“A categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind; to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966                                                                                                          

While Karl Marx did not seem to foresee the importance of commodities in restraining the social revolution he predicted, the early decades of the twentieth century opened well for Marxism.  If one defines” Marxism” as the political manifestations of his theories the surely the Russian Revolution was the culmination of his predictions.  The lower classes rose up against their oppressors and the former Empire became one nation, under Communism.  The Great War accelerate the revolt against hereditary powers and broke up the aging empires, freeing a number of new nations to make their own destiny—choosing between communism or democracy—in acts of what Woodrow Wilson called “self-determination.”  The choice was not clear-cut.  Democracy, to people used to autocratic rule, was tempting but dangerous, and old habits of dependence and obedience often resulted in the replacement of one ruler for another.   As would be seen in the new Soviet Union, the high hopes for a Communist utopia were quickly dashed by the resumption of a totalitarian rule under Lenin and then Stalin.

Like Russia, Germany had a long history of powerful rulers and when the Great War ended in the nation’s defeat, the people had no experience of democracy.  After the abdication of the Kaiser in November 1918, socialism seemed like a middle ground for a nation unaccustomed to self-rule and in need of state administration. The replacement for a militaristic regime was a coalition government, the Weimar Republic. Early on, there were struggles to establish some kind of Communist rule, as in the Soviet Union, but the left-wing revolutionaries were assassinated.  The dream that Karl Marx had of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had run aground as the forces of socialism and fascism struggled for power.  The working class had less interest in social change than the intellectuals, who were dedicated activists.  One can assume that in Germany there had been enough change: a war had been lost, a Kaiser had been deposed, a nation had to be rebuilt, and many of the restraints of centuries of political oppression and bourgeois repression were lifted.   No one wanted another social disruption.  There were other diversions afoot.

Berlin became the site of an outbreak of widespread social indulgence and experimentation in once-forbidden pleasures against the backdrop of a corrupt and ineffectual government that struggled to manage a modern nation in a modern world.  Crippled by war reparations and haunted by the traumas of the War, the German people appeared to have little taste for more social disruption.  It is against this backdrop of the promise and the failure of a revolution that would liberate the working classes that the famed Frankfurt School was launched.  Disillusioned by the failure of left wing concerns to have any resonance, Felix Weil, the son of a wealthy German industrialist, Hermann Weil, received the funding from his father to found an institute to study contemporary society.

Weil brought together an event called the First Marxist Work Week in the summer of 1922 in Thuringia.  This “week” was attended by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Richard Sorge, Friederich Pollock, Karl August Wittfogel, Bela Fogarasi, Konstantin Zetkin, and so on. The stimulating success of the gathering of intellectuals inspired Weil to establish a permanent institute.  The chosen site was Frankfurt.  Frankfurt was an island of intellectualism during the 1920s, due in no small part to the recent establishment of the University in 1914.  With a loose affiliation with the University, the Institut für Sozialforschung was founded in 1923.   The first director was Kurt Albert Gerlach but he died, then for a brief period the Institut was directed by Carl Grünberg, an Austrian Marxist who edited the first European journal of labor and socialist history.  Under Carl Grünberg, the Institut was led by a traditional orthodox Marxist, whose old fashioned “vulgar” Marxism was not shared by his colleagues.  Conventional Marxism would not be the direction of the group of scholars who gathered in Frankfurt.

After Grünberg had a stroke, he was forced to resign and from 1931 on the Institute was directed by Max Horkheimer.  Under Horkheimer, the Institut took a different direction, away from orthodox or “vulgar” Marxism and towards a new understanding of society—a sociology of the modernist culture.   If one term characterizes the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, it would be “assimilated Jew” from a privileged upper middle class intellectual background. This description comes up over and over in the writings on the School, from Martin Jay to Zoltán Tar to Thomas Wheatland, and the ambivalent social position of being “assimilated Jews” would seal the fate of the Institut and its members.  Max Horkheimer and his associate, Frederick Pollock, were joined by Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, Hermann Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Erich Fromm, all of whom were Jewish (Adorno was half-Jewish).  Indeed, Jews were very assimilated in Germany and that nation was where the most Christian-Jewish intermarriages took place in Europe.  Although there were signs of intolerance and anti-Semitism in Germany, the scholars of the Institut insisted that there was no “Jewish question.”  Because of a cultural heritage they though little of, these scholars would be forced to leave Germany and live in exile for over a decade.  Working in New York and Los Angeles, the members of the Frankfurt School would forge a new form of neo-Marxism, Critical Theory.  Most of these émigrés would never return to Germany, the nation that had persecuted them.  They would remain in their adopted country, the United States of America.

Although there was interest in the Weil family of understanding prejudice, when it was founded, the main goal of the School was more broad.  Sociology was a relatively new academic discipline and was, at that time, mostly based upon empirical research.  The only means of examining society from a theoretical perspective was Marxism.  The question was now, which Marxism?  The older and now discredited Marxism which reduced society to a “mode of production?”  Or a new approach to the ideas of Karl Marx, based upon his early works?  The Institut returned to the young Marx in his more Hegelian position, in other words, the scholars revisited dialectical materialism.  The goal was to develop a theory that would allow the appropriate kind of study for this new modern society.  Modernism, as it existed after the Great War, was out of the intellectual reach of traditional Marxist thinking.  What these intellectuals would retain from Marx is the concept of “critique,” which means to analyze and to study social conditions from the inside.  Thus the Frankfurt School began to develop Critical Theory, a means whereby contemporary society in post-war Germany could be examined through a combination of empirical research linked to a theoretical hypothesis, a new combination—Hegelian-Marxism.

From the beginning, the Frankfurt School maintained its independence from any and all institutions, the University of Frankfurt and later Columbia University.  In a politically unstable era, the Institut wisely decided to take a non-political position.  Even though the scholars maintained neutrality, as individuals they were politically committed to change.  The School was able to avoid local controversies by articulating a unique methodology.  Although in its early years, the members accepted the traditional Marxist, base-superstucture mode of analysis from traditional Marxism, later, after 1930, the notion of the base was jettisoned and the scholars concentrated on the superstructure or culture.  In addition to returning to the beginnings of Marxist thinking, the Institut employed another innovative element as the basis of its studies, Freudian theory, or psychoanalysis.  Society has its own psychology and different groups in society have their own particular mindsets.  People was moved by their social and economic conditions, but they are also moved by the ways in which they think which are based in the individual and his or her psyche.

Sigmund Freud, just coming into wide acceptance, in the 1920s, considered the family to be the basis of a person’s psyche which formed certain reactions to childhood training.  The psychic forces constructed by the parents would then play themselves out in the social arena.  The members of the Frankfurt School adapted Freudian theories to their studies of contemporary society.  The result of this new methodology was an integration or fusion among various disciplines, philosophy, sociology, psychology to form an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the current political situation in Germany.  The uniqueness of the Frankfurt School is this mixture of a multiplicity of approaches to understanding the individual within the group.  As time went on, it became more and more clear that the “individual” or “subject” was a “convenient fiction,” and that people are constructed by their environments and by instrumental societies.  The Frankfurt School studied a sociology of knowledge or a materialist theory of society which was buttressed by empirical research in order to achieve a synthetic view of culture. All knowledge and all thinking was conditioned by concrete historical situations.  There was, therefore, no fetishization of the individual who could not be transcendent, nor of culture itself, because it could never be autonomous.

For these philosophers in this changed society,  Marxism was no longer the philosophy of social revolution. But why not?  Why had the German working class not taken advantage of the opportunity to forge a strong alliance that would impact government policies?  One of the most important studies undertaken by the Institut was an examination of the German working class, supervised by Erich Fromm.  In order to determine the social consciousness of the laborers, Fromm used questionnaires in which the answers were taken down verbatim.  Horkheimer analyzed the answers through keywords and the conclusion of the study was that the working class was not only passive, rather than revolutionary, but also receptive to the message of the new rising political force, fascism.  For a variety of reasons, the Institut chose not to publish the depressing findings.   But what they learned from their research was precinct and predictive of things to come.  Although Fromm would drift away from Freud and the Institut  when it moved to America, this study was the first of similar studies of social attitudes and their root causes that would come from the Frankfurt School.

Once Hitler was elected in 1933, the Institut für Sozialforschung was in a precarious position, and Horkheimer was not blind to the rising tide of fascism and its dangers to a group of left-thinking Jews.  The funds of the Institut were transferred to a bank in Holland and the Frankfurt School prepared to decamp.  The Nazis closed down the Institut as quickly and as ruthlessly as they had shuttered the Bauhaus.   Indeed, by the time Herman Marcuse joined the School in 1932, he was assigned to its new outpost, Geneva.  The School also opened branches in Paris and London and in these cities, the preferred form of publication, the Zeitschrift, or short essay, rather than long book, could continue.  When the Nazis came to power, most of the members were already on the move, leaving behind a magnifcant 60,000 volume library to be seized by the fascists.  Horkheimer was among the first faculty of the University of Frankfurt to be dismissed because he was Jewish, and he left for Geneva.  Adorno went to London, and Walter Benjamin, who was loosely associated with the Institut, went to Paris.  Those who stayed behind, such as Wittfogel, were simply thrown in a concentration camp.

In Germany, fascism had taken over the revolutionary position once held by Marxism.  The Frankfurt School now had new goals.  First the Institut had to save itself. Switzerland could not be a permanent home, as Horkheimer already sensed the coming sympathies for fascism in that neutral nation.  Second, the Institut had to preserve German culture and remove German intellectual heritage and contemporary intellectual thinking to a site where it could not be tainted by Nazi philosophy.  This self-imposed mission was deeply important to the members of the Institut.  The Nazis were already appropriating German culture for their own ends and in the process was polluting the history of German intellectual and artistic culture, from Nietzsche to Wagner.  It was important to continue an uninterrupted strain of German thinking and the only place to do this was in New York City.  Opportunities in London were limited and the intellectuals in Paris were decidedly unwelcoming to German scholars, so the Institut moved towards another alliance with another institution, Columbia University.

Over time, all the members of the Frankfurt School gathered together in New York.  In continuing their determination to carry on German culture, the Institut members decided to write and publish in German.  During the early years of Nazi rule, the School worked to rescue and fund European scholars on the run.  Although some two hundred intellectuals were indebted to the well-funded School, Horkheimer and Adorno were unable to save their close associate, Walter Benjamin who simply did not want to emigrate to New York.  Benjamin was finally persuaded to leave France after the Nazi takeover and made his way to the Spanish border.  Once in Spain, he had passage to New York, thanks to the Institut.  Unfortunately, in a now famous tragic tale, the border between France and Spain was closed on that day at that point and Benjamin, in despair, committed suicide.  The members of the Institut were horrified and devastated.  In contrast, Wittfogel was freed and found his way to the safety of America.

The now-common term “critical theory” actually stems from the work done by the Frankfurt School in these post-Weimar years.  It is customary to think of Critical Theory as an analysis of authority and a study of power and how totalitarian forces manipulate society, but this was a relatively new position for the  School.  In America, the scholars shifted their foci.  While in Germany, the Frankfurt School had concentrated on interdisciplinary studies attempting to understand the German working class.  As the impact of fascism upon society became more apparent, it was clear that there were psychoanalytical aspects to the acceptance of Hitler by the Germans.  In American the studies of the Institut led to an investigation into the “authoritarian personality,” or the kind of mind-set that would accept a totalitarian leader.  The studies began, not in politics, but with the bourgeois family and how the passive acceptance of leadership had led to Hitler.

When Horkheimer managed to relocated the Institut to Columbia University in New York, the social and political theories of the School was impacted by the pragmatism and empirical methods of American scholars.  It is America that the scholars began to shift their attention from the failures of communism and the willingness of the working class to follow fascism to the growing importance of technological communication in shaping social responses. Mass media and mass spectacle had come of age, and the power of art forms could be used for good or for evil.  The scholars of the Frankfurt School were among the first to understand the importance of mass media and national culture.  They were among the first to sound the alarm and among the first to delineate the consequences of new communication technologies upon culture and society.

But the critique of a culture shaped by technology was also a critique of the Enlightenment.  Indeed, it can be said that the Frankfurt School initiates the study of the consequences of the Enlightenment through the critique of philosophy by philosophy.  The ideas of the Enlightenment had been working themselves out for two centuries, but, until the Frankfurt School, Reason and Rational Thinking as  concepts  had not been examined in terms of their social  consequences.  Certainly, Nietzsche had railed against the kind of reason that resulted in nihilism, but, unlike the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, he did not have the vantage point of observing the unintended consequences of “Enlightenment,” such as the Holocaust.  Totalitarian governments and “authoritarian” personalities and blinded obedience were seen as direct consequences of reason gone wrong.

The effects of totalitarian thinking became one of the primary concerns of  the Frankfurt School.  The Frankfurt School shifted Marxism into the Twentieth Century by observing contemporary culture, its ideologies and how these belief systems impacted society through this new technological world of mass communication.  The Frankfurt School and its associates were be hard hit by the increasing oppression of fascism and were dislocated during the Second World War.  As intellectuals, they were in grave danger; as Jews their lives were in peril.  Some went into exile, some survived, some did not.  Those that lived survived to continue their roles as defenders of Marxism as a mode of critique that revealed the true intentions of ideology, laying the groundwork for what would eventually be called “post” or “neo” Marxism.

The next post on The Frankfurt School, Part Two, will examine the work of the Institut in America.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

14 + 15 =