The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and philosophy associated in part with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded during the interwar period, the School consisted of Western Marxist dissidents uncomfortable with existing capitalist, fascist or communist systems. Many of these theorists believed that traditional theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the 20th century. Critical of both capitalism and Soviet socialism, their writings pointed to the possibility of an alternative path to social development.
These theorists were sometimes only loosely affiliated, and some authors point out that the "Frankfurt circle" was neither a philosophical school nor a political group. Nevertheless, they spoke with a common paradigm in mind; they shared the Marxist Hegelian premises and were preoccupied with similar questions. To fill in the perceived omissions of classical Marxism, they sought to draw answers from other schools of thought, hence using the insights of antipositivist sociology, psychoanalysis, existential philosophy and other disciplines. The school's main figures sought to learn from and synthesize the works of such varied thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, Simmel and Lukács.
Following Marx, they were concerned with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions. Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, materialism and determinism by returning to Kant's critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel's philosophy, with its emphasis on dialectic and contradiction as inherent properties of human reality.
Since the 1960s, Frankfurt School critical theory has increasingly been guided by Jürgen Habermas's work on communicative reason, linguistic intersubjectivity and what Habermas calls "the philosophical discourse of modernity". Critical theorists such as Raymond Geuss and Nikolas Kompridis have voiced opposition to Habermas, holding that he has undermined the aspirations for social change that originally gave purpose to critical theory's various projects—for example the problem of what reason should mean, the analysis and enlargement of "conditions of possibility" for social emancipation and the critique of modern capitalism.
Institute for Social Research
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The term "Frankfurt School" arose informally to describe the thinkers affiliated or merely associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research; it is not the title of any specific position or institution per se, and few of these theorists used the term themselves. The Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) was founded in 1923 by Carl Grünberg, a Marxist legal and political professor at the University of Vienna, as an adjunct of the University of Frankfurt; it was the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. However, the school can trace its earliest roots back to Felix Weil, who used money from his father's grain business to finance the Institut.
Weil (1898–1975), a young Marxist, had written his doctoral thesis (published by Karl Korsch) on the practical problems of implementing socialism. With the hope of bringing different trends of Marxism together, Weil organized a week-long symposium (the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche) in 1922 in Ilmenau, Thuringia, a meeting attended by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Karl August Wittfogel, Friedrich Pollock and others. The event was so successful that Weil set about erecting a building and funding salaries for a permanent institute. Weil negotiated with the Ministry of Education that the Director of the Institute would be a full professor from the state system, so that the Institut would have the status of a University institution.
Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch both attended the Arbeitswoche, which had included a study of Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy—but both were too committed to political activity and Party membership to join the Institut, though Korsch participated in publishing ventures for a number of years. The way Lukács was obliged to repudiate his History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923 and probably a major inspiration for the work of the Frankfurt School, indicated that independence from the Communist Party was necessary for genuine theoretical work.
The philosophical tradition now referred to as the "Frankfurt School" is perhaps particularly associated with Max Horkheimer (philosopher, sociologist and social psychologist), who took over as the institute's director in 1930 and recruited many of the school's most talented theorists, including Theodor W. Adorno (philosopher, sociologist, musicologist), Erich Fromm (psychoanalyst), and Herbert Marcuse (philosopher).
German prewar context
The political turmoil of Germany's troubled interwar years greatly affected the School's development. Its thinkers were particularly influenced by the failure of the communist revolution in Western Europe (precisely where Marx had predicted that a communist revolution would take place) and by the rise of Nazism in such an economically and technologically advanced nation as Germany. This led many of them to take up the task of choosing what parts of Marx's thought might serve to clarify contemporary social conditions that Marx himself had never seen. Another key influence also came from the publication in the 1930s of Marx's Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology, which showed the continuity with Hegelianism that underlay Marx's thought.
As the growing influence of National Socialism became ever more threatening, its founders decided to prepare to move the Institute out of the country. Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Institute left Germany for Geneva, before moving to New York City in 1935, where it became affiliated with Columbia University. Its journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung was accordingly renamed Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. It was at this moment that much of its important work began to emerge, having gained a favorable reception within American and English academia. Horkheimer, Adorno and Pollock eventually resettled in West Germany in the early 1950s, although Marcuse, Lowenthal, Kirchheimer and others chose to remain in the United States. It was only in 1953 that the Institute was formally re-established in Frankfurt.
Which "theorists" to include in what is now called the "Frankfurt School" may vary among different scholars. Indeed, the title of "school" can often be misleading, as the Institute's members did not always form a series of tightly woven, complementary projects. Some scholars have therefore limited their view of the Frankfurt School to Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Lowenthal and Pollock. However, most pre-war theorists can be considered as having shared a very similar paradigm. Most of the members of the Institute for Social Research were of Jewish descent. Although he was initially part of the School's inner circle, Jürgen Habermas is generally considered as the first to have diverged from Horkheimer's research program, thus giving rise to a new generation of critical theorists.
Early members of the Frankfurt School were:
- Max Horkheimer
- Theodor W. Adorno
- Herbert Marcuse
- Friedrich Pollock
- Erich Fromm
- Otto Kirchheimer
- Leo Löwenthal
- Franz Leopold Neumann
- Henryk Grossman
People who were associated with the Institute or its theorists include:
Later theorists with roots in Frankfurt School critical theory include:
Critical theory and the critique of ideology
The Frankfurt School's work cannot be addressed without understanding the objectives of critical theory. Initially outlined by Max Horkheimer in his Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), critical theory may be defined as a self-conscious social critique that is aimed at change and emancipation through enlightenment and that does not cling dogmatically to its own doctrinal assumptions. The original aim of critical theory was to analyze the true significance of "the ruling understandings" generated in bourgeois society, in order to show how they misrepresented actual human interaction in the real world, and in so doing functioned to justify or legitimize the domination of people by capitalism. A certain sort of story (a narrative) was provided to explain what was happening in society, but the story concealed as much as it revealed. The Frankfurt theorists generally assumed that their task was mainly to interpret the areas of society Marx had not dealt with, especially in the superstructure of society.
Horkheimer opposed it to traditional theory, which refers to theory in the positivistic, scientistic, or purely observational mode—that is, which derives generalizations or "laws" about different aspects of the world. Drawing upon Max Weber, Horkheimer argued that the social sciences differ from the natural sciences inasmuch as generalizations cannot be easily made from so-called experiences because the understanding of a "social" experience itself is always fashioned by ideas that are in the researchers themselves. What the researcher does not realize is that s/he is caught in a historical context in which ideologies shape the thinking; thus, theory would conform to the ideas in the mind of the researcher rather than to the experience itself:
The facts which our senses present to us are socially performed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception.
For Horkheimer, approaches to understanding in the social sciences cannot simply imitate those in the natural sciences. Although various theoretical approaches would come close to breaking out of the ideological constraints that restricted them, such as positivism, pragmatism, neo-Kantianism, and phenomenology, Horkheimer argued that they failed because all were subject to a "logico-mathematical" prejudice that separates theoretical activity from actual life (meaning that all these schools sought to find a logic that always remains true, independently of and without consideration for ongoing human activities). According to Horkheimer, the appropriate response to this dilemma is the development of a critical theory.
The problem, Horkheimer argued, is epistemological: we should reconsider not merely the scientist but the knowing individual in general. Unlike orthodox Marxism, which merely applies a ready-made "template" to both critique and action, critical theory seeks to be self-critical and rejects any pretensions to absolute truth. Critical theory defends the primacy of neither matter (materialism) nor consciousness (idealism), and argues that both epistemologies distort reality to the benefit, eventually, of some small group. What critical theory attempts to do is to place itself outside of philosophical strictures and the confines of existing structures. However, as a way of thinking and "recovering" humanity's self-knowledge, critical theory often looks to Marxism for its methods and tools.
Horkheimer maintained that critical theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e., how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), just as it should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. While critical theory must at all times be self-critical, Horkheimer insisted that a theory is critical only if it is explanatory. Critical theory must, therefore, combine practical and normative thinking to "explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify actors to change it, and provide clear norms for criticism and practical goals for the future." Whereas traditional theory can only mirror and explain reality as it presently is, critical theory's purpose is to change it; in Horkheimer's words the goal of critical theory is "the emancipation of human beings from the circumstances that enslave them".
Frankfurt School theorists explicitly linked up with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in which the term critique meant philosophical reflection on the limits of claims made for certain kinds of knowledge and direct connection between such critique and the emphasis on moral autonomy as opposed to traditionally deterministic and static theories of human action. In an intellectual context defined by dogmatic positivism and scientism on the one hand and dogmatic "scientific socialism" on the other, critical theorists intended to rehabilitate Marx's ideas through a philosophically critical approach.
Whereas both Marxist–Leninist and social democratic orthodox thinkers viewed Marxism as a new kind of positive science, Frankfurt School theorists such as Horkheimer instead based their work on the epistemological base of Marx's work, which presented itself as critique, as in Marx's Capital: Critique of Political Economy. They thus emphasized that Marx attempted to create a new kind of critical analysis oriented toward the unity of theory and revolutionary practice rather than a new kind of positive science. Critique, in this Marxian sense, means taking the ideology of a society (for example, the belief in individual freedom or free market capitalism) and critiquing it by comparing it with a posited social reality of that very society (for example, social inequality and exploitation). Frankfurt School theorists grounded this on the dialectical methodology established by Hegel and Marx.
The Institute also attempted to reformulate dialectics as a concrete method. The use of such a dialectical method can be traced back to the philosophy of Hegel, who conceived dialectic as the tendency of a notion to pass over into its own negation as the result of conflict between its inherent contradictory aspects. In opposition to previous modes of thought, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectic has the ability to consider ideas according to their movement and change in time, as well as according to their interrelations and interactions.
History, according to Hegel, proceeds and evolves in a dialectical manner: the present embodies the rational sublation, or "synthesis", of past contradictions. History may thus be seen as an intelligible process (which Hegel referred to as Weltgeist), which is the moving towards a specific condition—the rational realization of human freedom. However, considerations about the future were of no interest to Hegel, for whom philosophy cannot be prescriptive because it understands only in hindsight. The study of history is thus limited to the description of past and present realities. Hence for Hegel and his successors, dialectics inevitably lead to the approval of the status quo' '— indeed, Hegel's philosophy served as a justification for Christian theology and the Prussian state.
This was fiercely criticized by Marx and the Young Hegelians, who argued that Hegel had gone too far in defending his abstract conception of "absolute Reason" and had failed to notice the "real" — i.e. undesirable and irrational — life conditions of the working class. By turning Hegel's idealist dialectics upside-down, Marx advanced his own theory of dialectical materialism, arguing that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Marx's theory follows a materialist conception of history and space, where the development of the productive forces is seen as the primary motive force for historical change, and according to which the social and material contradictions inherent to capitalism inevitably lead to its negation—thereby replacing capitalism with a new rational form of society: communism.
Marx thus extensively relied on a form of dialectical analysis. This method—to know the truth by uncovering the contradictions in presently predominant ideas and, by extension, in the social relations to which they are linked—exposes the underlying struggle between opposing forces. For Marx, it is only by becoming aware of the dialectic (i.e. class consciousness) of such opposing forces, in a struggle for power, that individuals can liberate themselves and change the existing social order.
For their part, Frankfurt School theorists quickly came to realize that a dialectical method could only be adopted if it could be applied to itself—that is to say, if they adopted a self-correcting method—a dialectical method that would enable them to correct previous false dialectical interpretations. Accordingly, critical theory rejected the historicism and materialism of orthodox Marxism. Indeed, the material tensions and class struggles of which Marx spoke were no longer seen by Frankfurt School theorists as having the same revolutionary potential within contemporary Western societies—an observation that indicated that Marx's dialectical interpretations and predictions were either incomplete or incorrect.
Contrary to orthodox Marxist praxis, which solely seeks to implement an unchangeable and narrow idea of "communism" into practice, critical theorists held that praxis and theory, following the dialectical method, should be interdependent and should mutually influence each other. When Marx famously stated in his Theses on Feuerbach that "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it", his real idea was that philosophy's only validity was in how it informed action. Frankfurt School theorists would correct this by arguing that when action fails, then the theory guiding it must be reviewed. In short, socialist philosophical thought must be given the ability to criticize itself and "overcome" its own errors. While theory must inform praxis, praxis must also have a chance to inform theory.
Influences and early works
The intellectual influences on and theoretical focus of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists can be summarized as follows:
|Historical context||Transition from small-scale entrepreneurial capitalism to monopoly capitalism and imperialism; socialist labor movement grows, turns reformist; emergence of the welfare state; Russian revolution and the rise of Communism; neotechnic period; emergence of mass media and mass culture, "modern" art; rise of Nazism.|
|Weberian theory||Comparative historical analysis of Western rationalism in capitalism, the modern state, secular scientific rationality, culture, and religion; analysis of the forms of domination in general and of modern rational-legal bureaucratic domination in particular; articulation of the distinctive, hermeneutic method of the social sciences.|
|Freudian theory||Critique of the repressive structure of the "reality principle" of advanced civilization and of the normal neurosis of everyday life; discovery of the unconscious, primary-process thinking, and the impact of the Oedipus complex and of anxiety on psychic life; analysis of the psychic bases of authoritarianism and irrational social behavior.|
|Critique of positivism||Critique of positivism as a philosophy, as a scientific methodology, as a political ideology and as everyday conformity; rehabilitation of – negative – dialectic, return to Hegel; appropriation of critical elements in phenomenology, historicism, existentialism, critique of their ahistorical, idealist tendencies; critique of logical positivism and pragmatism.|
|Aesthetic modernism||Critique of "false" and reified experience by breaking through its traditional forms and language; projection of alternative modes of existence and experience; liberation of the unconscious; consciousness of unique, modern situation; appropriation of Kafka, Proust, Schoenberg, Breton; critique of the culture industry and "affirmative" culture; aesthetic utopia.|
|Marxist theory||Critique of bourgeois ideology; critique of alienated labor; historical materialism; history as class struggle and exploitation of labor in different modes of production; systems analysis of capitalism as extraction of surplus labor through free labor in the free market; Breakdown of Capital Accumulation/Crisis theory; unity of theory and practice; analysis for the sake of revolution, socialist democracy, classless society.|
|Culture theory||Critique of mass culture as suppression and absorption of negation, as integration into status quo; critique of Western culture as a culture of domination, both of an external and internal nature; dialectic differentiation of emancipatory and repressive dimensions of elite culture; Kierkegaard's critique of the present age, Nietzsche's transvaluation, and Schiller's aesthetic education.|
Responding to the intensification of alienation and irrationality in an advanced capitalist society, critical theory is a comprehensive, ideology-critical, historically self-reflective body of theory aiming simultaneously to explain domination and point to the possibilities of bringing about a rational, humane, and free society. Frankfurt School critical theorists developed numerous theories of the economic, political, cultural, and psychological domination structures of advanced industrial civilization.
The Institute made major contributions in two areas relating to the possibility of human subjects to be rational, i.e., individuals who could act rationally to take charge of their own society and their own history. The first consisted of social phenomena previously considered in Marxism as part of the "superstructure" or as ideology: personality, family and authority structures (one of the earliest works published bore the title Studies of Authority and the Family), and the realm of aesthetics and mass culture. Studies saw a common concern here in the ability of capitalism to destroy the preconditions of critical, revolutionary political consciousness. This meant arriving at a sophisticated awareness of the depth dimension in which social oppression sustains itself. It also meant the beginning of critical theory's recognition of ideology as part of the foundations of social structure.
Critique of Western civilization
Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia
The second phase of Frankfurt School critical theory centres principally on two works: Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and Adorno's Minima Moralia (1951). The authors wrote both works during the Institute's exile in America. While retaining much of a Marxian analysis, in these works critical theory shifted its emphasis from the critique of capitalism to a critique of Western civilization as a whole, as seen in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which uses the Odyssey as a paradigm for their analysis of bourgeois consciousness. In these works, Horkheimer and Adorno present many themes that have come to dominate the social thought of recent years; for instance, their exposition of the domination of nature as a central characteristic of instrumental rationality in Western civilization was made long before ecology and environmentalism had become popular concerns.
The analysis of reason now goes one stage further: The rationality of Western civilization appears as a fusion of domination and technological rationality, bringing all of external and internal nature under the power of the human subject. In the process, however, the subject itself gets swallowed up and no social force analogous to the proletariat can be identified that enables the subject to emancipate itself. Hence the subtitle of Minima Moralia: "Reflections from Damaged Life". In Adorno's words,
For since the overwhelming objectivity of historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one, individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself. The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself.
Consequently, at a time when it appears that reality itself has become the basis for ideology, the greatest contribution that critical theory can make is to explore the dialectical contradictions of individual subjective experience on the one hand, and to preserve the truth of theory on the other. Even dialectical progress is put into doubt: "its truth or untruth is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process." This intention must be oriented toward integral freedom and happiness: "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." Adorno goes on to distance himself from the "optimism" of orthodox Marxism: "beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption [i.e. human emancipation] itself hardly matters."
From a sociological point of view, both Horkheimer's and Adorno's works contain a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence that gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new critical theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology. For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society"—a tension that, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously "free" market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and "irrevocable" private property of Marx's epoch have gradually been replaced by the centralized state planning and socialized ownership of the means of production in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is thus suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination.
Of this second "phase" of the Frankfurt School, philosopher and critical theorist Nikolas Kompridis writes that:
According to the now canonical view of its history, Frankfurt School critical theory began in the 1930s as a fairly confident interdisciplinary and materialist research program, the general aim of which was to connect normative social criticism to the emancipatory potential latent in concrete historical processes. Only a decade or so later, however, having revisited the premises of their philosophy of history, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment steered the whole enterprise, provocatively and self-consciously, into a skeptical cul-de-sac. As a result they got stuck in the irresolvable dilemmas of the "philosophy of the subject," and the original program was shrunk to a negativistic practice of critique that eschewed the very normative ideals on which it implicitly depended.
Kompridis argues that this "sceptical cul-de-sac" was arrived at with "a lot of help from the once unspeakable and unprecedented barbarity of European fascism," and could not be gotten out of without "some well-marked [exit or] Ausgang, showing the way out of the ever-recurring nightmare in which Enlightenment hopes and Holocaust horrors are fatally entangled." However, this Ausgang, according to Kompridis, would not come until later – purportedly in the form of Jürgen Habermas's work on the intersubjective bases of communicative rationality.
Philosophy of music
Adorno, a trained classical pianist, wrote The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), in which he, in essence, polemicizes against music―because it has become part of the ideology of advanced capitalist society and the false consciousness that contributes to social domination. He argued that radical art and music may preserve the truth by capturing the reality of human suffering. Hence:
What radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man [...] The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes, at the same time, the technical structural law of music. It forbids continuity and development. Musical language is polarized according to its extreme; towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks [...] Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.
This view of modern art as producing truth only through the negation of traditional aesthetic form and traditional norms of beauty because they have become ideological is characteristic of Adorno and of the Frankfurt School generally. It has been criticized by those who do not share its conception of modern society as a false totality that renders obsolete traditional conceptions and images of beauty and harmony.
In particular, Adorno despised jazz and popular music, viewing it as part of the culture industry, that contributes to the present sustainability of capitalism by rendering it "aesthetically pleasing" and "agreeable". The British philosopher Roger Scruton saw Adorno as producing 'reams of turgid nonsense devoted to showing that the American people are just as alienated as Marxism requires them to be, and that their cheerful life-affirming music is a ‘fetishized’ commodity, expressive of their deep spiritual enslavement to the capitalist machine.'
Critical theory and domination
With the growth of advanced industrial society during the Cold War era, critical theorists recognized that the path of capitalism and history had changed decisively, that the modes of oppression operated differently, and that the industrial working class no longer remained the determinate negation of capitalism. This led to the attempt to root the dialectic in an absolute method of negativity, as in Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966). During this period the Institute of Social Research resettled in Frankfurt (although many of its associates remained in the United States) with the task not merely of continuing its research but of becoming a leading force in the sociological education and democratization of West Germany. This led to a certain systematization of the Institute's entire accumulation of empirical research and theoretical analysis.
During this period, Frankfurt School critical theory particularly influenced some segments of the left wing and leftist thought, particularly the New Left. Herbert Marcuse has occasionally been described as the theorist or intellectual progenitor of the New Left. Their critique of technology, totality, teleology and (occasionally) civilization is an influence on anarcho-primitivism. Their work also heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies.
More importantly, however, the Frankfurt School attempted to define the fate of reason in the new historical period. While Marcuse did so through analysis of structural changes in the labor process under capitalism and inherent features of the methodology of science, Horkheimer and Adorno concentrated on a re-examination of the foundation of critical theory. This effort appears in systematized form in Adorno's Negative Dialectics, which tries to redefine dialectics for an era in which "philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed". Negative dialectics expresses the idea of critical thought so conceived that the apparatus of domination cannot co-opt it.
Its central notion, long a focal one for Horkheimer and Adorno, suggests that the original sin of thought lies in its attempt to eliminate all that is other than thought, the attempt by the subject to devour the object, the striving for identity. This reduction makes thought the accomplice of domination. Negative Dialectics rescues the "preponderance of the object", not through a naïve epistemological or metaphysical realism but through a thought based on differentiation, paradox, and ruse: a "logic of disintegration". Adorno thoroughly criticizes Heidegger's fundamental ontology, which he thinks reintroduces idealistic and identity-based concepts under the guise of having overcome the philosophical tradition.
Negative dialectics comprises a monument to the end of the tradition of the individual subject as the locus of criticism. Without a revolutionary working class, the Frankfurt School had no one to rely on but the individual subject. But, as the liberal capitalist social basis of the autonomous individual receded into the past, the dialectic based on it became more and more abstract.
Habermas and communicative rationality
Habermas's work takes the Frankfurt School's abiding interests in rationality, the human subject, democratic socialism, and the dialectical method and overcomes a set of contradictions that always weakened critical theory: the contradictions between the materialist and transcendental methods, between Marxian social theory and the individualist assumptions of critical rationalism between technical and social rationalization, and between cultural and psychological phenomena on the one hand and the economic structure of society on the other.
The Frankfurt School avoided taking a stand on the precise relationship between the materialist and transcendental methods, which led to ambiguity in their writings and confusion among their readers. Habermas's epistemology synthesizes these two traditions by showing that phenomenological and transcendental analysis can be subsumed under a materialist theory of social evolution, while the materialist theory makes sense only as part of a quasi-transcendental theory of emancipatory knowledge that is the self-reflection of cultural evolution. The simultaneously empirical and transcendental nature of emancipatory knowledge becomes the foundation stone of critical theory.
By locating the conditions of rationality in the social structure of language use, Habermas moves the locus of rationality from the autonomous subject to subjects in interaction. Rationality is a property not of individuals per se, but rather of structures of undistorted communication. In this notion Habermas has overcome the ambiguous plight of the subject in critical theory. If capitalistic technological society weakens the autonomy and rationality of the subject, it is not through the domination of the individual by the apparatus but through technological rationality supplanting a describable rationality of communication. And, in his sketch of communicative ethics as the highest stage in the internal logic of the evolution of ethical systems, Habermas hints at the source of a new political practice that incorporates the imperatives of evolutionary rationality.
Criticism of Frankfurt School theorists
Horkheimer and Adorno's pessimism
An early criticism, originating from the left, argues that Frankfurt School critical theory is nothing more than a form of "bourgeois idealism" devoid of any actual relation to political practice, and is hence totally isolated from the reality of any ongoing revolutionary movement. This criticism was captured in Georg Lukács's phrase "Grand Hotel Abyss" as a syndrome he imputed to the members of the Frankfurt School:
A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered."
Philosopher Karl Popper equally believed that the school did not live up to Marx's promise of a better future:
Habermas's solutions: critical theory "between past and future"
In 2006, Nikolas Kompridis (who undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with Jürgen Habermas) published new criticisms of Habermas's approach to critical theory, calling for a dramatic break with the proceduralist ethics of communicative rationality. He writes:
For all its theoretical ingenuity and practical implications, Habermas's reformulation of critical theory is beset by persistent problems of its own… In my view, the depth of these problems indicate just how wrong was Habermas's expectation that the paradigm change to linguistic intersubjectivity would render "objectless" the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject. Habermas accused Hegel of creating a conception of reason so "overwhelming" that it solved too well the problem of modernity's [need for] self-reassurance. It seems, however, that Habermas has repeated rather than avoided Hegel's mistake, creating a theoretical paradigm so comprehensive that in one stroke it also solves too well the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject and the problem of modernity's self-reassurance.
In addition, he writes that:
The change of paradigm to linguistic intersubjectivity has been accompanied by a dramatic change in critical theory's self-understanding. The priority given to questions of justice and the normative order of society has remodeled critical theory in the image of liberal theories of justice. While this has produced an important contemporary variant of liberal theories of justice, different enough to be a challenge to liberal theory, but not enough to preserve sufficient continuity with critical theory's past, it has severely weakened the identity of critical theory and inadvertently initiated its premature dissolution.
To prevent that dissolution, Kompridis suggests that critical theory should "reinvent" itself as a "possibility-disclosing" enterprise, incorporating Heidegger's controversial insights into world disclosure and drawing from the sources of normativity that he feels were blocked from critical theory by its recent change of paradigm. Calling for what Charles Taylor has named a "new department" of reason, with a possibility-disclosing role that Kompridis calls "reflective disclosure", Kompridis argues that critical theory must embrace its neglected German romantic inheritance and once again imagine alternatives to existing social and political conditions, "if it is to have a future worthy of its past."
Criticism of psychoanalytic categorizations
In an interview with Casey Blake and Christopher Phelps, historian Christopher Lasch criticized the Frankfurt School's initial tendencies towards "automatically" rejecting opposing political criticisms on "psychiatric" grounds:
The Authoritarian Personality had a tremendous influence on Hofstadter and other liberal intellectuals, because it showed them how to conduct political criticism in psychiatric categories, to make those categories bear the weight of political criticism. This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.
Economic and media critiques
During the 1980s, anti-authoritarian socialists in the United Kingdom and New Zealand criticised the rigid and determinist view of popular culture deployed within the Frankfurt School theories of capitalist culture, which seemed to preclude any prefigurative role for social critique within such work. They argued that EC Comics often did contain such cultural critiques. Recent criticism of the Frankfurt School by the libertarian Cato Institute focused on the claim that culture has grown more sophisticated and diverse as a consequence of free markets and the availability of niche cultural text for niche audiences.
Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory
The term "cultural Marxism" has an academic usage within cultural studies, where it refers to a form of anti-capitalist cultural critique which specifically targets those aspects of culture that are seen as profit-driven and mass-produced under capitalism. As an area of the Frankfurt School's discourse, "cultural Marxism" has commonly considered the industrialization and mass production of culture by the culture industry as having an overall negative effect on society, an effect which can mislead an audience away from perceiving a more authentic sense of human values. British theorists such as Richard Hoggart of the Birmingham School developed a working class sense of "British Cultural Marxism" which objected to the "massification" and "drift" away from local cultures, a process of commercialization Hoggart saw as being enabled by tabloid newspapers, advertising, and the American film industry.
The term remained academic until the late 1990s, when it began to gain currency among paleoconservatives as part of an ongoing culture war in which it was argued that the very same theorists who were analysing and objecting to the "massification" and mass control via commercialization of culture were in fact working in a conspiracy to control and stage their own attack on Western society, using 1960s counterculture, multiculturalism, progressive politics and political correctness as their methods. This conspiracy theory version of the term is associated with American religious paleoconservatives such as William S. Lind, Pat Buchanan, and Paul Weyrich; but also holds currency among the alt-right, white nationalist groups, and the neo-reactionary movement.
Weyrich first presented his notion of Cultural Marxism in a 1998 speech to the Civitas Institute's Conservative Leadership Conference, later repeating this usage in his widely syndicated "culture war letter". At Weyrich's request, William S. Lind wrote a short history of his conception of Cultural Marxism for the Free Congress Foundation; in it Lind identifies the presence of openly gay people on television as proof of Cultural Marxist control over the mass media and claims that Herbert Marcuse considered a coalition of "blacks, students, feminist women, and homosexuals" as a vanguard of cultural revolution. Lind has since published his own depiction of a fictional Cultural Marxist apocalypse. Lind and Weyrich's writings on this subject advocate fighting what they perceive as Cultural Marxism with "a vibrant cultural conservatism" composed of "retroculture" fashions from the past, a return to rail systems as public transport, and an agrarian culture of self-reliance modeled after the Amish.
In 1999, Lind led the creation of an hour-long program entitled "Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School". Some of Lind's content went on to be reproduced by James Jaeger in his YouTube film "CULTURAL MARXISM: The Corruption of America".
The historian Martin Jay commented on this phenomenon saying that Lind's original documentary:
... spawned a number of condensed textual versions, which were reproduced on a number of radical right-wing sites. These in turn led to a welter of new videos now available on YouTube, which feature an odd cast of pseudo-experts regurgitating exactly the same line. The message is numbingly simplistic: all the ills of modern American culture, from feminism, affirmative action, sexual liberation and gay rights to the decay of traditional education and even environmentalism are ultimately attributable to the insidious influence of the members of the Institute for Social Research who came to America in the 1930's.
Heidi Beirich likewise holds that the conspiracy theory is used to demonize various conservative "bêtes noires" including "feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, environmentalists, immigrants, and black nationalists".
According to Chip Berlet, who specializes in the study of far-right movements, the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory found a place within the Tea Party movement of 2009, with contributions published in the American Thinker and WorldNetDaily highlighted by some Tea Party websites.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that William S. Lind in 2002 gave a speech at a Holocaust denial conference on the topic of Cultural Marxism. In this speech Lind noted that all the members of The Frankfurt School were "to a man, Jewish", but it is reported that Lind claims not to question whether the Holocaust occurred and suggests he was present in an official capacity for the Free Congress Foundation "to work with a wide variety of groups on an issue-by-issue basis".
Although the theory became more widespread in the late 1990s and through the 2000s, the modern iteration of the theory originated in Michael Minnicino's 1992 essay "New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and 'Political Correctness'", published in Fidelio Magazine by the Schiller Institute. The Schiller Institute, a branch of the LaRouche movement, further promoted the idea in 1994. The Minnicino article charges that the Frankfurt School promoted Modernism in the arts as a form of cultural pessimism and shaped the counterculture of the 1960s (such as the British pop band The Beatles) after the Wandervogel of the Ascona commune.
More recently, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik included the term in his document "2083: A European Declaration of Independence", which—along with The Free Congress Foundation's Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology—was e-mailed to 1,003 addresses approximately 90 minutes before the 2011 bomb blast in Oslo for which Breivik was responsible. Segments of William S. Lind's writings on Cultural Marxism have been found within Breivik's manifesto.
In July 2017, Rich Higgins was removed by US National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster from the United States National Security Council following the discovery of a seven-page memorandum he had authored, describing a conspiracy theory concerning a plot to destroy the presidency of Donald Trump by Cultural Marxists, as well as Islamists, globalists, bankers, the media, and members of the Republican and Democratic parties.
In July 2018, Ron Paul posted and then deleted a racist cartoon about Cultural Marxism to his twitter account.
Philosopher and political science lecturer Jérôme Jamin has stated that "[n]ext to the global dimension of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, there is its innovative and original dimension, which lets its authors avoid racist discourses and pretend to be defenders of democracy". Professor and Oxford fellow Matthew Feldman has traced the terminology back to the pre-war German concept of Cultural Bolshevism, locating it as part of the degeneration theory that aided in Hitler's rise to power. William S. Lind confirms this as his period of interest, writing that "[Cultural Marxism] is an effort that goes back not to the 1960s and the hippies and the peace movement, but back to World War I".
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