industry” by arguing that capitalist society mass produces culture like a factory producing standardized goods. These homogenized cultural products are used to manipulate people into docility and passivity.
  • Theodor Adorno. Minima Moralia (1951) – This book argues that a good, honest life is no longer possible because we live in an inhuman society. Late industrial life in America lacks authenticity. Adorno illustrated this in a series of anecdotes about the subversive nature of toys, the corruption of the family by prosperity, the disingenuousness of being genuine, the decay of conversation, and basically page after page of romanticism.
  • Herbert Marcuse. Eros and Civilization (1955) – This is the leading document of the sexual revolution, but it’s not a libertarian call for individual freedom. Marcuse penned a strange attempt to reconcile Marx and Freud, where restrictions on sexuality are some kind of inherent capitalist oppression. Society should shape “man’s world in accordance with the Life Instincts.” Sexual repression, Marcuse argued, is political repression: “Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.” The social meaning of biology is that history is less class struggle as it is a fight against the suppression of our instincts. Marcuse argued that “advanced industrial society” prevents us from reaching a non-repressive society “based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relationship between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations.”
  • Herbert Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man (1964) – Marcuse hammered home the Frankfurt School theme that both capitalism and communism are bad. They have a common commitment to meeting the consumer needs of mass society, and that is the problem. To Marcuse consumerism is a form of social control. He argued that the West may claim to be democratic, but it is actually totalitarian. Technological rationality has imposed itself on every aspect of culture and public life in America to the point it has become hegemonic. Contrast this with Antonio Gramsci’s Cultural Hegemony. Gramsci thought capitalism staved off communist revolution with cultural norms. Marcuse argued the prosperity capitalism offers workers prevents revolution, because it causes them to be sell-outs, foregoing radicalism to preserve their creature comforts. Marcuse called for alternatives to counter the consumer lifestyle. An anti-consumerism lifestyle that demotes any unnecessary consumption, as well as unnecessary work, and waste was Marcuse’s answer.

These books formed the basis of what is called Critical Theory. That term has a broader meaning for some people, but when those two words are capitalized, it’s the Frankfurt School’s contribution to modern political thought. Critical Theory became socialism for the wealthy, offering a pedantic disdain for lower-class tastes. The Marxist roots were smothered by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy, producing critiques of suburbia, mass culture, and giving birth to the New Left.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.