The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

Prophecy in Unbelieving Form

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Stuart Jeffries

New York, NY: Verso Books, 2016.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

Marxists can be the very best theologians, especially when they stare, unbelieving, into the abyss of historical hopelessness. Writing in the wake of the Nazi Judeocide and the specter of nuclear holocaust, Theodor Adorno, for instance, enlisted the eschatological hope of biblical religion. “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair,” he mused in the finale of Minima Moralia (1951), regards all things “from the standpoint of redemption.” Such a philosophy uncovers the world “with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.” To be sure, Adorno was no believer: “The reality or unreality of redemption hardly matters,” he wrote. Thus, the vantage of redemption must be “wrested from what is,” not revealed from outside history; it must be torn from a reality marked “by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.” Yet how could we elicit a promise of deliverance from a world so corrupt and misshapen? Mindful of the ancient Jewish prohibitions against soothsaying and graven images, Adorno insisted that our only purchase on the messianic future lay in “consummate negativity,” a relentless critique of the present that refused any glimpse or blueprint of utopia, a modern, secular surrogate for the prophetic iconoclasm of messianic faith.

Stuart Jeffries quotes this oft-cited passage in his “group biography” of the Frankfurt School, noting of the redemptive perspective only “how precarious it [is] to occupy it.” It’s a missed opportunity for insight. Adorno’s invocation of religion sheds invaluable light on the melancholy Marxism that so significantly informed the thought of the main thinkers among this congeries of dissident intellectuals who, in the 1920s, became informally associated with the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research. Returning to the inaugural moment in the history of the classical Marxist tradition—the repudiation of religion as a form of social criticism—Adorno contravened Marx in seeking to salvage and appropriate the moral authority of the sacred for critical purposes. “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism,” Marx had declared in 1843, adding that that task had been “essentially completed”; God and religion stood revealed as the projections of human self-alienation, illusory forms of fulfillment that constituted “the soul of soulless conditions.” Once the secular basis of those conditions is established, he said, “the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth,” and the energies once expended on wailing and lamentation can be directed toward revolutionary politics. Turning to religion in any way would be, in this view, a reactionary move, a regressive confession of the critical and political inadequacy of secular theory. Yet here was Adorno aligning critical theory with prophecy, messianism, and redemption.

Jeffries’s failure to explore this anomaly underlines the strengths and shortcomings of this rich intellectual history. A former Guardian editor and columnist, he furnishes a lucid introduction to the lives and ideas of a notoriously esoteric fraternity, deftly mapping the range and subtlety of the Frankfurt School’s forbiddingly recondite canon. We receive clear instruction in the differences between alienation and reification; a fine disquisition on Vernunft (substantive reason) and Verstand (instrumental rationality); and fluent expositions of Adorno and Max Horkheimer on the fiendish “dialectic of enlightenment,” Walter Benjamin on the Paris arcades and the debilitating myth of historical progress, and Jürgen Habermas on “communicative action” as the model for liberal democratic politics.

However wide-ranging and accessible, Jeffries’s account nonetheless offers few new insights into his subjects. One longs for some novel perspective from a book this capacious, absorbing, and timely. “We still live in a world like the one the Frankfurt School excoriated,” he notes, a round-the-clock workplace inhabited by beguiled and demoralized consumers. Yet if that is so, it would seem that the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory” has been a pedantic exercise in futility, “a more or less harmless diversion for the chattering classes,” as Jeffries himself observes at one point.

So is there anything more to the Frankfurt School now than amusement for a jaded intelligentsia? Is there anything that remains unfathomed or threatening? Adorno’s negative eschatology provides a clue: A move sideways from the Marxist secularization of criticism, it was a revival of prophecy in unbelieving form. Perhaps the criticism of earth is unsustainable without the antiquated criticism of heaven.

The Frankfurt School emerged in a superheated historical crucible: the hopes raised and dashed on the left by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the social convulsion, warfare, and genocide that marked the period from 1914 to 1945—“the second Thirty Years’ War,” as Arno Mayer once dubbed it. Precocious sons of the German Jewish bourgeoisie raised in the spectacle of Wilhelmine Germany, the Frankfurt School intellectuals rejected their fathers’ assimilation—the “mechanistic-materialistic, positivist way of thinking,” in Leo Lowenthal’s words—and embraced the economic and political verities of German social democracy. The success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia seemed to herald a world revolution; but instead of overthrowing their oppressors, workers in the liberal democracies stayed home and forsook their historical mission. In Germany, the Social Democrats joined forces with the right to quash the Spartacist uprising of January 1919, a counterrevolution that claimed the life of Rosa Luxemburg and baptized the Weimar Republic in blood.

Out of bewilderment at this conjuncture of apathy and betrayal came what Perry Anderson named “Western Marxism,” forged by a constellation of left intellectuals who turned from revolutionary politics to philosophy and cultural criticism: Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, and the Frankfurt School, most notably Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Why, they asked, do workers acquiesce, even fervently participate, in their own subordination? Some of the most sensitive and vigorous Marxism stems from their answers to this pivotal question: Lukacs’s account of the commodification of human relationships under capitalism (“reification”), and Gramsci’s theory of how ruling classes obtain the consent of the subaltern to their own servitude (“hegemony”). Assembled and bankrolled in 1923 by Felix Weil—son of a wealthy grain merchant and self-described “salon Bolshevik”—the Institute for Social Research undertook a similar diagnostic project, embarking on a collaborative, multidisciplinary study of capitalist civilization and its discontents. Choosing the seminar room over the barricades, the Institute became the first think tank of the radical left—a home for “modern-day monks,” in Jeffries’s words, cozily ensconced in a building they’d nicknamed “Café Marx” as they tried to explain the revolution’s delay.

“Critical theory” was the Frankfurt School’s elaborate alibi for the proletariat’s dereliction of its historical duty, and Jeffries follows the group from its coalescence in the Weimar Republic to its refugee stint in Hollywood, where Adorno and Horkheimer swanned with German expatriates and film industry moguls while writing their ominous Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947); its radiant detour in Paris with Benjamin—the group’s “most profound intellectual catalyst,” in Jeffries’s view—whose search for a messianic materialism ended abruptly with his suicide; its sojourn in America with Fromm and Marcuse, the latter becoming an unlikely, avuncular mentor to the American New Left; its conservative turn in West Germany and its tired, social-democratic denouement in the reunified Germany of Habermas. It’s a stimulating and informative narrative, sprinkled liberally with profiles and anecdotes that put an all-too-human face on critical theory: Adorno’s industry, elegance, and frosty hauteur; Benjamin’s whiny petulance and self-absorption; Horkheimer’s indenture to money and power, exemplified by his work for the West German defense ministry and his support for the Vietnam War.

But the ideas remain the leading protagonists, and Jeffries guides us through their labyrinthine complexity with great hermeneutic and analytical prowess. Even those already familiar with the Frankfurt School canon will marvel at the scope and sophistication of its members’ Marxist archaeology of the modern inferno, their excavation of the artifacts of commodity fetishism at all levels of capitalist society. They pioneered the study of the “culture industry”: film, radio, television, popular music, advertising, the whole symbolic universe of pecuniary culture. Their synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis—epitomized in Marcuse’s intellectual tour de force, Eros and Civilization (1955)—illuminated the psychic obstacles to revolution and the longings that might still inspire it, the vespers of a promesse de bonheur that still beckoned in art, music, and erotic love. At their most profound and unsettling, the scholars of the Frankfurt School identified fascism, genocide, technocracy, and mass-produced entertainment as pathologies of instrumental rationality, the hubris of reason culminating in mechanized duplicity, domination, and slaughter.

In the 1960s, Marcuse enjoyed a brief and illustrious stardom in the radical firmament, but by the 1990s, “a decade in which the Frankfurt School’s nightmare came true,” its descendants had abandoned all revolutionary hope in the face of capitalist globalization, seeking asylum in tenured acquiescence and affirming the bromides of liberal reformism. “There is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalized, totally reified, commodity-fetishizing world,” Jeffries writes, summarizing the dismal situation. But as he reminds us most pointedly in his pages on Benjamin, he and his colleagues were never merely radical doomsayers. In his unfinished and gloriously disheveled “Arcades Project,” a materialist feuilleton on Parisian commercial culture in the age of Louis Napoleon, Benjamin pointed to the utopian desires that surged through the shops and boutiques, yearnings for fulfillment and communion on which capital was a venal and seductive predator. Aiming, Jeffries writes, to “disclose history through its refuse and detritus,” Benjamin decoded “the dream wishes of the collective unconscious” in the fashions, catalogs, and window displays. (Still, in a refreshingly contrarian reading of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Jeffries chides Benjamin for the “deluded technological utopianism” of his faith in the revolutionary potential of cinema.)

Not everyone marveled at a critical acuity purchased at the cost of political disengagement. Marxism has always stressed the unity of theory and practice, and other comrades found the sight of leftish mandarins on sabbatical from the class struggle too much to stomach. Lukacs—to whom they were indebted for his ideas on reification—derided them as guests in “the Grand Hotel Abyss,” parlor radicals who surveyed and even savored misery and injustice from well-upholstered quarters. As Gramsci might have admonished from his prison cell, the Frankfurt School displayed pessimism of the intellect while affirming pessimism of the will. Jeffries agrees, asserting that his subjects “still have much to teach us” in a world given over to mercenary and instrumental reason. If indeed there is no alternative, he concedes, they exemplify “the impossibility and the necessity of thinking differently.”

That might seem like a prescription for paralysis and frustration; but I’m not sure that Jeffries understands just how differently the Frankfurt School can teach us to think. As his gloss on Adorno’s reflection at the end of Minima Moralia indicates, Jeffries neglects the religious and theological concerns that appear throughout the Frankfurt corpus. The self, Adorno insisted elsewhere in Minima Moralia, should be “spoken of theologically, in the name of its likeness to God.” Those who throw aside theology, he feared, will inevitably be forced to “justify the diabolical.” “At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology,” he wrote in Negative Dialectics (1966). “Its great desire is the resurrection of the flesh.” Why defy Marx’s interdiction against religion? Perhaps Adorno sensed that, without a vantage of redemption, “critique,” however righteous and incisive, would inevitably degenerate into cynicism and despair; “consummate negativity”—an iconoclasm without a deity in whose name we smash idols—could abort or eviscerate any hope or enthusiasm. The hermeneutic of suspicion needs a dialectical counterpart in a hermeneutic of redemption.

Benjamin was groping toward such a vantage of redemption—which makes what Jeffries overlooks about him all the more telling. He never tells us that the philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, one of Benjamin’s closest friends, once called him “a theologian stranded in a secular age,” or that Benjamin himself interjected in the “Arcades Project” that “my thinking is related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it.” We never learn that one of Benjamin’s earliest essays was a brief but penetrating meditation on the cultic character of money titled “Capitalism as Religion.” We get only the most cursory discussion of Benjamin’s interest in Jewish mysticism, while the theological imagery and implications of “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” his last, most cryptic, and most controversial essay (written shortly before his death in 1940), go entirely unaddressed.

If there’s a way to align theology and radical politics—to reconcile the criticism of heaven with the criticism of earth—that essay is one place to start, a way to think differently that’s necessary but not impossible in our mis-enchanted age. From his opening thesis, in which historical materialism “employs the services of theology,” to the final harbinger of an eschatological breakthrough that could happen at any portal in historical time—“every moment is the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter”—Benjamin both dispels the superstition of unilinear progress and beckons to a theo-revolutionary conception of politics and temporality. Adorno was wrong: The reality or unreality of redemption does matter. Animated by a new criticism of heaven, the Frankfurt School might yet help to pull us away from the abyss.

Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University and author of the forthcoming The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism as the Religion of Modernity.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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