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Andrew Hedden




Ideology after Auschwitz

            The 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.”[1]

Accompanying these 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”[2] 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.”[3] 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 dealt with.

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 is barbaric,” [4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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 quiescence.”[7] Others 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10] 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 one.”[11] 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 transformation.[12]

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.” [13] The result was that “the political impotence [critical theory] presupposed was turned into a theoretical virtue,” and all possibilities change were extinguished.[14] As David Held explains, they had put forth “a revolutionary theory in an age which, on their account, [was] non-revolutionary.”[15]

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.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.


Annotated Bibliography

The Frankfurt School. <>

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 student movement.



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 School.


Bottommore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought: Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991. s.v. “Frankfurt school.”


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 School’s work.


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 “unresolved problems.”


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.






[1] Craig Calhoun, Critical Social Theory (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.), 20.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, in reference to the need to preserve theory within universities. "Herbert Marcuse," Internet Archive: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People, (20 November 2002). <>

[3] Calhoun, 34.

[4] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston: Little Brown, 1973), ??

[5] Calhoun, 22.

[6] David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 360-361.

[7] David Held, 354 quote of Perry Anderson

[8] Harold Jacobs, "The Dialectics of Liberation: a review of Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation," in The Movement Toward a New America, ed. Mitchell Goodman (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970), 661.

[9] Paul Piccone. “General Introduction” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum Publishing, 2000), xiii- xiv.

[10] Rolf Wiggerhaus, The Frankfurt School (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 621.

[11] Ibid, 615.

[12] Ibid, 623.

[13] Piccone, xv.

[14] Ibid, xvi-xvii.

[15] Held, 399.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Cambridge: South End Press, 1993), 286.