The Frankfurt School, Part Two


It was the fate of the Frankfurt School, or the Institut für Sozialforschung, to be in the wrong place doing the right thing. The members of the School, Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Herman Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, et al., had the intellectual ability to understand that traditional Marxism was no longer adequate as an analytic tool for contemporary society and had the uncanny ability to see into the future. The swerve away from traditional Marxist demands for a social revolution refocused their collective attention on the the psychological interaction between culture and the individual. At the end of the Great War, the German people had an unprecedented opportunity to free themselves from oppression. The working classes could have seized power and a genuine social revolution could have taken place. But the lower classes had proved to be passive and let the chance to direct their own destinies pass them by. The newly formed Institut asked why?

The answer, the scholars believed, could be found, not in the theories of Karl Marx but in the theories of Sigmund Freud. The accomplishments of the Institut für Sozialforschung in the decade between 1923 and 1933 were extraordinary. The Frankfurt School combined a new academic discipline, sociology, with traditional Marxist economics, with Freudian theory into an interdisciplinary discourse about modern society. The School rejected the old Marxist notion that the “secret” machine of history was economics and that the dialectical clash was between the classes. Although the scholars directed attention to the young Hegelian Marx, they also rejected absolutism or “identity thinking.” The School rejected the fetishism of any one particular “engine” of society and rejected the idea that any one aspect of the superstructure could be separated from the larger whole. The philosophers, who came from many different academic backgrounds, understood that culture could not be separated from society and that social conditions had to be examined by combining theory and praxis, or theory with empirical data.

The first major study of society undertaken by the Frankfurt School was supervised by Erich Fromm, examined the German working class, employing empirical data interpreted from a psychoanalytic, was never published. By the time it was completed, this important body of work revealed a disconcerting truth that the working classes were receptive to the fascist message of the Nazis. It is on the unsettling note of this unpublished study that the Frankfurt School spent its last days in Germany. Frankfurt was a city with a new university and other free thinking intellectual institutions where Jews could exist in an unusually open society, relatively free of anti-Semitism. It was easy for the scholars who were mostly Jewish to be blind to the ugly forces that were gathering against them. That said, despite their denials of anti-Semitism or of the significance of their Jewish identity, the members were not helpless in the face of danger. The funds of the Institut, generously supported by the Weil family, father Hermann and son Felix, were transferred to Holland by 1933 and the School moved to Geneva just before Hitler came into power. On the very day of his ascendency to the ruler of Germany, Hitler’s minions seized the home shared by Horkheimer and Pollock. A few months later the School’s library was seized.

For the next twenty years the Frankfurt School would be on the move. With this move to New York, the School was confronted with a new and alien culture that was young and had little tradition of scholarly speculative thinking. But New York was the only available haven and most of the scholars of the Frankfurt School became American citizens and most of the European scholars who followed them to the United States became Americanized. Driven to New York by the wrath of Adolf Hitler, like so many émigrés, the members of the Frankfurt School reconvened in New York city, under the protective affiliation with Columbia University. It should be stressed that the scholars were still searching for a way to study society, its culture, and its people by combining theoretical insights from several academic areas with empirical research. It should also be stressed that the Frankfurt School was a research institute which brought together speculative insights or hypothetical thinking with a gathering of factual data. The research was propelled by changing times, modernity.

Modern life in the twentieth century required a new means of understanding and a new mode of analysis, but the century was evolving so drastically that it was difficult to grasp the changes. In a single decade, Germany had gone from a nation stunned by a shocking military defeat, from a nation crippled by a world wide Depression, to a country under the thrall of a man who put its inhabitants under a hypnotic spell. Just how evil the enchantment was, the scholars could not imagine, but they understood that an entire population was allowing itself to be led by an individual who was hostile to freedom of thought. When the members of the Frankfurt School began to gather in New York in the 1930s, the members began to redirect its study of modern society in general and in particular the nature of the personality that responded so supinely to authority. However, with a change in venue came a change in scene and a change in methodology.

American scholarship tended to be pragmatic and practical, and, as a result, its research tended towards empiricism. The members of the Frankfurt School were aware that however sophisticated and enlightened their philosophy, their mode of empirical operation was “primitive.” Although it is often thought that the transplanted Institut was isolated from American intellectuals, there was enough interaction to change the working methods of the Frankfurt scholars and to change the ideas of American intellectuals. The most important book on the subject of the Institut in America is the recently published The Frankfurt School in Exile by Thomas Wheatland of 2009. In contrast to the focus on the New York experience, Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, written thirty years earlier, provides an excellent description of the philosophy and theories of the school in general. The move to New York changed the Institut from a group of scholars who still spoke in Marxist terminology to scholars who spoke in more neutralized terms. The Frankfurt School moved to Critical Theory, a critical analysis of society through a variety of methods.

It was in New York that the school logically completed its earlier studies of the compliant mentality of the working class in Germany. These studies were also a study of fascism and eventually anti-Semitism, the seminal topics of the unsettled era. From the beginning, the Frankfurt School insisted on maintaining German as it language of publication, as a way of preserving what was left of German intellectualism untainted by Nazi thought and ideology. Certainly such a decision resulted in a separation of Critical Theory from an audience of English readers, but it was an important philosophical position on the part of a group of Jewish scholars hunted from their homeland. Fromm’s The German Workers Under the Weimar Republic was finally published as Escape From Freedom in 1942. Although Fromm, who had been in New York since 1932, eventually broke with the Institut, the idea of the questionnaires used in his study was carried over into the School’s American study, Studien über Autorität Familie. This five year study was typical of the collaborative nature of the Frankfurt School in that the work was based upon three essays by Horkheimer and Marcuse and Fromm who speculated on the meaning of the empirical results. In contrast to the study of the working class, the study of authority centered on the bourgeois family and the leadership of the father as well as the working class family.

In late capitalism, the authority of the father had been undermined when the ultimate unquestionable authority of the patriarchal system by the state itself. Thus the authority of the father became increasingly as “irrational” or based on assertion rather than fact. Women, for whatever reason, had not taken advantage of the freedoms offered to them and submitted, like the children, to irrational authority. The ultimate authorities were the corporations and the government but the intimate authority within the family was the father whose demand for obedience created a regressive personality with a weak ego. In Freudian terms, the “superego” of institutions were too remote to be effective, leaving the individual at the mercy of arbitrary emotional authority, anxious of its powers. The father’s demands created an individual who was masochistic and passive and susceptible to appellations from other paternal father figures demanding obedience. The study examined this new personality type, described as sado-mascohistic, to draw its outlines. The Studien über Autorität Familie was based upon work done with German families but avoided the component of anti-Semitism that haunted Nazi ideology. It was time for the Institut to study fascism and America was a safe place to undertake this class. Franz Neumann led the way with is groundbreaking work, Behemoth. The Study and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a monumental study of the Nazis rise to power. Neumann exemplified the split that was forming in the Frankfurt School. He was more conventionally Marxist in his approach to the rise of fascism and based Hitler’s success on economic conditions and the splintering of class interests by the Nazi form of “socialism.”

Fascism was essentially corporate capitalism founded upon the kind of authority that undercut the clash of social groups and replaced social struggles with nationalist unity. Neumann’s orthodox Marxism which posited the economy as the engine of the Nazis would always be part of the explanation for how Hitler came to power, but he ignored an element that Horkheimer and other members of the School considered to be of great importance: mass media. Mass media introduced a new element not fully covered by a Marxist analysis, psychoanalysis, or the mentality of the group. What was the best way to study a society increasingly manipulated by technology? The economic conditions of Germany were used by the Nazis to bring back an older form of authority, the father figure, Der Führer, to whom all eyes turned. For Neumann, who had been arrested before he was able to leave Germany, Nazi authority, based upon terror and coercion and propaganda, mirrored the violence of capitalist bosses against labor. For Horkheimer, Nazi authority was based upon the unprecedented role of mass media, used and manipulated by Goebbels and his control of propaganda in a way which assaulted the psychology of the population. Neither scholar could see where the removal of a rational institution and its replacement by an irrational authority would lead until after the Second World War. By the end of 1945, it became clear that the members of the Institut für Sozialforschung were “survivors,” beneficiaries of their foresight in leaving Germany at the first indication of danger. Some would never return to Germany but the next chapter of the Frankfurt School would take place in the capital of mass media, Los Angeles, California, where Horkheimer and Adorno would study “The Culture Industry.” The Next Post will be “The Frankfurt School, Part Three.”

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