Dick Howard Political Theory, Critical Theory, and the Place of the Frankfurt School
ABSTRACT This paper explores the paradox of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory where the notion of “critical theory” became identified with aesthetics and asks whether the disappearance of the political dimension of critical theory was necessary. This disappearance of the political also presents some uncomfortable affinities between it and postmodernism. But in the more sober world after 1989, post-communism poses more relevant questions than post-modernism for an assessment of the history of the Frankfurt School. The political project of the old Frankfurt School has to be revivified - or at least given a decent burial. KEY WORDS: Critical Theory, Frankfurt School, cultural theory, postmodernism
The appeal of the Frankfurt School to an American New Leftist of the 1970s was based on a paradox. The co-optive capacity of modern capitalist society, its ‘one-dimensionality’, devalued practical politics and consecrated the liberal consensus. Theory, such as it was in those days, was social theory, which had the same effect: if it was not celebratory or
Critical Horizons 1:2 (2000) © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2000
Critical theory. Why then pay it the attention necessary to formulate an immanent critique? Instead. as one sees most saliently in the literary style and especially the musical likes (and dislikes) of Adorno. post272 Dick Howard
. Yet the basis of the 1970s’ turn to Critical Theory was the rejection of the actual political system. in the university at least. and translated into English in 1993. or more broadly.1 This odd couple. But to be effective. which once seemed overtaken. Here too the Frankfurt School and academic ‘critical theory’ once again share an uncomfortable (if queen-sized) bed when it comes to their aesthetic presuppositions: what are post-modernists if not modernists who hate modernity.conservative it was oriented to technical problem-solving. remains alive because the moment of its realisation was missed. is worth reconsideration when the notion of ‘critical theory’ has come to be identified. This paradox of a politics proposed by people who. or coupling. cultural theory. as critical. It sought to formulate the kind of immanent or dialectical critique that Horkheimer and Marcuse had defined (in their newly-translated 1937 essays from the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung) in opposition to the static or contemplative perspective of traditional theory. made sense for a Western left that was (perhaps less often than it ought to have been) aware that ‘really existing socialism’ was no alternative to its own social order. Critical Theory came to stand for or to replace politics. without really admitting it. definitively presented by Rolf Wiggershaus in 1986.” Today. hate politics. The politics of theory replaced the theory of politics. This gesture was justified by the famous aphorism from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics: “Philosophy. a politics of theory. Such an immanent critique would show the emancipatory potential that remains hidden or frozen in the external frame of a mindless machinery. The goal was to demystify a reified politics that is separated from the life-world on which nonetheless it depends. with literary. without further ado. seemed the only available option. It was radical in its very modesty. Politics and aesthetics are apparently identified. and defined. the pendulum finally has swung so far that the politics of (critical) theory have become the aesthetics of post-modernism in the era of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. suggests that in the more sober world after 1989. But the history of the Frankfurt School. such a political critical theory would have had to pay as much attention to the logic of the political as the critical philosophers paid in 1937 to the logic of the concept. The political project of the Frankfurt school has disappeared. by a shortcut that would prove costly.
“the survival of Nazism within democracy as potentially more threatening than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy. critical theory seems to be making (often insightful. Frankfurt School 273
. Adorno’s increasing use of the essay-form permitted him to influence opinion beyond the lecture hall.”3 Wiggershaus stays on the case. by a principal author of The Authoritarian Personality. may perhaps be of interest later.or at least given a decent burial. following both the ideas and the career of Critical Theory and the critical theorists’ ‘Institute for Social Research’ through their encounter with.communism poses more relevant questions than post-modernism. The political project of the old Frankfurt School has to be revivified . This was not simply a question of style. mean in the new West Germany? Wiggershaus suggests that its lack of a determined referent points to the insufficiency of the original critical intuition. . highly personal volume whose title is deliberately dual.” he writes. The encounter draws out and makes explicit the ambiguity that would increasingly take the form of paradox whose original dynamic tension gradually was lost as the theory became a ‘school.” His illustration of this claim is telling. Critical Theory was an academic code-name for Marxism. Essayist insights based on “intuitive chance readings and his own experiences and
Political Theory.’ Wiggershaus cites the “Preface” to Horkheimer’s early. By that time. What kind of ‘politics’ did they then seek? What kind of ‘theory’ would justify it? What did the critical theorists mean by ‘politics’ and what makes its theory ‘critical’? With the return to Germany.” What could this claim. Adorno came to play the dominant theoretical role while Horkheimer was busied with administrative integration into the new West Germany. One of the services provided by Rolf Wiggershaus is that his study follows their founding intuition through its encounter with a world for which it was not prepared. if hard to swallow at the time) political arguments against what passed for not just radical but even social-democratic politics. “I consider. the student movement of the ’70s. Wiggershaus asserts that “the essay was for him the form of free thought.” writes Adorno. he continues. and influence on. The same goes for the Marxism of which it considered itself the dialectical heir. But. Critical Theory. . “the ideas . Dawn and Decline (Dämmerung): “This book is obsolete.2 Was the disappearance of the political dimension of Critical Theory necessary? There is no doubt that the intention of the founders was political.
” the title continues. or in compromising with the authorities in the restored western Germany. It is no accident that Wiggershaus’ introduction of Habermas refers to the entry of “a social theorist at last. For example. particularly during their exile years. who had been chief lawyer for the Social Democrats. “seen by Horkheimer as too left-wing. such character traits are not simple idiosyncrasies.. . . in choosing to support or reject research projects. . While it is nice to know that theoretical heroes also have clay feet. for example. But Horkheimer’s personal whims (and ambitions) do not explain how and why the critical theory of politics abandoned its radical critical roots.” What is meant by ‘left-wing’ turns out to mean.”4 With this.” Was this a sign that the political string had been played out? Wiggershaus makes the reader aware of the idiosyncrasy of Horkheimer’s personal politics and of the lengths to which his function as chief bureaucrat and/or entrepreneur of the Institute for Social Research could take him in power struggles over the direction of research. which must be translated into an empirical form of knowledge capable of making use of the successful discoveries of organised science in all their breadth while providing science with fresh horizons to produce more specific. and at the same time more cautious discoveries and applications. were concerned with the political world around them. the Frankfurters. and the reader wonders whether the picture has been changed by this new presence whom Wiggershaus presents in a chapter title as: “a social theorist at the Institute at last. Kirchheimer’s earlier attempt to make a critical use of Carl Schmitt’s critique of parliamentary democracy to justify a ‘left-Bolshevism’ had led to an incisive debate with Neumann. . Marcuse had
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. for Horkheimer.5 But Wiggershaus does not take the occasion to question how this debate reflects the clash between the ‘utopian’ dimension of Critical Theory and its actual political implications. valued by Adorno but . he fails to follow up a (dissembling) letter from Horkheimer to Marcuse which claims that his decision to work on the Anti-Semitism study (with Adorno) is only another way of pursuing the project (shared with Marcuse) of a critical theory of politics. Besides Institute politics.associations” are a “a utopia . is shocking in its manipulations. whatever threatened the continued existence and dignity of his Institute. Jürgen Habermas enters the picture. Wiggershaus nicely restores to the Institute’s history such truly political thinkers as Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer. Horkheimer’s treatment of Herbert Marcuse during the exile years in America.
and (more surprising) Horkheimer. The original paradox returns: saving the power of the negative implies that theory is itself a politics. and sought to hold open the possibility of critique. Romance or Religion entails the sacrifice of (lower case) politics. we dismissed that possibility. Frankfurt School 275
.proposed that the critical study of ‘democracy’ might be an appropriate way to combine social problems with questions of theory. Wiggershaus is aware of the Romantic nature of this presupposition. He sees clearly the presupposition that makes it possible: the idea of a Reason that transcends the strategic or reified capitalist means-ends logic that couples political projects into a manipulable unidimensional world from which there is no escape.”6 The biographer here concentrates on the politics of theory while leaving the reader to speculate about the nature of a critical theory of politics that in principle was the presupposition of Horkheimer’s research interests. The actual politics of Critical Theory was based first and foremost on the steadfast and steady insistence on the power of negativity.
Political Theory. This is the theoretical ground that underlies the pessimism that gripped the Frankfurters. but more important for its brutally pessimistic vision of a history that had produced two authoritarian states). What he does not analyse. and it may as well be a partial explanation of their choice to pursue the politics of theory within the university. to the critique of psychological forms of adaptation and to Adorno’s essayist freedom. Admirable as the attitude may have been. but Horkheimer replies that “for certain reasons [not explained further in the letter]. From the initial refusal of a reified history of philosophy. and that the politics of theory is all that remains for radical thought. showing how it can adopt a messianic religious colouration in cases like Benjamin and Adorno. The imperative of negativity that founds Critical Theory devalues the merely empirical world which can be ‘saved’ only by an immanent dialectical (or mystical) method of critique. The faint optimism about the role of theory . to the critique of the totally administered society. the slogan of nichtmitmachen was an imperative that protected the theory from any possible conformity. however.in the passage cited from the preface to Dawn and Decline had disappeared completely with Horkheimer’s apocalyptic ‘Authoritarian State’ of 1940 (famous in the 1970s for its ‘who does not speak of capitalism dare not criticise fascism’. is how this option for (an upper-case) Reason. Critical Theory.as ‘critical’ . Wiggershaus shows the theoretical and practical difficulties of this politics of the negative.
now bellicose and roiling in idealistic rhetoric. Horkheimer’s constant concern to constitute a school.The imperative of negativity has another consequence for the critical theory of politics: its protagonists become ipso facto part of a (self-declared and selfreproducing) elite defined by its self-proclaimed capacity to pierce beneath the surface of the administered world of reified relations. While the often-cited Hegelian claim that “all determination is negation” can be defended. Despite the similarity of their descriptions. the practice . Again. in the end. it does not follow that all negation is determination. the critical theory of politics and a certain vision of the aesthetic tend to be fused in a unity that destroys the ability of each to recognise its difference and the specific domain of legitimacy of its propositions. The ‘fault’ does not lie with the Frankfurters. Yet the Frankfurt schooled reader of Democracy in America is struck by Tocqueville’s account of the ‘mediocrity’ of American’s democratic passions. a collective project that would express a collective vision could and did lead to administrative nas276 Dick Howard
. makes the career of their developing critical theory a useful symptom. it defines our ‘post-modern’ world where ‘critical theory’ has become literary criticism while politics disappears from the curriculum not only in the university. the tasting of that Flaubertian promesse de bonheur that Marcuse was fond of invoking.7 Why did critique replace politics? The question is not just biographical. the exercise of negativity. But ironically or paradoxically.to which they appealed was.or ‘praxis’ . True to the Marxist analysis of commodity fetishism.while the Germans’ theory gave rise to a politics of critique. It is no surprise that Adorno and Horkheimer never found themselves at home in American culture. the Frenchman developed a critical theory of politics .of democratic politics . their pragmatic lust after the mere appearance of life. the Frankfurters’ conception of the relation of theory and practice privileged the former even while appealing for the latter. the manipulability which makes them now pacifist and self-seeking. but their rigorous and consistent option for the negative. But it is surprising that nowhere in their criticism of that all-purpose bogeyman called ‘America’ do they make reference to that other aristocrat who formulated a critical theory of politics against the backdrop of the vulgar American practice of democracy. and of their critique. their refusal to mit-machen. nor is Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned in the index to Wiggershaus’ book. the practice of theory.
whether it could be maintained. and exclusion of debate. it is not satisfactory to attribute this turn to some sort of character default of Horkheimer.tiness. has to ask: Was it worth it? Is it worth it? Can it be done today? Each will have his or her own answer to the first question. but also because of his relation to the rebellious youth movement. For the Federal Republic of West Germany. Theory becomes its own politics. Wiggershaus (in this book dating from 1986) suggests a positive answer: the ’60s student movement and its Frankfurt-influenced action and analysis was a vital contribution to democratising a German culture and society that had emerged from the war largely intact. and insofar as its maintenance is
Political Theory. critique is too risky a venture. In a democratic society. but overwhelmed by the tidbits of daily life at an Institute. it could retain its theoretical coherence on the return to Germany only by freezing theoretical developments and sponsoring the most bread-and-butter empirical research). But this success leaves open the question whether such a ‘school’ could be built today. Critical Theory. the SDS.8 it went through three distinctive phases before the return to Germany.’ became ‘The Frankfurt School’ of Wiggershaus’ title. or of the others. and as Wiggershaus demonstrates. editorial manipulation and worse (as noted above in regard to relations with Marcuse). Frankfurt School 277
. But it did produce a unified ‘product’ (even if. Wiggershaus’ history suggests the need to ask whether there was something in the initial project. in the critical intuition. or even his attempt to renew Marxist theory.’ and its attempt to formulate in the wake of Marx a ‘critical theory of modernity. fixation. Some might attribute it to the bitter experience of fascism. This helps explain why Habermas was ‘too left’ for Horkheimer: because of his relations not only to the Social Democrats. and.10 More important. in accord with Adorno’s aphorism from Negative Dialectics. a ‘school’ can exist only insofar as. admiring his research. if so. as Dubiel stressed previously.9 The need to maintain a school entailed an option for ‘theory’ even at the cost of ritualising its ‘critical’ function. depending in part on how she reads recent German history after the rupture of 1989. But again. others might find its roots in a congenital inability of Marxism to reduce politics to economics. a fixed (negative or critical) theoretical core is maintained. that could explain this unexpected and unintended end? The ‘Institute for Social Research. The reader today. production and maintenance of a ‘school’ of theory came at the price of rigidity. an institution whose quotidian existence had escaped him in the heady ’60s and ’70s. trickery.
Post-modernism in its various forms is ‘critical’ in the sense that it opposes another reality to the accepted social vision of what counts as real. like
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. But the politics of theory can be practiced according to different rules. But in doing that. it is not the kind of immanent critique that the original intuition of the Frankfurt School sought to actualise in its quarrel with modern capitalism and capitalist social and cultural modernity. not a critical theory! The opposition of one ‘reality’ to another produces at best a criticism. the critical theory of society proposed by the Frankfurt School must be replaced by a political theory of democracy for which the autonomy of the political stands as that instance of negativity that cannot be coopted into the new global world in which (not only geopolitical) boundaries are increasingly porous.from the constraints of what Lyotard calls the grands récits. and the apparent similarity of the Frankfurt type of critical theory and its academic homonym disentangled. it is one to which Marx alluded in a preparatory note to his doctoral dissertation when he suggested that.justified by the claim that the politics of theory is essential to maintain the autonomy of political practice. The problem for such an immanent critique is that it can apparently be maintained only by the kind of heroic abnegation that the Frankfurters expressed in their nicht-mitmachen . it is a positive theory. . and who implicitly express a kind of aristocratic disdain for it. The paradox from which we began can now be restated. The critical theory of democratic politics that is lacking today cannot be provided by the post-modernists’ happy frolicking on the surfaces.”). thankfully. But there is another way to save critical theory . It is not surprising that their critical practice takes the form of a politics of theory. But if what we need today is a critical theory of democratic politics. Post-modernism too is a politics of theory. attitudes harden as the Institute becomes a school. But heroes tire. and. . but it cannot replace a critical theory of politics (as Marx reminded his contemporaries in 1843. when he insisted that “the weapon of the critique cannot replace the critique of the weapons .how? by decree? . . Radical political theorists who have no intuitive feel for politics. undertaking perhaps a ‘long march through the institutions’ and thinking that in that way at least the essential will be preserved. feel an obligation to be ‘critical’. . that its maintenance is also impossible. disciples falter. as if a democratic praxis was simply the spontaneity of men and women suddenly freed . then for the very same reasons the creation of a school is undesirable .ironically. As suggested by the allusion to Tocqueville.
A full-scale reconsideration of the vogue enjoyed by the politics of theory would have to take into account its French variants. pp.
Ibid. the philosopher must know when it is time to found “a new Athens on the sea. Cambridge. The last translation has been slightly modified. My concern here is with the suggestive similarities of the two . 1. compare. is more nuanced (or less consistent) politically than Adorno. New York. the other member of the Frankfurt School who wrote extensively on aesthetics. starting no doubt with Louis Althusser’s employment of the term in his February 1968 lecture on “Lenin and Philosophy. Frankfurt School 279
.” Having addressed these matters elsewhere over the years. 38-47. the point rather is to understand it. MIT Press. vol. Boston. Dept. The Frankfurt School: Its History. Defining the Political. 1978. I will allude here only to my most recent short presentation of 11 theses on the question “Can the French Intellectuals Escape Marxism?”. Political Theory. Herbert Marcuse.Themistocles. 1994. of Philosophy. trans. Stony Brook. University of Minnesota Press. The fact that many of today’s ‘critical theorists’ do appeal to Adorno (but not to Horkheimer. State University of New York..and their inability to deal with politics. or to the Frankfurt School) seems to me to be merely coincidental.” in Dick Howard.
* Dick Howard. Although he sometimes wanted art to take to the street and lose its aesthetic form. pp. French Politics and Society. 21-30. Moreover. Die Permanenz der Kunst (The Permanence of Art). For a discussion and analysis of Marcuse’s oscillating aesthetic theory and its political implications. Beacon Press. 1989. Minneapolis. The final thesis suggests that they have tried too hard to change the world. on another element. 127.
Cited from Rolf Wiggershaus. Marcuse titled his final work. 536 & 537. pp. is a sign of a continuity that some would deny. 16. translated into English as The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Michael Robertson. published in 1966.”11 This “other element” that can permit critical theory to pursue its uneasy path at a distance from the illusory charm of aesthetic fancy and the sticky necessities of globalising society is the sphere of the political whose autonomy stands at just that point of negative distance that a critical theory needs. Winter 1998. Theories. The parallel to the above citation from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. “Out of the Silent ’50s. p. no. and Political Significance. Critical Theory. USA
I should stress that I am not claiming that there is a direct line of filiation linking the Frankfurt School to the kinds of literary and cultural theory that are identified in the university today as ‘critical theory’.
even then. 1962. Europaische Verlagsanstalt. Between the Norm and the Exception: The Frankfurt School and the Rule of Law. MIT Press.
Wiggershaus’ account of the kind of research undertaken by the Institute for Social Research after its return to Germany is surprising to Frankfurt hero-worshippers.5
The issues raised here.
Compare. 1996. Scheuerman. Cambridge.
Habermas. p. The concept of a ‘politics of critique’ is rendered ambiguous by the genitive which could suggest that it is the critique that is political (or replaces the political. . Wissenschaftsorganisation und Politische Erfahrung: Studien zur frühen Kritischen. Cotta Verlag. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory. Suhrkamp Verlag. c1985. Stuttgart. p. 104.. 320. or which could suggest that there is a critical politics which has its own specific structures and imperatives (as I try to suggest in my book of the same title).” in Political Judgments. . Rolf Tiedemann and Alfred Schmidt) published in the short-lived book-series that the Institute edited. was hardly a hard-line leftist. are nicely dealt with in William E. Theorie. Lantham MD. In its place came practical field research that Wiggershaus describes under the title “Farewell to independence: research in Mannesmann factories . the work seems to have unambiguously taken the side of management in these matters. Although Adorno continued the theoretical work of negativity. under the heading “Die Scheinrevolution und ihre Kinder. On the latter.. Cambridge. as I am claiming here). Benjamin Gregg. ed. 171-210. and their theoretical roots. Frankfurt am Main. Dubiel. trans.
Ibid. MIT Press. pp. as if to lock away the political concerns that underlay the radical theoretical stance of the founders. English translation. 1994. Frankfurt. Die Linke antwortet Jürgen Habermas. Karl Marx. compare my essay. 1968. He attacked the illusions of the student left at a Congress of the SDS in 1968. H-J Lieber and Peter Furth. Questions of theory disappeared from the Frankfurters’ concern . Rowan and Littlefield.” In effect. That Habermas would later develop his own version of a critical theory that has culminated in the formulation of a radical theory of democracy could of course not have been treated in Wiggershaus’ 1986 book.with the exception of several doctoral dissertations (including those of Oskar Negt.” which provoked an immediate counter-attack against him in the book. Fruhe Schriften I. “Law and Political Culture.
H. This bread-and-butter work was at first carried out in connection with the trade union movement. but soon lost even this political ‘justification’. Wiggershaus recounts the now well-known story that all of the old copies of the Zeitschrift fuer Sozialforschung were kept locked away in the basement of the Institute’s Frankfurt offices.
. This is not the place for a discussion of the latter usage. 1978.