From its inception in 1923 as the Institute of Social Research until the death of Theodor Adorno in 1969, the Frankfurt School was at the forefront of the debate over the meaning of Marxism. Its leading members included the psychologist Erich Fromm, the sociologists Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the political scientist Franz Neumann, and Leo Lowenthal, the student of popular culture and mass media. With Hitler’s rise to power, the school moved to New York in the 1930’s, returning to Frankfurt two decades later. Its most famous publication during its American stay was The Authoritarian Personality (1950) which, among other things, claimed that an incipient fascist mentality existed in the United States, similar to what the Frankfurt intellectuals had seen in Germany—an argument more significant for what it says about the Frankfurt School’s assumptions than for what it says about American politics and society. Its American interlude took place at the same time that the Frankfurt intellectuals repudiated orthodox Marxism, became deeply pessimistic regarding Western civilization, attempted to formulate a theory of fascism, and became concerned with such non-Marxist themes as the critique of bureaucratization and of mass culture.

The major effort of the Frankfurt School was that of elaborating “a critical theory” of society. Critical theory meant both a critique of all those ideologies, including Bolshevism, which distorted reality and legitimized social domination, as well as an explanation of the transformation of society, of the nature of culture, and of the relation between the individual and society. Premised upon an extreme cultural elitism (expressed in an admiration for avant-garde art and music), critical theory took as its most ambitious aim the revision of classical Marxism, which had falsely predicted revolution in the West and had failed to account for such modern phenomena as fascism, Stalinism, bureaucracy, regimentation, mechanization, impersonality, cultural standardization, and totalitarianism.

The Frankfurt thinkers sought not to reject but to revitalize Marxism by making use of Weberian sociology, Freudian psychoanalytic theory (as in The Authoritarian Personality), and the analysis of popular culture. They particularly opposed the determinism of “historical materialism,” asserting that the importance of subjective experience in social development had been recognized by Marx himself In its refusal to see economic and social developments as autonomous and predetermined, the new critical theory sought to reconcile socialism and liberty through analysis of how ideologies influence perceptions of reality. This approach entailed a rejection of Leninism and of all sexual and psychological repression, and an emphasis instead on the emancipation of the individual. Because of his extolling of personal spontaneity and sexual gratification, Herbert Marcuse even became one of the gurus of the “New Left” of the 1960’s. But judging from the Marcus-Tar collection of articles on the Frankfurt School, it has required a faith greater than that of Jerry Falwell to continue believing in what Leszek Kolakowski, the eminent modern historian of Marxist thought, has called “the greatest fantasy of our century.” Containing essays by a diverse group of conservatives, liberals, and neo-Marxists, the Marcus-Tar volume is the most comprehensive anthology on the history, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, sociology, and economics of the Frankfurt School. Almost all of the 25 authors, which include Karl Popper and Paul Lazarsfeld, agree that the attempt to formulate a “critical theory” was unsuccessful. By the 1960’s, Adorno, et al., were even under severe attack from young German radicals, precisely that group which one would have assumed would be the most hospitable audience. To an outsider, the failure of the Frankfurt School was virtually predetermined, since Marxism and German philosophical idealism, Marx and Freud, and socialism and individualism constitute three oil-and-water pairs.


[Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research; Edited by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tar; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books]