Kovel on the Frankfurt School

Joel Kovel's lecture on the Frankfurt School last night at the Brecht Forum highlighted the sometimes problematic relationship these left-wing intellectuals had to the mass movement. It would be safe to say that none of them ever resolved the theory/praxis dichotomy successfully. Moreover, none of them ever seemed that concerned about the problem.

The Institute for Social Research was founded in Frankfurt by an industrialist in the late 20s who wanted to foster Marxist thought that was adequate for the age. The political conditions which shaped the particular Marxism of the school was:

1) Failure of the Russian revolution to spread to the rest of the world.

2) Degeneration of the revolution and the rise of fascism.

3) Working class retreat.

After Hitler came to power, the Frankfurt intellectuals came to the United States. Ironically, Adorno, the hater of popular culture, settled in Los Angeles. Marcuse ended up in NYC, where the work of the Frankfurt School was continued on a formal basis at Columbia University. Joel mentioned that during the war Marcuse consulted on Soviet studies with the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. After the war, Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Germany where they also collaborated with American imperialism, on an even more insidious basis than Marcuse. More about that presently.

Lukacs was the main intellectual influence on the Frankfurt School. His emphasis on the Hegelian dialectic underpinning of Marx's thought was key to Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. The dialectic, especially the critical or "negative" phase, was used to point out contradictions in bourgeois society. As social critics, the Frankfurt thinkers were peerless, especially in the cultural arena.

Adorno was a master of high culture and wrote knowledgeably about classical music. Trained as a composer, he worked with Alban Berg and others in the highly challenging and often unlistenable 12-tone school. During his stint in Los Angeles, Adorno spent long hours in discussion with Thomas Mann, the exiled German novelist. One long discussion between the two on the meaning of Beethoven's 32nd piano sonata finds its way almost verbatim into a chapter of Mann's "Doktor Faustus."

Adorno and Horkheimer collaborated on "The Dialectics of Enlightenment," while Marcuse wrote "Eros and Civilization." These two works were very influential on 60s radicals, even though they were written in the 40s and 50s respectively. They seemed to address the particular character of "postscarcity" capitalist society like no other Marxist literature could. Marcuse's book predicted a rebellion in advanced capitalist societies based on needs and desires. This view, while a departure from conventional Marxist thought, did seem to correctly describe the primary impetus of the 60s movements.

After WWII, Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Germany under the aegis of John McCloy, one of the US's most powerful cold warriors. Their hatred of Stalinism found itself amenable to a pro-imperialist outlook in the conditions of American postwar hegemony. As I pointed out the other day on Doug Henwood's LBO-Talk list, there is no particular internal logic between one or another expression of Marxist thought and adaptation to the US State Department. Frankfurt thinkers, "third camper" Max Schachtman, Trotskyist Felix Morrow, and Stalinist screenwriters alike ended up as flag-wavers during the 1950s. The explanation is not flawed ideology, but the pressures of a victorious and sometimes terrorizing bourgeoisie, with deep pockets for intellectual bribery as well.

Adorno and Horkheimer sometimes acted like scoundrels. They refused to publish Franz Neumann's "Behemoth," a classic study of the rise of Nazism since there was presumably too much damning evidence of German corporate complicity. They also bowdlerized Walter Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," deleting various references to Marx in it. During the Vietnam war, Adorno defended US policy and German students raised hell in his classrooms to his great dismay. He died of a heart attack in 1969, a bitter and isolated man.

While the tendency always existed in Adorno to place theory on a pedestal, during his years in postwar Germany they became even more pronounced. His retreat into theory for theory's sake was justified on the basis of the Holocaust. Such a terrible event made practical action an impossibility. The best thing that intellectuals could do was meditate on esthetic problems. While the working-class was never a central actor in the earlier work of Adorno, in the 1950s it became a subject of Adorno's "negative" criticism. He questioned Marxism's preoccupation with production and declared that one of the missions of "critical theory" was to call for the abolition of labor. The workplace was not seen as an arena of struggle, but as a symbol of degradation.

Marcuse took an entirely different trajectory than Adorno. Rather than becoming an apologist for US capitalism, he remained a bitter foe of injustice. He was a rebellious spirit and cooperated with student activists throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Angela Davis. Whenever there was a sit-in, the aristocratic "high professor" Marcuse was always there.

During his teaching days in San Diego, Marcuse's outspoken leftism drew the attention of the rather powerful right-wing in the city, including the American Legion, Ku Klux Klan and freelance fascists. He received death-threats all the time. At one point, students posted sentries in front of his classroom during lectures because there was a real fear of violent attack. At one point, the threats became so serious that he went into hiding for 2 months.

For all of his commitment to social justice, Marcuse suffered from problems similar to Adorno. His rebelliousness was not theoretically linked up to mass movements. Although he was personally committed to antiwar politics, antiracism, etc., there was virtually no explanation in his writings of how a "critical" dialectic could be used to advance political action. His emphasis on the negative critique of American society excluded a positive approach to a working-class which was seen as rapidly becoming assimilated into the bourgeoisie.

According to Joel, Marcuse was subject to moods of great pessimism and optimism about radical change in the USA. Without a grounding in political economy and without an orientation to the working-class, Marcuse was prone to subjectivity. Since the overwhelming preoccupation of the Frankfurt school was the Subject in bourgeois society rather than classes, it is easy to see how he would be affected in this way.

Another thing that Joel pointed out is that the Frankfurt distance from the working-class was not just theoretical. One of Marcuse's students at Columbia, an old friend of Joel's, told him once that he never saw Marcuse dine except on linen tablecloths and being served by kitchen help.

Joel was strongly influenced by the Frankfurt School in the early 1970s when he was in training as a psychiatrist. Marcuse, in particular, helped him to frame the ideas contained in his book "White Racism: A Psychohistory."

In the 1980s, Joel, like many of us, began to rethink some of his Marxist preconceptions. He now views the Frankfurt school as having a fundamental weakness in its inability to ground social transformation in the working class. The "postscarcity" framework of the Frankfurt school now seems dated as the economic crisis of the past 20 years has gnawed away at the living conditions of European and American workers. He believes that a Gramscian approach to socialist politics is more useful, one that posits long-term, strategic "positional warfare" against the capitalist class.

I have come to this position myself. My own background is in "classical" Trotskyist politics and I was opposed to the Frankfurt outlook from the beginning. In my cocky, sectarian youth, I used to badger SDS'er for their "lack of faith" in the working-class. After the May/June 1968 French events, my position seemed unassailable. Us hard-nosed Bolsheviks were "correct" and the Frankfurt thinkers were full of beans.

The 30 or so intervening years since May/June 1968 have had, needless to say, a chastening effect on my Trotskyist cocksureness. I have also come around to a Gramscian trench-warfare "long view" of politics. Which is not to say that I don't sometimes take the opportunity to make guerrilla raids on the enemy camp with Molotov cocktails in both hands. So far I am bloody but unbowed.

Meanwhile, on another point of agreement with Joel Kovel. Comrades should understand that my commitment to ecosocialism is the result of hearing Joel speak on the subject at the Brecht Forum a couple of years ago. His likening of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors had a powerful effect on me. Joel stated that greens have to become red, and the reds have to become green.

Joel's final comment on the Frankfurt school ended on a personal note. He said that Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse demonstrate the danger of intellectuals being detached from the mass movement. In recent years, he has tried to avoid this by getting involved in green politics. Showing his willingness to put his beliefs on the line, Joel has agreed to run for Senator against Al D'Amato on the NY State Green Party ticket. When I found out about this, I told him that I would volunteer to petition and do whatever work is necessary to get the word out. I strongly encourage other people to get involved with the campaign. Donate your time or your money. You can get in touch with Joel at: