The Frankfurt School's Invitation from Columbia University *: How the Horkheimer Circle Settled on Morningside Heights
Wheatland, Thomas, German Politics and Society
Oddly enough, the Frankfurt School's relationship to Columbia University has been somewhat neglected by its many historians. It is not hard to understand why the Horkheimer circle would have desired to settle at Columbia, but it is peculiar that the Frankfurt School would have received an invitation from Columbia. After all, why would Columbia University's conservative president, Nicholas Murray Butler, and its sociology department extend an invitation to a group of predominantly German-speaking social philosophers with strong links to the Marxian left?
Regrettably, the one time that questions were raised about the Horkheimer circle's connection with Columbia University, a debate ensued in which the focus shifted away from Morningside Heights, and the only result was a Cold War polemic regarding the motives and political leanings of the university's Institute for Social Research. By 1980, when this controversy erupted, the Frankfurt School had become a popular topic for academic study within departments of philosophy, history, comparative literature, and German in the United States. It particularly appealed to younger scholars sympathetic with the then-defunct New Left. Consequently, when Lewis Feuer's article "The Frankfurt Marxists and the Columbia Liberals" appeared in Survey during the summer of 1980,(1) it caught the attention of many Frankfurt School analysts.
Feuer attacked not only the Institute for Social Research but also those who had written historical studies of the Horkheimer group and its thought. Martin Jay was the most prominent of these historians, and his account of the institute's move to New York was rejected for its "pleasant naivete." (2) According to Feuer, the institute was far less politically or morally innocent. The move to Columbia was not a happy accident, he argued, but instead the result of a complex plot in which the faculty and administration were duped into offering space and an affiliation with the university. By focusing on the presidential papers from the Columbia Archives, Feuer attempted to disclose precisely how the institute approached the university, as well as Columbia's reasons for extending an offer to the institute.
By uncovering the extent of Julian Gumperz's involvement in the negotiations with Columbia, Feuer was able to raise the specter of nefarious motives. Although Gumperz's connections to Communist organizations in Europe had been common knowledge among the Frankfurt School's commentators, Feuer surprised many of his readers by proposing that Gumperz had followed the strategies of Willi Muenzenberg, an infamous Bolshevik spymaster, in his negotiations with Columbia University. (3) By approaching politically sympathetic members of the sociology department, such as Robert Lynd, Gumperz was able to attract allies to the institute's cause. According to Feuer, Lynd and virtually all of the other members of the institute's advisory board were left leaning liberals or fellow-travelers who were exploited by the Horkheimer circle in its attempt to cloak itself from political scrutiny. During its earliest years in Germany, the Institut fur Sozialforschung maintained close relations with the Communist Party. By the time the group was run by Max Horkheimer and had become connected with Columbia, however, the Marxism of its members had become more muted--"a more amorphous variety of fellow-traveling." (4) The newer members "criticized bourgeois culture and society, while preserving at least a common denominator of silence with regard to all such phenomena as the purges, 'trials,' labour camps, and 'liquidation' of Old Bolsheviks and Trotskyists, geneticists, and the more productive peasants." (5)
While it's true that the Horkheimer circle was often strangely quiet regarding Stalinism, Feuer lacked a credible motive and also developed some wild speculations from scant evidence and creative interpretations of existing documents. Even if the institute masked its political underpinnings and Gumperz appealed most directly to the institute's natural allies on the Columbia faculty, Feuer failed to provide any compelling reason for developing a plan to infiltrate Columbia in the first place. …