The Apostles of The Culture Industry

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. Verso Books. $26.95, 448pp.

Jarret Middleton

The Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt in Germany in 1923, existing in many incarnations and locales across the globe until the 1970s. (After a lapse, the Institute is again operational today in its rightful home in Frankfurt am Main.) Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Erich Fromm, and—though not an actual member—the group’s intellectual progenitor, Walter Benjamin, formed the foundation of the Institute, commonly referred to as the Frankfurt School.

Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond.

The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed. Jeffries successfully weaves historical fragments together with primers on some of the Frankfurt scholars’ finer philosophical arguments. The narrative flows in a fluid and concise way as we follow the main figures of the school through the upheavals of Germany in the ’30s, their collective exodus, and their postwar literary output. The text is colored by personal anecdotes, letters, communications, and snippets of intriguing, well-placed facts that come as a welcome surprise, even to the advanced student of the Frankfurt School.

For instance, the building that the scholars inhabited on Victoria Allee 17 in Frankfurt am Main, once nicknamed “Café Marx,” was originally built by Franz Roeckle, a “National Socialist party member who was jailed for his part in a pogrom, known as the Rotter Affair, in his native Liechtenstein.” Or that Carl Grunberg, the director of the Institute who preceded Max Horkheimer, was known to lecture at his podium in white gloves.

Or that, for a brief time, the Frankfurt scholars went unaware that a Soviet spy operated in their midst. This man, named Richard Sorge, worked in the library, participated in the famed Ilmenau seminar, and sent reports on his colleagues back to Soviet Russia. His time there was short-lived, however, as he was recalled from his post once the war began. Sorge’s life is miraculous in its own right. He went on to join the Nazi Party as a double-agent and later set up a network of informants in Japan that led to him “informing Moscow about the German-Japanese Pact and warned of the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.” He was hanged in a prison in Tokyo in 1944.

Jeffries also offers fascinating accounts of the Frankfurt School’s exile in Los Angeles during the Nazi era, when Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse lived side by side with other cultural refugees from Europe, including Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, and Bertolt Brecht (who, true to his working-class roots, made little effort to conceal his occasional contempt for this group of like-minded armchair revolutionaries). He also relates a hilariously awkward encounter between Marcuse and Sartre in Paris:

When Jean-Paul Sartre and Marcuse arranged to meet at the Coupole in Paris in the late 1960s, Sartre worried how he could get through lunch without revealing the truth. “I have never read a word Marcuse has written,” he told his future biographer John Gerassi. . . . Sartre came up with an ingenious strategy for concealing his ignorance. He asked questions that suggested a greater familiarity with Marcuse’s works than he actually had. “Each time he answered, I picked out an apparent flaw in his answer to ask another question. But since the flaw was only apparent, he could answer my question to his great satisfaction. Thus his vanity soared happily.” Indeed it did: as Gerassi put Marcuse into a taxi, the latter shook both of my hands with genuine gratitude and said: “I had no idea he knew my work so well.”

It is this sort of context that brings the story of the Frankfurt School alive by placing them in the world and in the thick of transformative historical events. Jeffries’s focus on the specifics of their social theory is equaled by the quirky and sometimes intimate details of their personal lives that he shares, shining a light onto an otherwise neglected window of history.

While many at the time made calls to politicize academia, the Frankfurt School set out to academize politics, an abstract move when real political struggle was occurring all around them and rank-and-file unions and revolutionary parties were fighting in the streets of many countries around the world, struggles in which revolutionaries paid a heavy price, from surviving the repression of fascist regimes to facing torture, prison, and death, all for the ultimate cause of human freedom. The School’s relentless critique prompted criticism not only from adversaries but from perceived allies, ranging from German communists to Bertolt Brecht to Hungarian Marxist philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs, who coined the term “Grand Hotel Abyss” when referring to the School’s precarious position perched “on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” Lukacs conceived of the Frankfurt School’s project as a theory so devoid of practice that they were in danger of permanently isolating themselves and the fruits of their intellectual labor, so much so that their position could be perceived as anti-revolutionary, one of orthodox Marxism’s greatest sins.

Taking a closer look at their original mission, the scholars of the Frankfurt School concluded that the communist revolution failed among Germany’s working class because the country had retained a healthy amount of the conservative social mores that had been established with the rise of the petit-bourgeoisie, even as their economic prowess began to decline after World War I and the era of hyperinflation. The resulting devastation of Germany’s economy, and the humiliation of so much of the formerly middle- and working classes, created a brand of reactionary populism and nationalist fervor that fueled the rise of Nazism.

It is impossible to read such a prescriptive analysis without comparing it to our contemporary moment. In the age of Brexit and Trump, reactionary ethno-nationalist populism has again reared its ugly head. The deeper analysis, of course, points to the ultimate failings of global capitalism. Then as now, the repressive state creates social scapegoats so that it can retain power during periods of upheaval caused by capital’s inherency towards crisis. Back then it was Jews, gypsies, and communists, today it is immigrants, refugees, and Muslims. This is part of what makes Grand Hotel Abyss so frighteningly relevant today. Not only does Jeffries call us back to a time when Marxist theory and the revolutionary left made great efforts to understand the root causes of war, nationalism, authoritarianism, and genocide, he also brings us face to face with the devastating pattern of history repeating itself yet again, and the horror looming on the horizon if we fail to act.

Once the Nazis took power, the members of the Frankfurt School were in grave danger and were forced to flee Germany. They landed in Zurich, London, New York, and Los Angeles, political refugees from their homeland. Others, such as Benjamin, were not so lucky. Benjamin had made his way to Spain, doing what he could to seek safe passage on a ship from neutral Portugal to the United States. Unfortunately, Franco’s fascist forces closed the border with France and informed the group of primarily Jewish refugees that Benjamin was traveling with that they would be transferred back to Nazi-occupied France, where he faced certain death. Benjamin passed a suicide note to a fellow refugee in the group, who committed it to memory before destroying it, and then he committed suicide by morphine on September 26, 1940 in the Hotel de Francia. Herein lies another example of the crushing hindsight that the historical documentation provides: while the authorities temporarily closed the border at Portbou, Benjamin must have thought his return to Nazi-controlled territory was imminent, but that may not have been the case. “The date on the certificate is September 26. The following day the border reopened,” writes Jeffries. “Had he not taken the morphine, he would have been allowed safe transit across Spain and thence to America.”

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After the war, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse turned their attention from the function of the authoritarian state toward the new commodity forms of the culture industry. While their critique spread with persuasive force around the academic world, they had their fair share of conflict. In exchange for their amnesty, and as a condition of their employment by the United States government in assisting with the psychological profile of their common enemy, the Nazis, they had agreed not to publish anything containing the words “Marxism” or “communism” while residing in the United States. And so, part of their turn to the more abstract subject/object relations of the commodity form was a result of very real political conditions for their emigration and personal safety. Necessity had intervened and they adapted in order to survive.

This looming specter of the commodity form had been at the heart of the Frankfurt School since its inception, influenced by Marx’s early theoretical work and popularized by Max Weber’s groundbreaking analysis of its reification and fetishization. The building blocks of the Frankfurt School’s later critique of the cultural industry were to be found in Walter Benjamin’s work as well. In the words of Max Pensky:

The fantasy world of material well-being promised by every commodity now is revealed as a Hell of unfulfillment; the promise of eternal newness and unlimited progress encoded in the imperatives of technological change and the cycles of consumption now appear as their opposite, as primal history, the mythic compulsion toward endless repetition.

According to Marxist philosopher David Harvey, the repetition of the experience of the commodity form has greatly accelerated since Benjamin’s day. The production of spectacle is now an economic foundation for the flexibility and “eternal newness” of the commodity form in the 21st century. The speed at which this repetition is experienced has accelerated to such a degree that there are no longer any “gaps” between experiences of commodified objects. The speed is so great, in fact, that it has accelerated past the object, beyond spectacle, and is now up to the speed of the present moment, simulating reality in its entirety. Since reality itself is now being commodified in its objective form, the agency of the subject has been rendered obsolete. Subjects no longer have primacy over the objects they interact with, fetishize, or consume. There are no conduits, pathways, or unencumbered modes of being left where subjects are able to control or even mitigate their experience of the commodity form. It has taken over everything, from basic household necessities to lifestyle choices to all social and interpersonal relations. This effete reality is where postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard operate, discussing if it is even still possible for humans to discern whether or not they are having a real, un-simulated, non-commodified experience. So far, the prognosis does not look good.

The efficiency with which the agency of the subject has been commodified, objectivized, and destroyed has proven to equal or even surpass the traditional modes of repression granted the authoritarian state. To trace this process of individual reification back to its macroeconomic whole, the turning of subjects into objects is a source of raw value production for capital, and it is precisely this process that allows capital together with the authoritarian state to degrade and dehumanize its least economically viable subjects by turning them into objects, where use-value is able to be extracted until there is none left, a line of logic that, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, ends clearly in the state-industrial slaughter of the Holocaust. Horkheimer was already haunted by the realization of this grim prospect back in 1937. “[He] had come to the despairing thought that the ‘commodity economy’ might usher in a period of progress until, ‘after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism.’”

* * * *
In the intellectual arena, the Frankfurt School was surrounded by adversaries on all sides. In the United States, the pragmatism that stretched from William James and John Dewey to its countless implementations in American public life successfully distanced itself from the negative worldview of figures like Adorno, who was charged with producing politicized polemics that were prone to interpretation and hyperbole. (This was a condition critical theory itself could not escape because of its foundations in German idealism and Hegelian dialectics, which, although convincingly argued and dizzyingly complex, failed to hold much water in the circles of Anglo-American moral and analytic philosophy.)

On the other side of the table were the logical positivists, who were busy improving the foundations of analytic philosophy, which claimed that all systems of knowledge stem from quantifiable, observable sensory experience. Built upon the philosophy of Auguste Comte, logical positivism was championed by the likes of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, and Felix Kaufmann, who were members of the Vienna Circle, contemporaries of the Frankfurt School who saw dialectical materialism as an unnecessary holdover from metaphysics that had no relevance when discussing material science, or in turn, truth. Horkheimer held the line against the positivists, arguing that, while critical theory inherited Marx’s vision that history was shaped by a dialectical material process, the positivists had merely “inherited the status quo,” which, to the lion’s share of critical theorists, meant nothing more than tacitly approving of and actively assisting in creating the conditions necessary for the authoritarian state to flourish.

In the end, critical theory was damaged by the insistence of Marxism’s most orthodox ideologues that their philosophy be treated as a science. As where logical positivists could point to the rationalist process and the replicable results of the scientific method as proof of its own primacy, critical theorists were left with a negative dialectical method that only sought further critique—a widening abyss of stylistic, literary, and metaphoric efforts that never amounted to anything—essentially, an abyss of their own making.

Aside from those scientific aspirations it had fallen short of, Marxist theory had, if only for a brief historical moment, enjoyed an invigorating grasp on philosophical thought as style. The Frankfurt School had displayed an essential dedication to inquiry as method, even if it forewent the requisite for any sort of tangible conclusion. This aspect of the Marxist tradition, the style of critique, in part inspired the school of postmodernists who would take it in new directions, producing works that would inevitably change the landscape of philosophy, drawing scorn from pragmatists, positivists, and those aging scientific Marxists themselves, rallying around the cry that now it was the postmodernists who produced works that were all style and no substance.

* * * *
The contradiction became evident that while certain “scientific Marxists” were insisting that they were in fact practicing science, Adorno sought no such treatment and was abhorred by the very thought of it. Jeffries writes, “Adorno took this to be important of science and the social sciences: what look like neutral investigations are nothing of the kind.” Adorno was criticized at this time for failing to believe that the role of the scientist could ever be neutral or that the scientific method was truly objective. This was an early occurrence of a debate that was fought in the trenches throughout the 20th century and, after a period of science’s supremacy, is once again raging.

Today, science is on the forefront of overturning long-held “observable” or “objective” truths that the positivists and analytic philosophers would have once considered irrefutable. Quantum physics has proven the notion that the subjective observer alters the object by the mere act of observing it. Neuroscience is discovering new data that throws the over-simplification of “nature vs. nurture” out the window. New scientific evidence suggests poverty has such detrimental effects upon its subjects that it not only lowers life-expectancy and raises infant mortality rates but it actually alters brain chemistry and human physiology down to the level of the genome. In the ultimate irony, it appears that by using the tools once conceived of as being in direct opposition to dialectical materialism and the many interpretations of Marx’s philosophy, his words once again echo from the grave: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

* * * *
For dedicated scholars of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss is a refreshing overview of the group as they lived, theorized, and progressed over the course of history. This is not an approach of the finer points of the school’s wide-ranging philosophy or a critical extension of their project, as can be found in the works of Martin Jay or the current chair of the Institute for Social Research, Axel Honneth. In this regard, the book is more of an engrossing panoramic, offering equal parts purview of the personal lives of the Frankfurt School as well as the creation of some of their most famous tracts of thought. For the new reader, Grand Hotel Abyss serves as an accessible introduction to the works of some of the 20th century’s most difficult and rewarding thinkers.


Jarret Middleton is the author of the novel, Darkansas, available from Dzanc Books in August 2017. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in print and online.