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.

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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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