‘The Frankfurt School’ provides a brief history of the formation of the Frankfurt School, and biographies of prominent members. The Frankfurt School grew out of the Institute for Social Research, the first Marxist think tank. However, in 1930, under the directorship of Max Horkheimer, the organization moved to America to escape the Nazis, and began to concentrate on critical theory. Aside from Horkheimer, notable members of the Frankfurt School's inner circle included Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas. Each member of the inner circle was different, but they all shared the same concerns, and attempted to solve them through intellectual daring and experimentation.
The Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923. Growing out of a Marxist study group, which sought to deal with the practical problems facing the labor movement in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, this first Marxist think tank was funded by Hermann Weil. He was an enlightened businessman, who made his fortune on the grain market in Argentina. The money was given at the urging of his son, Felix, who considered himself a “salon Bolshevik.”
Felix Weil’s close friends included Kurt Albert Gerlach. A social democrat and an economist, he would have become the first director of the Institute. Unfortunately, however, Gerlach died of diabetes. Carl Grünberg thus took over instead. He founded the first official publishing arm of the Institute, the Archive for the History of Socialism and the Labor Movement, which published a number of significant works including Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (1923). Grünberg was joined by Henryk Grossmann, Friedrich Pollock, Fritz Sternberg, and Karl August Wittfogel. All of them were communists. Still nostalgic for the democratic workers’ councils of 1918–1921, they envisioned a German Soviet Republic. Their intellectual efforts offer a rich variety of views on capitalist breakdown, the new role of the state, and imperialism. But this group would fade p. 8↵into the background, and the general orientation of the Institute would change in 1930. That was the year in which Max Horkheimer brought together the new inner circle for what would become known as the Frankfurt School.
The inner circle
Horkheimer was born in 1895 near Stuttgart into the family of a wealthy Jewish businessman. His early school years were undistinguished, and he left high school to work as an apprentice in his father’s textile factory. In 1911, however, he made the acquaintance of Friedrich Pollock, who introduced him to philosophy and the social sciences, and who remained a lifelong friend. Horkheimer finished high school after World War I. He flirted with communism, studied a variety of subjects at the p. 9↵University of Frankfurt, and ultimately wrote a dissertation on Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790).
Horkheimer published very little prior to assuming his position as director. That changed following the triumph of Hitler in 1933 when he was busily attempting to relocate the Institute from Frankfurt first to Geneva, then to Paris, and finally to Columbia University in New York City. His essays of the 1930s concentrated on distinguishing critical theory from its philosophical competitors and demonstrating how liberal capitalism had betrayed its original promise by creating the psychological, racial, and political foundations of totalitarianism. Other works dealing with mass culture, instrumental rationality, and the authoritarian state paved the way for Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). Horkheimer’s thinking surely changed over the years. Nevertheless, he always retained his preoccupation with the impact of suffering and the liberating possibilities of individual experience.
Horkheimer also remained a champion of interdisciplinary research. Under his leadership, the Frankfurt School attempted to bridge the gap between normative theory and empirical work. His inaugural lecture of 1930 stressed that goal and, even while in exile, Horkheimer edited a multivolume interdisciplinary research project, Studies in Prejudice, for the American Jewish Committee. It included Rehearsal for Destruction (1949) by Paul Massing, which brilliantly analyzed the social origins of anti-Semitism in Imperial Germany; Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (1950) by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Gutermann; and the classic The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor W. Adorno and a host of researchers.
Horkheimer’s radicalism was inflamed by the Russian Revolution and the German Spartacus Revolt of 1919. But Stalin’s purges and p. 10↵the emergence of a terror apparatus took their toll. Horkheimer ultimately broke not just with communism but with Marxism as well. His politics had shifted to the Right even before he brought the Institute back to Germany and served as Rector of the University of Frankfurt from 1951 to 1953. Horkheimer wound up opposing the anti-imperialist struggle in Algeria, supporting the Vietnam War, and denouncing the revolts associated with 1968.
At this point, his concern with the negation of misery took a new turn. Looking back to the Old Testament, which prohibited depicting the divine, he came to believe that preserving the idea of resistance was now possible only through the all-encompassing negation of reality and the longing for emancipation. The sacred—or, better, the otherworldly—became the vantage point for confronting the profane. He took the critique of Enlightenment to its farthest extreme. Friends noted a growing flirtation with Catholicism. All links between theory and practice were sundered. Critical theory was already imperiled when Max Horkheimer died at the age of seventy-eight.
Erich Fromm was one of Horkheimer’s closest friends from the early days. Fromm’s specialty was psychology, but he was also deeply versed in theological matters. In fact, the psychoanalytic institute in Berlin that he established with his first wife, Frieda Reichmann, was dubbed the “Torah-peutikum.” Fromm was a prolific writer and intellectually daring: he was among the very first to link the thought of Sigmund Freud with that of Marx. Today, however, Fromm is not taken very seriously. He is usually remembered for what his more academic critics considered “how to” books like The Art of Loving (1956)—that offered a responsible alternative to the way love is presented by mass culture; “feel good” works like The Heart of Man (1964)—that provided a counterweight to cynical assaults on Western culture; and supposedly superficial studies about international affairs like May Man Prevail (1961)—that sensibly called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and a tempering of the cold-war spirit. Fromm’s p. 11↵Escape from Freedom (1941) is remembered for its penetrating analysis of totalitarianism. His great inquiry into The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), however, has been unjustly forgotten.
Fromm grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family; he was instructed as a child by learned rabbis like Nehemiah Nobel and especially Salman Baruch Rabinkow. His dissertation was The Jewish Law: Toward a Sociology of the Jewish Diaspora (1922), and his earliest works treated religious themes: The Sabbath (1927) and, with a Marxian twist, The Dogma of Christ (1930). His interest in the psychological appeal and ethical impulse provided by religion never fully disappeared, in spite of the atheism he adopted during the 1920s, and he struck a popular chord with his humanistic reinterpretation of the Old Testament in You Shall Be as Gods (1967). Fromm’s attempt to develop a “materialist psychology” reflected the original commitment of critical theory to an all-embracing social transformation. Emphasis upon the practical character of psychoanalysis, its connection with resisting repression and fostering humanistic values, would mark his career.
Fromm helped found the Mexican Psychoanalytic Association in 1962, and he became one of the most influential figures in the development of psychoanalysis in Latin America. A staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and American imperialism, a supporter of countless progressive causes, Fromm advocated a non-bureaucratic and participatory form of “communitarian socialism.” He was also unquestionably the finest stylist and the most lucid writer produced by the Frankfurt School. Fromm finally broke with the Institute in 1940. Other members of the inner circle clearly envied his popularity, though there were legitimate political and philosophical disagreements with him as well. By the end of his life, he had little to do with any of his former associates at the Institute. As much as any member of the Frankfurt School, however, Erich Fromm remained true to the p. 12↵concrete moment, the humanistic spirit, and the transformative purpose of critical theory.
Herbert Marcuse was his only real competitor as an intellectual influence on the New Left. Marcuse’s political history reaches back over his time with the Office of Strategic Services from 1941 until the 1950s, where he played an important and progressive role in shaping American policy toward Western Europe, to his participation as a young man in the Spartacus Revolt of 1918–19. His early essays sought to link historical materialism with “historicity,” or the phenomenological structures whereby social reality is experienced by the individual. Similar concerns informed Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity (1932), which contributed to a growing Hegel renaissance in Europe, while Reason and Revolution (1941) offered a seminal interpretation of the great thinker’s relevance for critical theory. Marcuse also authored a number of stunning essay collections. Always cognizant of the utopian potential exhibited by art, yet still concerned with practical forms of resistance, Marcuse envisioned a break with the established order. Nevertheless, his speculative ventures were complemented by various sociological and political studies.
After joining the Institute for Social Research in 1933, Marcuse interrogated the liberal state, the connection between monopoly capitalism and fascism, and the degeneration of communism. His later work anticipated the role of the new social movements in response to the alienation of advanced industrial society. Optimistic concerning the prospects for change in 1968, he also envisioned the conservative reaction that followed. Concepts like the happy consciousness, repressive de-sublimation, and the great refusal were all popularized by him. His signature work, One-Dimensional Man (1964), virtually brought critical theory to the United States and, through its citations, introduced many young intellectuals to the Frankfurt School. Marcuse always saw himself as working within the tradition of historical materialism. p. 13↵But he was flexible in his approach and was a prophet of cultural transformation. Herbert Marcuse incarnated the radical political moment of critical theory for a generation of young radicals in the United States and much of the world.
Walter Benjamin was—by contrast—unknown in the United States until the preeminent political theorist Hannah Arendt published a portrait of him in the New Yorker and edited his sterling collection of essays, Illuminations (1969). Benjamin thereafter became celebrated as a unique thinker of brilliance and uncanny insight. Another anthology of his essays, Reflections (1986), strengthened that assessment. Benjamin’s writings range from his lovely autobiographical works One-Way Street (1928) and Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (1950), which appeared originally as a set of newspaper articles in the 1930s, to an abstruse study of the baroque titled The Origins of German Tragic Drama (1928) and his unfinished Arcades Project (1982), which comprised a few thousand quotations and offered a veritable hall of mirrors for understanding modernity. With the new popularity accorded postmodernism and other forms of philosophical subjectivism in the United States during the late 1970s, Benjamin’s fame soon reached epic proportions: a library of secondary works has appeared, and almost every volume of his Selected Writings has become an academic bestseller.
Benjamin was another son from a wealthy Jewish family. Born in Berlin, he received his doctorate from the University of Bern in 1919. He then became an itinerant writer and never held a steady job. There is a sense in which Benjamin incarnated the Luftmensch—the impractical individual whose imagination has lifted him beyond the world. His work was marked by a preoccupation with the fungible character of language, the nature of memory, and the seemingly mundane experiences of everyday life like eating, storytelling, and book collecting. All of these, Benjamin believed, shed light on broader social trends. His explicitly political writings were uninspired and, as exemplified by p. 14↵the Moscow Diary of 1926–27, they offer little insight into the monumental events of his time. But it is a different matter when it comes to his studies on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, the Elective Affinities by J. W. von Goethe, or the novels of Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. The same holds for Benjamin’s articles on architecture, photography, romanticism, and translation. His fascinating and provocative essays explore the aesthetic impact of modernity on individual experience and everyday life.
Influenced by both Gershom Scholem, his childhood friend who became a legendary scholar of Jewish mysticism, and the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin attempted to fuse a messianic outlook with what became a growing interest in historical materialism. Reacting against the fatalism of scientific socialism, contemptuous of its transformation of the classless society into an unattainable ideal, his concern was with reclaiming the metaphysical experience of reality and, ultimately, the unrealized utopian possibilities of history. That undertaking was plagued by an inability to articulate the barriers to liberation as well as the inconsistencies and mutually exclusive assumptions embedded in his general outlook. Yet there is little doubt that Walter Benjamin continues to inspire, frustrate, and educate especially young bohemian and radical intellectuals. His writings evoke exile in an age of “ruins,” and his tragic suicide at the age of 48 in 1940, while attempting to flee the Nazi invasion of France, puts a particularly dramatic stamp on his life.
Walter Benjamin had only one student, Theodor W. Adorno, who embodied the interdisciplinary ideal of the Frankfurt School and the image of the European intellectual. He seemed to know everything—and better than anyone else. Also born into a bourgeois family, but with a Jewish father and an Italian mother, Adorno received his doctorate in 1924. A musicologist who had studied with the great composer Alban Berg, and who was deeply influenced by Arnold Schönberg, Adorno edited a music journal during the 1920s and 1930s, and he later advised Thomas Mann p. 15↵on the sections dealing with music theory in Doctor Faustus (1947). Interpretations of great composers like Ludwig von Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Mahler followed along with the classic Philosophy of Modern Music (1949).
Adorno was also a sensitive critic of literature and poetry and, arguably, was the most dazzling philosophical mind of the age. Committed to the notion of a negative dialectic, deeply skeptical of all systems and traditional understandings of narrative, he was intent upon articulating the inherently flawed character of civilization while rejecting every attempt to identify the individual with the collectivity.
Adorno wove these themes into his own all-embracing philosophical narrative. But he was also engaged in empirical research. Adorno’s studies of radio and television, which illuminated the ideological impact of what most considered simple entertainment, complemented his work on the authoritarian and conformist tendencies of modern society. And he was a genuine master of the essay. His “On Popular Music” (1932) demonstrated the impact of the commodity form on the genre while his insightful and innovative interpretations of Beckett, Kafka, and Proust evinced his broader concern with a reflective understanding of experience.
Adorno sometimes dealt with political issues. But he was always fearful of mass movements. Negation assumed a value in its own right, and he identified resistance with securing the “non-identity” between the individual and society. Adorno’s influence on contemporary understandings of critical theory is without parallel. No thinker better exemplifies its uncompromising commitment to the glimmer of freedom.
A word still needs to be said about Jürgen Habermas. This most exceptional student of Horkheimer and Adorno became the most prolific of all thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. His p. 16↵writings touch upon all facets of social life, including religion, and his essays extend from interpretations of the philosophical canon to commentaries on the issues of the day. If his early works made important contributions to critical theory, however, his intellectual path ultimately led him in new directions.
Growing up under Nazism, which other members of the Frankfurt School did not, left Habermas with a deep belief in the rule of law and liberal democracy. It also marked his concern with the manipulation of discourse and the importance of “undistorted communication.” These themes run through all his works. An important figure in the student movement of the 1960s, though never engaged with any of its extremist factions, his early writings offer critical meditations on historical materialism, institutional legitimacy, and the relation between theory and practice. The later writings of Habermas, by contrast, are increasingly enmeshed in analytic philosophy. They insist upon the need for grounding claims, formulating systemic arguments, and providing ontological characterizations of nature and science. The extent to which they break with critical theory is a matter of ongoing debate. Making that judgment, indeed, calls for examining the impulses animating the original enterprise.