'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Book review: A new history of the Frankfurt School
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.
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
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.
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.
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: