members of the Frankfurt School
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
No ‘school’ is perhaps more mentioned with disdain in rightist circles today than the Frankfurt School, established by Jews in Germany at the prestigious Goethe University during the Interwar Period. Like escaped rats coming back to feast on a carcass, these men slithered back into the now divided Germany once the war was over to continue their Marxist activities. There’s not much point doing a history on the collective. It’s been done to death. Instead, I want to note a perculiar conclusion reached by one of its most recognizable members in the wake of the Holocaust.
Theodor Adorno was so disgusted by what had supposedly transpired in Germany during the war, that his outlook changed. He was still very much a Marxist, but he had lost the optimism that giddy revolutionaries had experienced during the Interwar Period. In his eyes, what had occured at Auschwitz had to revolutionize the entire assessment of the ‘Enlightenment’. He famously said this:
“All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage.”
His view was that the Holocaust had proven the Age of Enlightenment an utter failure. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore, and Marx’s concept of the inevitable rise of the ‘proletariat’ was nothing more than a pipe dream built on faulty assumptions. In the penultimate document of pessimism which was penned with the help of his friend Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of the Enlightenment, it is lamented that contra Marx, the capitalist world order was not some improved step on the way to an eventual utopia, but actually the human condition had worsened in that people were being controlled now by being actively encouraged to pursue their own desires rather than having them smashed by an authority. In a sense, Adorno sees a world in which populations are being manipulated more than ever before, but suffer from the collective delusion of thinking they are more free.
Now, make no mistake: Adorno was still looking for some means to achieve utopia, some way to emancipate all those who were so unjustly, to borrow a phrase from Rousseau, “in chains”, but in his opinion human reason had proved itself more monstrous and dangerous than anything to ever take pride of place at the center of society.
There are some big mistakes that he makes. His critique is three-pronged, political, economic, and cultural. From the political standpoint, he sees Nazism as the pinnacle of the ‘Enlightenment’, which is ridiculous. As is evident from history, Nazism thought it was the pinnacle, but was less advanced and dynamic than Liberalism, something that the Communists themselves found out a few decades later. Liberalism is in fact the pinnacle, it is the most advanced of the three contemporary political theories. Do not mistake the fact that it is built on lies, hypocrisies, and principles that revolve like a weather vane as a weakness. These are its practical strengths.
’twas not to be
Communism and Nazism both suffered from not being ridiculous and counterfactual enough.They couldn’t change because they were rooted in achievable ‘utopias’, whether based on a master race or a centrally planned economy. Once this had been achieved, where was there to go when it didn’t turn out as wonderful as they had hoped? A Thousand Year Reich? An immortal government of the Proletariat? Hocus pocus. No, Liberalism’s great tactical advantage is in fact that the utopia can never be achieved because nobody knows what the hell it looks like. Its only face is chaos. Each generation creates a phantom dream to chase, some new cause, some way in which everything still isn’t perfect. The previous generation of Liberals don’t understand it? Tough! And they’re racist bigots anyway!
Bear in mind, the vast Marxist intelligentsia of which the Frankfurt School was only a small part of failed in their overarching mission. Real Communism is essentially a joke today. The Soviet Union is gone, China has more sweatshop-condition factories than England, and North Korea far from being an egalitarian paradise has turned into a barely functioning fiefdom in search of a few million light bulbs. The entire ideology is dead. Where these schools did succeed was in finding a way to gnaw and destroy what remained of Traditional culture in many Western societies using that “long march through the institutions”, but it’s not as if Liberalism wouldn’t have achieved this anyway, all be it in a longer time frame. Or, if you want to think about it in an even more interesting way, and we observe Communism as a stepchild of Liberalism, it was all part of a grand long game by Liberals all along. Come to think of it, both Communism and Nazism were indispensable to Liberalism’s total predominance in the world. The intellectual and conspiratorial Communists finished off what was left of the Church and Patriarchy, while Nazism provided the greatest boogeyman of all time (as Donald Trump supporters know all too well).
useless to communism
very helpful to liberalism
Adorno wasn’t happy. He may not have fully realized what it was which made him so unhappy when he looked at the world, but he seemed at a loss. He and Horkheimer described the dialectic of the Enlightenment as being an argument between the subjugation of man to reason, and the subjugation of man to myth. Out of hand, they dismiss myth, laugh at it through the same fogged up glass that Voltaire and others did. Reason wins out. But where has reason led? In Adorno and Horkheimer’s view, reason had led to a catastrophe somehow, but they could not turn back to myth because of course that wasn’t conducive to a Marxist vision of a better and more egalitarian future. It is actually amazing how well the narrative fits the Reactionary worldview, as in the ‘age of myth‘ (which comes after the age of memetics, a primitive kind of state), man’s concept of the self is not yet ‘fully formed’ and is open to the cosmos, not able to distinguish itself from nature. In the words of David Ebert, “what we have is a porous sense of self, that is open to these transpersonal forces. And so the self largely has not differentiated itself from this background of cosmic, transpersonal, impersonal forces, which nature is full of and which subjugate the human being and make demands upon him.”
Now, to the Reactionary, this is in no way a human that isn’t ‘fully formed’. This is the most fully formed human being! This is Traditional man! Again, we see the contrast between a view that sees history as a linear progression, and a view that sees history as a cyclical decline.
The essential interesting point I wanted to get across here is that despairing from the Second World War, Adorno and other Marxists like him had a weird moment of clarity on the nature of reason and the peculiar state this newly liberated mankind had fallen into. There was mankind, fully aware, fully formed in his sense of self, marching towards a great bold future and then… something… somewhere… had gone horribly wrong. They spent the rest of their time trying to figure out what it was, but never came up with the correct answer, that it was in fact that transition away from the age of myth which represented man’s degeneration into something less than human.