The Frankfurt school's academic 'Marxism': "organised hypocrisy"

In the 1960s, especially in radical student circles, there were many fanciful ideas floating about. The most pernicious and erroneous of these was the view represented by Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, that “neo-capitalism” had evolved ways of avoiding capitalist crisis, and that the working class had been integrated into the system as passive consumers in the “affluent” society. As Daniel Morley explains, these were the pseudo-Marxist ideas of the so-called Frankfurt School.

The idea that the working class has been bought off and is too conservative to carry through the socialist revolution has been widespread amongst the so-called left intelligentsia and its leaders for a long time. Such ‘Left’ intellectuals tell us that the socialist revolution is ‘unrealistic’, has been ‘tried before’, or better still, that the workers are too engrossed in material things to organise a revolution. This argument is always presented as if it is brand new. In reality, it has been rehashed by generation after generation of petty-bourgeois intellectuals. Those who want to justify their own political opportunism have always found a way to blame the working class.

The Frankfurt School, or the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), is guilty of giving such bankrupt ideas the appearance of intellectual credibility and for spreading them far and wide. Its key thinkers – Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse – are often described as ‘Marxists’, even, if you can believe it, as some of the most innovative Marxists of the 20th Century. The fact that these so-called ‘Marxists’ argue that the working class is incapable of abolishing capitalism provides a quasi-theoretical cover for smug pseudo-left intellectuals to abandon their ‘radicalism’, as they accommodate themselves to bourgeois society.

Their supporters point to the fact that capitalism is still around. They maintain that capitalism has changed a great deal since Marx’s day, and therefore, surely Marxism needs to be updated. They assert that the working class has lost at least some of its revolutionary ‘agency’, and that this is a result of the increasingly powerful role of mass culture, which Marx overlooked. They claim that the ‘superstructure’ of ideology and culture has gained a great deal of autonomy over the economic base, contrary to what Marx famously explained.

To answer such critics, we must start by comparing the fundamentals of Marxist philosophy with that of the Frankfurt School. This will not be an easy task, since like all other 20th century petty-bourgeois philosophers, they appear to be allergic to explaining their ideas with any clarity.

Historical Materialism

Marxism is first and foremost a materialist philosophy. There is only one universe, which is composed of matter. Consciousness does not exist independently of matter, rather it is an expression of matter organised in a particular way, namely the product of a material nervous system.

Philosophical materialism when applied to the study of society is what is known as historical materialism. As Marx and Engels explained in the German Ideology:

“[M]en must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life”.[1]

The ‘production of material life’ obliges men and women to develop tools of production and enter into definite relations, ‘relations of production’ as Marx explained, which are independent of our will. In such conditions, the forms that society takes are not determined by our conscious desires, or by the ideas that we hold, but ultimately by the given development of the productive forces. It is on this material basis that different forms of consciousness arise. Thus, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.” [2]

In other words, classes arise not from our ideas, but due to the development of the productive forces. In pre-capitalist class societies, we had patricians, plebians, slaves, lords, vassals and serfs. Under capitalism, society is divided into two main opposing classes; the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which produces all the wealth, but which itself owns nothing. In order to survive, workers must sell their labour power to the capitalists.

3456px London Tate Modern 14For the Frankfurt School, modern society is one of sheer domination of the capitalist system over the masses / Image: Fred Romero, Flickr

In the final analysis, it is the property relations of capitalist society that determine the consciousness of the working class. This does not mean that ideologies play no role and are not worthy of consideration, but only that the main ideological characteristics of a given society can only be explained in the last analysis by the economic structure of that society.

The Enlightenment was all a mistake

The ‘Marxists’ of the Frankfurt School believed that such an explanation was too simplistic, ‘mechanical’ and reductionistic. According to them, Marx and Engels failed to take into consideration the impact of bourgeois culture and ideology, which they believed overrides the class interests of the working class, turning it into a class inherently servile to the interests of capitalism.

The Frankfurt School wanted to present themselves as intellectuals who would accept nothing as it appears to be, but who instead mercilessly uncovered the contradictions to reveal something entirely different. This is why they referred to their School as ‘critical theory’. They and their followers think that in this way, they have improved Marxism, by freeing it of dogmatism. Their focus on culture and other elements of the ‘superstructure’ is also supposed to update Marxism for the 20th Century, which saw the birth of mass culture by means of the radio and television. The question is, did the Frankfurt School update and improve Marxism in order to better explain this new epoch of mass culture, entertainment and propaganda, or did they abandon it altogether?

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, possibly the most important book of the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer explain their alternative to historical materialism. For the Frankfurt School, modern society is one of sheer domination of the capitalist system over the masses. According to them, the enormous increase in living standards in the West in the postwar period only produced a new, more insidious form of domination. The luxuries of modern life, and the mass culture these luxuries helped propagate, supposedly succeeded in creating an unparalleled conformism from which it was increasingly hard for any worker to escape. In other words, the working class had been brainwashed by popular culture and had thereby adapted to and to a large extent become a part of the dominant system. As a result, this meant that the socialist revolution could no longer happen, and if it did, it could only lead to a continuation of this same repression.

At the most fundamental level, the conformism and repression of society were for Adorno and Horkheimer not products of capitalism, but the original sin of the period of Enlightenment – the epoch of rapid advances in art, science and philosophy in the early days of bourgeois society – or to be more specific, ‘enlightenment thought’. As they explain:

“We have no doubt – and herein lies our petitio principii – that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking, no less than the concrete historical forms, the institutions of society with which it is intertwined, already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today.” [3]

But, one may ask, what exactly is it about this ‘enlightenment thought’ that has ensnared society with such disastrous consequences? All we are told is that “Enlightenment is totalitarian”.[4] Indeed, “Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men”. [5] “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system”.[6]

Despite the convoluted style and confused thinking that plagues this book, we have to commend Adorno and Horkheimer for their clarity on one point. They have abandoned all traces of historical materialism, in favour of the most blatant idealism. According to their worldview, history is governed by an all powerful, totalitarian idea. This idea does not express the interests of a definite class, but exists on its own account and has the power to oppress society. The defining trait of this idea, we are told, is that it wants to dominate, to systematically control and order the objects of the external world.

Clearly, the ‘enlightenment thought’ referred to here is systematic and scientific thought, or what was called ‘reason’ in the philosophical vocabulary of the Enlightenment. Thus, for the Frankfurt School, reason or scientific thinking is the source of totalitarian domination, rather than the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. For Adorno and Horkheimer, reason is not produced by society at a given stage in history, but is a supra-historical force with special powers, something with an existence outside of society and time.

It is abundantly clear that this is a fundamentally idealist standpoint, which boils down to this: all that is bad about capitalism, and the reason why socialism cannot emancipate humanity, is because of the supposed totalitarian character of scientific thought.

The question they cannot answer is: whence cometh this all-powerful idea? When, and why, did it arise and enslave humanity? They provide no answers whatsoever to this decisive question, because they do not consider it important. Most likely, as far as they are concerned, even to pose such a question would be a sin of ‘enlightenment thought’ – that is, an attempt at explaining things in a rational and scientific manner.

According to them, the Enlightenment wants to dominate things, by classifying knowledge scientifically. But why should this lead from the domination of things to the domination of man by man, as they claim? Adorno and Horkheimer merely assert that “[w]hat men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men. That is the only aim … Power and knowledge are synonyms”. [7]

Thus it is asserted, without any proof whatsoever, that the Enlightenment ‘dominates’ things, and therefore, it inevitably leads to a society in which people are dominated. Of course, it is never specified which people are dominating which other people. Why did some people manage to wield this power of the Enlightenment, and others not? Typical of idealism, their ‘theory’ is entirely abstract, vague and arbitrary. Having abandoned materialism, they do not deal with concrete classes exploiting other classes for definite, historically conditioned ends. There are no workers and capitalists, serfs and feudal lords or slaves and slave owners; instead, we have abstract ‘man’ dominating abstract ‘man’, all thanks to the miraculous power of abstract ‘reason’.

The Enlightenment

In reality, the Enlightenment stands as one of the greatest advances humanity has ever made – intellectually, politically and artistically. Far from ushering in hitherto unimaginable oppression, it began the process of casting off the servitude, dogmatism and religious obscurantism of feudal society and the Church. A gallery of heroes of thought and culture stepped forth to develop science and art to an unprecedented level and to challenge prejudice and privilege. The early materialists of the Enlightenment were not obsessed with ‘domination’, but were open-minded encyclopaedists attempting to free humanity from superstition.

J. VERMEER El astrónomo Museo del Louvre 1688The Frankfurt School’s opposition to scientific thought means the defence of the same backwardness, ignorance and obscurantism that the Church defended at the time of the Enlightenment / Image: public domain

Far from seeing this as a threat to the working class, Marx and Engels celebrated this rise of rational thought, and the development of science and technique in the early stages of capitalism, as a qualitative step forward for humanity. It is precisely here that the progressive character of capitalism is to be found because, by developing the productive forces, it lays the basis for socialism. Without scientific thought, socialism is impossible. The Frankfurt School’s opposition to this historic advance means the defence of the same backwardness, ignorance and obscurantism that the Church defended at the time of the Enlightenment.

It is true that the Enlightement’s ideals of freedom and rationality could not be realised at that time. There was a contradiction between the lofty ideals of the greatest thinkers of this time, and the material reality of the capitalist society that they were helping to usher in. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, science and reason would be used to further profit, and therefore exploitation. Such an understanding was always integral to Marx and Engels’ ideas. As Engels explained in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

“We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie… that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law… and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.”[8]

There is nothing original in the Frankfurt School’s realisation that ‘the Enlightenment’ did not liberate humanity from exploitation and oppression. But whereas Marx and Engels understood that the real basis of this failure lay in the class character of society at the time, this fact eluded Adorno and Horkheimer entirely. In fact, they actually repeated the idealist error of many Enlightenment thinkers. The latter believed that ‘reason’ is something that all human beings are inherently endowed with, and that therefore, in principle, the ideas of the Enlightenment could have been developed at any point in history. Similarly, the Frankfurt School see ‘reason’ as a power independent of and superior to history. But instead of the optimism of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, they saw in reason only domination and death.

Despite the abstractness of these ideas, it is not hard to see what really lies behind them. They are the ideas of demoralised petty-bourgeois intellectuals, who regard the development of capitalism as nothing but oppression and disaster. Adorno summed up his outlook in this way: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace, which organised mankind poses to organised men… the world spirit, a worthy object of definition, would have to be defined as permanent catastrophe.” [9]

In their writings they routinely hark back to an earlier age of petty-bourgeois freedom, of ‘individual autonomy’, as they call it. Large-scale, scientifically organised production terrifies such petty-bourgeois individuals, as does mass culture. For them, it is scientific thought, not the capitalist class, that has ruined society.

Such petty-bourgeois intellectuals are impotent. They have no control over capitalist society, but think they ought to have, given how educated they feel. At the same time however, they are loath to put themselves at the service of the only alternative to big business: the organised working class. The potential power of the working class is terrifying in their eyes. Workers appear as uneducated, obedient fools. They look down on the working class, who they see as complicit in the crimes of capitalism because of their alleged naive “conformism” to the mass-produced culture of big business. They assume that, should the workers ever take power, this would simply mean a continuation of the same oppressive, bureaucratically organised society we already have – all because the workers are trapped in the conformist mentality that scientific production and mass culture breed.

In reality however, what these people reflect is the outlook of the petty bourgeoisie, a class at a historical dead end, which is squeezed between big business and the working class. The Frankfurt School associate Walter Benjamin admitted this candidly: “sooner or later, with the middle classes who are being ground to pieces by the struggle between capital and labour, the ‘freelance’ writer must also disappear.” That is what terrifies these gentlemen the most!

Marcuse’s ‘Technical Rationality’

The Frankfurt School, and Marcuse in particular, rose to prominence in the postwar period. This was a ‘golden age’ for capitalism, a period of unprecedented growth as the advanced capitalist economies rebuilt after the devastation of the Second World War. This sustained upswing was made possible not only by the massive destruction of the war, but also by the unique political conditions the end of the war produced. The revolutionary wave that swept western Europe was betrayed by the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders, who were able to hold back the working class. It was a counter-revolution in a democratic form. This defeat provided the political premise for the recovery and expansion.

Emergent US imperialism was also able to impose its authority of western Europe. Fearing the socialist revolution, they helped to rebuild the war-torn economies of Europe. They imposed the dollar as the world currency and dismantled the tariff barriers of the inter-war period. A number of factors came together to produce a massive upswing.[10]

The resulting upswing, the biggest in the history of capitalism, established a (temporary) social equilibrium. As a result, significant concessions, such as the welfare state, were given to the working class. These reforms were not handed out on account of the goodwill of the capitalist class, but under the impact of the class struggle and the fear of the USSR.

These concessions massively strengthened reformism, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, and thereby the illusions in capitalism. It seemed that capitalism had overcome its contradictions and that the class struggle had been negated or permanently softened. The latest production techniques, like Fordism (highly organised, planned and mechanised industrial production) alongside state regulation, appeared to eliminate capitalist crises and the need for revolution. Living standards were rising. Today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow would be better still.

Throughout this time, the ruling class subscribed to the doctrine of Keynesianism, which preached the use of state intervention in the economy to smooth out capitalism’s contradictions. Given that its use coincided with a boom and with a prolonged period of relative class peace, it seemed as though Keynesian policies worked and had perfected capitalism, or solved its inner contradictions.

This is the context in which the Frankfurt School’s ideas, of a blunted class struggle and a stupefied working class, really took hold amongst the intelligentsia. It was Marcuse who was most explicit in relating the School’s rejection of historical materialism to this epoch of capitalist boom. According to him, Reason’s oppressive character revealed itself in the post-war epoch as ‘technical rationality’: “The totalitarian universe of technical rationality is the latest transmutation of the idea of Reason.”[11] But what is ‘technical rationality’, and how does it work?

All we are told about this mysterious ‘technical rationality’ is that it is responsible for what Marcuse describes as the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom”, which “prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress” and “seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organised.”[12] In other words, a way of thinking – ‘technical rationality’ – has brought about the post-war boom, which despite raising the living standards and increasing the size of the working class, he sees as a negative thing.[13]

So effective is ‘technical rationality’, we are told, that capitalist crises are a thing of the past. Although we still have capitalism, the laws of capitalism have been usurped by this newfound rational organisation, which is able to deliver on a “promise of an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who”, as a result, “cannot imagine a qualitatively different discourse.”[14]

According to Marcuse, “if the worker and his boss enjoy the same television programme and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population.” [15]

Here we see the reactionary prejudices of the Frankfurt School on full display: assuming that ‘negros’ generally owned Cadillacs and lived similar lives as members of the ruling class, and that the working masses are complicit in the “preservation of the Establishment”.

The fundamental error stems from Marcuse’s idealist assumption that the so-called ideology of ‘technical rationality’ had overcome material class contradictions.

What ‘technical rationality’ actually refers to is the ideology of Keynesianism and state intervention, which was the prevalent economic doctrine in the West. As with all petty-bourgeois intellectuals, Marcuse was awestruck by the intellectual trend of his particular era. For Marcuse, the class struggle is secondary to the power of ‘technical rationality’ (i.e. Keynesian policies), which he assumed could simply keep on delivering the goods, raising living standards and permanently avoiding crises of overproduction thanks to its supreme rationality.

In this respect, Marcuse and the Frankfurt School encapsulate the widespread notion that the availability of advanced consumer technology to the working class, such as the Cadillac and televisions, stupefies them into accepting their exploitation under capitalism. If capitalism is able to make such items affordable enough, then surely no one will want to overthrow it? The implication is that any worker who has a television – or an iPhone – must be content and have a good living standard.

It is elementary to any Marxist that, however strong an economic boom might be, by no means are the contradictions of capitalism and the class struggle thereby eliminated. In fact, it was at the height of the post-war upswing in 1968 and 1969 that the French and Italian working classes rose in huge revolutionary movements, which sent shockwaves throughout the world.

Meanwhile, the upswing was preparing a huge crisis of overproduction. Perpetual increases in living standards are impossible under capitalism, because capitalism is not rational and has its limits. So long as capitalism exists, production will take place for the profits of the capitalist class, and not to rationally meet the needs of society as a whole. Even when living standards rise, however, the market is limited by the fact that the working class cannot afford to buy back the value it creates.

Thus, the market eventually reaches the limit of its ability to absorb all these new commodities. The capitalist gets around this contradiction by reinvesting the surplus value extracted from the unpaid labour of the working class. However, this simply creates greater productive capacity and greater amounts of commodities. Eventually, a crisis of overproduction breaks out.

The post-war upswing that Marcuse was so impressed with was no different. When that upswing ended, what happened to Marcuse’s ‘technical rationality’? What happened to the ‘smooth, comfortable unfreedom’ and the ‘shared interests’ of the formerly antagonistic classes? All these evaporated in the slump of 1974-5 and the heat of the capitalist offensive against the working class.

True, the western workers retained their television sets and cars, but in many cases not their jobs, as mass unemployment returned. The so-called ‘shared interests’ between workers and capitalists in maintaining ‘technical rationality’ turned out to be a cruel illusion, held not so much by the capitalists as by the reformist leaders of the working class and a layer of intellectuals, like Marcuse.

11 12.06.68 Mai 68. Nuit démeutes. Manif. Barricades.Dégâts 1968 53Fi10311968 and the following years saw a wave of radical and revolutionary movements all over the world / Image: André Cros, Archives municipales de Toulouse

The world economic slump of 1974 was not foreseen by Marcuse, nor by the Keynesians. It was only the Marxists who understood the inevitability of such a crisis. This crisis led to the discrediting of Keynesianism and convinced the capitalists to turn to monetarism and claw back the reforms the working class had previously gained.

This, in turn, produced a decade of heightened class struggle in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite their TV sets and video players, workers fought militantly against the ruling class’ attempt to make them pay for the capitalist crisis. Of course, rising living standards, consumer goods and bourgeois culture can affect and, for a time, soften class consciousness. But this can only be a temporary phenomenon. When the boom ends and an epoch of crisis begins, as it did in the 1970s, class consciousness is once again strengthened.

As an aside, the argument was used by Hobsbawm and others prior to the miners’ strike of 1984-5 in Britain, that the young miners would never go on strike as they had mortgages, videos, cars, etc. And yet, when the time came, the miners were out on strike for 12 months in defence of their jobs and communities, proving the Hobsbawms and Marcuses wrong.

Today, after decades of austerity, privatisations, deregulation, ballooning inequality, and financial crises, not to mention the looming climate crisis, the notion that capitalism has attained a ‘smooth, comfortable unfreedom’, and a ‘rational consensus’ between the classes that produces endless growth, is completely discredited.

Contempt for the working class

It is typical to hear from the academic ‘left’ that Marxism is economic or class ‘reductionist’. By this it is meant that Marx one-sidedly and mechanically reduced all social and political questions to economic questions, and ignored the important role of culture and ideology in history. Of course, this is a false caricature of Marxism, as Engels very clearly explained:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.”[16]

But our friends in academia do not like the facts to get in the way of a good story, and so prefer to ignore this and constantly present Marxism as ‘economic reductionism’. On the basis of this caricature, the Frankfurt School can then be presented as breaking with Marxist 'orthodoxy', with their recognition of the increasing importance of culture, ideology and propaganda, which apparently serves to bring Marxism up to date. The truth is, in fact, the direct opposite of this: the idealism of the Frankfurt School leads to a rigid ‘cultural determinism’. Rather than having an all-rounded theory of society, they focus exclusively on cultural analysis, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on the working class.

Their ‘cultural analysis’ amounts to long-winded complaints about how awful and mind-numbing is the mass culture that they assume all workers buy into. Adorno and Horkheimer complain that “the impotence and pliability of the masses grow with the quantitative increase in commodities allowed them”;[17] that “the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.”[18]

When Dialectic of Enlightenment was republished in 1969, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote a new preface in which they state that the book’s main prognosis – that is, the idea that the development of class consciousness and revolutionary upheavals are ruled out – “has been overwhelmingly confirmed”! It seemed to have escaped them, but in May 1968 (only one year before the above was published), more than 10 million French workers went on strike, took over the factories, and could have overthrown capitalism had it not been for the betrayal of the Stalinist leaders of the French Communist Party. 1968 and the following years saw a wave of radical and revolutionary movements all over the world, and yet at precisely this moment these gentlemen maintained that it had been ‘overwhelmingly confirmed’ that the working class had been incurably corrupted by the mass media and higher living standards.

More telling still is the early work of Horkheimer on the consciousness of the working class. In 1927, Horkeimer wrote an article titled The Impotence of the German Working Class. In it he argued that the German workers cannot make a revolution because their consciousness is divided between the better off (and more conservative) workers, and the impoverished, revolutionary, but ultra-left workers. Later, in 1929, he and Erich Fromm launched a project to research the supposed desire of the German working class to be dominated by authoritarian leaders. This ‘project’ took the form of a questionnaire. They were attempting to submit the German working class to a personality test to see if they were up to scratch. The conclusion of this study was, unsurprisingly, that the German workers were insufficiently independent-minded to emancipate themselves.

What stands out strikingly is the fact that both of these were written less than a decade after the 1918-23 German Revolution, in which millions of workers fought like tigers to overthrow capitalism – and these ‘Marxists’ appear to be completely oblivious to it! The working class and soldiers created their own organs of direct democracy, workers’ councils, which were set up throughout the country in their thousands.

Indeed, the German workers had spontaneously done all that was necessary to overthrow capitalism. Power was in their hands thanks to their own initiative, organisation and revolutionary consciousness. The only reason the overthrow of capitalism was not realised was because of the conscious betrayal of the Social Democratic leaders, and not the so-called ‘conservatism’ and the ‘low level of consciousness’ of the working class. This, and not the alleged ‘conformism’ of the working class, is the only reason that capitalism existed in Germany when the Frankfurt School emerged.

The titanic events of the German Revolution of 1918, the revolutionary general strike against the Kapp putsch, and the revolutionary situation of 1923, were surely all the empirical evidence alleged ‘Marxists’ would ever need that the German workers had the capacity for revolutionary consciousness. But instead, Horkheimer and Fromm ignored these events, stuck a thermometer under the tongue of the working class, and declared it fatally ill.

In their 1929 survey of the mentality of German workers, Horkheimer and Fromm conclude that the workers are incapable of independent thought, and instead crave to be dominated by an authoritarian leader. This was a time of the rise of Hitler, an event made possible thanks to the sectarianism of the Communist Party leadership and their theory of ‘social fascism’[19]. It is hardly surprising that at this moment, following the historic defeat of the German revolution, the German working class were split and confused. But what would the results of the “survey” have been had it been conducted in 1918, 1920, or 1923, at the height of the revolutionary wave?

Horkheimer and Fromm take no account whatsoever of these events and their aftermath. In fact, these so-called ‘Marxists’ never mention the German Revolution at all! This grave omission cannot possibly be attributed to an honest oversight. Their views were a reflection of their petty-bourgeois contempt for the working masses. They had already made up their mind that the German workers were backward and reactionary.

In reality, there is no evidence that these ‘Marxists’ ever believed in the cause of socialism and class struggle. These early articles and surveys were nothing but an attempt to muster whatever ‘facts’ they could to justify their position.

Not only does this give lie to their ‘Marxism’, but it also reveals the mechanical and static philosophy that they really had, despite their professed love for ‘dialectics’. For them, to understand the working class, it was not necessary to study its history, much less participate in it. Instead, you simply present them with a questionnaire or criticise their taste in culture. None of the Frankfurt School’s theoreticians ever gave the slightest attention to the real events and activity of the working class, even when these were unfolding in front of their very eyes.

This is typical of the ‘academic left’ as a whole, who always blame the working class that their consciousness is too low and they are too backward. They gloss over real, stormy events in the class struggle with this blanket cultural ‘explanation’ for the defeats of the working class. In this way they justify the past betrayals of the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders. This is the real function of the Frankfurt School.

In their eyes, the victory of fascism was an inevitable outcome because it “simply takes people for what they are: genuine children of today’s standardised mass culture who have been robbed to a great extent of their autonomy and spontaneity.”[20] The bankruptcy of Stalinism, bound to its theory of social facism, and the role of Social Democracy is, for them, of no consequence. From such a ‘School’, you can learn nothing.

It is not the Marxists who are the rigid reductionists. It is far more rigid to ignore or gloss over real events and instead seek explanations in abstract ‘culture’ and ideology, as if the workers’ consciousness remains the same between revolution and defeat.

For academic Marxists, there is no need to understand the complex events of 1918-33 leading to the rise of Nazism: simply declare the working class stupid. That is for them grounds enough for explaining the horrors of fascism.

It goes without saying that the theories of the Frankfurt School gave rise to no practical political activity at all: the working class would have to raise its consciousness to the level of our Frankfurt School intellectuals and their ‘non-conformism’ before the latter would be prepared to lift a finger to help them. Marcuse is quite explicit on this conclusion in his 1969 pamphlet An Essay on Liberation: “the rupture with the self-propelling conservative continuum of needs must precede the revolution which is to usher in a free society.”[21] In complete contradiction with the materialism of Marxism, the Frankfurt School thought revolutions can only be made once the workers have, somehow, already raised their spiritual level to that of socialism.

For Marxism, the highest duty is to help raise the consciousness of the working class to the tasks posed by history by participating with them in events. It is elementary that prior to these experiences, the workers will not have the chance to raise their consciousness to the level of socialism – as only events themselves help to produce such consciousness. But it is impossible to help the workers do so with a haughty contempt for them – an attitude to which the Frankfurt School as a whole very clearly subscribed.

A petty-bourgeois ideology

In their class background, their personalities and, most importantly, in the very reason for the School’s existence, ‘critical theory’ is the distilled essence of the petty bourgeoisie. The School was founded with the explicit aim of freeing its intellectual proponents from the influence of both the contending classes of capitalist society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Maintaining a pristine independence from society was considered by its members to be the precondition for developing such a theory.

This encapsulates the mentality of the petty-bourgeois ‘radical’ intellectual, who does not wish to be disturbed from the pursuit of their academic career by the common folk. Throughout their works, there is a consistent obsession with the loss of individual autonomy at the hands of the conformist majority (i.e. the working class). They were desperate to maintain their haughty petty-bourgeois independence from the labour movement. Stuart Jeffries has written a good biography of the School, aptly titled Grand Hotel Abyss, which thoroughly exposes their petty bourgeois outlook. He explains that they “never felt that the personal interaction of workers and intellectuals would be beneficial to either”.[22]

At the Time of the Louisville Flood Bourke White photo 1937 colorizedIn practice, the Frankfurt School was part and parcel of bourgeois society, despite their noisy complaints about it / Image: public domain

For the likes of Adorno and Horkheimer, political involvement of any kind was seen as terribly embarrassing. Contact with the working class was exclusively regarded as a corrupting influence to be avoided at all costs. Adorno complained that it “is difficult to even sign appeals with which one sympathises, because in their inevitable desire to have a political impact, they always contain an element of untruth”. He went on to claim that not committing oneself to such political statements is a moral matter, “because it means insisting on the autonomy of one’s own point of view.”[23] Horkheimer stood in brave solidarity with Adorno’s fearless refusal to put ideas into practice: “Is activism then, especially political activism, the sole means of fulfilment? I hesitate to say so. … Philosophy must not be turned into propaganda, even for the best possible purpose.”[24]

There was, however, a fly in the ointment for our brave champions of intellectual freedom. How does a group of intellectuals maintain complete independence from the grubby, conformist working class? Even they must be paid, and that money must come from somewhere. So where did the Frankfurt School’s funding come from?

As an academic trend, the Frankfurt School was linked to a university, which, in turn, was linked to the bourgeois state. The Institut für Sozialforschung, whilst linked to the University of Frankfurt, was autonomous from it, and was under the directorship of Horkheimer for most of its heyday, thanks to the money of a sympathetic millionaire, Felix Weil.

In 1935, when the School went into exile in the USA, it was keen to reestablish its autonomous relationship with a prestigious university, in this case Columbia. Martin Jay, author of the most respected biography of the Frankfurt School, writes that it “is abundantly clear that the Institut felt insecure in America and wished to do as little as possible to jeopardise its position.” It did this by, amongst other things, editing Walter Benjamin’s articles “in a less radical direction”, changing “‘Communism’ with ‘the constructive forces of mankind’” and “‘imperialistic warfare’ was changed to ‘modern warfare.’”[25] During the war, Horkheimer insisted the words ‘revolution’ and ‘Marx’ be removed from all papers they published so as not to scare their sponsors.[26]

In the post-war period, the School took on a new generation of academics. No doubt many were attracted by its reputation as ‘Marxist’ or at least radical. One such figure was Jürgen Habermas, who in his youth attempted to submit papers with an explicitly revolutionary position for publication by the School. Horkheimer refused to publish them, and was clearly highly irritated at the naivety of Habermas in thinking this was the sort of thing they would do: “it is simply not possible to have admissions of this sort in the research report of an Institute that exists on the public funds of this shackling society.” The specific reason they were not published is even more telling: at the time, the School had a research contract with the German Ministry of Defence(!) and it didn’t want to scare them off![27]

Working for the military institutions of the bourgeois state must have been very lucrative, because it seems to have been a running theme for the Frankfurt School. One of the School’s earlier intellectuals, Henryck Grossman, actually participated in the Brest-Litovsk negotiations that ended revolutionary Russia’s involvement in the First World War. However, he was not part of Trotsky’s team helping the world’s first workers’ state in its struggle with imperialism. Instead, he prepared briefs for the Austro-Hungarian foreign secretary Count Czernin in his struggle to destroy the Russian Revolution. One might think that he would have then availed himself of the opportunity to atone for these sins when the revolution broke out in Austria one year later, but “there is no evidence that he took part” in these events.[28]

Marcuse also took employment from the military. During the Second World War, he was able to leverage his reputation as a cultural critic to land a job as an intelligence analyst at the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Although he claimed this was to help defeat the Nazis, he continued in the role at the US Department of State after the war ended, until 1951. No wonder Stuart Jeffries writes in his biography of the School that “the Frankfurt School wasn’t so much a Marxist institute as an organised hypocrisy, a conservative sheep in radical wolf’s clothing.”[29]

The Frankfurt School thought they could remove themselves from the influence of the various classes of capitalist society, and subject them all to an unsparing criticism. But their actions and ideas stand as testament to the impossibility of this petty-bourgeois fantasy. They could not operate in a vacuum. The petty bourgeoisie is caught in between the working class and the bourgeoisie, and must decide which side to support. In practice, the Frankfurt School was part and parcel of bourgeois society, despite their noisy complaints about it. This quickly found its expression in their ideas, which amount to little more than an attempt to discredit and confuse the working class.

It is precisely because the working class is the only class that is interested in taking humanity forwards that it needs ideas that are objectively correct. Illusions and falsehoods are of no use in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, which is exactly why the capitalist class spares no expense in spreading its lies and confusion.

A good example of the dissemination of such confusion is the typical sociology course that teaches young students that the Frankfurt School is a legitimate variety of Marxism. Unfortunately, there is always a layer of petty-bourgeois students taken in by this nonsense, and who develop as a result a sneering disdain for genuine revolutionary Marxism. As with the Frankfurt School, they embark on an academic career, where their ‘radicalism’ remains merely verbal. Their lives are spent in the ivory towers of academia, churning out anti-Marxist verbiage.

Return to genuine Marxism

As Engels liked to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The theories of Marxism changed the course of history. The ideas encapsulated in The Communist Manifesto remain astonishingly accurate to this day, unlike the liberal theories of their contemporaries. They explained the real basis of the class struggle and the periodic crises of capitalism, and anticipated the future development of the capitalist system: the rise of monopoly capital, imperialism and globalisation. Anyone who wants to understand the present crisis, the ever-growing inequality between the classes, today’s political polarisation, and even the destruction of the environment, must study the ideas of Marx and Engels. This is a truly dialectical, revolutionary philosophy: one that explains the main contradictions of society. Marx and Engels did not simply repeat the trends of their day, but grasped how society would be transformed in the future.

What kind of influence has ‘critical theory’ enjoyed? How has it been put to use, and how accurately did it explain the subsequent development of capitalism? ‘Critical theory’ certainly began making extravagant claims. It boldly declared that it would take dialectical philosophy beyond the ‘outdated’ dogmas of Marxism, which were to be subjected to its severe ‘criticism’. Unsatisfied with appearances, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse would reveal the transient, incomplete nature of everything. Rather than being satisfied with economic laws, to which Marxism had allegedly reduced human development, they would open up new vistas of theory, finally bringing to light the supposed blind spots of Marxism, such as psychology and mass culture. An all round ‘critical theory’ of society was the promise.

What was the result? Instead of an all-rounded theory, they displayed a complete ignorance of the basic economic laws of capitalism and of the major events in the class struggle within their own lifetimes. Instead of ‘economic reductionism’, an error Marx and Engels were never guilty of, we have cultural reductionism, in which their personal bugbears in mainstream culture dominate their ‘theory’ to the exclusion of all else. Hundreds of years of history are crudely reduced to the sins of the Enlightenment in the most vulgar idealism imaginable.

For a School that calls itself ‘critical theory’, its main idea – that the working class cannot liberate itself from class society – is on closer inspection, highly uncritical of the trends of the day. Their idealist elevation of ‘Reason’ into a supra-historical power that overrides the class struggle, simply uncritically repeats the standard middle-class prejudice of the time, which was that Keynesianism had resolved capitalism’s contradictions. They were ignorant of the economic contradictions building up in society. Ironically, these self-described ‘dialecticians’ could not see further than the Keynesian variety of capitalism, let alone beyond capitalism as a whole. The ‘critical’ in ‘critical theory’ is not of the dialectical kind, but of the colloquial: they are critical only in that they simply complain about every aspect of modern society and culture. More than anything else, they complain that the working class is too conservative and conformist for their tastes. ‘Critical theory’ is utterly superficial because, as a form of idealism, it is restricted to a cultural analysis with no understanding of the economic and political basis of this culture, nor of its transience. Lacking in serious historical understanding, it produces only what can be described as empty phrase mongering.

The notion that revolution is, in today’s epoch, ruled out thanks to the latest media devices is routinely trotted out in every decade as if it is a new discovery. In one generation, it is television; in the next, it is social media. Every time we are told that this means the class struggle no longer applies, that Marxism is now outdated. And every time, the class struggle again rears its head. Today, the working class is more numerous and powerful than ever before. A new generation is becoming radicalised and is searching for revolutionary ideas. Capitalism is despised everywhere. The so-called ‘centre ground’ is collapsing and the bourgeoisie are losing control of their own traditional parties. We would search in vain for explanations or solutions to any of this in the Frankfurt School, who would provide us with only a cynical contempt for the working class and youth of today.

Once again, it is clear that only Marxism provides the tools to understand these processes, and the weapons with which we can put an end to the misery of capitalist society once and for all. The working class has shown time and time again that it is the only revolutionary class in modern society. Only it can lead society out of the deep crisis that capitalism has plunged it into today. But it cannot afford the luxury of petty bourgeois cynicism. It needs bold leaders prepared to make serious sacrifices in their struggle for emancipation. It needs leaders who have learned the real lessons of failed revolutions, so that we may be victorious next time. It needs genuine Marxism.


[1] K Marx, The German Ideology, Marx & Engels Collected Works vol. 5, Progress Publishers, 1968, pg 36

[2] K Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, International Library Publishing, 1904, pg 11

[3] M Horkheimer & T Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso Books, 1997, pg xiii

[4] ibid., pg 6

[5] ibid., pg 7

[6] ibid., pg 24

[7] ibid., pg 4

[8] F Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, The Classics of Marxism vol 1, Wellred Books, 2013, pg 39

[9] T Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Continuum Publishing, 2004, pg 320

[10] See T Grant, Will There be a Slump?, 1960

[11] H Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2002, pg 128

[12] ibid., pg 3-4

[13] Marcuse makes it very clear, despite his pretentious language, that he thinks the ‘rational’ mentality has a sort of magical power to mould society and thus usurps the class struggle: “Scientific rationality makes for a specific societal organization precisely because it projects mere form[!?]…which can be bent to practically all ends.” ibid., pg 160

[14] ibid., pg 26

[15] ibid., pg 10. Once again, despite his pretentious language, it is clear that Marcuse thinks the power of rational thinking has usurped the class struggle: “the [new, technical rationalist] capitalist development has altered the structure and function of these two classes [bourgeois and proletarian] in such a way that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation. An overriding interest in the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo unites the former antagonists in the most advanced areas of contemporary society.” ibid., pg xliii

[16] F Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch”, Marx Engels Collected works vol 49, Lawrence and Wishart, 2001, pg 33

[17] M Horkheimer & T Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso Books, 1997, pg xiv-xv

[18] ibid., pg 133-4

[19] See R Sewell, Germany 1918-1933: Socialism or Barbarism, Wellred Books, 2018

[20] T Adorno, The Culture Industry, Routledge, 2001, pg 150

[21] H Marcuse, “An Essay on Liberation”, Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 26 (1), 1972, pg 27

[22] S Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, Verso Books, 2016, pg 292

[23] S Muller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Polity Press, 2008, pg 414

[24] M Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, Oxford University Press, 1947, pg 124

[25] M Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, University of California Press, 1973, pg 205

[26] S Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, Verso Books, 2016, pg 72

[27] ibid.

[28] ibid., pg 54

[29] ibid., pg 78

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