The Crisis in Culture: The Frankfurt School, 1923–1969


Here is an excerpt from The Melancholy Science, Gillian Rose's classic study of Adorno, that surveys and evaluates the activities of the Institute in the years between its founding and Adorno's death.

The Frankfurt School, 1923–50

All the tensions within the German academic community which accompanied the changes in political, cultural and intellectual life in Germany since 1890 were reproduced in the Institute for Social Research from its inception in Frankfurt in 1923. These changes were widely diagnosed as a ‘crisis in culture’. By this very definition the ‘crisis’ was deplored yet exacerbated. The Institute carried these tensions with it into exile and when it returned to Germany after the war and found itself the sole heir to a discredited tradition the inherited tensions became even more acute. These tensions are evident in the work of most of the School’s members, and most clearly, self-consciously and importantly in the work of Theodor W. Adorno.

From 1890 the German academic community reacted in a variety of ways to the sudden and momentous development of capitalism in Germany, and to the new role of Germany in the world. This resulted in disillusionment with various scientific and philosophical methods, and the pedagogical and philosophical revival which followed occurred across the political spectrum, to the extent that the spectrum was represented in the universities. The different attempts to ‘re-engage learning’ and reinvigorate German life have been indicted for their political naïvety and irresponsibility. Although the Frankfurt School was deliberately set up to be outside the academic community, the aims and work of the Institute amount to a most ambitious attempt to ‘reengage learning’. For, on the one hand, the School tried more concretely than any university department to reunify the fragmented branches of knowledge in the social sciences without sacrificing the fruits of any of them. Neo-Marxist, it was not deterred by academic cries against ‘materialism’ and ‘materialist’ methods. On the other hand, the School faltered in its attempt to redefine Marxism intellectually and politically for its generation. By the early thirties, it had dropped its orientation towards the workers’ movement, a process which was capped by the replacement of Carl Grünberg by Max Horkheimer as director of the Institute, and by the substitution of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research) edited by Horkheimer for Grünberg’s Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung(Archive for the History of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement). It even dropped its interest in class analysis and increasingly turned its attention to the analysis of culture and authority. Instead of politicising academia, it academised politics. This transposition became the basis for its subsequent achievements. Yet time and time again, the history of the School reveals this tension: as an institution, it reaffirmed and reinforced those aspects of German life which it criticised and aimed to change, just as it reaffirmed and reinforced those aspects of the intellectual universe which it criticised and aimed to change. Only if this is realised can the goals, achievements and failures of the School and of the work of Adorno be defined and assessed.

During the thirties, first in Germany and later in exile, the School is best examined in the same light. Under Horkheimer’s directorship, it avoided the pedantry and conservatism of the universities, while engaging in sociological research which united theoretical and empirical inquiry. Many of the themes which recur in the articles and books by members of the School published during this period echo themes raised throughout the German academic world, such as the lamented fragmentation of knowledge, the appeal to an often diffuse notion of ‘totality’ as the lost perspective, the attack on positivism and the recovering of traditions. All of these emphases and the academic assumption that to ‘reengage learning’ would be to rescue society from the ravages of capitalism and modernity were epidemic in Germany until 1933. Yet the Frankfurt School, although implicated in this more than its own rhetoric or scholarship to date suggests, deserves different treatment too. The special case of the School has always rested on its particular fusion of the Idealism, which arose in opposition to neo-Kantianism, with the revival of Marxism after the First World War.

It may be said that the members of the School were addressing themselves in their collaboration during the upheavals of the thirties to the question which Marx asked at the end of the 1844 Manuscripts, ‘How do we now stand in relation to the Hegelian dialectic?’ They asked this question for their generation, which was the generation younger than Lukács’, disappointed with the working class since 1919, but, unlike him, increasingly disillusioned with the development of communism in Russia during the twenties. Like Lukács, the School considered that to be consistent with Marx, it was necessary to take account of flourishing non-dialectical philosophies and sociologies, just as Marx had scanned the philosophy and political economy which flourished in his day. On the one hand, the School was dismayed that the social sciences had developed so separately from each other and sought to combat this fragmentation. On the other hand, Horkheimer did not believe that one man alone could undertake research in all the relevant fields. The members of the School tended to specialise while, at the same time, breaking down the established barriers between philosophy and sociology in their particular areas. Horkheimer was particularly concerned to take advantage of the developments in empirical research techniques which in Germany had occurred quite apart from developments in theoretical sociology and at a time when almost every German professor of sociology considered it incumbent on him to produce a theoretical sociology. By combining several empirical methods in any inquiry, he believed that the evils of too restricted an empiricism could be avoided. This unity underlying the work of the members of the School is evident in the various publications of the thirties, in the Zeitschrift and most clearly in joint works such as Autorität und Familie(Authority and the Family). However, from the outset, the inheritance of non-Marxist critical traditions affected the style and presentation of many of the contributors. This inheritance from non-Marxist criticisms of Hegel’s system, for example, those of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, tolerates idiosyncracy and hence makes for another kind of fragmentation. It is this inheritance from a tradition which has itself never been widely understood even within Germany which, paradoxically, has often increased the School’s appeal, while at the same time, exposing it to misinterpretation. But it has prevented the work of the School from having a more cogent and continual impact on sociology.

Many of these non-Marxist influences, Hegelian and post-Hegelian, were present in Lukács’ writings too, especially up to 1923. The School rejected many of Lukács’ assumptions and theories, particularly the idea of the working class as the subject/object of history and the notion of ‘imputed’ class consciousness. However, a subject/object dichotomy was retained, and ideas from the non-Marxist critical traditions developed in a way which affected the style of the work of many members of the School. Many of Lukács’ central concepts were thus retained, such as ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘fetishism’ and ‘reification’, but they attained a quite different status. The School sought to define Marxism as a mode of cognition sui generis on the assumption that there is no longer any privileged carrier of that cognition, any universal class. The influence of Lukács on the School has been both underestimated and overestimated, and nowhere have the continuities and discontinuities been adequately traced.

Similarly, the continuity of the dispute, which has become notorious since 1964 as the Positivismusstreit(the Positivist dispute), with the polemics undertaken by the School since its earliest days, has been overlooked. This has contributed to the many failures on the part of the School’s opponents to understand the terms of the later debate. From the late twenties, members of the School conducted disputes with various forms of philosophical and sociological absolute systems, positivisms and relativisms. It may be said that some form of dispute concerning ‘positivism’ is as old as Marxism itself. After 1950 the adversaries changed, but the enterprise did not. It involves demonstrating the social necessity of the position which is criticised, while rejecting, in more strident tones, its claim to absolute validity.

The discontinuity in the membership of the School, especially after the war when very few returned to Germany, has meant that the School’s general theory of change in the social organisation of production, which underlies all its other work, is difficult to identify. In the post-war writing of Horkheimer and Adorno the theory of change in late capitalism is implicit but not directly presented in any one place. These ideas were originally formed in the attempt to analyse the development and success of the Nazis in Germany, and always bore the mark of this origin. Friedrich Pollock’s article ‘State Capitalism’, written in 1941, offers an example of the difficulties which beset the School’s analysis of capitalism and which reappear in Adorno’s works in an indirect and inverted form. Pollock pictured state capitalism as a system where the state has taken over the organisation of production and replaced price and market mechanisms by its own plans. Power to command instead of the profit motive becomes the motor of this system, which has taken over from monopoly capitalism and which may proceed under a totalitarian or democratic political structure. An image of a static and stable regime emerges, although it is not clear to what extent this ‘idealtype’ is intended to offer an historical analysis or a prediction. Pollock relies inconsistently on Marx’s method for analysing capitalism and his account lacks cogency because of this. He presupposes Marx’s theory of value and commodity production and hence, however unemphatically, the distinction between use-value and exchange-value, but he does not go on to develop on this basis a notion of labour-power and of the extraction of surplus value and thus of class formation. Instead, the state appears as a force sui generis in Pollock’s account and there is no attempt to relate the posited change in its role to the underlying processes of production. These processes are merely declared to be no longer operative. This leaves Pollock, as it will leave Adorno, without a satisfactory theory of the historical development of capitalism and without an adequate theory of the state.

Dialectic of Enlightenment, which Adorno wrote with Horkheimer in the United States in the early 1940s, might be considered the School’s response to Marx’s critique of political economy. In this book Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to decode the history of the philosophical subject as the domination of nature whether under the guise of myth or of enlightened reason. The book is concerned with ‘instrumental reason’, or, as it is also called, ‘technological’ reason, but not with technologies for the domination of nature. Instrumental reason is seen as a feature of both pre-capitalist and capitalist societies, although it only becomes a structuring principle in capitalist societies. Ideas are developed here which Adorno was investigating in his empirical work at the same time, especially the ‘culture industry’ and ‘anti-semitism’, but he did not share Horkheimer’s concern with instrumental reason and the logic of domination. The concept of reification and Marx’s theory of value are much more important in Adorno’s analysis of society. Adorno and Horkheimer fused — each in his own way in his individual works — the Nietzschean and Weberian hyperbole which is so evident in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

During the years of the School’s exile in America, especially in the late thirties and during the forties, the conflict in its position was particularly acute: it was more critical than ever of German society while at the same time more concerned than ever to carry on and develop those aspects of that society and its culture which it deemed worthy of defence. This was a brave stance in a dilemma shared by other German émigré intellectuals and writers. However, it resulted in serious lacunae in the School’s work, visible most clearly in the separation which occurred between their theoretical and empirical work. The membership of the School changed considerably during its years in America due to the departure of several members. Horkheimer carried on publishing the Zeitschrift in German until 1940. Meanwhile he and Adorno were engaged in empirical work which was published in English. Throughout the forties they both continued writing and publishing their theoretical work in German and their empirical work in English. From 1941–4 especially, they did no empirical work and wrote together in German. This partly reflects the fact that the empirical work was commissioned — and Adorno, especially, needed the money — but it also reflects a deeper ambivalence. Horkheimer had always been more sympathetic to learning about and using empirical techniques than Adorno. Adorno, in fact, conducted in collaboration with others more empirical work than Horkheimer during these years, yet he displayed the split in the School’s position most clearly. He was most hostile to American culture and strongly identified with German culture during these years. Later, in response to criticism of his work on American popular music and on authoritarianism, he referred to their theoretical underpinning in Dialectic of Enlightenment which, however, was only available in German. These conditions led to Adorno’s worst work on jazz and popular culture.

The Frankfurt School, 1950–69

The history of the Institute in Germany after 1950 is the most important and complex but the least documented. Horkheimer, Adorno and Pollock returned to West Germany and re-established the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Horkheimer became the rector of the University of Frankfurt, and in 1953 Adorno too accepted a chair at the university. Thus the activity of the Institute was no longer to be explicitly divorced from teaching. This turned out to be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It increased the intellectual and political influence of the Institute in the fifties but also contributed to its decline in the sixties. During these two decades the tension between the Institute’s role as part of established academia, which it now increasingly became, and as critic of German society was at its most acute. By the mid-sixties the Institute was uncomfortable in many ways, unable to satisfy the state or its students. This has caused its achievement to be underestimated.

The story of the School after 1950 is the story of Horkheimer and Adorno and the ideas which they brought back with them from America. While many early members of the Institute had drifted away from it and remained in America after the war, Horkheimer and Adorno had in many ways drawn closer together. They decided to return to West Germany, unlike Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brecht who returned to East Germany, because they were committed to redefining ‘critical theory’ in a way that would take account of the experience of the previous twenty years. This meant for them combating the official communism of Eastern Europe as much as fascism and the ‘culture industry’, which were the social phenomena associated more in their minds with Western Europe and America. The two men took up and propagated a position which defied the terms of the Cold War. They were equally critical of East and West and did not succumb to the ideological excesses characteristic of the period of German reconstruction. This isolated them and the faculties of sociology and philosophy of the University of Frankfurt. Not only did they preserve and continue a Marxist discourse, but they resisted the intellectual tide in Germany which disowned Nietzsche and even, for a period, Max Weber along with most of the tradition of theoretical sociology. By contrast, Lukács, now in Hungary, discredited both Nietzsche and Weber and German social thought in general in his book Die Zerstörung der Vernunft(The Destruction of Reason). In most West German universities the theoretical tradition in sociology was rejected or ignored, and empirical research methods, copied from American ones, were enthusiastically embraced in order to assess, for example, the effects of the war on family structure and adolescent socialisation and to assist the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the country. This was in marked contrast to the heterogeneous mushrooming of sociological systems which had preceded the Nazi seizure of power. In Frankfurt too, research techniques developed in America were imported and others were developed. Further studies on prejudice were carried out as well as research in other branches of empirical sociology. Concern with the establishment of democracy in Germany was evident in some of these works. At the same time Adorno was very hostile to the use of empirical techniques divorced from any critical concern. The Frankfurt School continued their pre-war emphasis on the mixed use of such techniques within an interdisciplinary theoretical approach. Students at Frankfurt University in the fifties were taught sociology, philosophy and psychoanalysis in a way which reproduced the peculiar perspective of the School. A precarious and short-lived independence was achieved, and throughout the fifties the Institute was vigorous in its publishing and the professors confident in their teaching.

At the same time, the attitudes which were gradually to isolate Horkheimer and Adorno from their students were discernible. In many ways the two men never recovered from the war, and their courage and originality in redefining a role for the School in West Germany were always allied with ideas which remained more hidebound. The book Aspects of Sociology, published under Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s auspices and largely written by them, reveals some of the problems. It is an introductory text in sociology written in a clear and simple style, which discusses the key sociological concepts of the time. There is no chapter on the concept of class. The method employed is to retrace the history of each concept usually from its original, substantive meaning in the Greek. According to the authors, as such concepts are made into sociological ones, they tend to become rigidified into positivistic and formal categories. The book aims to recover and release the substantive connotations of the concepts by thus criticising their static, ahistorical use in contemporary sociology. This ‘restitutive’ approach, while it had considerable critical power, produced essays in the tradition of cultural criticism, but no overall strategy for a unified sociology. It displayed the authors’ preoccupation with fascism and the ‘culture industry’ and how their views on these matters had not developed any further after their return to Germany.

Horkheimer and Adorno produced much more important works after 1950 than this small, unpretentious volume, but each evolved his own idiosyncratic brand of criticism and wrote largely in essay form. Yet their intellectual development was not similar. Adorno became increasingly involved in writing his Ästhetische Theorie(Aesthetic Theory) in the sixties. The students at Frankfurt were increasingly dissatisfied with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s withdrawal from sociology and their unwillingness to commit themselves to any political activity. Although by the late sixties Jürgen Habermas was also under fire from students for political reticence, it is evident that Habermas’ work marks a radical break with the School on several other scores. It is not dialectical, nor essayistic, nor is it concerned with questions of aesthetics. It also marks a deep break with Horkheimer and Adorno’s work on many epistemological issues, but a strong continuity lies in its engagement with Marx. 

By the end of 1969 Horkheimer was no longer active due to ill-health, Adorno had died, and Habermas had withdrawn from teaching after the student occupation of that year. Horkheimer and Adorno appear to have been the last great ‘mandarins’. They created an academy precisely to criticise traditions which the academic community abused or ignored. Yet neither men, Adorno least of all, was a ‘public’ man. They were not suited for responsibility in the sense of providing any platform. Hence they seemed to recreate the evils of the old academic community — indulging in intense, idiosyncratic cultural criticism deeply imbedded in the scholarly and institutional constraints which they were committed to transcend.


The tensions noted in the institutional character of the School are especially evident in Adorno’s writings, above all in the way he defined his relationship to tradition. On the one hand he was opposed to all philosophical and sociological systems, yet on the other, he wanted his fragments to be read as if they were systematic. He stressed the necessity of understanding social phenomena from the perspective of the ‘totality’, yet denied the possibility of grasping the ‘totality’. On the one hand, he was always searching for a style for philosophy and sociology which would be the equivalent of the search for a modernist style which has concerned twentieth-century musicians and novelists; on the other hand, he produced cultural criticism which greatly circumscribed and criticised any such search. He turned Marxism into a search for style, and yet combined this with the old Hegelian and Marxist claims that he was founding the one valid science.

Adorno was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1903, the son of a Jewish wine merchant whose name, Wiesengrund, he bore until the war years when he became known by his mother’s maiden name, Adorno. He was interested in music and philosophy from his early teens, and studied philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, where his teachers were representatives of the various forms of neo-Kantianism which dominated philosophy departments in Germany at that time. In 1924 he submitted his doctoral dissertation on Husserl to the Frankfurt University philosophy faculty. From early 1925 to 1928, he studied music in Vienna as a pupil of Alban Berg. At the same time he wrote his Habilitation on Kant and Freud, submitted it for examination in Frankfurt in 1927, but withdrew it again before it was examined. This was partly due to his growing involvement with Marxism and especially to the influence of his friendships with Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer. After his return to Frankfurt in 1928, Adorno worked on a book on Kierkegaard which he hoped to submit as his new Habilitation. He started teaching philosophy at the university in 1931 but was not a member of the Institute until 1938 when he went to New York. He was editor of the Musikblätter des Anbruch, a music journal published in Vienna, from 1928 until late 1930. In September 1933, on his thirtieth birthday, he was deprived of his venia legendi(right to teach) by the Nazis and moved to Berlin. In the spring of 1934 he left Germany and came to London. He really wanted to return to Vienna, but his application to continue his studies at the University of Vienna was rejected by the philosophy department. By October he was ensconced in Oxford, where he remained for over three years, hoping to obtain the Oxford D. Phil., which he regarded as the nearest equivalent to the German Habilitation. After a brief visit to New York in June 1937, he finally moved there in February 1938 without submitting for the Oxford degree. Meanwhile Horkheimer had found work for him with Paul Lazarsfeld on the Princeton Radio Research Project. Although Adorno had by now published several pieces in the Zeitschrift, it was only after his arrival in America that he became a member of the Institute, working half for it and half for the Radio Project. In 1941, he went with Horkheimer and other members of the Institute to live in California where he collaborated with Horkheimer, Hanns Eisler, Thomas Mann and the research team of The Authoritarian Personalityon projects in philosophy, music, literature and sociology. In late 1949 he went back to West Germany, to the University of Frankfurt, returning to America briefly in 1951 and for a year to Los Angeles, 1952–3, in both cases to organise research projects which he had undertaken to complete. He taught at the University of Frankfurt and was the director of the Institute until his death in 1969.

Every year from 1920, his seventeenth, to 1969, the year of his death, Adorno published on music. These writings range from minor reviews and articles to major books. Adorno’s ideas on the complex relationship between the author as composer and the author as critic are clearer in the case of music than in the case of philosophy and sociology. For where music is concerned he always considered himself to be both composer and critic. He identified closely with the Vienna school of neue Musik, and the activity of composing within the new style and of defining the new music in articles and personal correspondence were inseparable activities for him. At the same time, Adorno was one of the sternest critics of this music from both a musical and a sociological standpoint. Where philosophy and sociology are concerned it is not so easy to distinguish the ‘composer’ from the ‘critic’ but it is equally important to do so, for Adorno’s criticism of philosophy and sociology is deeply allied to his search for a new style for these enterprises as it is more obviously in the case of his work in music.

Adorno’s collected works will comprise twenty-two volumes. He wrote in many forms and produced essays, reviews, radio broadcasts, slim volumes of short articles, monographs and long books. Half of his published work is on music. Only two volumes in the collected works are called by their editors ‘sociological writings’. The first of these volumes contains Adorno’s criticism of sociology, the second, his empirical work. Yet, as the editors warn, the work in these two volumes is not ‘merely’ sociological, nor do they contain the whole of Adorno’s ‘sociology’. The philosophical and sociological principles which structure his criticism of philosophy, sociology, music and literature are always the same. Adorno tried to develop a critique of society by producing a critique of its intellectual and artistic products.