An intellectual biography of the Critical Theory

“Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School” by Stuart Jeffries

This is a biography of the lives of German-Jewish thinkers originated from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, or collectively known as the Frankfurt School.

Initially founded in 1923 in Weimar Republic, the neo-Marxist school of thought dreamt of a socialist revolution in their homeland akin to what occurred in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but instead they witnessed the rise of fascism in the form of Hitler and his Nazi Party. As a response to their failure to foresee the rise of Hitler they eventually developed the Critical Theory, a form of social critique that relies heavy on dialectic approach.

In particular, they criticize fascism and reject the growing capitalism movement in the US and the rest of Western Europe, especially their mass indoctrination through western pop culture (with arguments that are eye opening and will make us think). And while rooted in neo-Marxism, they eventually evolved into more of an anti-Marxist especially after the 1930s. Confused?

This is the delightful contrasting nature within the Frankfurt School. In fact, interrogating society’s contradictions is indeed the basis of their intellectual approach, where the philosopher György Lukács once commented that these men had taken residence in “Grand Hotel Abyss”, where the fictitious hotel was “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” Indeed, nothing is definitive for this group of scholars, some can even contradict each other, and everything is up for a discussion and/or scrutinize, which could be seen as chaotic from the outside.

With this in mind, the book provides a fresh look into the intellectual debates that have shaped German thinking outside and inside the normal zeitgeist of communism, capitalism and fascism, and shows how the proverbial sausages (or bratwursts) were made behind the scene for these ideologies. In here we can arguably see their flaws, the chaotic implementation of the theories, and the human flaws that eventually corrupt them. And to be fair, the book also points out the imperfection of the ideas and arguments of the Frankfurt School themselves, while also addresses the many false conspiracy theories about them.

Through all of these, we can see the evolution of life in Europe during the turbulent decades. Firstly from the time the Frankfurt School was born in the midst of post-War-1 era filled with collapsing economy, failed currency, hyperinflation, the rise of populist parties, as well as social and sexual liberalism. And then during the dark days of the rise of the Third Reich in the 1930s, where the German-Jewish men’s lives were thrown into jeopardy and the Frankfurt School was forced to move to exile first in New York where it found its new home at Columbia University, then Los Angeles in the 1940s. And then during the rapid development of post-war Germany, when the School made its comeback to the homeland.

The author, Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries, has the ability of making the complex arguments among the different personalities within the School more readable by the lay people, without losing their core points. Hence, the readability and clarity over the subject and thinkers that were often misunderstood, where Theodor Adorno once commented “I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?”

Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the big guns of the Frankfurt School, alongside Walter Benjamin (1895-1973), Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970), Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). And since the 1970s a new generation of thinkers emerged such as Jürgen Habermas who turned the School into a global influence, which in turn the third generation of critical theorists mostly came from Habermas’ research students.

There are a lot of topics on society that they covered, from analyzing the roles of art, Jazz and Charlie Chaplin movies in creating a pop culture for indoctrinating the masses, to the more heavy topics such as why do Jews become the scapegoat in Nazi’s Germany, on surviving the Holocaust, on the post-war analysis on how people could follow the Nazi thinking, and how life after war looks like in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s. It is through all of this we get to understand the nature and problems of our mass-produced society and more importantly the psychology of the masses. It is indeed a way of thinking outside the norm.

It is exactly because of this that the Frankfurt School is now largely forgotten in the footnotes of history, as communism, capitalism and fascism rose to be the dominating ideologies in modern history. But the recent chaos and schism in failed communism, the rise of predatory capitalism, and the re-emergence of fascism in some parts of the world have turned people into Critical Theory once again, with conversation-style debates dominate the quest to search for fresh new ideas.

You know that phrase the more you read the less you think you know? This is what this book is for me, a rosetta stone to a whole new politico-social thinking that brings me to a rabbit hole of more readings to come.

A little side note, I received this book from a German friend who, like myself, love to read many different intellectual models and point of views that have shaped society. And an intellectual biography about a group of people living on the edge of absurdity, that offer fresh perspectives over the status quo ideologies of the world? He never said that this wouldn’t be a challenging read, and in fact it is exactly the many contradictions of the Frankfurt School that makes the book complicatedly fascinating. Good choice mate, the book did not disappoint one bit.