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In 1923 an extraordinary institute was founded at the University of Frankfurt, one that eventually attained global eminence as a result of its scholarly activity, known today as »critical theory.« Felix Weil, heir to a large fortune and inspired by Marxism, contributed the funding. To this day, the original theory as well as many works written by scholars associated with the Institute have enriched the social sciences and humanities. The philosophy as originally conceived gradually moved away from Marxism and became a critique of the failings of European civilization as a whole. That evolution began in the 1920s as a question – characteristic of »Western Marxism” – about the reasons why the »revolution« of 1919 – 20 in Germany was stillborn. That, at least, is the way in which Herbert Marcuse framed the inquiry once the Institute had been re-established after the Second World War.
Multiplicity within unity
Whether we consider each of its specific authors or the different phases of its activity, critical theory exhibits a unique physiognomy, because, true to the original vision of its second director, Max Horkheimer, its associates represented a variety of distinct fields in the social sciences and humanities. They included the philosopher of culture Theodor W. Adorno, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the economist Friedrich Pollock, the literary critic Leo Löwenthal, and later the legal scholars Otto Kirchheimer and Franz Neumann, after they arrived in New York as exiles.
The first director of the Institute, who assumed that post in 1923, was the Austrian Marxist Carl Grünberg. What was striking about the Institute in those days was its principled refusal to engage in political practice and its distance from the workers‹ movement. That abstinence from practice was to become the hallmark of »Western Marxism« as a whole. The philosophers Georg Lukàcs and Karl Korsch, the latter an inspirational figure behind the Institute, provided models for this newer, more strongly Hegelian, version of Marxism.
Beginning in 1930, the philosopher Max Horkheimer became both the head and public face of the Institute, running it with an air of authority. His new role preceded by only two years his emigration to Switzerland and ultimately the United States, forced upon him by the Nazis. He thought of himself as a »Marxist, materialist, and dialectician,« terms that epitomized his »immanent« method of social critique. He would identify the dominant ideas of a society and apply them to existing social relations in a critical spirit, thus »playing its own tunes« back to that society to »get it dancing« (Marx). That shared approach united the Institute’s associates despite their wide divergence on other points.
The virtuoso cultural critic and philosopher of music, Theodor W(iesengrund) Adorno, later the group’s brightest star, had to push impatiently for more than five long years until Horkheimer finally offered him a salaried position. Only then did Adorno, a close friend and admirer of the messianically inspired, Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, begin to exert a defining intellectual influence on the work of the Institute. That influence gave rise to a potent mixture of Marxist and messianic motifs steeped in the critique of civilization and devoted to »redemption« through a transcendence of »existing relations.« That mélange holds the secret of why critical theory has fascinated such broad strata of the leftist cultural milieu in many areas of the Western world to this very day.
Each with his own peculiar accent, the authors of critical theory concurred that the »reification« and »alienation« generated by modern capitalism, sustained also by its »culture industry,« systematically put blinkers on capitalist society as a whole by making the mutable social relations on which it rests look like a tightly interlocking relationship among things. Even the working class, they said, would fall succumb to that illusion, since the capitalist entertainment industry kept on feeding its members clever daily substitute gratifications. Only when that illusion had been dispelled and a society based on self-determined working and living had been created would humanity be liberated from exploitation and redeemed from its alienation.
Initially, Horkheimer defined his circle’s project modestly: »The word (›critical‹) is not meant so much in the sense of the idealist critique of pure reason as in the sense of a dialectical critique of political economy.« In the current situation »the Institute should set itself the task (of seeking out) the nexus between the economic life of society, the psychic development of human beings, and changes in the cultural sphere in the narrower sense. Such topics include not just the intellectual contents of science, art, and religion, but also law, custom, public opinion, sports, pleasure travel, lifestyles, etc.«
In later years, the Institute displayed quite a bit of selectivity in fulfilling that decidedly empirical promise. That was the case due not only to shifts in the self-understanding of its principal actors, but also to the caesuras of the age (the Great Depression, fascism, the World War). There always were marked differences between Horkheimer and Adorno in respect to the future prospects of reason – ones that persisted well into their crowning joint work, the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). By relying on a substantive, dialectical form of reason, Horkheimer hoped to overcome the merely instrumental reason implicit in the domination of nature, the shrunken remnant of the Enlightenment once it had been displaced by the »positivist« methods of the individual sciences in late capitalism. He had in mind research projects in which the relevant disciplines would cooperate and jointly elaborate a concept of social totality that would then relate back to all its individual elements, in turn altering the concept of the whole.
The dialectic of enlightenment
Adorno’s conception of the method proper to a critical theory was more skeptical. Following Benjamin, it aimed at developing an »interpretative dialectic« that would be critical of reason in principle. By interpreting social phenomena in temporary isolation from one another, it would »intuitively« decode the essence of the whole, the totality of relations. As was the case with Benjamin himself, all of Adorno’s texts thus bore a distinctive character that was less discursive than it was speculative and aesthetic, a tendency which the artistry of his form of expression ostentatiously underscored.
Like Benjamin, he increasingly concluded that reason as such had been corrupted at its very core by the dynamic of its own self-generated »rationalization« of the world, the purpose of which was the blind domination of nature. Furthermore, he thought that reason would no longer be capable of freeing itself from the »false totality« that it had created. That predicament was true not only of capitalism, but was already evident in ovo ever since the systematic domination of nature began back in the age of myth. Accordingly, in the Institute’s internal discussions the transition from the democratically organized monopoly capitalism of the Weimar Republic to the National-Socialist dictatorship looked less like a civilizational rupture than like the political outcome of that very economic system.
Although Adorno’s radical critique of reason set the tone in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer’s more nuanced perspective does shine through in numerous passages. But the overwhelming impression is one of hopeless historical pessimism. The »dialectical« element in this view was that the increasing subjugation of external nature went hand in hand with growing rational self-control, i.e., the simultaneous subjugation of the internal nature of human beings. Here, the human mind has been mutilated – converted into a mere instrument used to dominate both external and internal nature in the »advances« made during the various historical stages of enlightenment. In this way, so the authors argue, reason as the power of enlightenment has irretrievably corrupted itself.
By virtue of this crucial text, written by its two leading lights, critical theory had become a holistic critique of civilization, in which capitalism was seen to play only a supporting role as the historical stage and motor of the culture industry. For many readers, that point is occluded by the Marxist aura that still, after so many years, surrounds the tradition of »critical theory« and many of its authors. Certainly, the discouraging crisis-proneness of the age in which it arose also motivated the dominance of such pessimism, culminating in fascism and another World War.
Psychoanalysis and the culture industry
The noticeable gap between the intentions and results of the Institute in respect to empirical research also arose from the fact that, from the very outset, all of its members shared a common theoretical orientation which never was a matter of dispute among them. The sole effective – albeit partial – empirical success they enjoyed came in a study of social psychology, done in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley, entitled The Authoritarian Personality, a project in which Adorno also was involved. The study was intended to show that the authoritarian personality, formed in the disintegrating families of monopoly capitalism and with a propensity for submission to the stronger and dominance over the weaker, made possible the rise of authoritarian rule. This study illuminates in exemplary fashion the synthesis of psychoanalysis and Marxist materialism pursued by critical theory and which played an especially prominent role in the postwar writings of Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization). Indeed, it probably contributed to making Marcuse the favorite author of the 1968 student generation.
The shared goal of these and certain other, unfinished studies on the consciousness of workers was to uncover the mechanisms by which the logic of capitalism, whether in society, politics, culture, or the personality structure, time and again has managed to foster false assent to itself even on the part of the working class. By dint of its superficial entertainment options, generated and marketed capitalistically, the culture industry reliably distracts the lower classes, especially, from social conditions, thereby creating a hermetically sealed »context of delusion« (Adorno, Marcuse) that encourages acquiescence.
Although that analysis seemed to explain the dilemma of the unresolved contradiction between the permanent objective crisis of capitalism and the paralysis of the repressed working class, at the same time it created a new dilemma. Under such conditions, what paths remained open for the creation of a new society peopled by self-responsible individuals, and who should lead the breakout? In the 1930s, Adorno described the role that critical theory and its creators might play in revolutionary praxis – even based on their own work – as devoid of hope:
»By permitting themselves to think at all in the face of the naked reproduction of existence, they behave as privileged people; and by doing nothing more than thinking, they declare the nullity of their privilege…There is no way out of this impasse« (Minima Moralia).
Summing up, Adorno observes that critical theory can do no more than throw a »message in a bottle« into the stream of history for the benefit of posterity, to remind them of the idea of a society reconciled with itself.
The student revolt and its aftermath
By 1950 – 51 Horkheimer and Adorno had returned to Frankfurt from exile in the USA. They again became professors at the University of Frankfurt and reconstructed the Institute for Social Research. By virtue of their publications, public appearances, and – in Adorno’s case –numerous radio addresses, they transformed the Frankfurt School and its critical theory into a prominent »brand« in the Federal Republic, especially in scholarly and student circles. While Adorno went on the offensive in trying to influence debates about how to come to terms with the darkness that National Socialism had brought upon Germany, Horkheimer stayed in the background and resisted all pressure to republish his earlier texts, especially the Dialectic of Enlightenment. But – as might have been expected – that merely served to boost sales of pirated editions. Critical theory became a factor in Germany’s new political culture.
However, the insurgent students of the Sixties finally resolved to draw practical conclusions from critical theory, which had proven itself to be so abstemious in this regard. In short, they wanted to bring Adorno’s »message in a bottle« back to the land. Imagining the Institute for Social Research as a kind of home address, they tried to take possession of it. Some of them wanted to undo the theory’s artfully tied Gordian knot right away, loudly invoking it as justification for their untrammeled activism. That group included the self-styled leftist students who, in 1968, forced their way into the new Institute for Social Research expecting a sympathetic reception. Unsurprisingly, they were greeted by the police rather than by the directors of the Institute. But after all Adorno did confront the protesters a few times and was quite astonished that they could succumb to the error of believing that his skillfully crafted texts, aphorisms, and sentences could be anything other than intellectual stimuli for an in-depth understanding of the present age.
Jürgen Habermas alone, the up-and-coming leader of the »second generation of the Frankfurt School,« repeatedly engaged in a direct dialogue with angry protesters and did so with courage and openness. His suggestion that, given the real situation in the country, their activities could be little more than a pseudo-revolution failed to convince them. And his belief that their intolerance and violent excesses were bringing them close to a »new fascism« only served to outrage them.
In fact, the rebellious students of those years were acting under the influence of a quite different representative of critical theory. Herbert Marcuse was the legitimate »father of the student revolt.« Until 1968 his fame had been limited to the student movement in the United States, mainly in Berkeley. But by the mid-Sixties it began to penetrate Germany as well, and did so quickly and thoroughly. Two of Marcuse’s more recent publications spread like wildfire, becoming the favored reading of German students: One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization. The latter, especially, presented an easily understood yet highly motivational synthesis of psychoanalysis and Marxism that got under a lot of people’s skin and served to motivate them. Their personal interest in sexual liberation tied into the great revolution.
Marcuse taught that the same psychologically repressive mechanisms (»repressive desublimation«) were at work in keeping capitalism going and denying people sexual fulfillment as well as a varied, satisfying life. All the while, productive forces had attained a level of development that long since had rendered the maintenance of such repression »objectively« superfluous. The hour for resistance had arrived, in the form of »the great refusal.« A positive utopia was so close at hand that you could almost touch it.
At one time, Marcuse had occupied the place of honor closest to Horkheimer and had in fact been selected to help write the latter’s »grand dialectic,« but Adorno shunted him aside, replacing him as co-author of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Much later, having received an urgent invitation from insurgent German students, Marcuse left the USA and traveled to the movement’s epicenters, Frankfurt and Berlin, appearing there before the enthusiastic throngs of students. His reception by no means endeared him to the frightened dons of critical theory. Adorno urged Horkheimer to banish the heretic from the circle of critical theory once and for all. And in fact, Adorno was doubtless correct to think that critical theory had long since evolved, once and for all, into something quite different from a new edition of the Marxian critique of capitalism.
When Adorno surprisingly died in the summer of 1969 of a »broken heart« in both the symbolic and medical senses, shattered by the recent course of events, the classic Frankfurt School and what remained of its critical theory abruptly came to an end. By now it had become a radical, hermetically sealed critique of civilization. Following Walter Benjamin, it allowed for the slimmest of hopes: that amid the misguided history of humanity a tiny gate might open, through which the Messiah might pass, bringing »saving justice« to both the dead and the living.
Now the old critical theory would have to shed its skin completely so that its imperishable impulses might live on. Jürgen Habermas, with his novel, all-embracing foundational justification of reason as communicative action, and Axel Honneth, with his theory of »recognition« and his treatise on Freedom’s Right took up that cause. Thus, there is good reason to think of them as the second or even maybe the third generation of a new iteration of the Frankfurt School.