Life inside the 20th-century’s reigning citadel of pessimism, as told through the lives and (often conflicting) philosophies of its key thinkers.
Longtime Guardian cultural critic Jeffries (Mrs. Slocombe's Pussy: Growing Up in Front of the Telly, 2000) provides an in-depth, decade-by-decade overview of one of the 20th century’s most significant think tanks. Founded in 1923, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was the domicile of critical theory, “the kind of radical rethinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and intellectual endeavor.” The leading lights were all about revolt, both in rejecting the bourgeois world of their parents and in breaking down traditional forms of art. Walter Benjamin latched on to Dada, surrealism, and the advent of film montage; Theodor Adorno hailed Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique and Bertolt Brecht’s experimental theater. On both the political and cultural fronts, the Frankfurt School was also an ivory tower from which to observe the final collapse of capitalism, with communism rising from the ashes. History, of course, played havoc with their every plan, which didn’t mean rejecting Marxism so much as constantly subjecting it to critical review. This history of the Frankfurt School, then, becomes very much a history on the evolution of Marxism over the past century, as Frankfurt philosophers who started out trying to overthrow society soon found themselves trying to change it from within. New questions surface: what does class struggle mean when the middle class (at least) has two cars, a TV, and a mortgage? Is consumerism a new kind of enslavement altogether? By the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, one of the school’s leading figures, was a New Left hero; Adorno, by contrast, had become their villain. After 9/11, Jürgen Habermas, one of the school’s leading theorists, was actually embracing religion. Throughout the book, Jeffries demonstrates that he is comfortable and conversant with the often thorny philosophical ideas of his subjects.
A rich, intellectually meaty history.