The Frankfurt School
1 The formation of the Institute of Social Research
The Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research), founded in Germany in 1923, was the home of the Frankfurt school. The Institute was established as a result of an initiative by the son of a wealthy grain merchant, Felix Weil, who procured the means to ensure that the Institute could develop with minimum external pressures and constraints; and, in fact, though formally attached to the University of Frankfurt, its private funds did give it considerable autonomy.1
When Horkheimer assumed the directorship of the Institute in 1930 most of the figures who later became famous as members of the Frankfurt school began to contribute to the Institute’s activities. Although the orientation of the Institute changed markedly under Horkheimer’s influence, the experience and concerns of its first director – Carl Grünberg, a figure relatively unknown today – were important to the overall development of the Institute.
The Institute under Grünberg, 1923–9
Grünberg is considered by many to be one of the founders of the Austro-Marxist tradition. After a professorship in law and political science at the University of Vienna, he became, on appointment to Frankfurt, the first ‘avowed Marxist to hold a chair at a German University’.2
He was responsible for establishing and editing the first major European journal of labour and socialist history – Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung
[Archive for the History of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement] or Grünbergs Archiv
, as it was often called – which transferred, with Grünberg, to Frankfurt.3
Marxism was made the inspiration and theoretical basis of the Institute’s programme. The regular contacts and exchanges with the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow (then under the directorship
of David Ryazanov), symbolized the close ties between the Institute of Social Research and the traditions of classical Marxism. The two institutes jointly sponsored the publication of the first volume of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe
[Marx-Engels Complete Edition].
Many of the scholars Grünberg brought together were deeply committed to political involvement. Among his assistants were members of the Communist Party – Karl August Wittfogel, Franz Borkenau and Julian Gumperz – as well as members of the Social Democratic Party. Karl Korsch was also active in the Institute’s affairs in its early years, participating in seminars and contributing to the Archiv. But the Institute remained officially independent of party affiliations and was a centre for scholars of many political persuasions. As one of its members, Henryk Grossmann, wrote:
It is a neutral
institution at the university, which is accessible to everyone. Its significance lies in the fact that for the first time everything concerning the workers movement in the most important countries of the world is gathered. Above all, sources (congress minutes, party programs, statutes, newspapers and periodicals).… Whoever in Western Europe wishes to write on the currents of the workers movement must
come to us, for we are the only gathering point for it.4
However, the distinctiveness of the brand of Marxism initiated by Institute of Social Research can best be detected in Grünberg’s 1924 inaugural address. In this paper Grünberg emphasized his opposition to the trend in German universities toward teaching at the expense of research and toward the production of ‘mandarins’ only capable of serving the existing balance of power and resources. Marxism, Grünberg argued, as a method of scientific research and as a philosophical system, must be used to counter these tendencies.5
On Grünberg’s account, the object domain of historical materialism is real social events: ‘social life in its ceaseless and ever-recurring transformations’. The goal of research is to grasp ‘the ultimate causes of these processes of transformation and the laws according to which they evolve’. The method of research is ‘eminently inductive’. But its results claim ‘no absolute validity in time and space … only relative, historically conditioned meaning’.6
In contradistinction to positions held by some members of the Second International, Grünberg’s Marxism is not a straightforward monistic materialism, maintaining a simple correspondence theory of
truth and claiming to reveal transhistorical laws. The categories of materialism, Grünberg maintained, do not grasp universal, unchanging truths; they reflect and describe a dynamic and developing society the future of which is not guaranteed. Social life, he believed, could be understood by uncovering the laws operative in a given economy. Marxism could only develop as a theory of production – as a theory of the changing forms
of economic life.
Grünberg’s Institute sought to combine concrete historical studies with theoretical analysis. His journal published articles on a multitude of topics in the history of capitalist and socialist economies and workers movements. Historians, economists, philosophers, among others, were represented in the journal and at Institute seminars. Works by as diverse figures as Ryazanov, Grossmann, Wittfogel, Korsch and Lukács were printed in the Archiv.
The prescription for social explanation offered by Grünberg was not, however, adhered to by the central figures of critical theory; they rejected the idea that all social phenomena were in essence a mere ‘reflex’ of the economic. Likewise a certain optimistic determinism which often found expression in his work, suggesting a progression in the development of social institutions from ‘the less perfect to the more perfect’, was not shared by most of those who later became critical theorists. But the strong emphasis Grünberg placed on historically oriented empirical research, carried out in the context of Marx’s insights into political economy, was to become a crucial part of their frame of reference.
In 1929, at the age of 68, Grünberg retired. The following year Max Horkheimer was installed as the Institute’s director. Within a short period of time he had a major impact on the type of work executed by the Institute’s members.
The Institute and its programme under Max Horkheimer
Horkheimer gathered around him a diverse group with an extraordinary array of talents. Within a few years the new entrants to the Institute included Fromm, Marcuse and Neumann, while Pollock and Lowenthal, both of whom had been members since the 1920s, took on more prominent positions. The composition of the Institute under Horkheimer corroborates Benjamin’s assertion that ‘one cannot say that the group … was founded on a specific
field.… [Rather] … it was based on the idea that the teaching about society can only be developed in the most tightly integrated connection of disciplines; above all, economics, psychology, history and philosophy’.7
In 1935 Benjamin himself became a research associate of the Institute’s Paris branch and received a stipend.8
Horkheimer’s inaugural address, ‘The present situation of social philosophy and the tasks of an Institute of Social Research’, delivered in 1931, expressed both continuities and breaks with Grünberg’s programme.9
Horkheimer believed, as Grünberg had done before him, in the ‘dictatorship of the director’: the director of the Institute should take a central role in all Institute activities. Grünberg’s concern for both theoretical analysis and empirical investigations was also at the heart of Horkheimer’s interests. However, Horkheimer sought to discuss the role of theory and social research in a more radically historical and theoretical mode. The main theme of his address was the relation between social philosophy and science. Horkheimer characterized social philosophy as an attempt to interpret the fate of human beings ‘insofar as they are parts of a community, and not mere individuals’.10
While he accepted the significance of the traditional questions of social philosophy such as the relationship between the individual and society, the meaning of culture and the basis of societal life, he rejected a purely philosophical approach to these issues.11
Philosophers, he argued, have all too often treated these questions in the abstract, divorced from history and social context; the major schools naively posited either ‘an abstract, isolated individual’ (e.g. Lebensphilosophie
, existentialism) or a ‘hypostatized social totality’ (e.g. Hegelian idealism) as the fount of life and proper object of social inquiry. Horkheimer rejected these approaches and, instead, called for ‘a dialectical penetration and development of philosophical theory and the praxis of individual scientific disciplines’.12
He held that it was necessary to reintegrate disciplines because the division of labour in the humanities and social sciences was so far advanced and their results so fragmented.13
Neither philosophy nor any of the individual sciences could defend the claim that it alone could uncover ‘the essentials’ or ‘the facts’.14
I will return to the precise nature of the relationship between philosophy and science recommended by Horkheimer in Chapter 5. But it is crucial to note that he was not demanding, as has been suggested by one critic, ‘the development of “social philosophy”
supplemented by empirical investigations’.15
Rather Horkheimer stressed the necessity of a programme of interdisciplinary study
in which ‘philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians and psychologists must unite in a lasting working partnership … to do what all genuine researchers have always done: namely to pursue the great philosophical questions with the most refined methods’. In the course of working on particular problems and objects researchers must, he contended, reformulate the philosophical questions, make them more precise, and devise new methods for handling specific issues while, at the same time, ‘not losing sight of the universal’.16
Horkheimer also rejected the emphasis of those who, as he put it, ‘did not understand Marx’. Social phenomena cannot be deduced from material being, that is, from the economy. The Institute’s members, he insisted, must explore the question of ‘the interconnection between the economic life of society, the psychic development of the individual and transformations in the realm of culture … including not only the so-called spiritual contents of science, art and religion, but also law, ethics, fashion, public opinion, sport, amusement, life style etc.’.17
More specifically they should ask: what interconnections exist in definite social groups, in definite periods of time and in definite countries, between the position of the group in the economy, changes in the psychic structures of its membership and other relevant factors which condition and affect the group’s thoughts and practices.18
Three themes dominate all others in Horkheimer’s address. The first, already described, suggests the necessity of re-specifying ‘the great philosophical questions’ in an interdisciplinary research programme. The second theme, more implicit but made clearer in later essays, is a call for a rejection of orthodox Marxism and its substitution by a reconstructed understanding of Marx’s project. The third emphasizes the necessity for social theory to explicate the set of interconnections (mediations) that make possible the reproduction and transformation of society, economy, culture and consciousness. In his early writings as an Institute member Horkheimer added a note on methodology to the themes of his inaugural address.19
No one method could, in his opinion, produce definitive results about any given object of inquiry. To take one type of approach is always to risk a distorted perspective on reality. Several methods, drawing on both qualitative and quantitative techniques, have to be supplemented with one another in any
systematic investigation. But empirical work, Horkheimer emphasized, is not a substitute for theoretical analysis. For concepts like society, culture and class, indispensable to all inquiry, cannot be simply transcribed into empirical terms. They require theoretical elucidation and appraisal.20
During the 1930s and early 1940s, despite the transfer of the Institute – an outcome, of course, of the Nazis’ rise to power – to Geneva (February 1933) and then to Columbia University in New York (1935), members of the Institute continued to work in political-economy, philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, music and other disciplines. The variety of approaches were reflected in the Institute’s new journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung [Journal of Social Research], first published in 1932, and in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science as the journal was later called on its publication in English, between 1939 and 1941. The term ‘critical theory’, the label under which so much of the Frankfurt school’s work has become famous, does not reflect adequately the different disciplines represented in the journal or at the Institute. Although it is a label which Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse seemed happy to employ as a description of their own enterprises from the mid 1930s onward, ‘critical theory’ does not describe the approach or method of individuals such as Grossmann, Fromm and Neumann (who had a more traditional attitude to their disciplines). Nor does it identify satisfactorily all the stages in the development of Horkheimer’s, Adorno’s and Marcuse’s own thought – the transformations, for example, in Horkheimer’s theoretical perspective from an early commitment to materialism and critique to a later interest in ‘quasi-religious’ phenomena. Moreover, the label conceals a host of differences between Horkheimer, Ador...