The Frankfurt School 
by Rolf Wiggershaus, translated by Michael Robertson.
Polity, 787 pp., £45, January 1994, 0 7456 0534 6
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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.

Not that its leading luminaries remained any less hostile to capitalism. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in the wake of the Second World War, Horkheimer and Adorno paint a bleak portrait of a world almost wholly in the grip of instrumental reason, of a paranoid rationality which either ruthlessly gobbles up whatever is other to it, or expels it beyond the limits of the thinkable. Dominion over Nature was necessary for the achievement of human autonomy, freeing the species from the sway of mythologised forces, but Enlightenment reason had now become a form of mythology all of its own. In seeking to emancipate itself by dominating Nature, humanity has repressed its own inner nature, and the repressed has returned with a vengeance as the barbarous irrationalism of Fascism. It would return in another guise, after the war, as the culture industry’s manipulation of desire in the name of false sensuality and phony happiness. What allows the human subject to become autonomous is its internalising of the law, but this, in the shape of the punitive super-ego, now simply oppresses the subject from within, so that any chance of resisting authority involves submitting to a more insidious censor. And if the wresting of autonomy from Nature entails self-repression, then the liberated individuals who emerge from this process are, in a woeful paradox, faceless, interchangeable figures drained of all inner richness.

From what vantage-point, however, could Horkheimer and Adorno launch these Olympian judgments? For the critique of Enlightenment must be couched in the language of Enlightenment, and is thus self-subverting. The problem to which Adorno will henceforth address himself, in his philosophy of ‘negative dialectics’, is how to think against the concept, undoing the prevailing rationality from inside without lapsing into the savage unreason which is its ghostly other. Ideology, in his view, is a matter of ‘identity thinking’ – the belief that the concept can be equal to the object, exhausting its sensuous being. It is thus a spiritual version of commodity exchange, which for Marx involved a similar denial of the use-value of the thing. Negative dialectics, by contrast, seeks to grasp the sensuous residue that the concept leaves over, pressing the claims of specificity, non-identity, contradiction against the hubris of abstract reason.

The result is a transformed view of the social whole, which Adorno developed with his friend Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, with his astonishing blend of Marxism, surrealism, Kabbala, Messianic theology and avant-garde aesthetics, belonged to the fertile Judeo-Marxist current which produced Horkheimer and Adorno. But he was a maverick member of the Frankfurt School, which disastrously turned down for publication part of his great work on Baudelaire’s Paris at a time when Benjamin, in exile, could well have used the money. With his collaboration, Adorno hatched the idea of a ‘constellation’ – a method of examining art works or societies which dismantled their elements into particulars, then reassembled them in fresh configurations, rather like a montage. A surrealist sociology had been brought to birth; a sense of the whole was preserved, but one which refused to reduce it, à la Hegel, to a single determining principle. So it is that in his work on the Parisian Arcades, Benjamin juxtaposes scraps of architectural knowledge with fragments of Freud, images from Baudelaire with stray historical statistics; and so it is that Adorno’s very prose style is pitched into a chronic state of crisis, struggling to avoid both a mere ‘immediacy’ of the individual object, and the tyranny of the universal concept. If Adorno produced a theory of Modernism, he also wrote a Modernist theory, whose elusive indirectness would challenge the procedures of instrumental reason.

For Adorno it is above all the Modernist work of art which can achieve this. The triumph and the anguish of such art is that it can never be quite identical with itself, that while it may strive to reconcile its various elements, it also knows that any such utopian resolution, in a history which includes Auschwitz, must be an insulting illusion. Modern art turns its back on society, and this refusal to have any truck with a degraded human condition is at once the source of its guilt and its supreme political achievement. The art of Kafka or Beckett is the ‘negative knowledge’ of social reality, embodying contradictions in its innermost structure, and by its very denial of unity reminding us of what would be necessary for such harmony to be historically achieved. By violently carving up its substance, the modern work exposes the present unity of social life as a lie. Modern art – a commodity like any other – is parasitic on the very society it spurns; and its tortured, self-divided being is the way it internalises this impossible condition. Its aloof autonomy makes of it a kind of fetish; but it also offers us a frail utopian image of a world in which sensuous particularity would have finally come into its own. It thus represents a last-ditch resistance to an almost wholly abstract, administered world. Capitalism, it would seem, was to be countered less by socialism than by Schoenberg; the Frankfurt School had travelled a long way from The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System.

Capitalism had travelled a fair distance too, however. It was no longer just an economic system, but one which had penetrated the innermost reaches of the human psyche. Only this, perhaps, could explain its extraordinary staying power through an era of wars and revolutions. What kept it afloat were libidinal as well as financial investments, its ability to manipulate human fantasy and desire. The first great system of capitalist fantasy was born at a stroke with the High Modernism which so fascinated Adorno. Modernist art, among other things, was a strategic response to the emergence of mass culture; and the two, as Adorno remarked in a celebrated phrase, were the torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they did not add up. The more mass culture spawned its spurious harmonies, the more Modernism retreated into deviance and dissonance; the more the culture of the people was invaded by the commodity form, the more disdainfully the Modernist work turned its back on anything as sordid as sociality. The classical work of art shared a secret compact with its audience, drawing on a set of codes they could be assumed to share; in a world of movies and pop music the Modernist text found itself talking in the dark, bereft of an addressee, and thus forced into an endless narcissistic dialogue with itself. The more the ‘mass’ work slipped painlessly into eye or ear, the more high art fought off a too-easy consumption, thickening its textures and deranging its syntax, fragmenting vision and pulverising meaning. For it to refer, in a reasonably intelligible way, was for it to become instantly complicit with the degraded discourses which surrounded it. And since what tied it to such discourses was its content, this had to be purged and dwindled until nothing was left behind but an anorexic purity of form.

It was the Frankfurt School which first turned serious attention to mass culture, and so lies at the origin of what is known today as Cultural Studies. Mass culture, for Adorno, was no more than relief from labour; but it carried into the sphere of entertainment the very processes of exchange and mechanisation which dominated capitalist production. For the first time, cultural production was now an integral part of the capitalist economy as a whole, and so was incapable of performing its traditional role of critique. Instead, it breeds a fake sensuousness and illusory universality which persuade us that utopia has already arrived. But for Adorno’s colleague Herbert Marcuse, much the same can be said of high culture too. The art works of a class-based society, by transcending an oppressive present, allow us to imagine alternatives to it: but in playing this utopian role they also sublimate current conflicts into a specious harmony, and so repress the history of unfreedom in which they have their roots. In a grisly paradox, culture, which offers us a taste of freedom and happiness, is only made possible by their absence. And if such freedom and happiness were to be historically realised, culture as we know it would cease to exist.

The Frankfurt School was born only a decade before Germany was gripped by the mass psychosis of Fascism; and it is therefore not surprising that much of its work moves in the twilight zone between Marxism and psychoanalysis. In its exile, the Institute conducted a number of psychological studies on anti-semitism and the authoritarian family, seeking to map the ways in which political power imprinted itself on the human psyche. In an audacious move, Theodor Adorno had brought Freudian categories to bear on mass culture; but the school’s leading psychoanalytic theorists were Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, the former practising a socialised form of Freudianism which elevated culture above biology, the latter more concerned to harness the Freudian theory of the instincts to revolutionary ends. In Eros and Civilisation, Marcuse accepts Freud’s thesis that all civilisation has so far involved repression: but capitalism, he considers, involves a ‘surplus repression’ which, by depleting the erotic instincts, leaves humanity dangerously vulnerable to Eros’s old antagonist, Thanatos or the death drive. Socialism, by abolishing artificial scarcity and thus the compulsion to labour, will lift repression and liberate a joyous instinctual life, freeing erotic energies from their genital confinement and diffusing them throughout social activity as a whole.

It was, for the later Frankfurt School, a most untypical flight of utopian fancy. A more authentically Frankfurtian note is struck in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Post-war capitalism has managed, he argued, to contain its contradictions in an anodyne social order from which all vestiges of critical thought have finally been expunged. In a world of ‘repressive desublimation’, human energies are no longer (as in a more puritanical capitalism) deflected towards ‘higher’ ends: instead, they may be safely released in trivial, politically innocuous ways. Like some of his Frankfurt colleagues, Marcuse came to see Western capitalism as an essentially totalitarian regime. Having lived through the nightmare of Fascism, they now projected that order onto the liberal capitalism of the USA, finding in the culture industry the most glaring instance of its supposedly all-powerful capacity to process and massage social conflict. The classical Marxist belief in historical progress was decisively abandoned: there is, so Adorno gloomily remarked, no universal history stretching from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is certainly one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. Harassed by Nazism, overwhelmed by the Holocaust, revolted by the conformism of the post-war United States, the members of the School sank steadily into disillusion. The Institute returned to Frankfurt in 1950, under the benevolent patronage of the Adenauer regime, but it was now a mere spectre of its former self. Horkheimer became an unashamed apologist for capitalism; Marcuse stayed on in the USA to savour the sensuous particularity of Southern California, and though a revolutionary to the finish found increasing consolation in the transcendence of great art. Theodor Adorno endured a humiliating confrontation with the German student movement, who denounced him as an armchair radical. The mantle of the school passed to Jürgen Habermas, the Bishop of Durham of Marxism, proud to be counted among the believers but critical of just about every major item of the creed.

The most detailed survey of the Frankfurt School to date has been Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, a masterly account which like most of its author’s work suffers from not arguing a case. Much the same can be said of Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School, which is more biography than critique. But this monumental work of scholarship, in which the notes and bibliography alone occupy over a hundred pages, now provides the definitive history of the Institute, and one it is hard to imagine being ousted. Jay takes the narrative only as far as 1950; Wiggershaus, himself a Frankfurt academic, extends it to the present day, benefits from discussions with former and current associates of the Institute, and adds a mass of new archival material. The result is an admirably exhaustive study, which rescues the school from being categorised purely as an episode in the history of ideas, and returns it firmly to its political and historical context. Wiggershaus’s technique is to interweave historical information with the explication of ideas; if his book has a fault, it is that it is considerably stronger on description than on analysis, and stronger on analysis than on evaluation. It treats the Institute, quite properly, as a collective phenomenon, but the upshot of this is that we rarely get a synoptic view of any one of its theorists, much less an extended assessment of them. It is hard to know what Wiggershaus finally thinks of his topic – how far, for example, the Institute’s patrician aloofness from political struggle was built into its structure at the outset, or how far history was to blame. For the Frankfurt School is the tale of several theorists in search of a practice; and in this sense it offers an allegory of the fortunes of 20th-century Marxism as a whole. It was the key moment in a shift from classical to ‘Western’ Marxism which Perry Anderson has charted; from politics to culture, revolutionary optimism to a gathering melancholia, materialist science to a reliance on traditional philosophy. Wiggershaus’s scholarly nose is too close to his materials to allow for much speculation of this kind, but his Teutonic thoroughness, rendered into lucid English by Michael Robertson, does marvellous justice to his materials. He has even dug out Erich Fromm’s great-grandfather, who would sit in his shop all day deep in the Talmud, and when a customer entered ask him whether he couldn’t find another shop to go to. If one wanted an image of the Frankfurt School, one might well find it here.

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