In the Twilight Zone

Terry Eagleton

There was once a king who was troubled by all the misery he observed about him. So he summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into its causes. The wise men duly looked into the matter, and reported back to the king that the cause of all the misery was him. So runs Bertolt Brecht’s parable of the founding in 1923 of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a centre for Marxist studies endowed by a wealthy German capitalist. The English are on the whole rather hostile to schools of thought, which they feel can be left to the over-conceptual Continentals. It is one of the wearier clichés of English cultural commentary that any particular school represents more a mood than a coherent doctrine, an assortment of diverse individuals rather than a unified belief system. The Frankfurt School, as it would come to be called, was certainly diverse in its interests, ranging from Schoenberg to surplus value, psychosis to the laws of capitalism, Baudelaire to bourgeois rationality. But it was united by a revisionist brand of Marxism known as Critical Theory; and from its birth in the Weimar Republic to its later flight to New York and post-war return to Frankfurt, it sustained a tenacious if turbulent institutional existence through the advent of Fascism, the defeat of socialism, the Second World War and the ideological freeze-over which followed on its heels.

Established in the heady aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and European insurrection, in the year of Georg Lukács’s pioneering History and Class Consciousness, the Frankfurt Institute began life with a mission to promote a hard-nosed brand of Marxist science dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This is a fact worth recalling, given that Critical Theory would later come to signify a soft-focus strain of Marxism which pressed the claims of culture and consciousness against a brutal economic reductionism. Carl Grünberg, the Institute’s first director, viewed the transition from capitalism to socialism as a scientific certainty, and worked closely with the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow on the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe. Under his aegis, the Institute amassed a unique archive of labour and socialist history, and produced two classics of Marxist economic analysis: Henryk Grossmann’s The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System and Friedrich Pollock’s Experiments in Economic Planning in the Soviet Union. The emphasis, so far, was thoroughly in line with the Marxism of the Second International period: economic, deterministic, full-bloodedly scientistic in working method.

The turning point came with the appointment in 1930 of Max Horkheimer as Grünberg’s successor. Horkheimer was a philosopher rather than a political scientist, more preoccupied by questions of method than with problems of class struggle. The object of the Institute, modestly enough, was now declared to be ‘the entire material and spiritual culture of mankind as a whole’; and the school was to steer a resolute course between positivism and idealism, integrating empirical social inquiry into a holistic political theory indebted as much to Hegel as to Marx. In the brief period before Hitler came to power, Horkheimer assembled around him a brilliant coterie of younger intellectuals, of whom Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno were to become the most eminent. In 1934, the Institute, many of whose members were Jews, transplanted itself to the United States and, still under Horkheimer’s mandarin rule, set up home as an adjunct of Columbia University. In a darkening situation in Germany it had already betrayed signs of a retreat from class-struggle to critique; now, marooned in a virulently antisocialist society, it trimmed its materialist sails to the prevailing conservative winds, conducting the kinds of sociological survey it might earlier have denounced as positivist.

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