I Love You Still

Russell Jacoby

  • Intellectuals in Exile: Refugee Scholars and the New School for Social Research by Claus-Dieter Krohn, translated by Rita Kimber and Robert Kimber
    Massachusetts, 255 pp, $15.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 87023 864 7

Without the refugees from Nazi Europe American intellectual life would lack weight and reach. It is impossible to conceive of American political thought without Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt or Leo Strauss; American psychoanalysis without Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim or Heinz Hartmann; American publishing without Kurt Wolff or Theodore Schocken; architecture without Walter Gropius; art history without Erwin Panofsky; mathematics without Kurt Gödel; physics without Enrico Fermi – and the list goes on and on. Of course, not every refugee intellectual caused cultural waves. Karl Korsch, for instance, a leading German Marxist, found no role in American society. E.J. Gumbel, who had published sensational booklets in Weimar Germany on the assassinations of leftists, became a quiet American statistician. Some refugees returned to Europe after the war, leaving no mark on American letters. ‘Farewell, America,’ wrote Alfred Döblin as he steamed out of New York. ‘You were not very fond of me./But I love you still.’ Others laboured on projects that would see the light of day much later, Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, written in the States, was published only in 1959. The classic work of the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, composed in Los Angeles during the war, became widely available only in the late Sixties.

The story of these refugees has increasingly spurred conferences, projects and studies. The books run from Anthony Heilbut’s chatty and smart overview. Exiled in Paradise, to more specialised volumes like Barry Katz’s Foreign Intelligence, which tells the story of the Office of Strategic Services – the predecessor to the CIA that employed a bevy of refugee leftist intellectuals like Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirkheimer and Paul Baran. Recent books include poignant accounts like Gabrielle Edgcomb’s From Swastika to Jim Crow, about the sixty-odd German Jewish professors who found refuge at black colleges in the American South.

According to Claus-Dieter Krohn, a quarter of the scholars who fled to the United States from Nazi Germany spent some time at the New School for Social Research in New York. This role suited the New School, which had been founded as a haven by and for outsiders. In 1917 the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, dismissed several professors for protesting against America’s entry into World War One. This precipitated the resignations of two leading historians, Charles Beard and James Robinson, both of whom had long bridled at interference by trustees and college presidents.

With some associates at the New Republic, Beard and Robinson hatched plans for a ‘new’ school. ‘New’ was in the air. The New Republic had been founded just three years earlier; and Robinson and Beard championed what they called ‘new history’ – history that was more social and engaging than a dry listing of wars, treaties and kings. They wanted to establish a ‘new’ school that would be faculty-driven, interdisciplinary, and devoted to adult education and social reform. The New School for Social Research opened in 1919: Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey were on the staff; Harold Laski and Lewis Mumford were regular visitors.

Located in Greenwich Village, the New School became a centre for music, dance and the visual arts, the place to teach or attend lectures. Much of the credit for putting it on the cultural map goes to Alvin Johnson, its president from 1922 till 1945. Like Beard and Robinson, Johnson was a Midwestern progressive. He was also a relentless promoter, organiser and do-gooder, who had a genuine eye for talent. In 1927 Johnson began editing the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, a 15-volume affair that many would say has never been surpassed. For contributors he assembled an international cast of illustrious scholars – Karl Mannheim wrote on ‘utopia’, Friedrich Hayek on ‘saving’.

In editing the Encyclopedia Johnson made many friends and contacts in Germany. Angered by the Nazi Government’s expulsion of Jews and leftists from universities, he was one of the very few to move with dispatch. Already in the spring of 1933 he drew up a scheme for a University in Exile to hire dismissed professors. His fund-raising letter stated that ‘it must be done promptly. The world is quick to forgive invasions of academic liberty. It long ago forgave Mussolini.’

Others dragged their feet. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had long supported foreign scholars, initially seemed unconcerned. Its Pans representative coolly observed that the Nazis would not go too far; in any event, he pointed out, the fired professors were ‘Jews or Social Democrats or worse’. Johnson persevered, opening in October 1933 the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, a name the refugees preferred to the University in Exile, which sounded too provisional.

Claus-Dieter Krohn’s book examines the background and the impact of the New School’s Graduate Faculty. He wants to correct misconceptions and fill in lacunae, commenting that ‘still no adequate historical account of this unique institution’ exists. Although the Rockefeller Foundation eventually backed the refugee project, little study has been made of that support: which scholars were helped and why? Most important, Krohn seeks to rebut the ‘stereotypical impression’ that the New School remained a German ghetto for scholars who had little influence on American academic life.

Krohn’s subtitle, ‘Refugee Scholars and the New School for Social Research’, promises much more than he wants to deliver. He has previously published a book on academic economists in Weimar Germany, and here he sticks mainly to refugee ‘reform’ economists. This both narrows his subject-matter and weakens his argument. A study that considered others who taught at the New School like Leo Strauss or Karen Horney or Hannah Arendt would hardly have to strain to demonstrate their impact. But one that wants to show the influence of Karl Brandt, Gerhard Colm, Arthur Feiler, Eduard Heimann, Emil Lederer and Frieda Wunderlich – to take the original group of refugee economists – has its work cut out.

According to Krohn, Johnson favoured the German reform economists because they could bring much-needed support to beleaguered New Dealers. They were not only familiar with issues of under-consumption and business cycles, but were willing for the government to intervene to restore the economy. The first public seminars held by the refugees, ‘Laissez Faire – Interventionism – Planned Economy’ and ‘Has Capitalism Failed?’, announced their orientation. Several New School economists, most notably Gerhard Colm, moved into government positions and played a part in bringing about budgetary and fiscal reforms. Yet even Krohn admits their impact was limited.

Fortunately, Krohn does not write exclusively about reform economists: he touches on the contribution of other New School economists like Jacob Marschak to econometrics, and Adolph Lowe to economic theory. Even so his narrow limits don’t allow much breathing space. A study of refugee economists beyond the New School could take in Oskar Morgenstern, Fritz Machlup, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and again no one could contest their contribution. A study limited to economists at the New School risks telling us too little.

Half-realising this, Krohn shifts his ground and argues more broadly that the New School scholars led successful academic lives. Charges of isolation and irrelevance are his main worry. He informs us that the faculty received many invitations to give lectures at other universities; that the New School journal Social Research became widely influential; and that ‘presidents of several great universities’ jockeyed to serve on the Board of Trustees. All this suggests that the New School was anything but a ‘hermetic ghetto’ of Europeans.

Why is he so upset by this? Are charges of hermeticism so damning? Are status and recognition by mainstream institutions so desirable? Can’t a ‘hermetic ghetto’ be productive and ultimately important? Moreover, what is influence and how is it measured? Krohn broaches several of these issues but never digs deeply. He thinks isolation is bad, influence good. He hardly recognises – strange in a historian of refugees – that isolation may be necessary and justified; and that it might lead to more important contributions either to scholarship or to public life than immediate acceptance. He seems oblivious to the fact that ‘influence’ does not stand outside history. His brief discussion of the Frankfurt School highlights his narrowness.

The Frankfurt School or Institute of Social Research offers obvious parallels to the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research. Its individual members shared roughly the same background and neo-Marxist views. Together the two groups represented, according to Krohn, ‘the most significant centre of German émigré scholarship ... quantitatively and qualitatively’. Of course, differences jump out. For all its internal conflicts the Frankfurt School possessed a certain theoretical cohesiveness as well as its own endowment, allowing it to function as a unit. Neither of these things was true of the Graduate Faculty.

Krohn wants to argue something more, however. While the New School’s economists functioned as a ‘kind of think tank for New Deal striving’, the Frankfurt refugees retreated into ‘deeper isolation’; they suffered from ‘intellectual self-doubt, escapism and élitism’. ‘A lack of interest on the part of the Institute’s core group in becoming integrated’ explains their ‘shattered lives’, writes Krohn, alluding to the subtitle of Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Even The Authoritarian Personality, which the Frankfurt School co-produced, was ‘not a negation of the group’s hermeticism’. Adorno’s philosophical essays in that volume ‘were so far removed from the quantitative research represented in the other chapters by younger American scholars that they might as well have been published separately’.

Krohn uses ‘integration’ like a hammer to attack outsiders as élitists and shirkers. He does not argue, but simply believes that ‘integration’ as a think-tank theoretician or a quantitative researcher spells ‘influence’. What sort of influence – and for how long? Krohn doesn’t ask. He scratches around for traces of the reform economists, while deriding the Frankfurt School as ‘hermetic and irrelevant’. Hermetic and irrelevant? Perhaps at one point, but where has he been all these years? If contemporary American scholarship is his test, he doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of the Frankfurt School. Some twenty volumes of Adorno alone are in print in English. Several shelves could be filled with editions of books by Marcuse, Horkheimer, Leo Loewenthal, Franz Neumann and with the recent literature on all of them. They are familiar points of reference in several disciplines.

Moreover, Krohn fails to notice when he has a real and tantalising case of influence: in writings about white-collar employees or the new middle class. He discusses Emil Lederer’s theories of technical progress and unemployment, bewailing the fact that they ‘never received the attention they deserved’. He says virtually nothing about Lederer’s ideas on class structure and salaried employees, which were perhaps his main contribution. Lederer pasted this interest on to his student, Hans Speier, who also went to the New School. (Speier’s 1933 book on the subject, blocked in Germany, appeared much revised in English in 1986 as German White-Collar Workers and the Rise of Hitler.)

Recent American writings on the ‘new middle class’, the ‘aristocracy of the working class’ or ‘white-collar workers’ regularly refer to Speier and Lederer. This is where the story of influence becomes tantalising. C. Wright Mills’s White Collar: The American Middle Classes appeared in 1951, making both Mills and the ‘white collar’ cultural news. Mills had studied and collaborated with Hans Gerth, a refugee sociologist at the University of Wisconsin. Gerth taught Mills much about German sociology, and probably introduced him to the ideas of his friend Speier. Few of the relevant writings of Lederer and Speier existed in English. However, at Columbia University, where he was teaching while working on White Collar, Mills had access to unpublished translations of them, which he duly cited in White Collar. According to Arthur Vidich, a New School professor who was also a student of Gerth, Mills’s White Collar represents ‘the most explicit general statement and application’ of the ideas of Speier and Lederer. Mills, the ‘new middle class’ and ‘white-collar workers’ are unmentioned in Krohn’s account.

Intellectuals in Exile is a diligent work, much better than its argument. It offers in formation about the Rockefeller Foundation; the beginnings of the University in Exile; the politics of saving persecuted scholars in the Thirties; and reform economic thought in Germany and the United States: all this is valuable. Yet it lacks oxygen – Krohn wanders down too many minor paths asking minor questions.