The Frankfurt School has been credited — and blamed — for many things. Going by today’s panic over “cultural Marxism,” it must be vastly influential. Far-right strategist William Lind associated the school with university campuses resembling “small ivy-covered North Koreas,” given the supposed tyranny of political correctness. The white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens complained that the school’s critique of right-wing authoritarianism — authored by foreign-born Jews — was “treason against the US Constitution and against America.”
Not only the Frankfurt School’s analysis of authoritarianism marks it out as relevant today. It has long held wide currency in academia as one of the key critiques of modernity — with the advantage, unlike postmodernism, of sticking to Enlightenment philosophy, while also making it reflexive. Late in life, Michel Foucault said he wished he had learned more about this school, earlier. He saw that his approach bore similarities with the Frankfurt School theory of how humanity’s mastery of nature through knowledge and technology turned into a tool for the domination of humans by other humans.
For all these reasons, the Frankfurt School is widely considered to be the most important outgrowth of postwar West German Marxism. This has led young radicals and activists to seek out the writings of Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and others, long after their deaths.
Yet there’s something rather amiss, here. Partly, the Frankfurt School’s success owes to the fact that many of its thinkers were exiled (in many cases, as both Jews and leftists) in English-speaking countries after the Nazis surged to power. Here, they established important contacts, published in English, and, in some cases, like Herbert Marcuse’s, stayed in the United States even after Europe was liberated from fascism.
But if the Frankfurt School insisted that all theories should be understood as historically specific, their own brand of Marxism is rarely put into its proper historical context.
This is important not least because the rise of the far right — and, indeed, the Frankfurt School’s influence on contemporary radical academics — has drawn renewed interest in Horkheimer and Adorno’s understanding of fascism and authoritarianism. Yet when we historicize the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ works, we begin to see the shortcomings of their outlook. This particularly owed to the context in which they wrote — and assumptions born of the vast historical defeats suffered by the interwar socialist movement.
Max Horkheimer was born as the son of a Jewish-German capitalist entrepreneur and millionaire in Stuttgart. He grew up in this bourgeois environment and trained to become a businessman, but was then mobilized in World War I. Returning, he decided — much to his father’s dismay — to become a philosopher, sparked by his interest in Schopenhauer. He then studied philosophy in Munich, Frankfurt, and with Edmund Husserl’s disciple Martin Heidegger in Freiburg. Germany’s tumultuous post-1918 experience of social revolution and protofascist counterrevolution eventually led him to turn to Karl Marx.
Horkheimer never became too practically involved — he rejected the Social Democrats (SPD) for surrendering their antiwar stance in 1914, and he also never joined the Communist Party (KPD) because he disliked the Soviet Union and the notion of violent revolution. In 1922, Horkheimer submitted his PhD thesis under Hans Cornelius, and in 1925 he finished his habilitation with a book on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He then became director of the new Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt — what later became known as the Frankfurt School. Through its “Marxist workshops,” his general goal was to develop a Marxian critique of society, based on a holistic approach which would overcome the disciplinary separation between philosophy and the social sciences.
Political events soon put an end to this plan. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was named Reich Chancellor with the help of President Paul von Hindenburg and the conservatives. A few days later Horkheimer fled Germany, soon to refound the Institute for Critical Research on New York’s 117th Street, as part of Columbia University. Here, he was rejoined by Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and later also Theodor Adorno. Adorno and Marcuse were particular rivals for Horkheimer’s affection and support.
The formation of critical theory thus mostly took place in exile. The key texts written by the Frankfurt Schoolers came after 1933: the Studies on Authority and Family (1936), Egoismus und Freiheitsbewegung (1936), Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), The Jews and Europe (1939), Dialectic of Enlightenment (written in 1944, published in 1947), Eclipse of Reason (1947), the Studies in Prejudice (1949–1950), etc.
The Frankfurt School’s epistemological program was established by Horkheimer’s key essay “Traditional and Critical Theory.” It laid the basis for a critique of “positivist sciences,” i.e. the modeling of the social sciences as a natural science. Defenses of abstract theorizations or qualitative research — as against the dominance of quantitative methods — generally hark back to this essay. This was the basis on which Jürgen Habermas developed his “critical-dialectical approach” to knowledge, as a way of establishing a kind of research which is dialectical and historical in a Marxist sense. This means a focus on the processes that create social reality, in order to identify those social forces which can expand human freedoms. It is also the foundation for critical and neo-Gramscian approaches in international relations.
Horkheimer’s critique was that traditional theories, i.e. mainstream scholarship, essentially replicate capitalist society ideologically or help make capitalist exploitation and oppression function more smoothly. In contrast, critical theory understands society as a dialectically progressing historical development. In this way, critical theories are oriented to human praxis and conceptualize a shifting of what the French historian Fernand Braudel called “the limits of the possible.“ For Horkheimer, mainstream theories, which seek to predict the outcome of social situations based on abstract assumptions about fixed human characteristics, eliminate human freedom from their analysis of society. Moreover, they tend to accept historically developed conditions as expressions of human nature — and thus themselves uphold the status quo.
This also laid the groundwork for Horkheimer’s later critique of instrumental reason, published in English as Eclipse of Reason. Here, he focused on themes also at the heart of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, namely how knowledge production is not neutral but always for some purpose like capitalist profits, more efficient control over workers in the workplace, or the state’s efficiency of domination. Horkheimer and Adorno took this a step further in Dialectic of Enlightenment, arguing that the Enlightenment was turning on itself, for it had created the dominant classes’ ability to use their knowledge of nature and human beings to reinforce their control of society.
The pair had long sought to integrate the social sciences with Freudian psychology. In the United States, Horkheimer and Adorno sought to analyze how psychology, i.e. the inquiry into conscious and subconscious human desires, was exploited by the “culture industry” as an increasingly perfected instrument of social control. In this, they particularly drew on their view of Hollywood and their firsthand experience of the rise of jazz in the United States. Horkheimer and Adorno were convinced that culture and ideology essentially fulfilled the social function of nurturing an acceptance of the status quo, of reproducing labor power for the next shift, and nurturing the acceptance that there is no alternative to capitalist social relations.
Historicizing Left-Wing Thought
Horkheimer and Adorno thus became increasingly pessimistic with regards to the working class’s ability to overthrow capitalism. In other words, they became Marxist heretics. In their studies of the family and authoritarianism, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Löwenthal began with the observation that fascism was not a product of the working class, but at the same time, workers had not been immune to its appeal. Their research now focused on why subjects held prejudices against the nonconforming elements in society and tolerated an economic system of systematic class exploitation and domination — and why some even willingly accepted throwing away their civil liberties. (Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School psychoanalyst, called this the “escape from freedom.”) Did this not demand a revision of Marxism?
To Horkheimer, the patriarchal family was the transmission belt of submissive behavior. In Autorität und Familie, Horkheimer wrote against the orthodoxy of Stalin’s Marxism-Leninism and economistic and class-reductionist (“vulgar”) Marxism. He maintained,
The production process influences the people not just in the immediate . . . form as they are experiencing it at work but also how it [the production process] manifests in the relatively robust . . . institutions such as the family, school, church, arts institutions, and the like. In order to understand the problem of why a society functions in a particular way, why it is stable, or why it dissolves, we must therefore recognize the respective psychic condition of human beings in the various social groups, and we must know how their character has been formed in relation to the cultural powers of formation in their time. To understand the economic process as the specific foundation of historical developments means observing it in its changing relation to all other spheres of social life.
Horkheimer was thus proposing a non-mechanist and non-economistic Marxism. In practice, however, focusing also on spheres of social life beyond the sphere of production gave way to focusing on hardly anything but the sphere of reproduction — on the family, on culture, on ideology.
The important thing to understand, here, is that this very un-Marxist methodology was woven into the very beginnings of the Institute for Social Research in the 1930s. As we have said, in its earliest incarnation the institute sought to integrate all academic disciplines in order to develop a full-fledged, non-economistic, non-mechanistic theory of society. However, in the founding program of the institute the disciplines mentioned were only sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Political economy — or Nationalökonomie, as it was called in Germany — was missing already in the statement of intent, even though Marx had shifted away from philosophy as early as 1845 and had developed his method of dialectical and historical materialism around the critique of political economy. Yet, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno went even further when they delineated their project as the critique within and of “sociology, psychology, and epistemology.”
As a result, unlike some other thinkers loosely associated with the institute, like Henryk Grossmann, Horkheimer did not conduct empirical research on capitalism and its crises, on capital/labor relations and the creation and distribution of surplus value, on the expanded reproduction of the system, the hierarchical nature of the international division of labor, the organization of internationalizing capitalism in a system of nation-states, the origins of imperialism and inter-imperial rivalries, or such.
This was no accident. It was closely connected to the way in which Horkheimer and Adorno were drawn to Marxism and the working class. For Horkheimer, the working class had been a revolutionary subject only in the abstract, in historical-philosophical terms, which he focused on in Anfänge der bürgerlichen Geschichtsphilosophie (1930) and Egoismus und Freiheitsbewegung (1936). The working class was essentially an empty placeholder for the subject which would overthrow an economic and social system which they considered wrong. If it failed to live up to its expectations, then it could easily be replaced by another subject of revolution — or the conclusion that there was no way out (of capitalism).
This was also why Horkheimer also did not conduct empirical research on working-class formation, on the dialectic of intra–working class competition and solidarity, on the working class’s natural state of dis-unity (and not unity), and how the working class is therefore politically made, as subjective class theorists like E. P. Thompson would later argue.
Horkheimer also refrained from analyzing, let alone engaging in, concrete labor disputes and organizing strategies, and he also did not study working-class consciousness or the making, unmaking, and remaking of class. Horkheimer and Adorno clearly were orthodox in their Marxist assumption of a class antagonism between capital and labor. And in the debates within the German Sociological Association, Adorno vehemently defended Marxist class theory against liberal notions of “industrial society” and conservative notions of the “leveled middle-class society” (as per Helmut Schelsky). Yet once the working class disappointed (as it had, being unable to prevent fascism from taking power), Horkheimer could easily move away from it. Such is the nature of projecting one’s hopes onto a distant cipher.
In any case, the working class had failed these Marxists in its mission of overthrowing capitalism. In The Jews and Europe (1939), Horkheimer went as far as to say that fascism was the adequate state form of late capitalism. Obviously, these unchallengeable conclusions became problematic when after 1945 suddenly liberal democracy became the “natural” form of postwar capitalism.
Nevertheless, Horkheimer and Adorno now identified the “ceaseless self-destruction of the Enlightenment.” To them, postwar capitalism’s “culture industry” was only superficially different from fascism as it also seemed to have fully integrated the working class — now turned into a working mass of mass consumers.
In essence, Horkheimer and Adorno considered historic fascism as a final defeat of the socialist project and withdrew to a position of an abstract anti-capitalism and theoretical nonconformism (not dissimilar from 1950s French existentialism). With that position, however, they essentially fell behind Marx’s own “critique of critical critique” in the “German ideology.” Like Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner, they effectively lamented, “if only people saw, like we do, through the universal connection of deception” (universelle Verblendungszusammenhang)!
Horkheimer thus considered his postwar philosophy as a return from “revolutionary optimism” to “revolutionary pessimism.” He was a hindered revolutionary: the system was wrong, but there was no way out, especially not through the working class.
Horkheimer was not alone in these feelings. Many postwar radical leftists and anti-capitalists, especially those not organized in real workers’ parties, were disappointed revolutionaries. The German writer Alfred Andersch, who had been close to the KPD before 1933 and then withdrawn into “inner emigration,” called the West German postwar left a “homeless left.” The working classes’ betrayals seemed to continue after 1945. After the short-lived socialist revival, the Cold War and the internationalization of the New Deal as the Keynesian welfare state seemed to have completely absorbed what was left of revolutionary working-class spirit.
This led many disappointed leftists to culture and ideology as levels of analyses which could explain this failure of the working class. To a certain extent, also the “First New Left” in Britain, founded by Stuart Hall, justified its turn to culture with the historic defeat of the old left. Similarly, French structuralist Marxism did this under Louis Althusser, who took the critique of corporatism so far that he even considered the trade unions as an “ideological state apparatus” just like the church, which integrated the working class into capitalism.
Horkheimer had already theorized this as the eclipse of independent thought. In his mind, expressed in his telling, unpublished work On the Sociology of Class Relations (1943), the working classes were incapable of the kind of independent thought he and Adorno positively associated with the nineteenth-century bourgeois, because their labor organizations had integrated them into “late capitalism” in which monopoly capital was merged with monopoly labor into an integrated stable whole (an “administered world” as Adorno called it). “Class struggle,” Horkheimer writes, “was transformed into a system of interactions between monopolistic unities, into a means of class conformity [Klassenanpassung] and into wars.” Falsely ascribing a theory of absolute immiseration to Marx, Horkheimer essentially argued that monopoly labor had also elevated workers into a new, mass-consuming “middle class.” As he put it, “The elevation of the worker from a passive to an active role in the capitalist process came at the cost of his [or her] integration into the general system.”
To the Margins
However, with the working class totally integrated into capitalism by Hollywood movies, high wages, washing machines, and corporatist macroeconomic planning, radical anti-capitalist intellectuals had to seek out other subjects of revolution. And many of them found them on the fringes of society, beyond the now-abandoned working class. Self-identifying Marxists like Herbert Marcuse considered the youth rebellion and sexual revolution as a potential revolutionary subject.
Non-Marxist radicals like Michel Foucault and post-Marxists like Pier Paolo Pasolini turned to a patchwork of marginalized groups — from psychiatric patients to petty criminals and gay people — as revolutionaries. Ultimately, both Horkheimer and Foucault only considered the defense of remaining elements of freedom and the identification of “micro-powers” of domination a possibility, but changes in the macro-power structures were out of reach. In other words, a Left was born that was no longer oriented toward “counter-hegemony” (as per Antonio Gramsci), as a way of building toward power, but rather “anti-hegemony” (Horkheimer, Foucault, etc.), as John Sanbonmatsu put it in his critique of postmodernism.
But history can be richly ironic — and in fact, postwar political and social postwar stability came to an end in the late 1960s. The “Golden Age of Capitalism” (Eric Hobsbawm) of simultaneously rising real labor incomes and capital profits came to an end. Fordist capitalism under Keynesian regulation had reached its internal limits in the shape of a profit squeeze. Suddenly, a new wave of labor militancy emerged, making the 1970s into a high point of labor struggles not seen since the 1920s–30s.
The center could not hold. Something had to give. Capitalism was to be transformed through either something like Rudolf Meidner’s pension fund socialism or neoliberalism. The neoliberals prevailed and suddenly the integration of the working class unraveled, first in the guise of the wave of labor strikes in the West and then, after the defeat of labor, the dismantling of many of the achievements of the labor movement and the historic compromise between capital and labor.
The postwar era had created a brand of Fordist Marxism and a reproductionist left which had essentially mistaken the very specific spatiotemporal conjuncture of the postwar era as general features of a “late-capitalist” society, immobilized by the technologies of power and social control. They were thus unprepared for the social upheaval of May 1968 and the decade after.
However, the origins of their inability to make sense of postwar capitalism were older. They had been laid by the elimination of Marxist political economy from the research frameworks developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In that sense, Perry Anderson’s critique of Western Marxism as an increasingly (re-)philosophized phenomenon rings true.
Some theorists acknowledged that they had been wrong. For Nicos Poulantzas, the May 1968 in Paris was an “epiphany.” He subsequently shifted away from Althusser’s structuralist abstractionism, which the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson would later savage in The Poverty of Theory (1978), and shifted into social analyses more rooted in a historical analysis of class. Horkheimer’s close collaborator Herbert Marcuse recognized his mistake and shifted his analysis from the notion of a totally integrated One-Dimensional Man (1964) with “false consciousness” to an analysis of Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). Decisively, this also entailed a reopening to politics around the capital/labor antagonism.
Max Horkheimer didn’t shift one iota. In the year that Adorno died, in 1969, he and Adorno wrote a new introduction to the Dialectic of Enlightenment. They insisted that they had been right to dismiss the working class as “integrated” into capitalism: “Today, critical thinking, which does not pause even in the face of progress, necessitates partisanship for the residuals of freedom, for tendencies towards real humanity, even if they seem omnipotent in light of the big historical trends. The development towards the total integration identified by this book has only been interrupted, it has not ceased.”
Losing Ties to Politics
If Horkheimer and Adorno saw the nineteenth-century bourgeois as their ideal of a free individual, this figure had now vanished — and they had also given up on the working class as a motor for change which could realize this freedom for everyone. With both subjects out of their picture, the notion of praxis vanished from critical theory as the conditions of post-fascist Fordist capitalism transformed it into the Frankfurt School. Unlike thinkers like Karl Korsch, Bertolt Brecht, or Wolfgang Abendroth, Horkheimer had never been practically involved in the socialist labor movement even during the interwar period. This was now coming back to haunt them theoretically — but also personally.
An anti-capitalism that was as radical as it was but ended up being abstract was not enough for many of their students. The Frankfurt School’s uncompromisingly radical part — the notion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the present society — would attract millions of critical students.
And at the same time, the Frankfurt School lacked a perspective of praxis of how to change this society. And the students of Horkheimer and Adorno essentially had only two exits: they could either turn themselves into epigones of social outsiders speaking an increasingly arcane language, or they could request from their teachers a turn to real political praxis, as Hans-Jürgen Krahl or Alex Demirovic did. The Frankfurt School itself however had been a dead end, theoretically and politically.
This does not mean that the Frankfurt School’s observations made with regards to authoritarianism — authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, etc. — are no longer useful. Of course, they need freeing from Freudian determinism, such as Adorno’s assumption that personalities were essentially formed and determined by early childhood. German Critical Psychology, i.e. the Klaus Holzkamp School, has been much better at conceptualizing authoritarian behavior with regards to concrete historic situations (in which subjects can choose to pursue “agency capacity,” i.e. to act according to human needs and motivations, in either authoritarian or nonauthoritarian ways). Furthermore, the study of authoritarianism would have to link the origins of authoritarianism with the sphere of production, i.e. concrete workplace experiences, instead of narrowly conceiving authoritarianism as handed down through an authoritarian father figure.
However, today we should recognize that Horkheimer’s focus on how the capitalist system is being reproduced by culture and ideology involved a shift away from political economy. The fallout of this shift could be seen in the way in which post-structuralist and post–Frankfurt School thinkers like David Strecker had little to say about the global financial crisis — beyond the abstract notion that one ought to discuss who gets to define what a crisis is and not simply accept the notion of crisis just because the elites said there was one. The shift away from political economy and toward culture essentially meant throwing away the tools for understanding the material foundations of society. Beginning as early as the 1930s, this shift made postwar leftist thought unable to identify that what it assumed to be general features of developed (“late”) capitalism was merely an expression of a very specific political compromise — one that proved to be short-lived.