Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and the First Generation of the Frankfurt School: A Retrospective Evaluation of Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century

“But thinking, itself a mode of conduct, contains the need—the vital need, at the outset—in itself. The need is what we think from, even where we disdain wishful thinking. The motor of the need is the effort that involves thought as action. The object of critique is not the need in thinking, but the relationship between the two.” (Negative Dialectics, 408)


Is theory praxis? The Frankfurt School’s critical theorists believe that to be the case. The mere facticity of thinking and judging precludes the faculty of willing the deed. Of course, Marx would have disagreed with the Frankfurt School as “socialists of the chair.” This particular sect of socialism never took an activist approach to politics. Since Marx will be taught with respect to his theory of alienation, now known as his “early, humanist writings," the teacher of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 will have to realize, of course, that this was the pre-political phase in his theoretical development. In his maturity, he felt that there is an identity of theory and action until the Unhappy Consciousness of man is overcome in communism (that is the core thesis of historical materialism). Human alienation becomes transcended with the end of history (as class conflict).


The Frankfurt School theorists from Adorno to Habermas adhere to a non-identity of subject and object in history; while consciousness reflects the material mode of production, it is the superstructure, not the base, which is the agent of history. In short, they are stating that the producers of critical theory are in the vanguard to enlighten the masses by demystifying bourgeois concepts of the capitalist political economy. Ideology is false consciousness; hence, the act of dereifying a falsely conceptualized reality will emancipate humankind. The revolution is in clarifying language, not in mass action of the superannuated proletariat. There is an elitist messianism in this school of thought, which originated in Marx’s first writings and he later abandoned. A Marxist could turn the analysis against the Frankfurt School by saying that they are victims of their own methodological biases, since their work is based on pure theoretical speculation, however brilliant, while largely spurning empirical analysis. Adorno, in particular, thought that empirical data lack the universal (the totality mediated); you cannot find truth in contingency. In short, you begin with a grand narrative of human events and deduce what the facts are to be. Needless to say, that methodology is the antithesis not only of positivism, but of the scientific paradigm itself. I believe that this flaw, above all, accounts for why Critical Theory never took hold in the United States. Of course, the study of Marx never took hold in U.S. workers’ consciousness because there is no hereditary class system that automatically denies upward social mobility. The New Left movement of the sixties was mere theater of the absurd with political play, not revolution. Herbert Marcuse failed to modernize Marx for Americans with his “desublimated repression.” Rather, his initiates suppressed sublimation.


There is a “hidden God” in Critical Theory. For what is it that cannot be named in terms of a non-identity theory? It is God himself, as given in the Jewish oral tradition that defies man’s positivism. It is He who cannot be named, measured, weighed, or seen. He can only be inferred. That is why the Jews still await the true messiah, but He will not have necessarily a human form. As I understand the Frankfurt School, their unspoken “God” could be the transformation of mankind’s collective behavior through self-understanding by adapting a lifestyle of truth seeking, very much like Gandhi, but yet different, since they recognize that material well-being does influence standards of behavior. Emancipation presumes economic plenty. For instance, to be a citizen of the world and competitive, each individual will have to have access to a computer and partake of the Information Revolution as an active participant. But the Frankfurt School theorists never understood Americans, when they immigrated to this Anglo-Saxon democracy, since the individual is sovereign, not the collectivity. There is a repetition compulsion to the twentieth century of the first generation of Frankfurt School German Jewish intellectuals, high bourgeois German Ideologists with its advocates forever wandering the earth looking for home. I speak from the advantage of a retrospective point of view. Current Marxist theory contends that the dialectic is dynamic, that the motor force of history lies in the contradictions between the relations of production and the forces of production, with the breakdown of distribution accounting for the deep world recession at the time of the rewriting of this essay. Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer found the struggle in the superstructural antagonisms in high culture in conflict with the concept of labor objectified into a reified totality.


Ron Schindler/24 July, 2009