Stuart Jeffries, cultural critic and writer with The Guardian, took on the Frankfurt School because he felt intimidated by them.
“They’re one of those conceptual black holes I’ve never really investigated. I’m slightly terrified of them,” he explains, eliciting instant nods from the countless hordes of academics who love citing critical theorists yet live in terror of having to actually explain them.
The names ring familiar to anyone who has studied the social sciences in any depth—Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jurgen Habermas—but what did they actually have to say? What relevance do a bunch of stuffy, grumpy old German men from the early part of the 20th century have for a broad public in 2016?
“The most important thing about the Frankfurt School is what they did in terms of analyzing culture as a tool of capitalism,” says Jeffries. “If anything the stranglehold of the culture industry has gotten more intense in the years since they were writing.”
Jeffries is the author of Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, a group biography of the Frankfurt scholars which he hopes will offer a more accessible introduction to critical theory and the intense intellectual debates it’s generated.
“I’m at a disadvantage in that I’m not an academic, I’m not German, and I’m not Jewish. So in three different ways I’m outside the loop!” he laughs, noting that it’s those elements which help him bring a different perspective to the group and their work.
There’s a tendency among some academics to treat the early scholars of the Frankfurt School (who were indeed predominantly German, Jewish, and male) as linked with a particular period of history—the Holocaust, the Cold War—and thus to neglect their analytical value for contemporary social phenomena, for instance 21st century mass media and the internet.
“What I’m arguing is that what they had to say is quite pertinent to how we live now. To the impoverishment of experience… I think their analyses are more relevant now than they were when they wrote them in a way.”
Critical Theory and the Nazis
The forbidding intellectualism of the Frankfurt School was the lure, says Jeffries, but the more he studied them, the more he felt there was a gap in how they’d been written about.
“There was never what I tried to do with this book, which was a group biography which charts a narrative of their lives and the years they lived through and the incredible events they lived through, and how that changed them and how they critiqued it. I thought it was a great narrative to tell and hopefully I’ve done a sort of introduction for people who, like me, struggled to get inside the heads of these guys.”
The years they lived through were tumultuous ones. The Institute of Social Research—what came to be known as the Frankfurt School—was founded in Frankfurt Germany in 1923 and established as an independent research institute loosely affiliated with the University of Frankfurt. Hot on the heels of the Russian Revolution and World War I, the scholars affiliated with the Institute had been expecting socialist revolution to spread to Germany. Instead, they got the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler. Jaded and disillusioned, their work became focused on understanding what had gone wrong. The result was an intellectual outlook that became increasingly critical and pessimistic about the emancipatory possibility of any political ideology.
“The terrible truth is that Hitler was the great catalyst to their thoughts,” notes Jeffries. “It’s a great what-if question; what would the Frankfurt School have been like without fascism? They might just have been a bunch of failed Marxist intellectuals struggling to find out why revolution didn’t happen, and only been of relatively localized interest.”
Instead, many of them fled to America as the fascists seized power in Europe (or died trying, like Walter Benjamin). And although welcomed by their American hosts, they did not hesitate to turn an embittered critical lens on their new host country. If Europe could fall prey to fascist and Nazi thinking, they warned, so could any country.
“They went to America to say that America was in some respects similar to Hitler’s Germany,” explains Jeffries. “In that tools of total domination were operated on by Hollywood and by American capitalism in pretty much the same way that Hitler was ruling Germany. Of course this massively offended Americans, and understandably—nobody wants to be compared to Hitler. But Hitler and the Third Reich and everything that happened between 1918 and 1945—those were the great catalysts to their thought. Without them I’m not sure if their analysis of capitalism would have been as distinctive and as sharp and as mordant and as aggressive as it was.”
“There was an incredible rage in their writing, particularly the writing of Adorno. He was a very waspish guy, very sarcastic and biting, and the melancholy rage that comes out of his writing is spurred by his experience of the rise of Nazism, and what it did to his friends and what it did to his family and what it did to him.”
Rise of the Culture Industry
The critical theorists had seen first-hand how the culture industry could be used in the service of totalitarian capitalism under Hitler and other fascist regimes. The key difference between what happened there and the US, notes Jeffries, is that in the totalitarian states (including the Soviet Union) the use of cultural industries (film, music, even children’s songs) in the service of political ideologies was more open and overt; ruling regimes were less inclined to hide what they were doing. What the Frankfurt scholars did was look at Hollywood and recognize distinct parallels that were not as overt or apparent to other Americans.
“I think that’s what annoyed Americans about what the Frankfurt School said about American culture, which is that they thought the Americans were smuggling in some sort of agenda which the people on the receiving end weren’t quite aware of. I think that’s true, but it’s a very difficult thing to accept. Who wants to be told that they’re an idiot, or told that their tastes are made by other people or that they’re dupes of the system? Malcolm X said something like that to black people—you’ve been had, you’ve been took. But if you say the same sort of thing—which is pretty much what Adorno and Horkheimer did—to Americans who actually believe in the American dream, then it’s going to be a really bracing, frightening, annoying message.”
Grand Hotel Abyss
Jeffries spent about three years researching the Frankfurt School and immersing himself in their writings. Doing so gave him a gradual appreciation for their intellectual contributions, “while at the same time finding stuff out about them that made me dislike them fairly intensely personally. I didn’t particularly warm to any of them personally!” he laughs.
The book’s title comes from a quote by philosopher Georg Lukacs, who used the phrase to criticize the almost hopeless pessimism of critical theory. Critical theory’s consistent put-downs of more hopeful ideologies is what infuriated action-oriented academics and activists; Adorno in particular was targeted by student activists who denounced him as a faux radical and disrupted his classes.
“Because the critic’s message is intolerable!” explained Jeffries. “Lukacs said these guys are sitting on the sidelines, bitching and whining essentially, and they’re not about changing the world. And they weren’t, because they were intellectuals and they were not open to believe in utopian projects being developed, particularly in the ‘60s. Adorno is so skeptical about what the students were doing, even though he’s clearly in support of reforming the universities and the idea of making the places more democratic. But he’s always seeking to clip the wings of those people who think that Utopia is near at hand and that it’s a relatively easy thing to achieve.”
The student radicals’ critique of Adorno intensified after he called the police to end a student occupation of the Institute’s offices. Jeffries recounts in his book an example of what Adorno experienced in consequence. At the beginning of a lecture series in 1969 “[t]wo students demanded he perform an act of self-criticism for having called the police to clear the Institute… It was then that a student wrote on the blackboard: ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.’ Others shouted: ‘Down with the informer!’ Adorno said he would give everyone five minutes to decide if they wanted him to carry on with the lecture. Then three women protesters surrounded him on the platform, bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him. He grabbed his hat and coat, ran off from the hall and later cancelled the lecture series.”
The incident seems laughable by today’s yawn-inducing student radical standards, but it reveals an important aspect of critical theory: a willingness to critique the left as well as the right. Adorno, one of the more progressive scholars of his time, supported many of the students’ aims, yet did not censor his disapproval of their methods and their demand for single-minded ideological adherence to the cause. As a result he was targeted and bullied by student radicals—in fact he died later that year and it is likely the bullying contributed to it.
The leftist student radicals were on the opposite end of the political spectrum from fascists and Nazis, and yet their refusal to accept debate and dissent within their ranks revealed a stark parallel with their fascist opponents. The Frankfurt scholars were critiqued for being theorists and refusing to commit to revolutionary action, yet the ideological single-mindedness of leftist student radicals evoked for them memories of the ideological single-mindedness of the Nazis a few decades earlier. A movement driven by such cold single-mindedness, warned Adorno, could easily and quickly transform itself into its political opposite.
“This negativity that was at the heart of critical theory, was borne of fear of repeating fascism,” argues Jeffries. “That’s why Habermas talks about ‘left fascism’ in the late ‘60s, because he’s afraid that the students are going to repeat what happened in [Nazi] Germany, and repeat what happened in the failed revolutions of Europe in 1848. He’s worried that the ideology can curdle into totalitarianism, that student rebellion and the revolutionary impulse can curdle into something disgusting and totalitarian. What comes of that is a critical theory which is sterile and has critical force, but doesn’t really change the world, and that’s really exasperating to people who want to change the world.”
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