I originally posted this at my own place, but I”m putting it up here as well. The point of it is not to deny that our society has in many ways moved in the wrong direction, and that some have actively conspired to move it in that direction. I would, however, say that the culprits aren”t the Frankfurt School, but rather the likes of the Fabians.
Over at the Orphans of Liberty, James Higham has a post up that is highly (to say the least) critical of the Frankfurt School. And as curious at it might seem to disagree with a frequent commenter here over a post on a website that I contribute to as well, I do have to take issue with his reading of the Frankfurt School. Partly because some of the contributors to the Frankfurt School have been key inspirations for my own views on politics*.
Before we get into the main body of what I want to say, let me first point out that it is possible to read most political philosophers in a number of different ways. Rousseau is for some a champion of democracy, for others an advocate and anticipator of totalitarianism. Machiavelli is for some an arch-cynic – the instigator of the realism in politics that can be traced straight to the likes of Tony Blair. For others, he is someone who is trying to put the concept of virtue back into politics. And so on and so on – the point here being that it is more than possible to read the collected works of the Frankfurt School in very different ways.
In part because the thinkers that make up the Frankfurt School are very disparate, and the school itself has been around for 90 years or so. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas agreeing on very much at all. Furthermore, the main incarnation of the Frankfurt School came when Max Horkheimer became the director of the institute in 1930 – two years after the “Manifesto of Cultural Marxism” that allegedly came from the Frankfurt School that initially inspired James”s vitriol. To some extent, attacking the Frankfurt School is like attacking the Conservative Party – you are attacking a long history of disparate thinkers who often just plain disagreed with each other.
But enough with the scene-setting. Let”s look at the Frankfurt School itself. First up, yes, the Institute/School was founded on a Marxist basis. However, many of the key thinkers involved had at best an idiosyncratic reading of Marxism. Indeed, I struggle to see Habermas”s discursive (and largely impractical) Theory of Communicative Action as hardly Marxist at all, while Horkheimer himself ended up on the side of liberal capitalism. Furthermore, Marx”s canon is not without its merits, even for a libertarian like me. While I can”t stomach the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and can clearly see the damage that concept has done, the “withering away of the state” sounds a pretty admirable aim to me. As such, it is wrong to conflate all self-defined Marxists as one and the same, and the Frankfurt School alienated just as many traditional Marxists as it did conservatives. We”re not talking about Stalinists here, or apologists for Stalinism such as the Webbs. We”re talking about a very disparate group of thinkers with an often unique interpretation of Marxism.
So the relationship with Marxism was extremely fraught and often full-on critical – in particular, with the USSR, as Marcuse”s seminal work Soviet Marxism shows. It is, however, true that the Frankfurt School was also very critical of the Western world. But let”s take a look at why. Adorno, for example, was a cultural snob and often attacked mass-market entertainment. He saw it as making the people compliant and distracting them from real political issues. Personally, I think it is online casino wrong to dismiss mass entertainment, but at the same time, when I watch the feverish coverage of The X Factor I can”t help but think of The Culture Industry.
On a wider basis, though, it is important to think about the context in which the wider context in which the school produced its work – especially the thinkers who produced their work between 1930 and 1970; in other words, the era of the Frankfurt School that is perhaps most associated with Critical Theory. This was the Frankfurt School forced to flee Nazi Germany – and one of their number did not make it, leading to his suicide. And it was this Frankfurt School that was faced with the apparent descent of civilisation into either fascism or communism – either way, into totalitarianism. The diagnosis of some of their number that the USA was drifting into totalitarianism was not without its flaws, but this was the America of the 1950s, of McCarthyism, and the America that plunged itself into Vietnam and ended up at the Kent State Shootings. Just as liberals of our era argued against the Patriot Act and (in this country) ID cards, the likes of Herbert Marcuse argued against a US state that was often draconian in its attempts to control its own people.
This underpins the critique of the nuclear family. To my mind, it is not so much a wholesale rejection of the idea of a family so much as a rejection of the patrimony and conformism that traditional views of the family were often used to back-up. Remember the context again – a Western world struggling to come to terms with ideas such as equality between the genders and ethnicities, as well as a world where homosexuality was largely taboo. It would be a reactionary, as opposed to a liberal or a conservative, who would argue that greater equality in these areas is not a step forward for liberty – and it is in part these areas of life that that lead to Marcuse”s permissive, if not promiscuous, views on sexuality.
But is Critical Theory against Western civilisation? Yes, but only so much as it is critical of any civilisation. And in the same way that it is about immanent critique – the critique of any system using its own terms. This is what Adorno”s Negative Dialectics is about. Any status quo, be it a liberal democracy, a pseudo-Marxist state like the USSR or a theocracy, should be open to critique. And that is the point of Critical Theory – it is about much more than just the Frankfurt School. Don”t believe me? Just take a look at the list of critical theorists; it shows how disparate a bunch they truly are. In a sense, I would define myself as a Critical Theorist. Finally, criticising a society does not neccessarily mean the wholesale rejection of it. One of the aspirations that informs Marcuse”s work is how to use technology in such a way as to meet the wants of the whole of society. Given we still live in a world where famine is a problem, this remains a good aspiration and alludes to pertinent questions about the use of technology.
So the Frankfurt School are not a homogenous bunch of thinkers at whose doors we can lay many of the problems of our modern society and culture. Indeed, even if I did believe the harsh reading of the Frankfurt School (which, of course, I don”t), that doesn”t then mean that they had the power and the influence to fundamentally affect the societies in which they live. Quite the opposite is true, really, if we look at the Frankfurt School. They alienated potential allies in the Western and Marxist worlds to such an extent that such alienation almost seemed to be a mission statement. While Marcuse had a flirtation with the New Left, he was never really part of that movement and was harshly critical of its violence (through groups such as the Red Army Faction). However, his association with the New Left has tainted his record in the eyes of many, meaning he has gone out of fashion just as the New Left went out of fashion. As for the others, even those such as Habermas who have become public intellectuals in their own countries have been scuppered why one crucial problem – there work tends to be obscruantist in the extreme. Adorno, for example, was given to writing obtuse aphorisms, making his work interesting only if you can decipher what the hell he was trying to say. It is hard to imagine the political class who have created so many problems in our society making their way through Negative Dialectics. Indeed, that”s why the political “theorists” (if we can dignify these crass writers with such a title) who tend to have the most influence on the political class are those who present a Ladybird version of political theory – like Anthony Giddens and Phillip Blond.
So I don”t think there is anything to be gained by dismissing the Frankfurt School. There work was not without its flaws, but they presented a bold critique of issues still having a devastating effect on modern life, such as the growth of faceless bureaucracies and of bland conformism. They also pointed to the need to critique society rather than blandly accepting what the ruling class tell you (surely the point of websites such as the Orphans of Liberty?) You can look elsewhere for the malaise that has done so much to damage our society; fighting the Frankfurt School is fighting relevant ideas that we could potentially use at the same time as letting the real enemies carry on undisturbed.