Trotsky and the Frankfurt School

Helmut Dahmer
Platypus Review
October 1, 2015

Disrespect for a reality that demands adoration as if it were a god is the religion of those, who in today’s Europe under the ‘Iron Heel’ risk their life in order to prepare a future better one.

— Max Horkheimer, September 19391

Looking through the register of names in the writings and letters of the circle of friends around Max Horkheimer we find only rare references to Leon Trotsky. Theodor Adorno, for instance, who claims in his Aesthetic Theory (1969) that the ambitious art has been bourgeois art, remarks approvingly that Trotsky also had said in his book Literature and Revolution (1923/24) that (after the revolution) there would be no possibility for the development of any “proletarian” art, and that there would be produced a post-bourgeois art only in the future, after an international socialist society will have been established. Erich Fromm, who belonged to Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research until 1939, wrote a sympathetic, but unpublished review in 1958, when Trotsky’s Diary in Exile (1935) was translated and published. Horkheimer also mentioned Trotsky (together with Lenin) in conversations with Adorno and other members of his circle concerning the Bolshevik Revolution, remarking that it had changed its character by answering white terror with red terror during the civil war. Horkheimer quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s early criticism of the Bolshevik rule, praising Luxemburg as “one of the most important political figures of the 20th century.” Walter Benjamin is the only member of Horkheimer’s circle of social philosophers of whom we know that he not only read (in 1926) Trotskyʼs essay Where is Britain Going? but later, in 1932-33, Trotsky’s most important books, My Life and The History of the Russian Revolution, with great enthusiasm, “I think it is the most interesting book I have read in many years,” he wrote to Adorno’s wife, Gretel Karplus.2 We can find traces of this reading in Benjamin’s notes on Blanqui (in The Arcades Project) and in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940.

In Horkheimer and Adorno’s writings on fascism we find, in spite of many similarities of description and analysis, no indication that they had knowledge of Trotsky’s commentaries concerning the agony of the Weimar Republic, the failure of the German communist party and the rise of the fascist movement. Trotsky’s theory of fascism is not even mentioned in Horkheimer’s essay “Lehren aus dem Faschismus” [“What fascism did teach us” 1950].3 The main contributions to a theory of fascism, that were written and published by the scholars around Max Horkheimer were those of Franz Neumann4 and Adorno.5  The pioneer work of Neumann on the political economy of German fascism owes a lot to Trotsky’s analyses but doesn’t mention him. Both authors were analyzing the victory of Hitler’s fascist party in 1933 as the result of the struggle between the three German classes: the bourgeoisie, intermediate strata (petit-bourgeois), and the proletariat. The majority of the electorate and the troops supporting the fascist mass movement were recruited from the expropriated and disorientated old and new middle classes and from the reservoir of six million unemployed. The fascist program combined the conservative, anti-modern ideology with anti-capitalist and nationalist slogans in order to recruit as many followers out of the middle and working class as possible. In the November 1932 election, the fascist NSDAP got 11.7 million votes, the proletarian parties KPD and SPD together 13.2 million votes. The main promoters and beneficiaries of the fascist movement and of the fascist regime were finance capital and large landed property ownership. But millions of fellow travelers also made their profit, when the German and European Jews were expropriated and the countries under German rule were plundered (between 1938 and 1945). Trotsky had demanded the formation of an armed united front of all working-class organizations in order to attract the majority of the middle-classes, to destroy the fascist movement and to complete the social revolution of November 1918. The study of Adorno and the Frankfurt School attempted the first analysis to explain why certain people choose to give up their personal autonomy and to become blind followers of this or that charismatic false messiah.6 The Frankfurt School’s Marxism (or “critical theory”) was an exploration of the social totality from two sides: from the side of the institutionalized politico-economical relationships and from the side of the individuals that are stretched into the frame of these class relations. In a latent rebellion against this Procrustean bed, they often do not know how to realize their own interests. The analysis of the fascist economy and the analysis of the fascist mentality (Behemoth and Authoritarian Personality) were combined in order to gain a realistic picture of the terrible totality, whose reproduction our generation must prevent.7

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Trotsky had denounced Stalin as the “gravedigger of the revolution” as early as 1926. We cannot be sure if Horkheimer knew his fragmentary biography of Stalin published in 1941, the year after Trotsky was killed by the GPU-agent Ramón Mercader; but Horkheimer’s reaction when he learned in early March 1953 that the tyrant of the Kremlin had died sounds like an echo of Trotsky’s damnation of (“Cain”) Stalin. Here is the report of Monika Plessner:

Horkheimer was in high spirits, jubilated, rubbed his hands in glee: “The monster is dead. Call the students together. We have to do something immediately.” (Half an hour later the students were sent into the city of Frankfurt in order to ask passengers what their opinion was concerning the main news of the day).8

Much more important than these direct (or indirect) references to Trotsky and his writings is the political and cultural constellation: On the one side we find the tiny informal group of Marxist philosophers around Horkheimer driven into exile by the German fascists; on the other, the group of international revolutionaries around Trotsky — the so-called “Left Opposition,” later known as the “Fourth International,” organized in the form of a new party, one that the Stalinists hunted down from the Soviet Union to Turkey, then to France, from France to Norway, from Norway to Mexico. Between 1929 and 1942 both the Trotskyists and the Frankfurt School published their own journals, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung [Journal for Social Research] and the Бюллетен оппозиции [Bulletin of the Opposition]. We could say that in different ways both journals met Hegel’s demand to grasp the specific historical situation and to give it a theoretical reconstruction.9 We don’t know if Horkheimer and his friends took note of Trotsky’s Bulletin, whose main articles were published simultaneously in German, French and English, but in July 1939 a review of Horkheimer’s journal and its program was published in Unser Wort, the journal of the German Trotskyist group (IKD) written by Trotskyʼs brilliant secretary Walter Held (Heinz Epe) whom the Stalinists killed three years later. Its title was “Kritische Theorie ohne politische Praxis?” (“Critical Theory without Political Practice?”).

The Marxists of Horkheimer’s circle were (like Freud) critics of the Hegelian idealism in succession of Ludwig Feuerbach. But they knew — like Marx himself — that the concepts of their sociological theory originally had been developed by Hegel. So we can say that they were Hegelian (or“Western”) Marxists like Antonio Labriola, the Italian philosopher whose “non-orthodox” interpretation was decisive for Trotsky’s understanding of Marxʼs critical theory.10

They were convinced that, in order to understand and to criticize the actual form and functioning of society, it was not only necessary to analyze the economic development but to understand and to criticize the philosophical and artistic productions that were typical for the actual stage of societal evolution and that determined the consciousness of their contemporaries. In order to change society it was necessary to understand it in its totality. This orientation enabled the social philosophers around Horkheimer as well as Trotsky (and in contrast to the majority of the Marxists, who didn’t understand that Marx had developed a criticism of society, not a Weltanschauung) to welcome Freud’s new (therapeutic) psychology of the unconscious. They realized that the Viennese physician had developed a new criticism of psychological and cultural institutions, one that complemented their own sociological criticism. Horkheimer and Benjamin were Marxist historians (of philosophy or literature). Adorno updated and radicalized the criticism of idealistic philosophy (not only that of Hegel but also that of Edmund Husserl) and became classic and modern music and literature’s most important Marxist interpreter. Trotsky the revolutionary was also a man of letters, and his very original interpretations of the literature of the 19th and the early 20th century written between 1900 and 1940 will be published soon in German in two large volumes.

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 Weiltrotskyeternalre00volk_0377 copy

The conception of “political practice” as we find it in the letters and essays of Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Adorno during the thirties was (more implicitly than explicitly) the same as that of the revolutionary Marxists Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. Yet, they were anxious to omit any public mention of Trotsky. After the Second World War, Adorno and Horkheimer saw no possibility of any revolutionary practice, for they saw no revolutionary subject (class). With the notable exception of Marcuse, they didn’t think that the German (and international) protest movement of the students had any chance to change capitalist society. Continue reading