Magazine article The Spectator

'Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School', by Stuart Jeffries - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School', by Stuart Jeffries - Review

Article excerpt

One day in April 1969 Theodor Adorno began teaching a new course entitled 'An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking'. Feel free, the sociologist-cum-philosopher told the packed hall at Frankfurt University, to ask questions as I go. Two of his charges did so immediately. When was Adorno going to apologise for having set the cops on those campus protesters three months earlier? Before Adorno could reply, another student scrawled 'If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease' on the blackboard. At which point the whole class shrieked 'Down with the informer!' Then a group of women surrounded Adorno, bared their breasts, and showered him with rose petals. Grabbing his hat and coat, the hapless prof ran.

I'd love to say welcome to the Frankfurt School, but as Stuart Jeffries's sometimes sprightly, sometimes suety, collective biography of its founders makes clear, life was rarely very exciting there. Founded in 1923, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was a place of fearsome seriousness. Its key thinkers -- Adorno, the philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, the psychologist Erich Fromm and, more tangentially, the critic Walter Benjamin -- were obsessed with the failure of the German Revolution of 1919. By marrying the early Marx's social theory to Freudian psychoanalysis, they hoped to understand why the working classes had renounced socialism for 'modern consumer capitalist society and [subsequently] Nazism'.

It wasn't an easy marriage. Among its progeny were those airheaded adolescent insurrectionaries Adorno was assaulted by. Freud and Marx were such different thinkers that no responsible church would ever permit their union. As Jeffries points out, while Freud's view of human nature was essentially tenebrous, Marx's was almost facetiously sunny. Whereas Freud argued that repression was the painful price we paid for civilisation, Marx believed that the freedom capitalism's inevitable demise would usher in would make man not only whole, but wholly good.

In fact, these differences went further than Jeffries allows. Wide-ranging as Freud's theories were, they were also tightly tethered to the particular. He thought you were explicable by reference to the unconscious dreads and desires engendered by your ineluctably conflicted relations with your parents. But for Marx such talk of individuated existences was bourgeois tosh. He saw you as an expression of whatever class structure you'd been born into. As for the surreptitious sway of the unconscious, forget it. Not even your sentient mind has that much clout: 'It is not the consciousness of human beings which determines their existence,' wrote Marx, 'but their social existence [which] determines their consciousness. …

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