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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: 

What’s the good of all that, since the politically liberated blacks are choosing the same dismal values and lifestyles of the white workers, seduced by the opportunities to consume shoddy goods and wallow in the degrading excitements of the popular art?

Hook’s response was to ask, “Which situation would you prefer: one in which the blacks had no political freedom to vote or to choose the cultural values they pleased, or one in which they had these freedoms but chose unwisely?” According to Hook, after a pause, Marcuse replied, “Well, since I have already gone out on a limb, I may as well go all the way. I would prefer that the blacks did not have the right to choose wrongly.” Referring to this answer in his 1987 autobiography, Hook commented, “For this and other reasons, Marcuse never became the darling of the black American students.” The exception, of course, was Marcuse’s star pupil, Angela Davis, who wrote in a 2005 essay that “the overarching themes of Marcuse’s thought are as relevant today on the cusp of the twenty-first century as they were when his scholarship and political interventions were most widely celebrated.”

Wheatland rejects the notion that Marcuse was “the guru of student rebellion.” Indeed, according to Wheatland, Marcuse was “more influenced by the New Left than the New Left was influenced by him.” One of the major differences between orthodox Marxism and the critical theory of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse “was the idea that ‘late capitalism’ was far more stable and entrenched than traditional Marxists had ever thought.” In coming to believe that the student radicals could somehow trigger a revolution, Marcuse took what Wheatland calls “a leap of faith” that neither Horkheimer nor Adorno was willing to make.

Like Marcuse, Horkheimer in the ’60s broke with some of the key ideas of critical theory formulated in the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike Marcuse, Horkheimer was not moved by a rekindling of revolutionary fervor but by a reconsideration of the events of a lifetime. In retrospect, the staying power of “late capitalism” in general and the United States in particular had turned out to be not such a bad thing. As Wheatland puts it, “Having witnessed the role played by the United States during World War II and the Cold War, Horkheimer took the view that the country had twice saved Europe collectively and him personally from totalitarianism.” 

Adorno was less sympathetic to the United States but no more willing than Horkheimer to join Marcuse in making common cause with protesters who condemned America for war crimes in Vietnam while ignoring or condoning Communist atrocities. In a 1969 letter, Adorno insisted that if Marcuse was determined to protest, “then you should not only protest against the horror of napalm bombs but also against the unspeakable Chinese-style tortures that the Vietcong carry out permanently.”

Marcuse, however, was not interested in any moral calculus that weighed the actions of right and left on the same scale. Already, in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse had argued for a “liberating tolerance” whose distinguishing characteristic would be “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” According to Wheatland, “Repressive Tolerance” had more impact on the New Left than anything else Marcuse wrote, including One-Dimensional Man. In it, Marcuse condemned the legal violence of the police or army as “regressive,” but made no such criticism of violence aimed against the established order. In Wheatland’s view, Marcuse sent a mixed message to the protesters: On the one hand, “he denied his support for violence in speeches and interviews throughout the late 1960s and 1970s,” but the “nightmare vision” of American society presented in “Repressive Tolerance,” One-Dimensional Man, and his other theoretical writings “implicitly encouraged many within the student movement to pursue more dramatic and dangerous actions.” If reform was impossible, and yet radical change was a necessity, any and all measures were justified, as long as they were “oppositional.” Wheatland argues, “By demonizing the System, Marcuse sought to convince all of their victimhood and to legitimate all acts of opposition.”

Although Wheatland recognizes that Marcuse’s view of “the System” as irremediably evil “fueled apocalyptic fantasies” and justified “acts of terrorism” on the left, he seems rather sympathetic to Marcuse himself. He attempts, for example, to defend him against the charge of Irving Howe and Lewis Coser that Marcuse’s “refusal to condemn the Soviet repression in East Germany and Hungary” while teaching at Brandeis in the ’50s amounted to “a defense of Stalinism.” Wheatland cites an article in the Brandeis student newspaper (November 7, 1956) reporting a lecture in which Marcuse refused to side with either the Soviet Union or the Hungarian rebels on the grounds that, although the former was indeed oppressive, the latter were reactionaries and unworthy of support. Marcuse’s studied neutrality arguably amounted to “a defense of Stalinism,” just as Howe and Coser claimed; but for Wheatland the article provides evidence that “Marcuse’s position was more complex and nuanced than either Howe or Coser recalled.”

Like many American academics writing about the Frankfurt School, Wheatland seems reluctant to make straightforward, substantive criticisms of its critical theory—although he does raise some objections to the use of Marcuse’s thought by activists of the New Left. The relative immunity of the critical theorists from academic criticism seems to derive, at least in part, from their willingness to claim by implication the highest moral and intellectual status for themselves, thus insinuating that any criticism would reveal the hopelessly bourgeois status of the critic.


To his credit, Wheatland does make explicit the view of themselves that the critical theorists usually left unstated: “The members of the Frankfurt School grew to see themselves as the only revolutionary subject, because only they had achieved a state of self-conscious reflection that transcended the reified world of the totally administered society.” In other words, they and they alone were free from the “false consciousness” that afflicted the working class, the bourgeosie, even other Marxists. Wheatland does not consider what such monumental arrogance suggests about the whole Frankfurt project, but he does comment that there was something “undemocratic and elitist” about their view of the world.

Despite Wheatland’s own unwillingness to draw conclusions from the evidence he has compiled, his research does throw a good deal of light on the foibles of a group of thinkers whose confidence that they had special access to the truth has been largely unchallenged by an academy that prides itself on its skepticism about “truth” claims in general. 

For an authoritative critical evaluation of the thought of the Frankfurt School, we must leave Wheatland and turn to the third volume of the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. Wheatland calls Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment a “theoretical masterpiece.” Kolakowski, less impressed, notes that the authors’ “concept of ‘enlightenment’ is a fanciful, unhistorical hybrid composed of everything they dislike: positivism, logic, deductive and empirical science, capitalism, the money power, mass culture, liberalism, and Fascism.” 

Wheatland quotes approvingly Jürgen Habermas’s judgment that “Adorno was a genius” with “a power of formulation which I have never encountered before or since.” For Wheatland, Negative Dialectics (1966) is Adorno’s “most sustained philosophical work,” one which “presented his positions developed over a career of thought”—characterizations which risk no independent judgment on Wheatland’s part but certainly suggest the work is a significant contribution to philosophy. Kolakowski, however, points out that Negative Dialectics “contains no arguments but only ex cathedra statements using concepts that are nowhere explained.” In his view, “Adorno’s argument boils down to an assortment of ideas borrowed uncritically from Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, Lukács, Bergson, and Bloch.” Adorno himself contributes “an almost unparalleled vagueness of exposition,” making Negative Dialectics “a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.” 

As for Marcuse, in contrast to Wheatland, Kolakowski believes that the New Left interpreted Marcuse fairly accurately. He was, indeed, opposed to “tolerance, democracy, and free speech,” since these stood in the way of the radical transformation for which he yearned.

Reflecting on the contemporary relevance of the critical theorists, Wheatland finds it “striking to consider how rapidly the legacy of the Frankfurt School disappeared from the public intellectual arena and how quickly it found a home within the academy.” It is, perhaps, even more striking to observe the degree to which the group’s key thesis—the notion that the freedoms and prosperity offered by the United States and other advanced industrial societies are meaningless because they lack spiritual depth or, as Marcuse put it, are “one-dimensional”—has been taken up not by scholars eager to publish books about “late capitalism” but by true believers determined to destroy what some of them call “the Great Satan.”

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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