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Frankfurt on the Hudson

How the fathers of Critical Theory found their way to America.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Frankfurt School in recent American thought. Philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer—to name just the best-known members of the group—helped to develop a subtle and powerful way of thinking about the problems of modern society. Critical Theory, as it is usually capitalized, adapted the revolutionary impulse of Marxism to 20th century conditions, in which mass culture and totalitarianism seemed to shut off any real possibility of social transformation. Especially appealing to academics is the way Critical Theory makes the analysis of culture feel like a revolutionary act in and of itself. Reading Adorno on modern music, or Benjamin on literature, it is momentarily possible to believe that criticism is a weapon of liberation, rather than simply a hermetic exercise for intellectuals.

No wonder that after the 1960s, as Thomas Wheatland writes in his impressive new study The Frankfurt School in Exile, “ambitious young sympathizers with the New Left” in the academy turned en masse to the Frankfurt School, a scholarly subject that they could explore “without having to disguise or hide their intellectual and political orientations.” It is strange that it took until the 1960s for the Frankfurters to make a major impact on America, however, since from 1934 to 1949 they were actually living in the United States. The Institute for Social Research—the institutional home of the Frankfurt School thinkers—had to uproot itself from Germany in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. After a brief period in Geneva, it relocated to Morningside Heights, where it formed an uneasy partnership with Columbia University.

From its headquarters at 428 West 117th Street, the Institute struggled with the intellectual and practical challenges involved in doing European-style Critical Theory in America. While the members of the Institute eventually scattered—Horkheimer and Adorno moved to Los Angeles, joining the German émigré colony there, while after Pearl Harbor Marcuse and others went to Washington, applying their skills to the war effort—New York remained the Institute’s official home until 1949, when Horkheimer moved it back to the University of Frankfurt.

In his book, an unusually thorough blend of intellectual and institutional history, Wheatland sheds new light on this phase of the Frankfurt School’s existence. Wheatland is interested in the ideas of the School, but he is also interested in the ways that less intellectual factors—like money, personality clashes, and opportunism—shaped those ideas’ development and reception. In a sense, Wheatland has subjected the Frankfurt School to a genuinely Marxist analysis—he shows how the group’s economic substructure affected its ideological superstructure. In the process, he brings these often idolized figures back to human scale, and offers an object lesson in the unedifying ways that intellectual careers are made.

The Jewish dimension to this story is only occasionally Wheatland’s explicit subject, but it is absolutely central nonetheless. After all, the reason the Institute had to leave Frankfurt in the first place was that, in addition to being radicals and Marxists, the members of the group were almost all Jewish. The Institut für Sozialforschung was created by Herman Weil, a German Jew who had made a fortune importing grain from Argentina, and his son Felix, who like many young men was radicalized after Germany’s defeat in World War I. In 1923, still in the early days of the Weimar Republic, the Weils created the Institute as an independent think tank with a lavish endowment. Their plan was to bring together scholars from different fields, who would work together to develop comprehensive new theories about how modern society functioned and how it might be transformed.

Not coincidentally, as Wheatland shows, almost all the Institute’s hires were, like the Weils, highly assimilated Jews from bourgeois families. Max Horkheimer, the philosopher who became head of the Institute in 1931 and guided it for the next several decades, was the son of a textile manufacturer from Stuttgart; his relationship with his father was destroyed when the son married the father’s Christian secretary. Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, the most brilliant thinker associated with the Institute, was the son of a Jewish wine merchant and a Catholic woman from Corsica. (He eventually dropped the Jewish half of his last name and went simply by Adorno.) Erich Fromm, a sociologist turned psychoanalyst, was unusual in being raised in an Orthodox family; he “maintained a strong religious identity into adulthood,” Wheatland writes. Similar stories could be told of most of the scholars who came to work at Frankfurt.

Among the tidal wave of academic refugees from Hitler’s Germany, the members of the Institute were actually very lucky. Horkheimer, with a prescience all too rare among German Jews, had already shifted the Institute’s endowment out of German banks and shipped its library out of the country. The scholars reassembled in Geneva, but this could only be a temporary respite, since most of them could not get permanent Swiss visas. As Wheatland shows in the first of the book’s four sections, Horkheimer embarked on a well-thought-out campaign to find a new home for the Institute in the United States, sending out a pamphlet with testimonials to sociology departments at American universities.

Wheatland makes clear just why Columbia took the bait. Robert MacIver, the head of Columbia’s sociology department, was looking for a way to establish a social research bureau, which would provide quantitative data to support the work of theorists. In 1929, MacIver had applied to the university for $50,000 to create such a bureau, writing in his proposal that “the situation with reference to research through quantitative measurement may really be described as a crisis. If this crisis is not met in a large way, achievement on the part of universities cannot be expected.” But the Depression made such an expensive program impossible. When the Institute for Social Research came calling—with its private endowment, and its experience doing field research and surveys—it seemed like a perfect match for Columbia’s needs.

In fact, as Wheatland goes on to show, the fit was not ideal, and grew even less so over time. The Institute did design and fund several important research projects, including a study of the effect of unemployment on family life in Newark, New Jersey, and a study of adolescent attitudes toward authority. But these studies were not really what Horkheimer cared about. Rather, he was interested in developing a total theory of late-capitalist society, which would encompass politics, economics, culture, and society. This would eventually bear fruit in Horkheimer and Adorno’s magnum opus, Dialectic of Enlightenment.

To keep the Institute running, however, Horkheimer needed American allies and funders, who were mainly interested in empirical problem-solving. This dilemma became acute in the later 1930s, when a series of bad investment decisions cost the Institute a large chunk of its endowment, and forced Horkheimer to lay off a number of associates. As Wheatland shows, this process was handled badly, with Horkheimer antagonizing Erich Fromm, the most popular member of the Institute among its American patrons. (Fromm would eventually go on to write bestselling psychology books like The Art of Loving.) In fact, Horkheimer comes across in Wheatland’s account as a ruthless academic infighter, not afraid to use his money and power to punish his enemies. The contrast between the Frankfurt School’s dreams of social liberation and its actual dependence on such all-too-human motives is a melancholy and ironic one.

In subsequent sections of The Frankfurt School in Exile, Wheatland shows how the Institute came into contact with two important segments of the American Jewish community. The first were the New York Intellectuals, who were in many ways the perfect American counterpart to the Frankfurters: Jewish radical intellectuals with an interest in politics and culture. While the two groups never engaged as deeply as they might have—in part, Wheatland shows, due to the Frankfurters’ policy of staying aloof from American politics—some relationships did form, and New Yorkers like Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer became aware of Critical Theory.

More unlikely, on its surface, was the bond the Institute formed with the establishment American Jewish Committee, which turned out to be the patron the struggling exiles badly needed. In 1943, the Committee gave the Institute a $10,000 grant to produce a report on the causes of anti-Semitism. This eventually grew into the landmark five-volume report Studies in Prejudice, published in 1950, which brought the Institute its first real mainstream recognition. Wheatland notes the irony that it should be a specifically, not to say parochially, Jewish project that made the Institute’s name in America.

After all, it is possible to see the whole endeavor of Critical Theory as being a way for these brilliant German Jews, assimilated to German culture yet rejected by Germany itself, to imagine a place for themselves outside of Jewishness and Germanness. Yet “the anti-Semitism project,” as Wheatland writes, “suggested an abandonment of revolutionary utopianism and the temporary adoption of American liberalism.” His important book ought to bring new attention to this highly suggestive part of the Frankfurt School’s story.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

© 2009, Tablet Magazine