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The Critical Trio

Adorno, Horkheim, Marcuse, and the world they unmade.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Frankfurt School in Exile
by Thomas Wheatland
Minnesota, 416 pp., $39.95

The Critical Trio

Theodor Adorno

The Frankfurt School, whose major figures include Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), were avowedly Marxist theorists who developed their “critical theory” first in Frankfurt during the Weimar Republic and then in the United States, where they sought refuge after the Nazis came to power. Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt in 1949, while Marcuse remained in the United States, gaining notoriety in the late 1960s and early ’70s as a would-be mentor and critical supporter of the New Left. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School accepted the orthodox Marxist belief that capitalism could and should give way to socialism.

The critical theorists, however, rejected some of the basic tenets of Marxism, most notably the key thesis that the industrial working class was the revolutionary agent destined to overthrow capitalism. According to the Frankfurt School, socialist revolution in the West had become a practical impossibility but remained a moral necessity. The originality of the critical theorists derived from their willingness to ignore or discount all the economic, social, and political gains achieved in the 20th century by the vast majority of the populations of Western democracies in favor of what Thomas Wheatland, in this study of their years in America, calls “a nightmare vision of late capitalism, in which reason had become obliterated, freedom had been surrendered, and history could finally be perceived as a steady descent into barbarism.” 

Two questions suggest themselves in any reconsideration of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. First, were the theorists justified in considering themselves Marxists? Second, and much more important, were the critical theorists right in believing that revolution in the industrialized West was necessary—and yet impossible? Wheatland carefully avoids answering either question, contenting himself with a well-researched historical account of the group’s years in this country and an analysis of their influence on American culture and, conversely, the effect that the American years had on their ideas and attitudes.

Wheatland’s major thesis is that the Frankfurt School was not nearly so isolated during its years in the United States as is generally assumed, and as they themselves liked to pretend. “Perhaps the most vivid and poignant metaphor that the Horkheimer Circle developed in exile,” he writes, “was the image of the message in a bottle”—a metaphor implying that their ideas would be heard, if at all, only by later generations. But Wheatland’s research reveals that the Frankfurt School traded ideas with many academics and thinkers in the United States, most notably the group now remembered as the New York intellectuals. Although Wheatland is sympathetic (though not uncritical) toward the Frankfurt School, the most impressive figure who emerges from his study of their interchanges with American intellectuals is not Adorno, and not Horkheimer or Marcuse, but Sidney Hook. 

Hook, whose books published in the ’30s include two classics of Marxist analysis, Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx and From Hegel to Marx, had an understanding of both Marxism and the German philosophical tradition comparable to that of the critical theorists. When Hook met what Wheatland calls “the Horkheimer circle,” however, he was already beginning to question both Marxism as an intellectual system and the Soviet Union as an incarnation of Marxist theory. Horkheimer and his group had their own criticisms of both, but they were not willing to go nearly as far as Hook. The critical theorists insisted, for example, that Marxist dialectics represented a way of thinking far superior to ordinary “bourgeois science,” a view that Hook rejected as a residue of Hegelian metaphysics. In one encounter, Hook challenged Horkheimer and the rest to provide “an illustration from any field of a statement that was scientifically true but dialectically false or one that was dialectically true but scientifically false.” In Wheatland’s account, the critical theorists responded by changing the subject.

Wheatland also notes Hook’s criticism of the Frankfurt School in a 1983 essay as both elitists and “inadequate Marxists and social scientists.” He fails, however, to mention the essay’s most telling passage, a description of a 1965 encounter between Hook and Marcuse. Hook recalls that he replied to a Marcusean “denunciation” of American society by calling “attention to the significance of the Civil Rights Act Congress had passed and which already had made a heartening difference in improving the political and social life of the blacks and which promised even more.” Hook quotes Marcuse’s reply: 

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