The Magazine

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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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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