The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

Marco A. Torres
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

NOTE: I’m republishing this piece by Marco Torres from 2008 because it underscores the shift away from revolutionary optimism toward critical pessimism that took place among more perceptive Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s. The Frankfurt School, as it’s come to be known, is exemplary of this turn. Nevertheless, this does not mean they ceased to be Marxists. Rather, they represented an attempt to grasp the failure of revolutionary Marxism using the tools of historical materialism itself.

As the economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel explained, this critical reappraisal “began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter. The paradoxical condition of this ideological movement may help to explain its almost exclusive preoccupation with superstructural questions, and the conspicuous lack of concern for the material and economic base that should have been underlying it.”


AdornoHorkheimerHabermasbyJeremyJShapiro2 (1) Marcuse copy

From their canonization in the 1960s through to their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized, and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer — the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today — have instead been characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics, Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.

Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are just plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute — half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman, and Karl August Wittfogel — were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to critical theory.

1919_Liebknecht+Sparticists bundesarchiv_bild_102-00539_berlin_revolution_standrechtlich_erschossene

After the German worker’s revolution of 1918-1919 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.

It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on “the essence and methods of socialization,” financially supported left-wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frölich, his joking self-description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the First Marxist Workweek [Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche] a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy” and the seminal History and Class Consciousness. Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.

George Grosz, portrait of Felix Weil (1926)Thüringen, 1923. Hintere Reihe- Zweiter von links- Friedrich Pollock, Mitte- Georg Lukács, Zweiter von rechts- Felix Weil. Vordere Reihe- Erster von links- Karl August Wittfogel, Mitte- Karl Korsch, rechts vor ihm Käthe Weil

After the Workweek the time seemed appropriate to go forward with Weil’s project for “an institutionalization of Marxist discussion beyond the confines of middle class academia or the narrow mindedness of the communist party.” After successfully convincing the ministry of culture of the necessity of an institute for the study of sociology connected to the University of Frankfurt but independent from it, Weil’s first instinct was to appoint the director position to either Lukács or Korsch. But this proved impossible. The largely conservative professorship and administration of the University of Frankfurt — already up in arms about the study of sociology, which was to them “mere socialism” — would have strongly opposed the admittance of such politically active communists as faculty. Under these considerations, Weil was obliged to offer the directorship to Karl Grünberg, a senior Marxist economist from the University of Vienna. Grünberg had been affiliated with Austrian Social Democracy for more than a decade and had once made plans to create a social research institute with the notorious SPD theoretician Karl Kautsky at its head. At the end of 1923, once Grünberg was chosen as the director, construction of the Institute’s building on the Frankfurt University campus began.

Grünberg’s address at the inauguration of the Institute paints an optimistic picture of a world already in an inevitable transition to a freer society:

There are pessimists who stand horrified and amazed in the midst of the ruins which the process of change brings with it…They see the ruins not just as the ruins of their own world, but of the world as such…in contrast with the pessimists there are the optimists…Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching…[These] people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope, but are firmly scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.

Grünberg’s Marxism stemmed from precisely this worldview. For him, the transition to socialism was only a matter of time and “scientific” certainty:

It is found that the driving pressure of the material interests which are systematically at work in economic life, and their collision one with another, produce a regular progression from lesser to greater perfection. And just as, from the point of view of the materialist conception of history every single expression of the life of society is a reflection of the current form of economic life, so equally, all history — except in primitive conditions — appears to be a series of class struggles.

This mechanistic view of history was precisely the kind of Marxism that later members of the Frankfurt Institute such as Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse would turn later their backs on. For them, as well as for earlier Hegelian Marxists such as Lukács and Korsch, dialectical materialism was not the science that predicted the automatic transformation of society. It was instead a critical consciousness that emanated from within the contradictory character of society that pointed to the possibility of overcoming those very contradictions.

Carl Grunberg

But to see Grünberg’s traditional, mechanistic Marxism as mere wrong-headedness or as a quaint artifact of the times would be to not do it justice historically. The political situation at the time seemed to indicate that a transformation of the social order was coming. It was not necessary to be affiliated to a particular party to see the recent European revolutions and the formation of the Communist Third International as the harbingers of a new era of an all out battle between capitalism and socialism — a battle out of which socialism might very well emerge victorious. In this historical period, before the series of defeats the Left suffered throughout the majority of the 20th century, to think that the simply “more advanced” character of one social system would automatically replace the current, crisis-ridden one might not have been as obviously over-optimistic as it appears today.

This worldview was the reason the research of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research during these years included little reference to the quintessential recurring themes of the Frankfurt School as we remember it today: aesthetic theory, German idealism, and Freudian psychoanalysis. This set of theoretical tools would have seemed, from the perspective of Grünberg’s “optimism,” irrelevant: his mechanistic Marxism, affirmed by history’s concurrent unfolding, would have taken them as remnants of bourgeois enlightenment rendered obsolete by Marxist theory, which needed only to be put in practice to render this sort of enlightenment wholly obsolete. This was an attitude that, at this point, only the Hegelian Marxists Lukács and Korsch had explicitly warned against. Quoting Marx’s dictum, “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized,” Korsch had criticized theoreticians of the Second International for their assumption that “scientific Marxism” had effectively superseded philosophy — a criticism that could have very well been applied to Grünberg.

It was in the spirit of this “optimistic” traditional, mechanistic Marxism that the Institute began to output its large amount of research. A look at the titles of some of these projects shows a picture of the extent to which the Institute understood its task as the collection of empirical research within the framework of revolutionary politics: The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System by Henryk Grossman; Experiments in the Planned Economy of the Soviet Union, 1917-1927 by Friedrich Pollock; The Economy and Society of China by Karl Wittfogel; The Theory of the Capitalist Agrarian Crisis: a Contribution to the Explanation of Structural Changes in American Agriculture by Julian Gumperz.

Institut institut-1950

By the late ’20s, with such research underway, the Institute was in fact shaping up to become what Weil had wanted it to be from the very beginning: a “foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow — equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives” — an institute which would be worthy of one day being “presented to a [soon to come] German Social republic.” On the one hand, the Institute’s endowment was large enough and on the other, its curriculum independent enough from the conservative Frankfurt University, that it could give ample and exclusive sponsorship to young Marxist graduate students, from mainstream Communist Party members to Trotskyists. Its facilities housed a library of more than 37,000 volumes and an archive of historical documents on the German labor movement and the Revolution of 1918-1919, a collection whose focus and scope were one of a kind. Weil and Grünberg had created an institution that saw its present academic role as only a preparation for its real role: the center for the social sciences in a post-revolutionary Germany.

But the revolution never came. In fact, the political situation was taking a sharp turn to the Right. From 1926 on, it became a common practice of hostile conservative forces within the university and the government to dig up the communist past of Institute affiliates, such as Weil and Grossman, as a way to rile up dissent against them. This was made easier when in 1930, the Weimar administration, in its last struggle to maintain stability in a country that had become politically polarized into Communist and Nazi camps, made it illegal for people on the governments payroll to belong to either of these parties. Finally, in the same year’s election the Nazi party won a majority in parliament. Left wing students of the Frankfurt University, including some graduate students affiliated with the Institute, had to organize security contingents after Nazi youth began demonstrating at the university gates. Such defensive tactics could offer only temporary protection. The election of Hitler as chancellor was only two years away.

horkheimer 1932

In 1930, two years after a stroke left Grünberg unable to continue his work at the helm of the Institute, Horkheimer replaced him as director. He shared none of his predecessor’s “scientific” optimism. In view of the threat that the rising tide of Nazism presented to an academic institution run by Jewish Marxists, Horkheimer transferred the Institute’s finances to Switzerland and set the stage for flight. Horkheimer’s inaugural speech was very different from the one Grünberg gave only seven years before. He spoke, not of an unstoppable thrust towards socialism, but instead referred to the necessity for a backward glance, an accounting for the failure of the emancipation that had only a few years ago seemed just around the corner. He did this by proposing a look at the roots of Marxian Critical Theory, the enlightenment philosophies of Kant and Hegel, together with an approach to empirical sociology informed by Freudian psychoanalysis and focused on mass psychology. For Horkheimer the traditional Marxist economics of Grünberg, Grossman and Wittfogel were no longer able to explain the shape the world was beginning to take.

The regression in political consciousness that had taken place, since the failure of the German revolution of 1918, culminated in the popularity and electoral success of the Nazi party. Horkheimer’s pessimism, shared by younger members of the Institute such as Marcuse and Adorno, was a recognition of this fact. To some critics, the pessimistic turn towards theory that the Frankfurt School took in the 1930s represents a cowardly abandonment of revolutionary orthodoxy towards a safe liberalism; to most of its advocates as the fortunate correcting of the more “dogmatic” aspects of orthodoxy. And yet, seen in this historical context, it was neither. It was instead the result of an immeasurable political failure. Kant, Hegel, Durkheim, Freud — the enlightenment the Frankfurt School’s brand of Marxism revisited, having once seemed a fait accompli to be safely filed away as a past victory, was now in danger of being negated, forgotten, neutralized. If Grünberg’s brand of orthodoxy once dictated the obsolescence of this kind of enlightenment, the political events of 1933 had been such a giant step backwards that it was now forward thinking orthodoxy that had become unable to grasp the present. This is what Adorno meant when he began his own retrospective summation, Negative Dialectics in 1966, with a melancholy inversion of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” |P

13 thoughts on “The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

  1. Very interesting, thanks, still I missed information about the pictures : they are a rich complement to the text, they represent historical documents not less than the written sources…
    Philippe Brandes

  2. Thanks, Ross, for both this post and the one on Pollock.

    Torres writes, “In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute — half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman, and Karl August Wittfogel — were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction.” They may be half forgotten but other associates are simply forgotten – for example Andries Sternheim.

    Fortunately we have an 11-page article on this Dutch diamond-cutter who in so many respects was an anomaly in the Frankfurt circle. Cruelly it’s as if the title of the Andrzejewski novel and Wajda film, ‘Ashes and Diamonds’, had him in mind: Andries and his wife died in Auschwitz in 1944.

    The article by Bertus Mulder and Lolle Nauta, ‘Working-Class and Proletariat: On the Relation of Andries Sternheim to the Frankfurt School’, Praxis International, 1990, is viewable at the extensive Central and Eastern European Online Library:

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