Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book review: A new history of the Frankfurt School

Grand Hotel Abyss - by Stuart Jeffries
Reviewed by Robert Minto

In the summer of 1923, a Soviet spy named Richard Sorge helped organize the library of a new think tank in Frankfurt, Germany. It was called the Institute for Social Research, and it had a bizarre origin story: devoted to Marxist scholarship, funded by a capitalist, housed in a building designed by a Nazi.

Richard Sorge’s association with the Institute didn’t last very long. His handlers sent him on to Britain, China, and ultimately Japan. He sent back the crucial fact that Japan did not intend to join Germany’s invasion of Russia, leaving the Fuhrer’s pincer movement with just one claw. This bit of spying may well have changed the course of the war. It allowed Russia to deploy its anti-Japanese Siberian divisions to the Battle of Moscow for the first, pivotal defeat of the German Army. Sorge was captured by the Japanese, tortured, disavowed by Russia, and hanged in 1944. Twenty years later, the Soviet government recognized him as a “Hero of the Soviet Union.”

Sorge was a Marxist intellectual who turned his convictions into deeds. He was nothing like the other Marxist intellectuals with whom he associated briefly in 1923. In Stuart Jeffries’ new history of the Frankfurt School—a group of thinkers associated at various times with the Institute for Social Research—he brings out the contrast furnished by Sorge’s career:

While Sorge was slipping across borders in Europe, America and Asia, charged with helping foment world proletarian revolution by the Comintern, and tasked by the Soviet Union with assisting its resistance against Nazi invasion, the Institute remained aloof from the struggle, valuing its intellectual independence, preferring its scholars not to be members of political parties.

Jeffries draws this contrast because he thinks that the Frankfurt School embodies a paradox. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse are perhaps the most famous European thinkers of the far left in the 20th century, but, for the most part, they seem to have abandoned a central principle of Marxism: we shouldn’t just try to understand the world but to change it. They were social critics uninterested in social change. 

According to Jeffries, “to explore the history of the Frankfurt School and critical theory is to discover how increasingly impotent these thinkers. . . thought themselves to be against forces they detested but felt powerless to change.” Insistence upon this thesis sets Jeffries’ book apart from the many other studies of the Frankfurt School, such as Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, impressive for its cogency, or Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School, impressive for its sheer physical size (I use it hold open doors and beat up bugs too immense for an ordinary rolled up newspaper).

Grand Hotel Abyss aims to be a popularization of Frankfurt School ideas and a group biography of its leading thinkers. It may be the first account of the school aimed at non-academics, an audience Jeffries strives to reach through the liberal use of anecdotes and by explaining key concepts in simple language. I was reminded of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, a similar effort on behalf of French existentialism published earlier this year. Bakewell is a much better writer and more compelling storyteller than Jeffries, but I applaud the expansion of this genre—popular but rigorous intellectual history—even by writers without Bakewell’spizzazz.

To be fair, the Institute for Social Research is a less intrinsically exciting subject that existentialism. It was founded when a young man called Felix Weil asked his wealthy father, then the biggest grain trader in the world, to endow a Marxist think tank. Jeffries tells us that, “Felix could have asked for anything—a yacht, a country estate, a Porsche. But instead he asked [for] a Marxist, multidisciplinary academic institute.” The Institute remained in Frankfurt as long as it could, until the Nazis forced it out of Germany, just ahead of the war. First in New York, then in California, it carried on its work with the help of other universities. After WWII, it returned in triumph to Frankfurt, where the luminaries of the Institute took up their role as vindicated authorities, instantly becoming the establishment, and supplemented their dwindling endowment—dwindling due to unwise speculation during the exile—with government research grants. The Institute persists to this day.

So the paradox Jeffries sees in the Frankfurt School was baked into their institutional foundation. From a Marxist perspective—that is to say, with an eye on the money—their work was always underwritten by the very things they sought to critique, first by Felix Weil’s capitalist father, later by government grants. As a consequence, the public faces and prime movers of the Institute used what Jeffries calls “Aesopian language”: “words or phrases that convey an innocent meaning to an outsider but a hidden meaning to those in the know.” The Institute was “part Marxist cuckoo in Frankfurt’s capitalist nest and part monastery devoted to the study of Marxism.”

In the late 20th and early 21st century, this strategy of Aesopian language backfired in a big way. On the paranoid right, the Frankfurt School has become a boogieman, the object of “a conspiracy theory that alleges that a small group of German Marxist philosophers […] overturned traditional values by encouraging multiculturalism, political correctness, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas.” The strategy of Aesopian language makes the Frankfurt School look sly, whereas, Jeffries implies, it was just ineffectual:

The leading thinkers of the Institute for Social Research would have been surprised to learn that they had plotted the downfall of western civilisation, and even more so to learn how successful they had been at it.

Perhaps the perfect icon of the school is Walter Benjamin. Like Richard Sorge, he was only loosely connected to the Institute. He was friends with Theodor Adorno; he published in the Institute’s house journal; and they tried to help him escape Nazi Germany by securing him an American visa and the prospect of employment outside Europe. But for the most part he existed as a freelance intellectual. 

Through Adorno, however, Benjamin was a major influence on the Frankfurt School, and his life is often told in connection with it: according to Jeffries, “he was its most profound intellectual catalyst.”
Like most of the other prominent members of the Institute, Walter Benjamin was the son of a wealthy Jewish family. He turned his back on business in favor of thinking and writing. He failed to launch an academic career—partly due to publishing essays critical of the major academic cliques—and subsisted for as long as he could as a freelance writer and radio presenter. Because he was Jewish and openly supportive of their communist rivals, the Nazi regime gradually forced him out, cutting off his access to publishers, even seizing his property. The dramatic conclusion to his life involved a typically inept attempt to flee Europe through the French-Spanish border. He committed suicide, fearing capture and transportation to a concentration camp, just ten hours before the other members of his group of refugees successfully made it out.

Walter Benjamin remains a popular thinker. His essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” may be the most-cited aesthetic text of the 20th century, and his uncompleted work The Arcades Project, is mourned as a lost masterpiece of social criticism. His ideas have been hashed and rehashed in countless dissertations and commentaries, and he shows up as a character, inspiration, or authority in countless more popular texts. One reason we keep returning to him is that he managed to be both an incredibly compelling writer and a deeply puzzling one: his ideas seem deeply evocative, but often equally unclear. So what were those ideas?

Jeffries suggests that there are two interlinking concepts common to the whole gamut of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School: alienation and reification. He takes these to be quintessentially Marxist ideas (though I will offer a proviso to that attribution below)... Read more:

see also
"Those who are obsessed by language finally come to the conviction that there is nothing but interpretation" Stanley Rosen in Hermeneutics as Politics (1987)