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Book Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

One current of 20th century Marxism that remains highly relevant today is the Frankfurt School. Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse all made profound contributions to a critical theory which provides us with insights into monopoly capitalism and its cultural effects. Many of the issues that they explored…

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R. Burke


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One current of 20th century Marxism that remains highly relevant today is the Frankfurt School. Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse all made profound contributions to a critical theory which provides us with insights into monopoly capitalism and its cultural effects. Many of the issues that they explored in their works remain crucial, especially in an era in which someone like Donald Trump can occupy the White House. In Grand Hotel Abyss; The Lives of the Frankfurt School Stuart Jeffries provides us with a broad overview of the writers and thinkers of this provocative group of 20th century German Marxists.

The Frankfurt School for Social Research attempted to wrestle with a thorny problem. Marx’s vision of a triumphant proletariat overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism had not yet happened. The German Revolution at the end of World War One, on which many hopes had been placed, was suppressed. The U.S.S.R. was ruled by a party claiming the mantle of socialism, but in practice a totalitarian distortion of Marxism. With the failure of revolution in Germany the path was paved for the rise of fascism. Why had this happened? Where had the promise of progress gone wrong? Why was an age that so proudly proclaimed its adherence of the aims of the Enlightenment been so productive of barbarism? The virtue of the Frankfurt School is that, unattached to any political party, they attempted to remain faithful to the ideals of Marxism while confronting the ugly realities of the actual world around them.

The Frankfurt School Intellectuals were for the most part the sons of privileged German-Jewish families who would come to revolt against their bourgeois upbringing. Nonetheless their approach to Marxism was largely colored by the advantages that their upbringing allowed them. Exposed to art, literature, music and philosophy from their earliest days cultural concerns played a major role in their thinking. Jeffries explores how Walter Benjamin, as he grew older, became aware that his comfortable station in life was “premised on a ruthless airbrushing of the unpalatable and the unfortunate, and how its bourgeois security involved a monstrous, more or less intentional, act of forgetting of what lay beyond the lowered blinds of the family’s apartments.” This was a discovery that the other members of the Frankfurt School made for themselves, and it inevitably led to conflicts with the authority of their parents. Ironically one of these rebellious sons, Theodor Adorno, would later help his parents escape from Nazi Germany to the U.S.

Housed in a modernist building in the city of Frankfurt, the members of the Institute for Social Research began to grapple with the thorny problem of why the proletariat had not risen up to overthrow capitalism. This would lead them to begin investigating the role of culture and psychology in influencing social attitudes. When Hitler came to power in the early 30’s the Frankfurt School immigrated to the United States. These experiences of the failure of the revolution, the rise of fascism, and their observations of the American cultural and political scene soon forced them to come to some harsh conclusions. In many ways the crucial work of the institute is found in Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1947 classic The Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this book they set out to ask how it was that a civilization that claimed to embody the ideals of the Enlightenment, reason and science, could produce the barbarism of fascism. Adorno and Horkheimer concluded that the barbarism was there from the very beginning. With the development of capitalism, reason and science placed themselves at the service of the established order, and became increasingly devoted to a purely instrumentalist approach to the world. This was concerned more with orienting means to ends rather than critically examining the ends themselves, a concern which could be dispensed with as a value judgment. Thus the entire world, human beings included, became merely an object of administration and manipulation. The founding myth of the Enlightenment they found in Homer’s Odyssey, particularly in the story of the outwitting of the Sirens. Plugging up the ears of the crew with wax so that they could not hear the singing, Odysseus had himself tied to the mast so that he could hear but not respond. Adorno and Horkheimer see this as a symbol of the cultural condition of monopoly capitalism; the workers, like the crew, can only see the task at hand and are focused on their work lives which dull and stupefy them, while the ruling class, able to hear the sirens’ song like Odysseus, have rendered themselves incapable of responding due to their material interests. As a result both workers and capitalists undergo a regression, which manifests as fascist barbarism.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s work, while brilliant in its critique of capitalist society, was primarily negative in that they could offer no way out of the situation they described. After the war they returned to Germany to re-establish the Institute. Two members of the Frankfurt School however, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, stayed in the U.S. While they largely agreed with the critique of their colleagues, their writings contained an optimistic, even utopian counterpoint. Fromm’s writing “argued for the kind of socialist humanism his former colleagues denied was possible.” As a psychoanalyst, Fromm came to question much of Freudian orthodoxy, advocating for a “concept of a social character” that “involved external social structures shaping the inner self.” He “argued that there are limited potentialities for self-transformation under capitalism that could eventually realize what he called a socialist humanism.” Jeffries points out that “In Marx’s Concept of Man, Fromm argued that Hegel, Marx, Goethe and Zen Buddhism all have this vision of man overcoming self-alienation by relating to the objective world.” Fromm’s books would achieve a surprising amount of popular success in the 1950’s and 60’s.

It was Herbert Marcuse however who would become most closely associated with the New Left of the 1960’s. His 1955 book Eros and Civilization; a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud would take Freud’s most pessimistic book, Civilization and its’ Discontents, and find a hidden dialectic there that revealed utopian potentials. Freud had argued that there was a struggle between the life affirming instincts of Eros and the death instinct, Thanatos.  The death instinct manifested itself in outward aggression, destruction, and war. Civilization required the repression of the erotic instincts, thus their ability to restrain the manifestations of Thanatos was weakened. As a result of technological progress, Freud feared that war would eventually lead to the extinction of the human race. Marcuse however, applying a Marxist insight, argued that class society demanded a “surplus repression” which was not necessary to the maintenance of civilization, but existed solely to perpetuate the established order. The development of technology also allowed the possibility of meeting basic needs with progressively less labor time. As a result surplus repression could be abolished, and the erotic instincts liberated.

While his 1965 book One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society struck a more pessimistic note by examining the ways in which capitalist society manifested totalitarian tendencies, even here an optimistic note intruded. Marcuse called attention to the passages in Marx’s Grundrisse, his posthumously published outline for Capital, where he foresees the development of automation. As a result of the need for the labor movement to respond to the challenges of automation, Marcuse speculated that the proletariat might once again recover its revolutionary potential. Encouraged by the student movement of the 1960’s, and especially by the May 1968 uprising in France, Marcuse wrote what was arguably his most utopian work, An Essay in Liberation. In this book, Jeffries comments, “Marcuse dared to imagine a new type of man who rejected the values of established societies. This new man was not aggressive, was incapable of fighting wars or creating suffering, and worked happily both collectively and individually for a better world rather than to further his own interests.”

Jeffries states that after the end of the cold war, and as a result of capitalist triumphalism, interest in the Frankfurt School waned. Since the financial crisis of 2008, something seems to have changed though. New left wing movements, such as Occupy and Podemos have emerged. Jeffries claims that a new interest in the Critical Theory the Frankfurt School championed has become evident. The issues that they dealt with remain relevant.

Grand Hotel Abyss: the Lives of the Frankfurt School is a comprehensive investigation of this compelling group of thinkers. Stuart Jeffries manages to examine the substance of their ideas, while providing us with biographical information about the lives of the people behind the critique. While he is largely sympathetic to their work, he retains just enough critical distance from his subject to allow him to criticize some of the more questionable aspects of their ideas. In discussing Adorno’s dislike for Jazz, for example, he is able to inform us that Adorno actually had a quite superficial knowledge of the subject. His opinion was formed by what he heard in Germany rather than through exposure to African-American Jazz. While there is much validity to Adorno’s criticism of the culture industry, Jeffries points out that he also overlooks the ways in which individuals and communities appropriate its products for their own needs in often quite subversive ways. Though he had an incisive critique of capitalism, Adorno’s tastes were informed by bourgeois concepts of high culture.

For anyone interested in the work of the Frankfurt School, especially those with little knowledge of the subject but who would like to know more, Stuart Jeffries Grand Hotel Abyss: the Lives of the Frankfurt School is indispensible.

Grand Hotel Abyss; the Lives of the Frankfurt School

By Stuart Jeffries, Verso Books

ISBN-13: 9-781-78478-568-0

London, 2016

440 pages, $26.95