Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is a terrific companion book to Martin Jay's 1973 Dialectical Imagination, which is still the best intellectual history of the Critical Theorists who founded what would become known as the Frankfurt School. Jeffries puts the philosophers and their work in the historical context, and follows their activity into the late sixties - including a chapter on Jürgen Habermas. who has brought Critical Theory into the 21st century. Jeffries humanizes the thinkers. We see Walter Benjamin contemplating suicide in a hotel room in Nice, we read "Teddy" Wiesengrund's (Adorno) sentimental letters to his parents, we catch a glimpse of Herbert Marcuse sitting with his beloved stuffed hippos on his lap. Hotel Grand Abyss is a delightful read that allows the reader to easily digest the often-daunting work published by this diverse group of thinkers over several decades.
The title - "Grand Hotel Abyss" - refers to the Marxist-Leninist philosopher Georg Lukacs' derogatory description of the Frankfurt School group who were too refined to actually engage in the hard work of organizing the proletarian revolution (Marcuse was an exception: he was a member of a Soldiers' Council that participated in the aborted socialist Spartacist uprising). These young Marxists came from wealthy Jewish families, and - for the most part - were able to live comfortably throughout the turmoil of economic depression, war and exile. As "free-floating" intellectuals (Karl Mannheim's term) they stood outside the working class and spent most of their careers trying to understand why the workers didn't become the "subject" of history - as postulated by Marx - but rather seemed to embrace their own subjugation in fascist and other totalitarian movements. As such they were open to synthesizing other disciplines such as psycho-analysis, sociology, literary criticism, etc. into their interpretation of Marx.
In 1934 the school was forced to flee Nazis and ended up first in Morningside Heights in New York City and later in the luxurious German exile enclave in Pacific Palisades. It is this clash of civilizations - classically-trained European philosophers and modern America - which makes for fascinating reading. Adorno and Horkheimer hated the country that provided them with safe sanctuary. I'm sure the Nazi terror traumatized these exiled thinkers who were separated from the culture and language they loved. But they seemed to superimpose Nazism on their adopted country, seeing nothing but oppression and tyranny everywhere. Adorno, in particular, didn't "get" America, and really hated the mass culture which he saw as enslaving the masses. Adorno, a brilliant musician, dismissed jazz as "Neger-Musik" - failing to see the true the true subversive and liberating aspects of this exquisite American art form. For Adorno, the guy enjoying a beer while watching a baseball game on television was just as much a slave as the Jew in a Nazi concentration camp - oppressed by the mass "culture industry." In fact, our baseball fan might have considered being forced to listen to Arnold Schönberg's twelve tone music - the pinnacle of culture for Adorno - as a form of inhuman torture. Both the baseball fan and the twelve tone listener are pursuing what Adorno labeled the promesse de bonheur - and Americans have been the most inventive people on the planet in creating new forms of art, entertainment and culture - some wonderful (Jazz, Abstract Expressionism), some awful (Reality TV).
Adorno's time in America was one of constant conflict - with Sidney Hook and the Marxist pragmatists, with Columbia University, with his benefactors, and with paying clients:
"Such was Adorno's first gift to his American hosts - an eviscerating attack on the capitalistic values and the commodified, customised culture he took to dominate the new world in which he lived. More incendiary yet was his suggestion that the United States was not dissimilar in its techniques of mass control to the Germany he had fled into exile to avoid. The idea that there was a a parallel between the mass media of Roosevelt's America and Hitler's Germany may have seemed scandalous at the time and may seem more so now, but the Frankfurt School was not to abandon that conviction during the exile years in the United States. On the contrary, its was to deepen once they experienced more of the new world."
Not every member of the Frankfurt School was content with disparaging the United States with "negative dialectics." Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse wanted to make a contribution to fighting Nazi Germany, and had a fruitful collaboration with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). (See my review of Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. )
Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt soon after the war and seemed to fall ever deeper into a "negative dialectic"- despairing that the working masses could ever be the agent of change in "late capitalism". Rather, only the Critical Theorist had the perspective to understand the economic and cultural contradictions. But it was not the role of the intellectual to lead the revolution - rather it was his/her duty to "negate". This view is not much different from that of the Weimar conservative thinker Hans Zehrer who, disgusted with the mediocrity of the masses under liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic called for a "Revolution der Intelligenz". Both Horkheimer and Adorno took a dim view of the youth movement of the 1960s, as a new generation rejected the silence and historical amnesia of their parents. This youth-driven revolution was rejected as "left-wing fascism" by Adorno, and he ended up calling the cops on students protesting his lectures.
Herbert Marcuse, in contrast, seemed rejuvenated by the youth movement. Yes, he criticized liberal democracy in the United States as "repressive tolerance" in his One Dimensional Man (1964). But he saw the so-called "Counter-Culture" as a triumph of Eros, and envisioned a technology-driven utopia play and free love in his 1969 Essay on Liberation.
Of course, yesterday's hippie is today's Trump voter. And it is hard to see the masses on the New York MTA subway hunched over their iPhones as "liberated" by technology. So perhaps Adorno and Horkheimer were correct after all with their profound pessimism.