“I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?” These are the words of one of the most famous of the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Theodor Adorno, during an interview in 1969, shortly before his death, and it illustrates really well and clearly the gap between academics and the rest of the population. Stuart Jeffries’ interesting and fast-paced multi-biography/overview of an era rightly pinpoints that fact right from the beginning and sets the tone. Marxists as they were, the Frankfurt boys never really followed up on Marx’s suggestion that philosophers should quit just interpreting the world and do some hands-on work instead, to bring about a change in society. Alas, just theory it remained. Possibly because what they were advocating was not possible or realistic. But it sure was confusing doom and gloom.
Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, Fromm, Pollock were the founders of the Frankfurt school of critical theory. They were the first generation that is. The ones that gave it fame. As with many revolutionary ideas, their’s was born out of a revolt against their fathers and the bourgeois existence they were leading. Jewish sons in prosperous pre-WWII Frankfurt, living a life of privilege enabled by capitalism and the industrial revolution. So being privileged, educated and bored, they decided that capitalism was in fact dehumanising, dominating and what not, and that it prevented humans from living their true natural life (never really explaining what they meant by this). They became Marxists. But as the Marxist Revolution failed in Germany, replaced by the modernist, exceptional and still very capitalist Weimar era, they concluded that it was hopeless to expect the working classes to revolt for their own good (the condescending and patronising tone will not escape you), and that a critical theory by elite intellectuals with a multidisciplinary approach against the mechanisms of capitalist domination was needed. They wanted also to give a psychological explanation for the failure of the masses to embrace the revolution, choosing instead consumer society and capitalist “control”.
So they critiqued into abysmal pessimism, never giving hope about a possible way out of the supposed nightmares they were seeing everywhere (some of them even glorified poverty).
Jeffries’ narrative is entertaining and sometimes even challenging to follow when philosophical, sociological or psychological concepts are explained. But it is a great introduction to a very important critical and societal movement that still has repercussions today, especially in our technological almost dystopian world where their theories finally make some sense (but still give no solutions). With each chapter dedicated to a decade, we follow them and their mental processes from the early developments of the school, to their anguished and shocked escapes from Nazi rule (this understandably had an effect on their pessimism about the possibility of hope in modern society), to their US exile and fame. Walter Benjamin’s tragic fate is particularly well covered. The contradictions and their hypocrisy around their ideology are the most flagrant during the American period. As fellow exile in California Bertolt Brecht often reminded everyone, they were traitors to the revolution, “they had become prostitutes in their quest for foundation support, selling their skills and opinions as commodities in order to support the dominant ideology of oppressive US society.” An ideology they had created themselves with their critique of capitalism. Strangely enough none of them (not even Brecht) fled to the Soviet Union, a system they regarded as just another totalitarianism.
Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse are in a way largely the creators of the American and European New Left in the 60’s (to which the postmodernists later added themselves). A movement lead and fed by another group of privileged youngsters in revolt against their fathers’ way of life. The same story repeating itself and highlighting another controversial legacy: the fact that they connected the Enlightenment to capitalism and thus saw science, reason, and empirical evidence as well, as a form of oppression. Rings a bell, right? I particularly like the fact that the author closed the book on an optimistic note by presenting the leader of the 2nd generation Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas. The 92 year old still works on a new vision that would finally give hope.
The book does suffer from some repetitions and some bad editing, but nothing very off putting. If you want to know more about what is happening to us today, you will enjoy the read, and you will use the excellent notes and further readings sections to learn more about the works of some exceptional men, flawed humans but courageous thinkers. You will be exasperated by the obvious contradictions and the eliteness of their ideological positions (to which they seemed oblivious), but you will also feel a special connection to them, as they are all of us thinking out loud. What makes a human life worth living?
Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries
Verso Books, UK, 2016