An Introduction to the Frankfurt School


July 28, 2009 by Gsmith

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Heidelberg

Institut für Sozialforschung (The Institute for Social Research) was founded in 1930 at Frankfurt University. Known affectionately as The Frankfurt School, it comprises a school of thought, rather than an educational institution. Its founders, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, gathered outspoken critics of capital in an attempt to explain the failure of Marx’s social theories. Among its more notable members were Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and Erich Fromm.

Rather than simply regurgitate Marxian theory, as so many other theorists had done, the Frankfurters decoupled opposition to the excesses of capital from overt Marxian teleology, setting what might have been considered orthodox Marxism up as an object of criticism. Marxist-Leninist philosophy was previously seen as either a: a deliberate attempt to mislead the people in the non-Communist West or b: an end in itself. The Frankfurters materialized class struggle and reframed orthodox Marxism as a language with which to express the understanding of the proletariat in context of the wider world, and which defined the aims it ought to pursue.

The Frankfurt School’s critique of Marxist-Leninist philosophy put them into a unique position, due to their concern with psychological existence rather than simply material ends. While not radically opposed to previous interpretations of Marx, the Frankfurters went beyond merely seeing the world through the lens of materialism. Psychological transformation was no longer the desired result of social change, but an essential part of what would bring it about.

The aesthetic dimension of the Frankfurt School’s critique was not merely some sort of concern with style. Sensibility, a crucial aspect of Marx’s historicism and humanism, were on the periphery of his theoretical concerns. The Frankfurt School made concern for life and lifestyle the focus of their project. In this, the Frankfurters did no violence to Marx’s words or memory, but ornamented the concern for materialist motivations. At the same time, it embodies the essence of the new Marxism: an unparalleled criticism of the crass insensitivity of the bourgeoise, their wasteful hobbies, their personal excesses, their unbridled lust and sexual debauchery, their incessant need to escape the reality of their shallow, miserable lives through alcohol, bad art and conspicuous consumption. Capital therefore is condemned and thoroughly refuted by the shallow affluence of bourgeois life. The poverty of its proletarian victims became a by-product. Capital evolved into a welfare and warfare state, abolishing grinding poverty, but capitalism never provided a minimum level of subsistence to the soul.

Proletarian life in a modern industrial society is exposed as dull, complacent and compliant. The Frankfurt School consciously abandoned the proletariat as the subject of the revolutionary narrative. To advocate for the average worker in an age when the proletariat is well fed places a social critic in an impotent position. It is through a commitment to the radical transformation of human existence, resurrecting the distinction between subjective and objective pleasure, that an authentic revolutionary becomes an agent of social transformation. Discounting the transparently subjective feelings of satisfaction enjoyed by the proletariat, the Frankfurters lead the way toward a critique of universal, objective misery. Members of the Frankfurt School, while retaining their materialist convictions, questioned and then rejected the proletariat as an agent of radical change. Having lost the historical basis of dialectical materialism, the Frankfurt School used the anti-bourgeiose residue to paint a new portrait of the world as they saw it; and moved a Marxist critique of capital from starvation and deprivation in the physical world to false consciousness in the psychological.

In this sense, the critique of the ruling class was transferred to the proletariat, redeeming the collective memory of the working-class despite the overt counter-revolutionary sentiments and their decadent embourgeoisment.


4 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Frankfurt School

  1. Joseph says:

    Cool. Definitely food for thought. I always thought Marx had a few good points, but dialectical materialism never really did it for me.

  2. Grégoire says:

    Concern for sensibility and sensitivity – aesthetics – was the desired direction these guys wanted to push anticapitalist sentiment toward.

    The teachings of the LDS Church in regards to media and mass culture were, not surprisingly, pretty much identical to the Frankfurt School’s critique of advanced industrial society.

  3. J. Madson says:

    I read a book called To Hell With Culture that sounded much like these guys.

    Gregoire, is this somewhat related to the Frankfurt school?

  4. Grégoire says:

    Dear J-

    Herb Read (the author of that title) definitely wasn’t part of the Frankfurt School per se. He may have been influenced by the same themes though.

    IIRC Read’s interpretation of aesthetics suggested that all art was subjectively interpreted. Broadly speaking, this implies that the crap art the Frankfurters poked fun at (soup cans, etc.) was legitimate. In that regard they may have been oppositional to one another.

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