Adorno, the Frankfurt School and the Soul of Europe

No one who has read Theodore Adorno would have been surprised by last summer’s Charlie Hebdo cartoon when Amatrice, an Italian town otherwise known for its pasta sauce, suffered a fatal earthquake. The French magazine with its satirical pasta shapes covered with blood and sticking plaster suggested we consume disasters like we consume spaghetti. That’s exactly what Adorno meant by the Culture Industry: getting things in the wrong moral register, for lack of a spiritual norm to refer to.


In the last fifty years an easy way to refer to Adorno’s attacks on capitalism has been to evoke, more generally, the Frankfurt School. When the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was set up in 1923, sociology taking over from philosophy as the leading humanities discipline after the disastrous First World War and the collapse of the German Empire, Adorno was on board. His friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer was briefly director from 1930 until both were forced to emigrate. Adorno and Horkheimer became famous in their US exile, and subsequently in Britain, as the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, first-time round, in German, they wrote in 1944 and quietly published in 1947. In it there they hammered away at the American commercial culture they found so shocking, after high-minded pre-war Germany. But their other target was totalitarianism, Hitler’s dictatorship.  They linked both these undesirable phenomena, one shallow, the other evil, with uses of reason, and technology, that exploited people’s souls, for want of a better word, rather than respected them. Of course that link has remained controversial.

I’d like to explain where it came from. The Frankfurt School didn’t depend on classical Marxism for its reasoning, but it was nevertheless deeply affected by Marx and Hegel. It used the high culture of German Idealism, and the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, and the Freudian unconscious, to try to unseat twentieth-century positivism, and what it saw as the capitalist attack on individual discrimination. By positivism I mean an excessive dependence on narrow rationality to define human truths. Individual discrimination meanwhile was the worry that capitalism put too many deceptions and obstacles in the way of the experiencing subject for anyone to be sure their knowledge of the world was true. Herbert Marcuse, one of the later Frankfurt school teachers, for instance worried that the recording industry obscures the true experience of music. But then what is that ‘true’ experience? Of course you can feel the old power of Idealist metaphysics here, surfacing to try deal with the sudden acceleration of technological progress in the twentieth century. For the German Idealists, Kant to Hegel, what we are is what we know, and perhaps even more important, how we know it; moreover how we know the world has a moral component. For its appreciative critics as for its detractors, this German epistemology – the extraordinary Idealist science of knowledge – was the last of the grand marriages between philosophy and Christianity that were perpetuated the Continental rationalist tradition. It was Idealism, still a set of metaphysical beliefs, that confirmed for the Frankfurt School that there was a truth of experience worth worrying about. They suspected capitalism was a conspiracy against that truth, in order to make money.

Cruder than the Frankfurt School, but the same message

Cruder than the Frankfurt School, but the same message

Attacking commercialism in the Frankfurt-School spirit

Attacking commercialism in the Frankfurt-School spirit


Adorno espoused a Marxism that suited this outlook but which was neither Moscow-inspired nor particularly concerned with the working-class.  I’ll say it again. He minded capitalism’s intrusion into the quality of our experience. I’ve always found that claim plausible. Think of it as philosophy’s equivalent of protesting that a huge ugly building ruins your view of nature, or unavoidable aural pap wipes out the Beethoven in your head. Both Horkheimer and Adorno felt the West needed rescuing from this terrible eclipse of integrity from culture. What people do now is flee to their chosen wildernesses, leaving the city, which they also love, and love to hate, to sort itself out. But Adorno and Horkheimer, with a touch of doomsday passion brought on by the excesses of the Hitler age, and the shock of their exile in the US, felt that individuals, and society, needed more guidance in the form of philosophical-sociological critique.

Their colleague the Freudian social critic Erich Fromm meanwhile wondered whether love itself had not become commodified in the twentieth-century rush to homogenize human feeling and sell it back to a mass market as a standard product. As a variation on the theme, two other great German-Jewish thinkers of the period, Marcuse, and the post-Freudian Wilhelm Reich who was not strictly of the Frankfurt School but related to them through his interest, like Fromm’s, imagined sexual liberation might liberate us from consumerist uniformity. Marcuse envisaged a critical society running free, enjoying by choice the high art of the past and unhibited free love. While Reich as an alternative German therapist in exile was persecuted by the US authorities, Marcuse as a university professor in California became the guru of radical counter-culture in the 1960s.

Wilhelm Reich under arrest. He died in prison in 1957.

Wilhelm Reich under arrest. He died in prison in 1957.

The Frankfurt School, better-known in the US than in Britain, has since been famously blamed, in large part, for ‘the closing of the American mind’. What a coup that was, to sideline, in the 1980s, the only force that would have sustained an American Left capable of taking on the big corporations in spiritual terms; capable of asking, what are you doing turning the mass of Americans into Nietzschean herd-people! It happened in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and in its wake subsequent generations of American intellectuals were quite at home with consumerism, and even imagined they could turn it into a moral project in itself. The journalist David Brooks gave the cultural appeasers a name: they were the bohemian bourgeoisie, a new bourgeoisie for the 1990s, intellectuals who liked shopping.  Derek Jameson, who remained devoted to Continental Philosophy, and its awkward critique of capitalism, was a rare exception.

What came to Britain from the Frankfurt School was not so much liberation  – we were liberated but not from this source and this form —  but Critical Theory.  Critical Theory hit British shores in the 1960s as a faint and quickly rejected influence on the New Left. The cultural materialism of Raymond Williams was a kind of parallel, and a shadow, born of a world more concerned with a defence of the working class, antipathetic towards the British Establishment and worried about –end-of-Empire. Art critic John Berger’s take on Walter Benjamin meant that Critical Theory would cause faint waves in obscure corners of art history. But in a recent book, Grand Hotel Abyss The Lives of the Frankfurt School (Verso, 2016), journalist Stuart Jeffries found that the Frankfurt School never really put down roots of influence, and that no one really cares today.  grand-hotel-abyss

The Frankfurt School were accused of being philosophical tourists in the disaster zone that 1930s Europe became. And yet it seems to me that these ‘philosophical tourists’ have many merits which would allow them to be rescued. Today for instance they are a way to understand why and how Europe, intellectual Europe, differs in its traditions from the British, and not only as a result of that tired explanation, its different experience of the twentieth century at war. The difference between Europe and Britain is something many of us want to ponder, as we have an isolationist and mercantile Brexit thrust upon us. What is striking to me is that Brexit is entirely lacking in moral imagination.

In the beginning two German-Jewish generations clashed to produce a furious reaction against material affluence. The late nineteenth-century fathers were businessmen who had got rich in the boom that followed German unification. Adorno’s father was in the wine trade; Horkheimer (who struggled far more with the paternal inheritance) was the son of a textile-factory owner. Their friend the critical writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin was born to a Berlin banker and antiques dealer. The commercial fathers defined a new bourgeoisie, but now their sons were intellectuals who worried about spiritual displacement.

Every time I refer to the spirit or the soul, as a reasonable, educated inhabitant of the twenty-first century, and even more as a native of a down-to-earth materialist country like the UK, I feel have to explain myself. But I can, and I will. ‘Spiritual displacement’ for instance meant to the last, critical inheritors of Idealism in the 1920s and 1930s, that the power of new money and the might of industry was destroying their nineteenth-century cultural church and its philosophical underpinnings. They were losing what they loved, and humanity was dwindling, as would be exemplified, in their view, by the German people’s frightful seduction by Hitler. While they studied Marxism as a potential antidote, they never really found an answer as to how to stem the tide except to teach Critical Theory, a form of intellectual resistance through the creation of concepts that could name and shame capitalism’s manipulative devices. They were sociologists, after all. Later, ironically, by the likes of Bloom, they would be accused of trying to annihilate the old culture themselves.  bloom-american-mind

The Institute came into being in Frankfurt am Main in 1923 to ask why a German Communist Revolution had not succeeded. That was its greatest Marxist credential. As soon as Hitler came to power, the Nazis pounced on this explicitly Marxist and Jewish hotbed, with Horkheimer crossing the Atlantic in 1934 and Adorno following in 1938. Fromm and Marcuse rejoined them. Only Benjamin never made it, out of indecision, fear and misfortune, and ended up killing himself in the south of France rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis.

Horkheimer, always the more moderate and conservative of the two, had already been toning down the Marxist image in Germany, and now he and Adorno airbrushed the M-word from their texts, not to offend their hosts and sponsors at Columbia University in new York, where the Institute was accommodated away from home. Thus while Dialectic of Enlightenment was fiercely anti-commercial, it really ached with personal disappointment.  The authors’ furious and melancholy sally skewered the Kantian ethics and Hegelian Idealism that had let them down, and now, in their absence was misleading the German people. Philosophy seemed complicit in reducing the Germans to a passive nation enamoured of authority.  But yes, the personal disappointment also extended to the New World’s mass-cultural happy-go-lucky optimism. How could they find themselves a place there? As Hannah Arendt, another bemused German-Jewish exile in New York, observed: only a culture with a strong dash of pessimism can expect to be taken seriously. (Bloom, shame on him, would name this wonderful thinker as one of America’s worst cultural imports.)

Adorno and Horkheimer’s offensive against the German heritage deepened into a devastating attack on Reason, or the heritage of the Enlightenment, and this became the badge of their Cultural Theory. Reason was at fault because in the world-colonizing instrumental form it took it led to the domination of nature, and thus paved the way, despite Enlightenment’s emancipatory programme, for the industrial annihilation of human beings.

As I say, it still is puzzling to many, how Adorno and Horkheimer could refer, in the same breath as they condemned Hitler and Stalin, the Shoah and the Great Terror, to commercial totalitarianism in the US, all as an extension of the negative legacy of the Enlightenment. But in fact the equation was based on a horror of social comformity, wherever and in whatever form. To Horkeimer born in 1895, and Adorno in 1903, the new technologies of wireless and film, offshoots of the astonishing progress made by science in the fifty years surrounding their births, and the growth of mass spectacle, were a deep threat to individual discrimination. Their friend in the Frankfurt they left behind, the journalist Siegfried Kracauer, wrote a timely essay on ‘The Culture of Mass Ornament’, which also cut between the Tiller Girls Dance Troupe and the aesthetics of totalitarianism on show at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. How did people lose their resistance to mass manipulation? Did they ever have it? Hidden deep in the mindset of Adorno was a belief in the self-reliance of individual judgement, in fact a cornerstone of the Enlightement’s own faith in mankind. But instrumental reason had nevertheless betrayed the Enlightment and led the modern world astray.

In my view Critical Theory was always puzzling because it was an extremely attentuated form of the old Kantian Subjective Idealism it was attacking and mourning at the same time. By the time of his death Benjamin was so bereft at the loss of faith in Kantian reason he was looking to Judaism for a new anchor. Adorno meanwhile maintained his angry stance. (One of his later books was subtitled ‘Reflections out of a Damaged Life’).  If the surface response of Critical Theory was, as Stuart Jeffries says in his Grand Hotel Abyss, ‘I’m not playing along,’ the hurt went deeper.

Adorno and Horkheimer wrote extensively of the seductiveness of authority; of how willingly, on the German example, people gave up their freedom to discriminate and protest. And they did this because, implicitly, they felt that if the Kantian tradition in critical subjectivity had not failed, Hitler wouldn’t have happened. But mass seduction and authoritarianism were not problems exclusive to Germany. And so these high-minded Germans turned from attacking Nazism to attacking Hollywood, because they felt that only the old values of individual discrimination nourished by a knowledge of high art and true love created enough resistance to mass manipulation. Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving (1956) of how much the capacity for true unsentimental love, erotic, filial and communal, mattered to the spiritual integrity of a society.fromm

If the Germannesss of all this is so obscure to British minds – a topic which I return to over and over, whatever the writer or philosopher in question — perhaps what needs to be said, simply, is that it hinges on a morality of perception which was always closely related to theology. How must I know the world in order to be a good person? If it is ever to be practised it relies on voluntary abstention and avoidance of whatever gets in the way of the better vision for humanity. Anything else would be political repression.

And so we come back to liberal Europe today, its very liberality in crisis, but its staunch supporters insisting on that moral-theological choice despite mercantile pressures. It’s a Europe that long ago assimilated the better aspects of Marxism in its concern with working conditions and general welfare, and through its French contribution particularly has retained a wariness of US commercialism, and of the UK’s trade before culture economic tradition, otherwise known as the anglo-Saxon model. In this Europe, outstandingly in Germany, where British politicians visit and gasp, it’s also the case that high culture still matters, in a way that Adorno, in fact perhaps best-known today as a music critic, would recognize. Adorno, who wrote on Beethoven and Schubert, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and himself studied with Alban Berg, was no rebel from a world in which his mother had been an opera singer and he might have been a concert pianist. High culture was his upbringing.

In 1949 Adorno returned to what had become West Germany. The Frankfurt School was reinstated in the city of its birth and he and Horkheimer were restored to positions of academic celebrity. But their attitudes didn’t change. Adorno pursued an extreme pessimism, returning in different forms again and again to what caused German Idealism to fail. He saw it as his duty to resist the scientific positivism which was at once Anglo-Saxon in its roots and dominant in the post-war West, and to favour an approach which took greater notice of what was non-rational and extraneous and didn’t fit the paradigms. Adorno argued that the prevalent style of science arose out of the form of society that made it happen, and that in the process, the way science functioned in a capitalist society, critical challenge to the status quo was blocked. The Marxist-style argument was not convincing, though once again the run-in with what science was after, and the (im)possibility of the true society making it happen, reached back to what Adorno never called, but clearly was, theology for a secular age.

I’m struck by how Stuart Jeffries summed up the value of the Frankfurt School just a year ago. ‘Art has become impossible thanks to the impoverishment that it sought to honour. Instead we are left with the easily consumable products of the culture industry …the spirit of utopia is expendable in the online industry for which, among others Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are responsible, and which gives us more of the same, develops algorithms the better to chain us to our taste, and makes us desire our own domination…[It is] a customized culture, one that abolishes serendipity, makes a mockery of dignity and turns human liberation into a terrifying prospect…’

The difficulty for anyone on the Left is to go along with Adorno’s lament for a Western high culture that crumbled under pressure of greater liberty and equality, and then was entirely colonized by digitzed markets.  But the difficulty of seeing how new generations can possibly resist market domination of their private experience makes Jeffries wonder whether alongside the problem of physical evil, on which Marx built his case to protect the material wellbeing of the worker, there was not always also metaphysical evil to contend with. How to protect and nurture the human soul is a question almost never discussed today, because for a start you would have to believe in it. But you could meanwhile admire Adorno, who tried to restate a concern for the soul, and you could mourn the European ideal, of which the Frankfurt School was a building block.

This entry was posted in A Shoe Story, Art History, Britain Today, Europe, Frankfurt School, German Literature, Philosophy and Philosophers, Things German and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Adorno, the Frankfurt School and the Soul of Europe

  1. Pingback: Siegfried Kracauer’s idea of ‘Mass Ornament’ | Lesley Chamberlain

  2. Pingback: The Arc of Utopia in the anniversary year of Russia 1917 | Lesley Chamberlain

Comments are closed.