Ideology after Auschwitz
Cold War having been over for more than a decade, it would appear that the war
of ideologies, Marxism versus Capitalism, has disappeared along with it. Thinkers
like Francis Fukuyama posit a world where history has ended, where a new order
need not be imagined outside a liberal capitalist framework. What Fukuyama
and his ilk overlook, however, is the possibility for a war against ideology- that is, a grand effort
to wrest classic ideals of freedom, justice, equality, democracy et al. from
those institutions which herald them, quite erroneously, as their own. Indeed,
in the arena of theory, this war broke out long ago, under the banner of critical theory. It finds its modern
origins in the Frankfurt school, a diverse body of
German thinkers whose work continues to shape the way radical theorists
perceive the world. While working within Marxist traditions, these critical
theorists, the most well-known of whom are Max Horkheimer,
Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, all considered the revolutionary project terribly
incomplete, a fact they saw manifested in the horrors of Stalinist Russia. In
consequence, the theorists of the Frankfurt school chose to draw on the
philosophical work of the younger Karl Marx rather than the “scientific,” rigid
and economic work of the elder Marx. Moving beyond works of economy, sociology
and philosophy were by far more their forte, enlarging their critique to
include, among other things, the State and the commodification
of culture. What resulted was a break from “traditional theory,” a relentless
critique of ideology- not only an
understanding that all knowledge is informed by its place and time, but also of
the ways in which society reproduces itself, its beliefs and functions, and how
those change over time. It was an approach unusually interdisciplinary, and not
without purpose: altogether, those of the Frankfurt
school sought to identify the possibilities for radical social change, in order
to achieve “the recovery for human beings of the full capacities of humanity.”
hopes for a better world, meanwhile, was a serious pessimistic undercurrent; so
serious, in fact, that any discussion of the Frankfurt
school is wholly incomplete without its mention. Even with the defeat of Nazism
and the end of World War II, this attitude seems to have only increased; within
their theory, it resulted in a negative aversion to political action of any
kind. As the 20th century continued, this aversion grew into a general
hostility towards the political upheaval that characterized the 1960s. It set a
precedent for the project of critical theory- an indifference to real world
action and an escape into the “citadel” of
the academy. According to Craig Calhoun, “their legacy has been mainly a highly
abstract form of theoretical work that has kept their critical tradition
isolated from much of the mainstream of empirical social science.”
Considering the scope of their work, this legacy need not be their only one;
and yet, for the most part, their pessimistic conclusions remain inadequately
What is needed now
more than ever is an understanding that follows in the critical theory
tradition: a critical understanding
of the limitations the Frankfurt school’s historical situation had on their work
and consequently, how that has shaped their legacy. One need only quote Adorno’s declaration, “To write poetry after Auschwitz
and the point concerning pessimism is painfully clear. Still, if we remove this
quotation from the context of its essay in order to consider it in the larger
context of the Frankfurt school, the pessimism of the theorists can be, in
turn, put into appropriate historical
context: they were not only Germans, but German Jews, who had experienced two
catastrophic wars and seen the hopes of a proletariat revolution brought to
ruin by the constrains of totalitarianism.
If, after Auschwitz
poetry was indeed barbaric, it could only follow that more sectarian activities
deserved and received more intense scrutiny. All that they could see in the
authoritarian and bureaucratic means of a Leninist vanguard organization, for
example, were disastrous and totalitarian ends.
Accordingly, the Frankfurt school came under its own
fair share of scrutiny from the orthodox Marxist department. One critic
dismissed their “method as impotence; art as consolation, pessimism as
would take it beyond mere dismissal and formulate more extreme conclusions,
carelessly typifying that which the theorists feared most. One reviewer of Marcuse’s Essay on
Liberation, unfulfilled by his insistence on a “new, humane consciousness
and sensibility,” turned to the Vietcong for a better example of resistance:
“We have to learn to discipline ourselves, to hate, to destroy and to kill.
This society will be liberated but at the cost of much blood.”
Faced with this sort of reckless militancy, it is not difficult to understand
the hesitation the Frankfurt theorists had in providing
a political program. In fact, it was this very hesitancy which drove them to
maintain a “consciously esoteric thrust:” to ensure that their ideas would
escape the “instrumentalization by those very forces
that the theory had sought to oppose.”
And so it was that
throughout the 1960’s, critical theory was on the defensive. Horkheimer was irritated to see pirated copies of many of
his early, more explicitly political articles fall into the hands of the
student movement of West Germany,
and made sure that many of these works were not reprinted. Despite expressing
some sympathy with the students, Adorno too kept them
at arms length, claiming any connection with the movement would compromise his
“productivity.” It was
only Marcuse, whom Time magazine would eventually galvanize as the "guru of the
New Left," that was willing to take a role as the movement’s mentor. Yet
he even he had his reservations, which he was unafraid to make public. Speaking
in Berlin in 1967 at a four day
student conference centering on his lectures, Marcuse
disappointed the students, denying that they held any potential as subjects of
radical historical change. As he
would later write in a letter to Adorno, the
students’ situation was “not a revolutionary one, not even a pre-revolutionary
In “an evasion of the question of what was to be done in the West,” Marcuse instead placed his bets on the Third
World liberation struggles to bring about immense social
That Marcuse still thought in terms of “revolutionary” and “unrevolutionary” is telling. If it was their historical
experience putting the damper on their hope for revolution, it was their belief
that revolutions constituted the only
possibility for positive change which ultimately defined their pessimism.
Ironically, it was the very Marxism from which they were trying to escape that
condemned them to inaction. As Paul Piccone observes,
the Frankfurt school initially labored “within a
framework that promised a socialist pot of gold at the end of the capitalist
rainbow.” As the years progressed and a specific revolutionary agent was no
where to be found, their work remained within this storybook dialectic- “minus
the happy ending.”
The result was that “the political impotence [critical theory] presupposed was
turned into a theoretical virtue,” and all possibilities change were
David Held explains, they had put forth “a revolutionary theory in an age
which, on their account, [was] non-revolutionary.”
While the critical
theorists hesitated to engage in any political activity, movements would
surface aspiring to address and challenge the oppressions of everyday life-
race and gender studies in particular would breach the walls of academia, and
themselves become subjects of the continuing critical theory project. In an
emergent era of the personal as political, it has become exceedingly clear how
the theorists, “in trying to account for the absence of revolution,” tended to “underrate
the complexity of political events.”
The historical situation which fed their pessimism was in turn projected
through the lens of the universalizing conception of their Marxism.
It would seem that
many prophecies of the Frankfurt school have come to pass: from the commodification of “revolution” in the likes of Ché Guevara apparel, to the increasing encroachment of
market relationships into the traditional structures of the family and
community. We should be thankful then, that in regards to the demise of social
and political change, the critical theorists were altogether wrong: meaningful struggle against oppression
continues. In one way at least, the current state of political and social
action may even be said to resemble the critical theory project itself. Within
the largely decentralized organization of the current anti-globalization
movement for example, there exists a strong distrust of any ideology seeking to
appropriate it. In this way, the war against
ideology may have finally begun to take a tangible form. To the Zapatistas, the
indigenous people’s movement in Chiapas, Mexico,
this is expressed as “one no, many yeses:” no to the capitalist order, yes to
the versatile nature of the global resistance.
Unlike the Marxism
of yesteryear, today’s resistance is yet to fall under one rigid, doctrinaire
banner of change. And so, without a deterministic doctrine to call upon, it is
within ourselves that the
revolutionary agents are to be found. Activists would do well to instill a
critical theory to their practice, in order to fuse their analysis of current
institutions with a critical understanding of history, including the history
yet to be written; this entails a vision, not rigid predictions. At the same
time, theorists would do well to instill a critical practice to their theory.
There is truth to the claims of Noam Chomsky, who
writes that “while left intellectuals discourse polysyllabically to one
another, truths that were once understood are buried, history is reshaped into
an instrument of power, and the ground is laid for enterprises to come.” Whether
those enterprises of power ever materialize depends largely on the ground we
ourselves can manage to break, the quality of the movements we aspire to build.
Certainly, this is one of the many lessons the Frankfurt
school passes on, and all that “the recovery for human beings of the full
capacities of humanity” requires.
The Frankfurt School. < http://home.cwru.edu/~ngb2/Pages/Intro.html>
A very well written and accessible introduction to Frankfurt’s
main theorists: Adorno, Horkheimer,
Marcuse, and Benjamin, as well as Habermas.
This page is far from comprehensive, however, tending to only cover one or two
aspects of each thinker.
Ali, Tariq and Susan Watkins. 1968: Marching in the Streets. London:
Bloomsburg Publishing, 1998.
Provides a criminally short yet descriptive aside concerning
Marcuse’s role in the New Left, particularly the
Piccone, Paul. "General
Introduction." In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by
Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, ix-xx. New York:
Continuum Publishing, 2000.
From a collection of essays from the Frankfurt
theorists, Piccone’s introduction is a succinct piece
exploring the importance of the Frankfurt
Bottommore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought: Second
Edition. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 1991. s.v. “Frankfurt
Calhoun, Craig. Critical
Social Theory. Cambridge:
Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Calhoun’s work is mostly concerned with elaborating critical
theory for today through the exploration of social theorists not commonly
associated with it. His opening essay “Rethinking Critical Theory” proves to be
a valuable, albeit cursory assessment of the Frankfurt
Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Cambridge:
South End Press, 1993.
In the last chapter of this book Chomsky’s touches on the
prospects for change in the United States
today, and does not hesitate to criticize the current left intellectual scene.
Craig, Edward, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. New
York: Routledge, 1998. s.v. "The Frankfurt School," by Axel Honneth.
This is a typical overview of Frankfurt
which is unafraid to be critique the “functionalism” of the main Frankfurt
theorists (Adorno, Horkheimer,
and Marcuse) while highlighting the “Neglected
Margins,” particularly Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer.
Held, David. Introduction
to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas.
Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 1980.
A critical introduction to the more important works emerging
from Frankfurt, this book offers “An assessment of the Frankfurt
school and Habermas” including critical theory’s
Jacobs, Harold. "The Dialectics of Liberation: a review
of Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation." In The Movement Toward a New
America, edited by Mitchell Goodman. Philadelphia:
Pilgrim Press, 1970.
Jay, Martin. The
Dialectical Imagination. Boston:
Little Brown, 1973.
Being the earliest of all the major works on the Frankfurt
School I have used, this volume was
scant in offering any reasons for the School’s contemporary importance. It does
provide one of the most thorough histories of the school, however.
Ramsay, Anders, “The Frankfurt
School.” In Classical and Modern Social Theory, edited by Heine
Andersen and Lars Bo Kaspersen. Cambridge:
Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Focusing almost entirely on Adorno
and Horkheimer, this essay offers a good general
introductory review to Frankfurt, including sidebar
biographies and a collection of “Key Concepts,” though it somewhat reduces the
school’s contemporary importance primarily to aesthetics.
Wiggerhaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1994.
This contains a chronological account of Frankfurt’s
ideas with an informative introduction, as well as a useful account of the role
of critical theory in the 60’s student movements.