A man gazes upon the ruined city of Frankfurt, Germany, 1946. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum


Theory from the ruins

The Frankfurt School argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right?

by Stuart Walton + BIO

A man gazes upon the ruined city of Frankfurt, Germany, 1946. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum

‘One wants to break free of the past,’ Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School’s leading luminaries, wrote in an essay in 1959. ‘Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.’ In an age when the meanings of the past and the functions they are called upon to serve are so hotly contested, Adorno’s insight reminds us, in a typically double-edged way, that humanity is both composed of and trapped inside its history. This view of history underpinned the work of the boldest and bravest philosophers of the past century: the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Their arguments lacked for nothing in theoretical aspiration, and have scarcely begun to be assimilated, even today.

A key point of disputation for this generation of thinkers arose from the notion that society, in its progress from barbarism to civilisation according to the narrative of the European Enlightenment, had been increasingly founded on the principle of reason. Where mythology once held sway, the rationalistic sciences now reigned supreme. Among the Frankfurt School’s most provocative contentions was that Western civilisation had unwittingly executed a reversal of this narrative. The heroic phase of the 18th-century Enlightenment purported to have freed humankind of antique superstition and the demons of the irrational, but the horrors of the 20th century gave the lie to that triumphalism. Far from humane liberation, 20th-century Europeans had plunged into decades of savage barbarism. Why? The Frankfurt School theorists argued that universal rationality had been raised to the status of an idol. At the heart of this was what they called ‘instrumental reason’, the mechanism by which everything in human affairs was ground up.

When reason enabled human beings to interpret the natural world around them in ways that ceased to frighten them, it was a liberating faculty of the mind. However, in the Frankfurt account, its fatal flaw was that it depended on domination, on subjecting the external world to the processes of abstract thought. Eventually, by a gradual process of trial and error, everything in the phenomenal world would be explained by scientific investigation, which would lay bare the previously hidden rules and principles by which it operated, and which could be demonstrated anew any number of times. The rationalising faculty had thereby become, according to the Frankfurt philosophers, a tyrannical process, through which all human experience of the world would be subjected to infinitely repeatable rational explanation; a process in which reason had turned from being liberating to being the instrumental means of categorising and classifying an infinitely various reality.

Culture itself was subject to a kind of factory production in the cinema and recording industries. The Frankfurt theorists maintained a deep distrust of what passed as ‘popular culture’, which neither enlightened nor truly entertained the mass of society, but only kept people in a state of permanently unsatiated demand for the dross with which they were going to be fed anyway. And driving the whole coruscating analysis was a visceral commitment to the Marxist theme of the presentness of the past. History was not just something that happened yesterday, but a dynamic force that remained active in the world of today, which was its material product and its consequence. By contrast, the attitude of instrumental reason produced only a version of the past that ascended towards the triumph of the enlightened and democratic societies of the present day.

Since these ideas were first elaborated, they have been widely rejected or misunderstood. Postmodernism, which refuses all historical grand narratives, has done its best to overlook what are some of the grandest narratives that Western philosophy ever produced. Despite this, these polemical theories remain indispensable in the present globalised age, when the dilemmas and malaises that were once specific to Western societies have expanded to encompass almost the whole globe. As a new era of irrationalism dawns on humankind, with corruption and mendacity becoming a more or less openly avowed modus operandi of all shades of government, the Frankfurt analysis urges itself upon us once more.

More than any other intellectual venture of the 20th century, the scholarly foundation established in 1923 in Frankfurt as the Institute for Social Research attained true institutional status. While other influential movements in philosophy and cultural theory coalesced around a nucleus of prominent writers and thinkers, they tended to be transitory intellectual fashions, as in the case of the passing New York engagement with continental theory. By contrast, the Frankfurt School, as it became known after the Second World War, has endured for a full three generations because its ideas, so vastly ambitious in their reach, keep taking on new significance in changing circumstances.

Established by private sponsorship in the wake of the failed revolution in Germany that followed the country’s defeat in 1918, the Institute was first and foremost an educational enterprise. In accord with its radical Left-wing political orientation, it was to have been called the Institute of Marxism, but the name was changed in the unstable political climate of the Weimar Republic so as not to appear gratuitously provocative. Conceived as an academic foundation, it would have a permanent staff under a central directorship, research students and bespoke premises, and was loosely affiliated to the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It did not emerge from within a pre-existing educational institution, however, but was from its inception an autonomous entity. It was, as such, probably the last school, in the strict sense of the term, in the Western philosophical tradition. There has been no other since that has so decisively coalesced around a central body of thought, and a sustained critical methodology.

Working people were being recruited to the opposite of their own liberation

Its principal theoreticians – a convocation of predominantly Jewish Leftists from well-to-do bourgeois backgrounds that encompassed Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas – produced a body of work of vast interdisciplinary range, embracing philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, economics and cultural theory, much of which is still consulted today. The Institute’s first duty was the critical appraisal of existing social reality, and its earliest imperative was to understand why, if the standard Marxist historical prognosis was to be credited, the western European working classes had not emulated their Russian counterparts in overthrowing capitalism in the wake of the Great War, when the old European empires came catastrophically to blows.

Instead of proletarian revolution in the West, what appeared was a fresh consolidation of economic power in the hands of old and new capitalist forces. The continent-wide depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 had been a major destabilising force, but the reign of capital continued unchecked, and against a background of privation and unemployment, sinister new political forces were rallying. Working people were being recruited to the opposite of their own liberation, in the form of mass nationalist movements that would culminate in fascist dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain – and then in a new, more terrible global conflict.

The Frankfurt School’s own story was tragically affected by the spectre of fascism. Not only did these thinkers diagnose the destructive forces at work in the European societies around them, but they exemplified them in their own lives. Closed down during the first year of Nazi rule in Germany in 1933, the Institute’s members were forbidden to teach, and were shortly driven into exile. The diaspora first fled to neutral Switzerland, where an attempt was made to re-establish the Institute in Geneva. Adorno went to Oxford University, where he undertook four years of doctoral research at Merton College. Eventually, the Institute would find a collective refuge in the United States, first in New York and then, from the beginning of the 1940s, in California, in the midst of a community of deracinated European exiles.

The one notable exception was Walter Benjamin, who had been living in indigent isolation in Paris since Germany had succumbed to the Nazis. When Hitler’s forces rolled into France in 1940, Benjamin fled southwards ahead of the advancing occupation, until even sheltering in Provence became fraught with peril. With a small band of refugees, he undertook an arduous crossing of the Pyrenees on foot, hoping to be granted safe passage through Spain and Portugal, and then sail from Lisbon to the American refuge that his colleagues had managed to secure for him. On their arrival in the Catalan harbour town of Portbou, the fugitive group learned that Franco’s Spain had closed its northern border, and that they would likely be returned the next morning to occupied France, and thence to a German concentration camp. Benjamin apparently killed himself in a hotel room with an overdose of morphine, although some believe he was assassinated by local agents of the Soviet secret service, the NKVD.

The Frankfurt School’s residency in the US was a matter of uneasy accommodation. They owed the country a debt of gratitude for their survival, but they diagnosed American society with every ill that afflicted the democratic world in magnified form. Their most widely disseminated theory appeared in a book published in German in 1947, co-authored by Adorno and Horkheimer, named Dialectic of Enlightenment. In it, they attempt nothing less than a new history of Western development by overturning the standard narrative of a gradual progress from the benighted mythical beliefs of primeval times to the dawn of rationality in the early modern era, culminating in the advance of freethinking and the scientific breakthroughs of the age of Enlightenment. To the authors, this linear narrative from darkness to light overlooked the evident fact that, in the allegedly enlightened 20th century, humanity had succumbed to barbarity.

‘In the most general sense of progressive thought,’ state the opening words, ‘the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating people from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.’ The explanation for this, according to the authors, is that the Western Enlightenment did not, after all, represent the unshackling of the human mind from mythical thought-forms. It had only converted the old myths into a new one called rationality. While the power of reasoned judgment was in one sense the agent by which superstitious beliefs were dismantled, it was then set up as a rigidly unquestionable authority in itself – what the authors termed ‘instrumental reason’. When rationalism became an autonomous force in human affairs, in which the coldness of scientific procedures, deductive logic and the reign of factuality overcame natural human impulses, the stage was set for what critical theory calls reification: the transformation of living entities and processes into inert objects or things.

Although their consumption patterns in the mass are vital, as individuals, consumers count for nothing

Dialectic of Enlightenment is not an argument for irrationalism. What it seeks to show is that instrumental reason, once it becomes an authority to which human affairs must submit, ends up exercising a tyranny over human beings that turns their societies into soulless machines, and infects relations between individuals as well. Once they become the components of a rationally ordered mechanical system, something of their humanity has been robbed from them. The human race has become divorced from the very natural world on which it depended for survival in primordial times. This traumatic separation has led to a progressive subjugation of nature to human ends, as in the gathering industrialisation of the advanced economies. The alienation of humankind from its natural origins helped prepare the spectacular descent into inhumanity that unfolded around the Frankfurt School, the burning of books paving the way for the bureaucratic destruction of whole classes of society, as millions perished in camps where the killing was as industrialised as everything else.

It isn’t only the obvious crimes of totalitarianism, however, that prompt the authors’ critique, but tendencies within society that might appear on the surface to be innocuous. The book’s most incendiary chapter addresses the ‘culture industry’, in which the spiritual enlightenment supposedly bestowed by the creative arts is reconceived as ‘mass deception’. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, a new industrialised culture began to emerge, controlled by gigantic media corporations like the Hollywood film industry, recording companies and commercial radio. Not only have these institutions replaced genuine works of art with mass-produced garbage, they also manipulate people into acquiescing in the status quo and accepting capitalist values. Consumers are given to understand that although their consumption patterns in the mass are vital, they, as individuals, count for nothing. To that extent, the authors saw no functional difference in the conveyor-belt production of delusion by the American culture industry and the sledgehammer propaganda techniques of European dictatorships.

What, then, is the Frankfurt School’s relation to traditional Marxism? The political impetus that drives this theory has its roots in Marxism, but it is a Marxism retheorised for the era in which the expected revolutionary transformation of industrial societies never materialised. The revolution had either degenerated into tyranny, as in Russia, or it failed altogether where capitalism was at its most advanced, as in America. Much critical energy has been expended since the demise of the Frankfurt School’s first generation in the late 1960s and early ’70s on the question of whether it remained authentically Marxist in the classical sense. Even if it has obvious continuities with the work of the younger Karl Marx, author of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, it is doubtful whether the fully elaborated economics of Capital (1867) retained all its authority for Frankfurt critical theory.

From the beginning of his career, Marx embraced what he called ‘the ruthless critique of everything existing’. If the failings of society were to be accurately and effectively diagnosed in microscopic detail, nothing should be seen as too trivial to fall within the scope of a critical theory. Marx inherits from his predecessor Hegel the concept of history as a generative process, through which humankind both produces its own consciousness and progresses towards its own liberation, but he stands the cause-and-effect structure of Hegel’s historiography on its head. It isn’t that human beings generate the social structures most appropriate to them in any given age; it is rather that social structures themselves are what generate human consciousness, via the material conditions in which people have to live. All this is a sine qua non of Frankfurt social exposition. Where Adorno and Horkheimer departed from Marx was in the idea that the ideologically deceptive institutions of an unjust society would inevitably generate from within them a class whose radical discontent would put paid to those same institutions once and for all. In the midst of the Second World War, and the mass outbreak of violently repressive, mythically delusional politics on the European continent, the victory of a revolutionary proletariat had itself passed into mythology.

Then there is the question of social collectivity, without which revolutionary movements and parties stood no chance of overthrowing existing state structures. When collectivism fails in this endeavour, it is reconstituted into a tool of ideological domination. What underpins the mass of philosophical and applied sociological investigations that the Institute undertook during its period of wartime exile in the US is a concern for the fate of the individual in mass society. As the industrial economies of the West became subject to automation and an increasingly brutal division of labour between mental and manual tasks, individuals came to be ever more subordinated to the collective that they theoretically constituted, but which was now fast becoming an independent structure of prohibitive authority to which all must submit. Rather than being the medium in which human hope for liberation might be invested, the social collective was now a repressive structure that swept everybody under its homogenising sway. Society had become a functional law unto itself, in accord with the principle of instrumental reason, and what that resulted in, at the level of individual human beings and their psychology, was a more desperate struggle for self-preservation than they had known since they lived in rock-shelters. That struggle, more than anything else, is what had put paid to the idea of a historically decisive transformation of society by those of its elements who had the least to lose.

Revelations of the devastation wrought by the war, and in particular of the depraved criminality of the Nazi regime, cast another long shadow over the Institute’s philosophy of history. What haunted them was the evidence, everywhere to be found in the Federal Republic of Germany to which Adorno returned in 1949, that the fascist era was being airbrushed from history, erased from collective memory in an act of repression. The fear was not only that it was being forgotten in itself, but that if not remembered, it was likely to resurface in unpredictable forms.

One of the first books that Adorno had published on his return to Germany was a collection of short essays entitled Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951). Written in the US in the mid-1940s, they constitute one of the most remarkable works of personal philosophy of the past century, ranging in reference from abstract theoretical problems to the minutiae of daily life as it was viewed by a European émigré in California – the freeways and hotels, the movies and magazines, styles of personal address and seduction. Throughout the text is woven a mood of profound melancholy, a wounding sense that the old world has passed, the old culture of the European Enlightenment had failed in its civilising mission – and what remains is a society of highly trained automata, consuming the flotsam of a junk culture that cares nothing for them, while it does its best to convey the opposite impression. In the book’s final brief meditation, ‘Zum Ende’ (‘To the end’), Adorno suggests that the only way to look at the fallen world after the catastrophic events that have overtaken it is to borrow the theological concept of redemption. One day, the whole human enterprise may be redeemed in some presently unimaginable way, and whether that outcome is a realistic prospect or not is virtually irrelevant in view of the necessity of not resigning oneself to irreconcilable defeat. This was Adorno’s own stubborn attempt to prevent the society around him foreclosing on historical memory.

The Institute was reconstituted in Frankfurt under Friedrich Pollock’s directorship, and it continued to press the case for a true historical accounting in the aftermath of the Nazi era, as well as conducting sociological fieldwork into the attitudes and political proclivities of ordinary Germans. Was there, even vestigially, any possibility that something like Auschwitz could happen again? The Frankfurt thinkers worried over this question to a degree that led them to see harbingers of mass murder in the use of insecticide, or even in apparently innocuous things such as the new sliding windows (using which required more imperious movements than the placid opening and closing of casements). Though occasionally extreme, these fears reflect the notion that mass psychosis does not spring fully formed from nowhere into murderous existence, but has its roots in habits of thinking, in coldness, indifference, the mechanised timetabled life – that is, in the reign of instrumental rationality.

the transmutation of collectivity into social media’s connectivity is not the spontaneous production of free human beings

When widespread protest erupted on university campuses and among industrial labourers in the later 1960s, so did a measure of dissension among the first Frankfurt generation. Herbert Marcuse, for example, while he shared the Frankfurt School’s commitment to a relentless social critique, took a more optimistic line on the often dramatic upheavals. His book One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964) became one of the required texts of the countercultural movements of this period, and when student revolt blew up across the Western world, from 1967 onward, Marcuse urged all dissident thinkers to support it. In Frankfurt, to his exasperation, they took a rather different view. Adorno, now director of the Institute, saw nothing but pointless pseudo-activity in most of the sit-ins and demonstrations, and in 1969 committed what many saw as the enormity of calling the police to remove a student occupation at the Institute premises.

Student radicalism fizzled out as the first generation of Frankfurt thinkers passed away. The constant stress brought on by tear-gas on the campus and rowdy oppositionism in the lecture halls sent Adorno to an early grave in 1969, dead of a coronary thrombosis at 65. Horkheimer died in 1973, Marcuse himself in 1979.

Whatever remains of the Frankfurt School is fast approaching its centenary. Its lineage has become so extensive now that its founders would hardly recognise their original critical project in the work that the second and third generations have produced. Not only have its sociological methods changed, but its philosophical orientation has drifted apart from the emphatic Leftist commitments that led the founders to attempt to repurpose Marxism for their own century. Relentless negativity, the driving force of the Frankfurt School’s first 40 years, from its inception to the publication of Adorno’s most formidably difficult work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is not the preferred mode of social philosophy any longer. The very term ‘critical theory’, which once specifically designated the work of the Frankfurt thinkers, has now become elastic enough to encompass all poststructuralist theoretical writing, whether critical or blandly affirmative.

Notwithstanding that, there is something that still resonates about the work of the Frankfurt School. The insight to which it called its readers to awaken was that human consciousness in the age of mass society was becoming wholly enclosed within the walls of an ideological fortress, caught in the endless circulations of capitalist exchange and those repetitive entertainments and distractions that were designed to obscure the truth. Nothing about the theory of the culture industry lacks traction in a world where the commodity form reigns supreme. Blockbuster CGI movies; the relentless extrusion of Greatest Hits CDs by the megastars of the recording industry; the all-encompassing mania for video gaming, in which mature adults have been co-opted into the shamelessly infantile principle of mindless play; the transmutation of collectivity into social media’s mere connectivity: these are the lineaments of a culture that is not the spontaneous production of free human beings, but rather something done to them in their unfreedom.

If organised forms of political resistance could be efficiently thwarted by such a system, often by subtle assimilation rather than outright suppression, the last barricade against it was the individual’s own refusal to think and respond in the prescribed ways. The hardest task facing any emancipatory politics today is to encourage people to think for themselves, in a way that transcends simple sloganising and the dictates of instrumental reason. True critical thinking requires not just a refusal to identify with the present structures of society and commercial culture, but a deep awareness of the historical tendencies that have brought about the current impasse, and of which all present experience is composed. That impulse, compared to the project of constructively helping the system out of its own periodic crises, retains the spark of a dissidence that might just, one day, throw it into the very crisis that would prompt a general, and genuine, liberation.