Cooking the Frankfurters
For many historians of ideas, the career of the Frankfurt School of Marxism has symbolised how completely left-wing theory could become divorced from practical politics in Western Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. With their withdrawal from a hostile political environment, their interest in arcane subjects like the Kabbala and atonal classical music, their relentlessly difficult books, and their fractious relationship with each other and with their students, the professors of the Frankfurt University's Institute of Social Research were often condemned by more straightforwardly left-wing intellectuals as 'ivory tower' Marxists with a 'defeatist' attitude. The Frankfurters were certainly never accused of having much of an influence on mainstream political life.
In recent years, though, proponents of the 'cultural Marxism' conspiracy theory described in my last post have charged the Frankfurt School with corrupting the minds of millions and changing the history of the West for the worse. The Frankfurters are regular targets of Glenn Beck, and Anders Breivik denounced them in his manifesto.
I learned of the Frankfurt School's posthumous notoreity back in January, thanks to a discussion thread at Kiwiblog which saw me having some rather fruitless exchanges with the right-wing blogger Fletch, a man who also has some peculiar views about New Zealand prehistory.
Here is an abridged version of my dialogue with Fletch, whose delusions seem less amusing in the aftermath of Breivik's rampage:
It’s all a part of Political Correctness called ‘Critical Theory’ – which is basically to criticize everything to bring down Western culture and replace it with something else. It stems from the Frankfurt School (the mother of PC) in the
What the Frankfurt School essentially does is draw on both Marx and Freud in the thirties to create this theory called Critical Theory. The term is ingenious because you’re tempted to ask, “What is the theory?” The theory is to criticize. The theory is that the way to bring down Western culture and the capitalist order is not to lay down an alternative...
What Critical Theory is about is simply criticizing. It calls for the most destructive criticism possible, in every possible way, designed to bring the current order down. And, of course, when we hear from the feminists that the whole of society is just out to get women and so on, that kind of criticism is a derivative of Critical Theory. It is all coming from the 1930s, not the 1960s.
Fletch evidently hasn’t read the Frankfurters. Walter Benjamin, who is easily the most famous and influential member of the crowd, was a Jewish mystic who insisted upon the necessity of utopianism to contemporary politics. His last and most famous work, which he wrote shortly before being forced to take his own life to escape Nazi persecution, is called ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, and uses imagery from the Kabbala to argue against the ‘economism’ - that is, the preoccupation with material, short-term matters - of the contemporary West.
The second most famous Frankfurt School thinker is probably Herbert Marcuse, who became a hero to the hippy generation because of his rejection of ordinary politics and his advocacy of utopianism. Fletch might like to check out Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilisation, which sets out a picture of a utopian future somewhat reminiscent of that provided by William Morris in the nineteenth century. He might also want to read The Aesthetic Dimension, which is Marcuse’s tribute to some of the great works of Western literary tradition. Marcuse felt that the likes of Balzac and Goethe and Dickens should be read and honoured, because the richness of their works provided clues to how a future society might be built.
A third major Frankfurt School thinker is Theodor Adorno, who was so ‘politically correct’ and so popular with radical women that his last-ever public appearance was famously disrupted by a group of topless feminists. Like Marcuse, Adorno loved and wrote about Western high culture. Some of his writings on classical music have become canonical.
I suspect that when Fletch talks – or, rather, when the bit of text Fletch has found somewhere on the net and taken out of context talks – about the Frankfurt School hating the West, the reference is to Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s book The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, which is an attack on Western humanism. Horkheimer and Adorno claim that, beneath its slogans about freedom and secularism and rational inquiry, the Enlightenment represented a new mode of thought that was in its own way as bad as the religious doctrines it aimed to replace. They believe that modern, post-religious European thought, with its interest in quantifying and calculating everything and its forgetfulness about the limits of rationality, was one of the ingredients of the wars and genocides of the first half of the twentieth century. Adorno and Horkheimer’s claims in The Dialectic of the Enlightenment are extremely provocative, and have never been accepted by more than a handful of thinkers on the left. They were not even accepted by many members of the Frankfurt School. Ironically, Adorno and Horkheimer’s condemnation of the Enlightenment has been far more attractive to socially conservative intellectuals, like the current head of the Catholic church, than it has been to the left. Ratzinger was certainly acquainted with Adorno in the ’60s, when they were both opponents of the student radicals who were asserting themselves on German campuses, and he appears to be heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger, whose ideas about the decline of the West are very similar to those expressed in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. I blogged about this a while back.
Scott, I’m well aware of Marcuse et al – he who came to America from Frankfurt and stayed. he’s one of the instigators if the hippy movement in the 60s and why just about every American University is steeped in PC and cultrual Marxism. You can read about the cases going on in Universities HERE.
One of Marcuse’s books was the key book. It virtually became the bible of the SDS and the student rebels of the 60s. That book was Eros and Civilization. Marcuse argues that...We can envision a future, if we can only destroy this existing oppressive order, in which we liberate eros, we liberate libido, in which we have a world of “polymorphous perversity,” in which you can “do you own thing.” And by the way, in that world there will no longer be work, only play. What a wonderful message for the radicals of the mid-60s! They’re students, they’re baby-boomers, and they’ve grown up never having to worry about anything except eventually having to get a job. And here is a guy writing in a way they can easily follow. He doesn’t require them to read a lot of heavy Marxism and tells them everything they want to hear which is essentially, “Do your own thing,” “If it feels good do it,” and “You never have to go to work.”
By the way, Marcuse is also the man who creates the phrase, “Make love, not war.” Coming back to the situation people face on campus, Marcuse defines “liberating tolerance” as intolerance for anything coming from the Right and tolerance for anything coming from the Left.
Marcuse joined the Frankfurt School, in 1932 (if I remember right). So, all of this goes back to the 1930s...anyone who doubts that Political Correctness stems from the Frankfurt School and the cultural Marxists is very much mistaken. It didn’t just grow from nowhere.
Fletch, can you honestly say you’ve read a book by any of the dozen or so thinkers associated with the two generations of the Frankfurt School? Those thinkers range in themes and in arguments enormously. Adorno and Marcuse are in many ways chalk and cheese.
If you take the trouble to read Adorno, or even just find out some of the basic facts about his life, you’ll learn he was bitterly at odds with the student movement in the universities in the ’60s. Radical feminists hated him and, as I noted, disrupted his last lecture.
Marcuse was much more popular with students, but he was in no way in favour of showing ‘intolerance for anything coming from the right’ and ‘tolerance for anything coming from the left’. If you look at The Aesthetic Dimension you’ll see that he explicitly argues against a lot of works of art created to express left-wing ideas in a propagandistic way, on the grounds that art should not be a vehicle for propaganda, and that he defends works of art created by right-wingers from leftists who would dismiss them out of hand (he talks, for instance, about Balzac as a man who had reactionary politics but was nevertheless a great writer).
In The Aesthetic Dimension Marcuse also attacks a number of forms of art thrown up by the hippe generation as shallow and inferior to the great works of the bourgeois writers of the nineteenth century. He denies, for example, that the Happening, which was a very popular artform amongst the counterculture of the '60s and '70s, has any real aesthetic or political merit. Marcuse never abandoned his belief in socialism, but he was always opposed to dogmatic or sloppy thinking, whether it came from the left or the right. He was attacked for this by some of the more hysterical groups of the ’60s and ’70s – the Maoist Progressive Labour Party, for example, seized on the fact that he had worked for Allied intelligence during World War Two, and accused him of being a police informer... I should note that the Frankfurt School was an institution, a sort of department at Frankfurt University. It wasn’t a political party or a secret society. The founder of the Institute for Social Research, as it was officially known, was a bloke named Henryk Grossman. He was a hardbitten, number-crunching Marxist economist of the old school, the sort of man who devoured tables of stats and had no interest in discussing culture. Marcuse and Adorno and the mob who got jobs in Grossman’s department had no time at all for Grossman’s intellectual interests – they were both interested in analysing culture, although each came to very different conclusions about culture.
Just as Marcuse differed from Grossman, so later arrivals at the School differed from Marcuse. Jorgen Habermas, for example, ditched Marcuse’s radical politics and developed some of the ideas which have become known in Britain as the ‘Third Way’. In the early noughties Habermas acted as an advisor to Blair’s German ally Schroeder and publically supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
Habermas was in no way the first Frankfurter to take a rightward intellectual trajectory: Adorno and Max Horkheimer both moved to the right in the last decades of their lives. As I noted, Adorno opposed Germany’s left-wing student movement. On one occasion he called the police when he found that left-wing students had occupied the buildings of the Frankfurt School. For his part, Horkheimer became a supporter of LBJ’s war in Vietnam. It really is foolish to try to make a politically heterogenous collection of thinkers like the folks who taught at Frankfurt into some sort of secret super-radical revolutionary clique, but I don’t suppose the spectre of foolishness has ever deterred some people.
Scott, yes I know it was a think tank started at the Frankfurt School, but everyone refers to it as the Frankfurt School kind of by default. I’m not saying Adorno’s ideology agreed with everything Marcuse did after they left again. Heck, when a student rebellion broke out in Germany where Adorno was and came into his classroom, he called the Police on them, and had them arrested [edit, as I see you have mentioned as well] But still, Frankfurt was the origin of this idea of cultural Marxism and Critical Theory, after economic Marxism failed. Just do a google on “Political Correctness” and “Critical Theory” and up pops Frankfurt. There are even youtube video documentaries about it.
To me, the origin is pretty clear (David Kahane says the same thing in his book, Rules For Radical Conservatives). In the end it really doesn’t matter where Political Correctness started, as long as we can agree that it is bad.
Fletch, the problem with your method is reflected in this statement:
Just do a google on “Political Correctness” and “Critical Theory” and up pops Frankfurt
For goodness’ sake, the internet isn’t peer-reviewed or quality-controlled in any way! You didn’t reply to my question as to whether you’d actually read a book by any Frankfurt school thinker. I’m sure you haven’t. I’m also sure you haven’t read one of the scholarly studies of the different aspects of their work, or one of the several general surveys of the Institute. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I like to find out about something before I make generalisations about it.
When you write that:
Frankfurt was the origin of this idea of cultural Marxism and Critical Theory, after economic Marxism failed
you make yet another silly claim. Have you ever heard of chaps like Lukacs and Gramsci? They were writing about culture using Marxist concepts decades before the likes of Marcuse. As I noted, Henryk Grossman, the founder of Frankfurt, was a number-crunching economist par excellence. And not all of the people who came to work at the Institute later were interested in cultural rather than economic inquiry. During World War Two and the period afterwards the US government actually sponsored a series of quantitative surveys of different aspects of Western society by Frankfurters. Marcuse was focused on culture, but never abandoned his belief in the key tenets of classical Marxist economics. Adorno and Horkheimer on the other hand did. The sort of simplistic categories you’re using here just don’t match up with a complicated and rather interesting history.
But your lack of real interest in the Frankfurt School is shown by this statement:
In the end it really doesn’t matter where Political Correctness started, as long as we can agree that it is bad
In other words, you’re not going to feel any embarrassment about making the most ridiculous generalisations about a whole series of thinkers (claiming that Adorno was a friend of radical feminism, or that Marcuse hated Western culture), because such claims are only a means to your end of making some sort of statement about ‘political correctness’. You seem to understand political correctness as an attempt to shut down rational discussion. It seems to me that your lack of concern with the truth and your willingness to tar very different thinkers with the same brush actually makes rational discussion very hard.