Excerpts from

"The Dialectical Imagination

A history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950

(University of California Press, 1973)


"One of the crucial questions raised in the ensuing analysis was the relation of theory to practice, or more precisely, to what became a familiar term in the Marxist lexicon, praxis. Loosely defined, praxis was used to designate a kind of self-creating action, which differed from the externally motivated behavior produced by forces outside man's control. Although originally seen as the opposite of contemplative theoria when it was first used in Aristotle's Metaphysics, praxis in the Marxist usage was seen in dialectical relation to theory. In fact, one of the earmarks of praxis as opposed to mere action was its being informed by theoretical considerations. The goal of revolutionary activity was understood as the unifying of theory and praxis, which would be in direct contrast to the situation prevailing under capitalism." (page 3-4)

"....the Frankfurt School was to become a major force in the revitalization of Western European Marxism in the postwar years. In addition, through the sudden popularity of Herbert Marcuse in the America of the late 1960's, the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory has also had a significant influence on the New Left in this country."

"On June 22, 124, the Institut's freshly completed building was officially opened. Grunberg [its first director] gave the dedicating address.... Grunberg concluded his opening address by clearly stating his personal allegiance to Marxism as a scientific methodology... Marxism would be the ruling principle at the Institut.[sic] ... True Marxism, he continued, was not dogmatic ; it did not seek eternal laws. With this latter assertion, Critical Theory as it was later developed was in agreement.

"With the introduction of psychoanalyses to the Institut, the Grunberg era was clearly over.... The change this symbolized was given further impetus by the acceptance of a new member in late 1932, Herbert Marcuse, who was to become one of the principal architects of Critical Theory. Marcuse was born in 1898 in Berlin, into a family of prosperous assimilated Jews, like most of the others.... In 1919 he quit the Social Democratic Party... in protest against its betrayal of the proletariat.... His first book, Hegel's Ontology and the Foundation of a Theory of Historicity, appeared in 1932, bearing the marks of his mentor Heidegger.... Their relations became strained.... the political differences between the Marxist oriented student and the increasingly right-wing teacher."


"With the Nazi assumption of power of January 30, 1933, the future of an avowedly Marxist organization, staffed almost exclusively by men of Jewish descent-- at least by Nazi standards -- was obviously bleak.... Adorno... maintained a residence in Germany... he spent most of the next four years in England staying at Merton College, Oxford." (28-29)


"Once in America... the Institut's members became more sensitive to the Jewish question. Adorno, for example, was asked by Pollock to drop the Wiesengrund from his name, because there were too many Jewish-sounding names on the Institut's roster. ... Assimilation was paradoxically more difficult in America than it had been in pre-Nazi Germany, at least so many Institut members felt....

     "Jurgen Habermas has recently argued that a striking resemblance exists between certain strains in the Jewish cultural tradition and in that of German Idealism, whose roots have often been seen in Protestant Pietism. One important similarity, which is especially crucial for an understanding of Critical Theory, is the old cabalistic idea that speech rather than pictures was the only way to approach God.... This, so Habermas has argued, parallels the idealist critique of empirical reality, which reached its height in Hegelian dialectics." (34)

"Institut will also be used as coterminous with the "Frankfurt School" in the period after 1933."


"After the Institut's resettlement at Columbia University, however, this tone underwent a subtle shift in a pessimistic direction. Articles in the Zeitschrift scrupulously avoided using words like 'Marxism' or 'communism,' substituting 'dialectical materialism' or 'the materialist theory of society' instead.... These changes were doubtless due in part to the sensitive situation in which the Institut's members found themselves at Columbia. They were also a reflection of their fundamental aversion to the type of Marxism that the Institut equated with the orthodoxy of the Soviet Camp. But in addition they expressed a growing loss of that basic confidence, which Marxists had traditionally felt, in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat."...
      "Like other twentieth-century contributors to the revitalization of Marxism -- Lukacs, Gramski, Bloch, Sartre....  they were influenced at an early stage in their careers by more subjects, even idealist philosophies. Horkheimer, who set the tone for all of the Institut's work, had been interested in Schopenhauer and Kant before becoming fascinated with Hegel and Marx."


"Although attacking the idea of a group or mass soul, Fromm felt that individuals were never entirely isolated from their social situation. The real task was to supplement and enrich the basic Marxist framework, which he accepted as a given. Marxism, he argued, had incorrectly been charged with having a simplistic psychology of acquisitiveness; here he pointed an accusing finger at Bertrand Russell.... for wrongly seeing economic self-interest as the basis of Marx's view of man." (92)


"By the late thirties, however Fromm and the other Institut members began to go along separate paths.... Walter Benjamin... was not really a member of the Institut's inner circle..." 101

"Well before the forced emigration, it [Frankfurt Institut] had turned its attention to problems of authority. Critical Theory was developed partly in response to the failure of traditional Marxism to explain the reluctance of the proletariat to fulfill its historical role. One of the primary reasons for Horkheimer's early interest in psychoanalysis had been the help it might give in accounting for the psychological "cement" of society. Accordingly, when he assumed the reins of the Institut in 1930, one the first tasks he announced was an empirical study of the mentality of workers in the Weimar Republic.... Erich Fromm was the project's director." (116)


"Horkheimer, accompanied by Adorno, ...moved to Pacific Palisades near Santa Monica, California, in early 1941.... In moving westward to California, Horkheimer and Adorno gave symbolic confirmation of the [Frankfurt] Institut's increased distance from its European origins.   In February 1940 while still in New York, Horkheimer, Pollock, Marcuse and Lowenthal had taken out naturalization papers. By the end of the war almost all the Institut members had become American citizens. ....

      "Starting with Punishment and Social Structure in 1939, all the Institut's published work appeared in its adopted language. In the forties the Studies in Prejudice picked up....but now the focus was on American forms of authoritarianism....
      "Authoritarianism in America appeared in different guises from its European counterparts. Instead of terror or coercion, more gently forms of enforced conformism had been developed. Perhaps the post effective of these were to be found in the cultural field. American mass culture thus became one of the central concerns of the Frankfurt School in the forties. In the next chapter we shall turn to the extensive and penetrating work of Adorno and Benjamin in the context of the Institut's treatment of... 'affirmative culture.'"

"...the Frankfurt School, like other para-Marxists, shared the "Engelian" distinction between realism and naturalism that Lukacs did so much to develop.... Whatever the disagreements that separated them in subsequent years... the Institut and Lukacs spoke to similar questions from within a common tradition."

"The principle that Adorno attributed to the symbolists also informed their work: 'Defiance of society includes defiance of its language.'... Adorno himself indicated his purpose indirectly when he wrote of Schonberg's music: 'It requires the listener spontaneously to compose its inner movement and demand of him not mere contemplation but praxis.. As Adorno once suggested, Benjamin saw himself as the vehicle for the expression of objective cultural tendencies.... Benjamin strove to give his words a richness and resonance that normal prose lacked. His interest in the Talmud and the Cabala may have led him tot the conviction that multiple levels of meaning exist in every sentence. "

"Benjamin's keenest interest was in the Cabala, the most arcane of Jewish mystical works... If Benjamin responded to the revelatory elements in Judaism, he was equally sensitive to its redemptive strains. The messianic current in Jewish through, which was appropriated in a secularized from by Marxism, ran through his writings form beginning to end. ... One of the last essays he wrote, the posthumously published 'These on the philosophy of History,' made this every evident. It was here that Benjamin most clearly articulated his distinction between homogenous empty time and the messianic Jetzteit (the fulfilled time of the present) that the revolution was supposed to usher in."

See also Kurt Lewin, “Group Decision and Social Change” and Adorno, Lukaks



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