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Impact of Exile on the Frankfurt School’s Theory

Info: 5436 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Aug 2018 in History

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The atrocities of the Second World War (WWII) drove many of continental Europe’s Jewish intellectual elite to the United States and Great Britain. The Axis persecution not only targeted ethnic groups, but also persecuted an array of intellectuals and political thinkers. Among these was the political and philosophical institution known as The Frankfurt School (TFS). Some of its most influential members included Austrian-born art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), all of whom were at one point influenced by both political and intellectual persecution. Their European experience was affected by their Jewish identities as well as their respective theories of aesthetics and their affinity for a reformed system of Marxist thought. Unfortunately for the noted thinkers, their alienating experiences in exile did not stop after leaving Europe. As a proponent of Marxism and aspects of Communist thought, TFS’ encounters with elements of America’s notorious Red Scare had profound effects on the development of its work. Despite the inherently American institution of Ford’s mass assembly and naturally Communist implications of the American working class’ ideals, the bourgeois-idealism of TFS found it could not escape questions of its motives and widespread suspicions perpetuated throughout the American political environment. Spurred on by the relentless political witch-hunts of the Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), scholars of the Frankfurt school found themselves perpetually marginalized throughout their lives.

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While ostracized intellectually for espousing Communist theory and rhetoric, TFS scholars were not limited to political systems. Gombrich and others followed paths similar to aesthetic thinker Michel Foucault in arenas ranging from art and music to popular culture at large. The experiences of TFS thinkers differed in this respect, with some challenged directly upon their arrival to the US. Others found that while they may not have been singled out in McCarthyism’s irreconcilable political aggression, their experiences in exile shared common traits ranging from the nonchalant acceptance of existentialist thought to the mobilization of Marxist revolutionary rhetoric. Unable to settle in any intellectual sphere, the constant alienation of TFS scholars weighed heavily on their philosophical conclusions, arguably cementing the unique characteristics of its thought. The political unrest and unconscionable harassment TFS thinkers encountered played as big a role in the development of its thought as religion played in the formulaic structure of a priori philosophy vis-à-vis Kant and Rawls. Without their experiences in exile and resettlement in America and Britain, it is argued that their indirect sponsorship of Marxist thought would never have taken form. The particularly noteworthy traits of TFS scholarship are the irrevocable feelings of nostalgia and longing and perhaps the inevitable rebellion of those who simply could not accept intellectual ostracizing. Whether rejected by Heidegger or pursued by McCarthy, TFS found itself constantly in defense of its positions, its scholars either accepting of the situation or flagrantly unapologetic in their stance. Through identification of each key scholar’s beliefs and comparing shared experiences in exile, revelations of the weight of exile on the establishment of TFS schools of thought are clarified as well as the extent to which each scholar may have based his respective epistemological conclusions on sentiment rather than idealism. The German-Jewish experience, after all, was unique among Communist experiences throughout Europe and the United States. On one hand, Communists were persecuted both in the United States and Europe. On the other, the Jewish experience in Europe, especially that of the bourgeois, added a personal degree to marginalization. Europe had no propensity of goodwill towards Jews, but the American predilection to personal liberty found little room for acceptance in regards to Communism, especially in the years after WWII and the gradual Soviet ascension to the status of superpower.


Herbert Marcuse

A student of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Marcuse found himself at odds with society from the natal stage of his academic career. Marcuse found himself at odds in the forming of his epistemological stance; Feenberg believes this struggle is the product of “his own past, his complicated relationship to the doctrine of his teacher, Heidegger”[1]. Academically blocked as a German Jew, Marcuse would later find opposition in his career as a proponent of Communism; the two traits were hardly welcomed in German academic circles in the years preceding the rise of the Nazis. Even Heidegger hampered Marcuse’s development, the notorious Nazi supporter blocking publication of his student’s thesis in the infamous purge of dissenting ideas. Where Marcuse was remembered for being “guru of the New Left, the darling of 1968,” Heidegger is most known for having “betrayed his calling by becoming a Nazi and recognizing Hitler as his Fuhrer, never renouncing his error publicly even after WWII”[2].

Marcuse differed from Heidegger’s nationalist positions as well as from his mentor’s stance on technology and social evolution. Marcuse believed technology had a profound effect on society, which in turn became a part of modern technology “not only as the men who invent and attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and utilization”[3]. To an extent, Heidegger’s avoidance of technology in regards to social evolution had much to do with the classical revolutionary stance Marxism upheld. The radical changes implicated in technological advancement, especially in the development of the wholly-efficient industrial ideology of Henry Ford, presented several philosophic and social implications, none of which could be tolerated in a society in constant intellectual upheaval.

While Heidegger’s writings exuded a sense of existential realism in regards to technology and what he perceived as the end of human aesthetics and reason, Marcuse accepted modernity as part of an the ongoing Enlightenment, deviating from a priori traditions and accepting, for example, that concepts such as essence “can neither be based on tradition and community standards nor speculatively derived in an a priori metaphysics”[4]. In regards to his Marxist contemporaries, one of Marcuse’s shared traits with his other TFS scholars was his attempt to “combine critique and modernism in a revolutionary perspective”[5]. Perhaps the source of nationalistic suspicion, the revolutionary undertones of Marxist philosophy earned Marcuse the enmity of Germans and Americans alike, the extent of which will be later examined.

A utopian thinker, Marcuse conceived “of a redeemed technological rationality in a liberated society, much as Plato,” imagining “a reformed rhetoric that would serve good ends”[6]. While Heidegger and other German nationalists believed in a utopia, their idealism was served by future ethnic cleansing and a politically-derived eschewing of Soviet-style Communism. “Safely checked after the mid-1930s,” Heidegger’s suppressed utopian impulses were a form of supplication to a regime that would not stand for intellectual deviance; also affected by the bleak reality of exile and intellectual persecution, TFS scholars Adorno and Horkheimer in turn “seemed to have lost not hope but even the capacity to imagine a better future”[7].

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer

Early in Adorno’s career, when he “started his study of philosophy in Frankfurt with Hans Cornelius, he was already complete outside the Neo-Kantian mainstream of the scholastic philosophy of that time that Cornelius himself represented”[8]. A priori epistemology was a staple of pre-war Germany for the ability to manipulate morals based on a code of law. Adorno’s anarchic themes and then-unconventional thinking added to his academic ostracism. In contrast, as the “son of an undertaker from Stuttgart, Horkheimer was no scholastic philosopher either, but he did stand closer to the traditional style of German philosophy than did Adorno”[9]. While a proponent of Marxism, Horkheimer often examined the nature of existing concepts rather than venturing into the realm of revolutionary action. In his “On the Problem of Truth,” Horkheimer wrote of the temporal nature of reality and truth, perhaps a reactionary piece to the propaganda and book-burning espoused by the Nazis in 1938. Horkheimer placed a great deal of weight on the deviation of the individual from the perspective of the many, writing that “cognition never has more than limited validity” and that “every thing and every relation of things changes with time, and thus every judgment as to real situations must lose its truth with time”[10]. Perhaps slightly less existential than Adorno, Horkheimer did not fully discount the bleakness of the reality of his time. Though not outwardly optimistic, Horkheimer was taken aback by the negative light in which Adorno perceived the world around him.

A lifelong friend and colleague of Max Horkheimer, Adorno “had, as Horkheimer once put it, a keen view of the existing world sharpened by hatred, and this coalesced well with the misanthropic inclinations of the Institute’s director who understood himself as its ‘dictator’”[11]. Welcomed almost instantly in to the TFS circle, Adorno was greatly affected by the persecution he encountered as a Jew and an intellectual. His negative views of the world and its people lead him to deviate in focus from the social institutions that would earn TFS infamy in America and Europe. Unlike his contemporary Horkheimer, Adorno was “not so much interested in social science and research as in music and aesthetic theory”[12]. Adorno’s negative view of the world, nationalist or not, had a profound effect on his writings and the development of his beliefs. His disdain of modernity and realism lead him to adopt surrealist views reminiscent of aestheticians such as Hume, not unlike fellow TFS scholar Walter Benjamin. Feenberg noted that:

“From the point of view of an aesthetic modernism, Adorno made a sinister and radical critique of all non-aesthetic modernity. Here he was close to the French surrealists as was his friend Walter Benjamin. The aesthetic idea of freedom from all institutions of a repressive society was very different from a more scientific idea of freedom as controlling and planning this society and its economic anarchy, which was basically Marx’s idea”[13]

Unlike Marcuse, who embraced technology fully as a manifestation of social evolution within the framework of the Enlightenment, Adorno acknowledged both the positive and negative potentials of a world philosophically and politically lead by technology. Both he and Horkheimer believed that technics “by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil”[14].

Though Marcuse shared several social views in common with Horkheimer and Adorno, he differed from the two in his methods of critiquing the Nazi ascension to power. Unlike Marcuse, Adorno believed technology and social evolution had as much to do with the pre-1938 German nationalistic purge of free thought as did the provincial thought espoused by the Nazi party. For instance, Adorno believed “National Socialism [to be] a striking example of the ways in which a highly rationalized and mechanized economy with the utmost efficiency in production can operate in the interest of totalitarian oppression and continued scarcity”; the Third Reich was what Adorno referred to as a form of technocracy, the “technical considerations of imperialistic efficiency and rationality [superseding] the traditional standards of profitability and general welfare”[15]. Despite the advances of technology and the social implications that should have set with society at large, the Nazis and their reign was sustained by the historically-familiar force of arms, propaganda, and ironically all the traits associated with Marxist society. In what was strikingly similar to Soviet-style Communism, the Nazis ascended to power on the coattails of “the intensification of labor, propaganda, the training of youths and workers, the organization of the governmental, industrial, and party bureaucracy—all of which constituted the daily implements of terror” and in doing so, following the lines of “greatest technological efficiency”[16]. Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, “Marcuse followed a different trajectory,” believing “technology was to be reconstructed around a conception of the good in his terminology around life”[17].

The more pragmatic and academically optimistic of the two TFS colleagues, Horkheimer perceived the negative sociology of knowledge grasping Nazi Germany as a cyclical phenomenon, one that like its “existentialist counterparts, calls everything into question and criticizes nothing”[18]. Unlike Marcuse, whose philosophy held fewer checks and precautions on the evolution of society, Horkheimer held that “the growth of antagonisms” of their period was the product of “disproportionate development of human capacities,” as if to suggest the Nazi ascension was a matter of personality and not “of the anonymous machinery which does away with the individual”[19]. Horkheimer thus asserted that the negative state of the world leading to his and other German Jews’ experiences had more to do with the hasty elimination of the value of the individual, with the populace conned into fascism by belief in the good of the state over the good of the person. He observed that “right and wrong are glossed over in like manner,” with “the average man abstracted from the concepts and assigned an ontological ‘narrow-mindedness’” reminiscent of pre-Enlightenment eras[20].


Walter Benjamin and Ernst Gombrich

Adorno believed Walter Benjamin’s “thinking constituted the antithesis of the existential concept of the person,” that Benjamin “seemed empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, into language”[21]. Benjamin was much more akin to Marcuse in his optimism for technology and its effect on society. Benjamin did not espouse the same existentialist negativity of Adorno and Horkheimer, his philosophy embodying the aspirations of a utopian dedicated to the transformation of society. While still revolutionary in the Marxist sense, Benjamin did not advocate as fully as Adorno the impetus of labor and its inherent connection to the human psyche. However, his focus on aesthetics paralleled his thinking along the lines of Adorno, which prompted an exchange of ideas among the two contemporaries. Where Marcuse focused on technology as a tool to revolutionize the proletariat in keeping with Marxist ideals, Benjamin focused more on art, media, and popular culture’s consumption of the latter. Benjamin was among the first to identify the impact of transforming aesthetics and their ability to change society. Where Benjamin saw a great chance “for a revolutionary transformation of art by the new technical mass media, Adorno and Horkheimer were much more skeptical,” focusing equally on the negative potential as well as the potential to contribute to the betterment of mankind[22]. Though an advocate of the individual and markedly more optimistic than Horkheimer (and Adorno), Benjamin’s philosophical perspective was one of bleak realism. Constantly pursued, Benjamin allegedly committed suicide while fleeing the Nazi regime of whom he was sharply critical. Never leaving Europe, Benjamin’s obstinate refusal to flee lead to his demise but ironically espoused his bleak outlook on life. Though he had the means to do so, Benjamin remained in continental Europe at the end of his life, not following in the footsteps of the German Jewish intelligentsia who found refuge in America. Where Gombrich and Benjamin unfortunately differed most as European aestheticians was their end; Gombrich remained in the United Kingdom during the war as in the employ of German broadcast monitoring living to the age of 92. Benjamin, however, would never know acceptance or peace in his life, dying a manifestation of his perspective of man.

Ironically, it was Horkheimer and Adorno who emphasized what they believed to be “the obvious power of the new media in fascist dictatorships” and “the manipulative potential to impose the will on the leaders to passive and authoritarian masses of people”[23]. Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism surpassed whatever bleak outlook Benjamin may have exuded, countering Benjamin’s emphatic support of mass media as equally malignant as beneficial to society. They believed, unlike Benjamin, that the propensity for immobilization of the individual was present “not only in fascist countries but also in democratic regimes like the USA and in totalitarian or authoritarian socialism such as the Soviet Union under Stalin”[24].

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Benjamin most markedly departed from Horkheimer’s views in his take on subjectivity. He exuded a “refusal to speculate on the role of subjectivity in the critical process in large measure explicable as a reluctance to incorporate idealist philosophical baggage into an exploration of the metaphysical structure of truth, which, as he had been convinced from very early on, was objectively present and objectively discoverable in the phenomena themselves”[25]. Like Adorno and Marcuse, Benjamin’s perception was a marked departure from neo-Kantian phenomenology and a priori-based philosophy. Benjamin’s “unwillingness to regard contemplative subjectivity as a constitutive in the critical discovery of truth was a philosophical predilection he shared with peers” who “were engaged in critical receptions of Marx, Nietzsche, and Weber”[26]. Pensky notes that:

“…the potential endlessness of the process of subjective speculation might close out for good the receptive capacity whereby the messianic moments of historical experience could disclose themselves in the medium of critical thinking. Subjectivity, which is the medium in which the act of critical redemption takes place, is also the realm of contemplation and poses risk of an abyssal, endless descent into the inner recesses of speculation as bad infinity”[27].

Like Benjamin and Adorno, Ernst Gombrich was an accomplished aesthetician. Quick to make note of the innately negative potential of art, Gombrich claimed in his article “Art and Propaganda” that the modern age’s “sinister technique which gradually converts human beings into something like mental robots” rendered art and propaganda sharing “at least one common frontier”[28]. The exploitation of art’s aesthetic appeal coincides with propaganda; for art and propaganda to be received successfully by the general public, Gombrich argued that sensationalism in one shape or form had to be communicated. Where art had to break boundaries and the norm set by the precedence of the imagination, propaganda had to break boundaries set by the precedence of accepted logic. Gombrich stated plainly that “aesthetics of bygone days could name rhetoric” as the realm where art and propaganda met[29]. Gombrich believed “persuasion through the eye, pictorial propaganda, is far from holding a similar rank in theory, but in practice its possibilities have always been exploited”[30].


“According to information compiled by the various national and international aid committees formed in 1933 to rescue German intellectuals, about 1,200 academics lost their jobs in Germany during that year. This number was to grow by the end of the 1930s to about 1,700, to which another 400 university faculty were added after the annexation of Austria. If the various other academic professionals, doctors, lawyers, and so on, as well as students suspended from the universities are included, the total number comes to about 7,500. If we add writers, artists, and other freelancers, we may safely assume that—not counting family members—about 12,000 intellectuals lost their jobs and were eliminated from Germany’s social and cultural life”[31].

Perhaps more ominous than the volume of intellectuals exiled from Germany was the indication made by the mass-exodus of field-specific academics. Krohn notes that no sooner was the so-called “Law to Restore the Professional Civil Service” of April 1933 passed than “over 16 percent of all university faculty were dismissed”[32]. These “dismissals,” as they were termed, reached new heights, culminating in the forced-departure of “more than one-quarter of all university teachers”; in retrospect, the loss of “university faculty through the end of 1938 has been assessed at 39 percent”[33]. The fact that nearly 80 percent of German philosophical intelligentsia was Jewish and estranged on two fronts—ethnicity and intellectual affiliation—only hastened the effective neutralization of dissent inside Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, however, the departure of the German Jews whose beliefs fell outside the auspices of American political favor comprised a majority. TFS scholars comprised a minority of intellectuals whose formerly high-profile status carried over to the United States.

Ironically, those “who had first experienced Hitler’s wrath benefited from their privileged position”; “the academics he booted out in 1933 were extended assistance and hospitality almost at once by American and British institutions; hence their crossing was comparatively smooth”[34]. Intellectuals who later reached the shores of Britain and the United States well into the war, however, experienced a different welcoming. With Britain under constant attack and the main city centers such as London almost shut down in Nazi bombing campaigns, several lacked the institutional umbrella of academia to transition into their new lands. Without such protection, many such “intellectuals often supported themselves initially with menial jobs, working as gardeners and dishwashers or, if strong enough, as stevedores and mechanics”[35]. Finding themselves in a state of near-poverty, many intellectuals including professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers never resumed their academic pursuits. Most notably, the American academic environment at the end of WWII left many German intellectuals to find “that their specialties did not transport well”[36]. A common assumption in regards to intellectuals in McCarthy-era America is that all were persecuted in the “Red Scare” that ensued at the beginning of the 1950s. But those intellectuals who were fortunate enough to remain in their fields found themselves in a much more favorable position than those who were struggling to survive in the blue collar marketplace. In comparison to these “foiled scholars, the most abused academic rested on a flower bed of ease”; “these unfulfilled émigrés remained present in the academics’ lives, as their friends, their relatives, the audiences for their lectures and publications”[37].

This is not to say, however, that the German-Jewish academics in 1950s America did not encounter tribulation in their assimilation to New World society. Contentions such as Marcuse’s support of the Marxist tenet emphasizing labor as “man’s means of realizing his essence” and an irrevocable aspect of “man’s nature” were only slightly more welcome in American intellectual circles as they were in pre-war Germany[38]. Suspected by many as agents provocateurs of the Soviet Union, German-Jewish intelligentsia were marginalized further after having fled a land inflamed by similar conditions. Tensions flared following the capture and execution of convicted Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose 1953 executions were part and parcel of McCarthy’s fervent vigil for Communists of all sorts.

Given Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer’s fears about propaganda, McCarthy-era America was hardly a place to feel welcomed. The isolation felt in America by TFS after fleeing Nazi persecution contributed greatly to the molding of its philosophic rhetoric. Marcuse often wrote of “the horror of capitalism produced by the type of objectification it fostered,” finding glaring similarities in the death of individuality embodied in the American industrial working class as in the nationalist characteristics of Nazi Germany. Furthermore, TFS scholars were alarmed at the scant modicum of utopian values espoused by a competitive drive set on besting one’s fellow man. Marcuse and others agreed “with the analysis of alienated labor in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, to which Horkheimer and Adorno rarely referred in their writings”; “un-alienated labor, Marcuse suggested, implied working with others, not against them”[39]. As capitalism prevented the Marxist ideal of solidarity, TFS scholars perceived it as one more cause against which revolutionary tactics were mandated. Such revolutionary overtones, as one might imagine, were demonized by intellectual circles advocating McCarthyism’s rhetoric. As a corollary, further existential rhetoric pervaded TFS philosophy, the impetus of the constant necessity of revolution alienating themselves from American society simultaneously lending to their own feelings of nostalgia and desire for a sense of belonging.

Adorno was among the TFS scholars who never found a place among American academics. Estranged from non-Communist circles, he was among several who found themselves as perpetual intellectual refugees. Brunkhorst claims that “all in all America remained foreign to Adorno”; during his exile, “Adorno never gave up the hope of coming back to Europe and Germany”[40]. Like other TFS scholar, Adorno was acclimated to a certain “distinction” as was the norm among “the old European educated classes”[41]. America, however, was entering a point of mass industrialization, ironically paralleling pre-war Germany in its focus on the state and the relative muting of intelligentsia in the era.


Development of key TFS theory evolved through conversation and communication, which were “among the guiding mottos of contemporary thought”; Dallmayr questions, however, if TFS socio-political perspectives could be “integrated into a common conversational framework” in a manner “yielding transparent understanding of all points of view”[42]. It is just as likely that such idioms as Marcuse’s take on technology and Gombrich’s theories of propaganda and truth were formulated on the precepts of an “unbridgeable gulf” or the “incommensurability of linguistic and epistemic rules”[43]. TFS theory, Dallmayr contends, was shaped by contact with its a priori counterpart in the Freiburg Institute, comprised of Heidegger and Kantian colleagues. In measuring the extent of exile’s effect on TFS, it is of the utmost importance to examine TFS’ experiences in its indigenous setting, that is to say its experiences in Germany and Europe. According to Dallmayr, “nowhere are the dilemmas of communication and non-communication more glaringly apparent than in the context of recent German thought” as manifested between TFS and Freiburg; “to a large extent, contacts between the two schools of thought have been marked either by neglect or indifference or else by polemical hostility and an insistence on incommensurability, often coupled with hegemonial [sic] claims”[44]. It is, after all, equally as possible that as a proponent of revolutionary rhetoric that TFS’ existence was dependent on a measure of exile of the metaphoric type. To a large extent, TFS scholars’ conclusions were drawn within the framework of Marxism, whose fundamental precept is revolution on a large scale. When taken into the context of “moral indictment” as described by Dallmayr, the experience of TFS in Germany would put into perspective the exchange of ideas espoused by TFS in exile and in its natal setting of pre-war Germany. Given the tendency of Marxist ideology and the radicalization of its writings, perhaps even Benjamin’s bleak outlook on life could have been regarded as carrying with it the requisite novelty of individuality; how would any revolutionary school of thought conduct itself if it followed in the footsteps of convention? Adorno, after all, “maintained a relentless opposition to Heidegger’s work and lavished on it an unending stream of polemical venom, a practice aggravated by personal distance”; Heidegger, on the other hand, “remained aloof from the Frankfurt School and at one point confessed complete ignorance of Adorno’s writings”[45]. While the personal contingent of Heidegger’s latent support of the Nazi party cannot be dismissed, it also does not dismiss the tone with which Adorno and other TFS thinkers indicted their opposition and the contempt they held for some of their a priori, Kantian contemporaries.

Sherratt examines the possibility of Adorno’s “Positive Dialectic,” in which she purports there is a “positive” solution to what Adorno and others “envisaged as the problems of subjectivity and knowledge in enlightenment”[46]. Sherratt examines Adorno’s aesthetic, extricating and examining from Adorno’s work on enlightenment that would have the potential for positive dialectic. Unlike many of his other works, Sherratt finds that following his exile from Germany, Adorno’s epistemological and aesthetic conclusions are indirectly and dialectically positive. She concludes that the “newer” dialectic was positive in contrast “with the ‘old’ dialectic, which is already shown as negative”[47]. If Sherratt’s conclusions are of any sch


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