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18 August 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:01am

Why Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School failed to change the world

The Frankfurt School has been blamed for starting the culture wars that destroyed American values. Would we do well to ignore it today? 

By Stuart Jeffries

Shortly before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Donald Trump Jr handed his father a memo entitled “Potus & Political Warfare”. The memo blamed the German Jews of the Frankfurt School for starting the culture wars that destroyed American values. “[C]ultural Marxism,” wrote the memo’s author, National Security Council official Rich Higgins, “relates to programmes and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the ­rubric of critical theory.”

Higgins’s memo suggested that groups opposed to Donald Trump, including the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, academics, the media, Democrats, globalists, international bankers, late-night TV comedians and moderate Republicans, are all Frankfurt School puppets: “attacks on President Trump… operate in a battle-space prepared, informed and conditioned by cultural Marxist drivers.”

It’s a conspiracy theory – and an anti- Semitic one – suggesting that these German Marxist Jews who lived in exile in the US during the Third Reich had been an enemy within, corrupting the land that gave them shelter. Martin Jay, the great American historian of the Frankfurt School, revels in its absurdity in his book of essays. “Here we have clearly broken through the looking glass and entered a parallel universe in which the normal rules of evidence and plausibility have been suspended.” In our post-truth era, even dead Marxists get charged with having political power ­beyond their wildest dreams.

The irony is that the Frankfurt School had negligible real-world impact. The Institute for Social Research, the school’s headquarters, was founded in the early 1920s to account for the failure of revolution in Germany in 1919. The Marxist theorists’ conclusion was that an economic account of history was inadequate; what was needed was a cultural analysis of ­authoritarianism, racism and the role of mass entertainment in seducing the masses into desiring their own domination.

Accordingly, in Europe and during exile in the US, the Frankfurt School studied everything from astrology columns to Hollywood cinema and popular music, radio demagogues to consumerism. The masses had been diverted from overthrowing capitalism by what the school’s leading thinkers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called verblendungzussamenhang, a total system of delusion.

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The Frankfurt conspiracy theory, which has captivated several alt-right figures including Trump, Jordan Peterson and the late Andrew Breitbart, founder of the eponymous news service, turned this history on its head. Rather than impotent professors issuing scarcely comprehensible jeremiads from the academy, the likes of Adorno, Horkheimer, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse were a crack cadre of ­subversives, who, during their American exile, performed a cultural takedown to which “Make America Great Again” is a belated riposte. (Walter Benjamin never reached the US – fearing ­repatriation to Nazi Germany, he killed himself in Spain in 1940.)

But it is not just alt-right rubes who have been fooled into believing the Frankfurt School harboured masters of subversion. In 2010, Fidel Castro wrote that the exiled Marxist academics worked with the Rockefeller family in the 1950s to develop mind control, deploying rock music as the new opium of the masses – hence, Castro suggested, the invasion of the US by the Beatles who, he claimed, were tasked by the Frankfurt School with weaponising Merseybeat to destroy liberation movements.

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Jay finds the notion risible, ironically suggesting that it explains John Lennon’s quiet lyrics in one of the band’s hits: “You say you want a revolution. You know you can count me out… Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?” In the late 1930s, Adorno took part in a Rockefeller Foundation-funded research project at Princeton – on radio content not mind control – and certainly understood the Beatles as instruments of a culture industry by which late capitalism thwarted revolution. Adorno, however, was not the éminence grise behind mop-topped world domination.

The truth of the Frankfurt School is that it failed to grasp Marx’s dictum: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Jürgen Habermas, the school’s second-generation leader, called his predecessors’ retreat from political action a “strategy of hibernation”. The time was not right for taking to the streets, Adorno told students in the late 1960s; for their part, his students saw their professor as a tool of oppression. They had a point. When students occupied the Institute for Social Research in 1969 Adorno called the police to evict them. One lecture by Adorno was interrupted when a student wrote on the blackboard, “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.”

That same year, Jay told a fellow grad student at Columbia he was writing a dissertation on the Frankfurt School. The result would be his still seminal history of critical theory’s early years, The Dialectical Imagination (1973). His friend – a member of the militant left-wing organisation the ­Weather Underground – was dismissive. Didn’t Jay realise those Frankfurt jokers were craven sell-outs and Adorno in particular was contemptible for changing his surname from the Jewish-sounding Wiesengrund during his American exile?

Jay was not dissuaded. Thirty years later, though, he made a terrible discovery. In a cache of Adorno’s correspondence, Jay found a character assassination of himself. Adorno accused Jay of being a sensation-seeking money-grubber and warned everybody off talking to him. Jay wrote an essay called “The Ungrateful Dead” about how it feels to spend your career promoting the intellectual legacy of someone who then stabs you in the back from beyond the grave.

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In 2021, then, surely we would do well to ignore the Frankfurt School? Jay’s new book suggests otherwise. In elegant essays on subjects ranging from Benjamin’s stamp collecting to the school’s engagement with emerging psychoanalytic thought, Jay shows that its writings are not only historical curios, but indispensable for understanding our own age. Their analyses of authoritarianism, for example, especially the parallels they drew between America’s mid-century culture industry and Joseph Goebbels’ totalitarian use of propaganda in enforcing conformity and silence, not only remain relevant but to some seem prescient: “The Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming,” read a fanciful New Yorker headline in 2016.

Their insights into consumerism and human sacrifice on the altar of shopping have if anything become more germane. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Since they wrote these words, such self-loathing consumerism has become ubiquitous. We all know that using Amazon Prime makes us complicit in the exploitation of workers, but we carry on regardless. We are virtuosos of consumerist disavowal. Their diagnosis of anti-Semitism retains its critical power too. “And so people shout ‘Stop thief!’ – but point at the Jews,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. “They are the scapegoats not only for individual manoeuvres and machinations, but in a broader sense, inasmuch as the injustice of the whole class is attributed to them.”

There is something else we need to learn from the Frankfurt School, though – something they taught by negative example: the perils of that strategy of hibernation. Jay argues that at heart, his hero Adorno “doggedly maintained a utopian hope, against the failure of all efforts to realise it, that the domination of the constitutive subject can be ended”. But hope without action led to the aura of ivory-tower smugness that often hangs over the Frankfurt School. “I established a theoretical system of thought,” Adorno told an interviewer at the height of the student revolts. “How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?” Adorno was no doubt right to point out the shortcomings of student uprisings, but he was also exasperating for programmatically retreating from the fray and back into theory.

Bertolt Brecht nailed the Frankfurt School best. For him, the group started as revolutionaries who sought to overthrow capitalism but became disengaged intellectuals. Condemned to live in an idolatrous world with the outlook of Hegel’s “beautiful soul”, they spent their lives finessing waspish denunciations of society for like-minded readers rather than striving to transform it. They changed the world too little rather than, as National Security Council lackeys told Trump, too much.

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Verso, 256pp, £19.99

[see also: Jeanette Winterson’s vision of the future of AI is messianic – but unconvincing]

This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal