It’s rare that a trend in philosophical thought actually applies Karl Marx’s suggestion “Until now, the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In fact, it was the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main that was arguably the first to do so. Indeed, this was the intention of those who founded the institute from its beginning. After establishing itself in a non-descript building in the Bockenheimer Warte section of Frankfurt in the 1920s, this group of Marxist intellectuals would go on to create one of the primary philosophical trends of the Twentieth century—critical theory.
Born in a despair that assumed a Marxist revolution had become impossible in the wake of consumerist capitalism, the Frankfurt school turned towards the role played by media and culture in manipulating the workers into becoming agents of consumption instead of agents of production. Some of the men associated with the Institute included Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm are some of the best known names associated with the School. Their research would influence not only other Marxists, but also reach into the halls of academia, literature and advertising throughout the capitalist world. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, some of their analysis and theory would inform an entire wing of the Twentieth century left, especially in the United States and Germany. Phrases like “repressive tolerance” and “dialectical enlightenment” became the New Left’s equivalent to popular rock lyrics, while Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse became its version of a rock star.
Blending Freudian psychoanalytical theories and Marxist philosophy, the Frankfurt School created a synthesis that attempted to define the situation of modern humanity in a monopoly capitalist society. Ultimately, this synthesis resulted in a rather bleak vision that derived its pessimism partially from the intensifying fascist state that Germany was becoming. Yet, as a result of their continued critical observations, a realization developed in the school that so called democratic capitalism was equally repressive, except in a less crude manner. Indeed, this is the essence of the aforementioned phrase “repressive tolerance.”
Recently, Verso Books published a fairly comprehensive critical biography of the Frankfurt School titled Grand Hotel Abyss. Authored by longtime Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries, it is a valiant and worthwhile effort. In the text, Jeffries combines personal and group biography with a presentation and analysis of the group’s most influential works and ideas. Lying underneath this web of biography and theory is the history of the twentieth century, the Left and the author’s own perspective. The resulting work is a cogent and even absorbing narrative of an important group of thinkers, their thoughts and their influence.
In the course of the text, Jeffries reveals some interesting observations from the School with a distressing relevance to today’s reality. Two that come immediately to mind are that fascism in Europe was a result of a series of pacts between the industrial bourgeoisie and the regime; the second was the philosophers’ observation that massive aerial bombing undertaken by the United States and Britain over Germany during World War Two was pointless because it made it almost certain that the population being bombed would be able to do nothing but attempt to survive. This observation went against the military’s supposition that such bombardment would anger those on the ground enough to resist their government and was ignored. In fact, if one listens to the rationales we are given today for massive bombing of another nation, they will find this rationale is still in the mix. In regards to the current situation, the School’s depressing view that the proletariat will never achieve ideological maturity seems even truer today in a world not only where virtually everything is infantilized, but where such infantilism is considered a positive thing. One need only look at the 2016 presidential election in the United States for vivid and disturbing proof of this.
Jeffries’ history is a combination of the group as an entity, the individual members and the twentieth century. Mostly balanced, his prejudices show through mostly in his discussion of Marcuse’s work on the methodology of modern capitalism titled One Dimensional Man. Indeed his criticism of that text reads like an attack on the 1960s movements and a defense of his lifestyle. However, if one remembers what Marcuse and his fellows theorized—that all of our needs and desires are creations of Wall Street and its advertising agencies—it is understandable why most folks would react somewhat negatively. After all, isn’t one of our core Western values the idea that we are free individuals, even though most of that freedom is mostly about choosing different products that are essentially the same.