Grand Hotel Abyss
By Stuart Jeffries
Verso: September 2016
In the summer of 1923, a Soviet spy named Richard Sorge helped organize the library of a new think tank in Frankfurt, Germany. It was called the Institute for Social Research, and it had a bizarre origin story: devoted to Marxist scholarship, funded by a capitalist, housed in a building designed by a Nazi.
Richard Sorge’s association with the Institute didn’t last very long. His handlers sent him on to Britain, China, and ultimately Japan. He sent back the crucial fact that Japan did not intend to join Germany’s invasion of Russia, leaving the Fuhrer’s pincer movement with just one claw. This bit of spying may well have changed the course of the war. It allowed Russia to deploy its anti-Japanese Siberian divisions to the Battle of Moscow for the first, pivotal defeat of the German Army. Sorge was captured by the Japanese, tortured, disavowed by Russia, and hanged in 1944. Twenty years later, the Soviet government recognized him as a “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
Sorge was a Marxist intellectual who turned his convictions into deeds. He was nothing like the other Marxist intellectuals with whom he associated briefly in 1923. In Stuart Jeffries’ new history of the Frankfurt School—a group of thinkers associated at various times with the Institute for Social Research—he brings out the contrast furnished by Sorge’s career:
While Sorge was slipping across borders in Europe, America and Asia, charged with helping foment world proletarian revolution by the Comintern, and tasked by the Soviet Union with assisting its resistance against Nazi invasion, the Institute remained aloof from the struggle, valuing its intellectual independence, preferring its scholars not to be members of political parties.
Jeffries draws this contrast because he thinks that the Frankfurt School embodies a paradox. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse are perhaps the most famous European thinkers of the far left in the 20th century, but, for the most part, they seem to have abandoned a central principle of Marxism: we shouldn’t just try to understand the world but to change it. They were social critics uninterested in social change. According to Jeffries, “to explore the history of the Frankfurt School and critical theory is to discover how increasingly impotent these thinkers. . . thought themselves to be against forces they detested but felt powerless to change.”
Insistence upon this thesis sets Jeffries’ book apart from the many other studies of the Frankfurt School, such as Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, impressive for its cogency, or Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School, impressive for its sheer physical size (I use it hold open doors and beat up bugs too immense for an ordinary rolled up newspaper).
Grand Hotel Abyss aims to be a popularization of Frankfurt School ideas and a group biography of its leading thinkers. It may be the first account of the school aimed at non-academics, an audience Jeffries strives to reach through the liberal use of anecdotes and by explaining key concepts in simple language. I was reminded of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, a similar effort on behalf of French existentialism published earlier this year. Bakewell is a much better writer and more compelling storyteller than Jeffries, but I applaud the expansion of this genre—popular but rigorous intellectual history—even by writers without Bakewell’s pizzazz.
To be fair, the Institute for Social Research is a less intrinsically exciting subject that existentialism. It was founded when a young man called Felix Weil asked his wealthy father, then the biggest grain trader in the world, to endow a Marxist think tank. Jeffries tells us that, “Felix could have asked for anything—a yacht, a country estate, a Porsche. But instead he asked [for] a Marxist, multidisciplinary academic institute.” The Institute remained in Frankfurt as long as it could, until the Nazis forced it out of Germany, just ahead of the war. First in New York, then in California, it carried on its work with the help of other universities. After WWII, it returned in triumph to Frankfurt, where the luminaries of the Institute took up their role as vindicated authorities, instantly becoming the establishment, and supplemented their dwindling endowment—dwindling due to unwise speculation during the exile—with government research grants. The Institute persists to this day.
So the paradox Jeffries sees in the Frankfurt School was baked into their institutional foundation. From a Marxist perspective—that is to say, with an eye on the money—their work was always underwritten by the very things they sought to critique, first by Felix Weil’s capitalist father, later by government grants. As a consequence, the public faces and prime movers of the Institute used what Jeffries calls “Aesopian language”: “words or phrases that convey an innocent meaning to an outsider but a hidden meaning to those in the know.” The Institute was “part Marxist cuckoo in Frankfurt’s capitalist nest and part monastery devoted to the study of Marxism.”
In the late 20th and early 21st century, this strategy of Aesopian language backfired in a big way. On the paranoid right, the Frankfurt School has become a boogieman, the object of “a conspiracy theory that alleges that a small group of German Marxist philosophers […] overturned traditional values by encouraging multiculturalism, political correctness, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas.” The strategy of Aesopian language makes the Frankfurt School look sly, whereas, Jeffries implies, it was just ineffectual:
The leading thinkers of the Institute for Social Research would have been surprised to learn that they had plotted the downfall of western civilisation, and even more so to learn how successful they had been at it.
Perhaps the perfect icon of the school is Walter Benjamin. Like Richard Sorge, he was only loosely connected to the Institute. He was friends with Theodor Adorno; he published in the Institute’s house journal; and they tried to help him escape Nazi Germany by securing him an American visa and the prospect of employment outside Europe. But for the most part he existed as a freelance intellectual. Through Adorno, however, Benjamin was a major influence on the Frankfurt School, and his life is often told in connection with it: according to Jeffries, “he was its most profound intellectual catalyst.”
Like most of the other prominent members of the Institute, Walter Benjamin was the son of a wealthy Jewish family. He turned his back on business in favor of thinking and writing. He failed to launch an academic career—partly due to publishing essays critical of the major academic cliques—and subsisted for as long as he could as a freelance writer and radio presenter. Because he was Jewish and openly supportive of their communist rivals, the Nazi regime gradually forced him out, cutting off his access to publishers, even seizing his property. The dramatic conclusion to his life involved a typically inept attempt to flee Europe through the French-Spanish border. He committed suicide, fearing capture and transportation to a concentration camp, just ten hours before the other members of his group of refugees successfully made it out.
Walter Benjamin remains a popular thinker. His essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” may be the most-cited aesthetic text of the 20th century, and his uncompleted work The Arcades Project, is mourned as a lost masterpiece of social criticism. His ideas have been hashed and rehashed in countless dissertations and commentaries, and he shows up as a character, inspiration, or authority in countless more popular texts. One reason we keep returning to him is that he managed to be both an incredibly compelling writer and a deeply puzzling one: his ideas seem deeply evocative, but often equally unclear. So what were those ideas?
Jeffries suggests that there are two interlinking concepts common to the whole gamut of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School: alienation and reification. He takes these to be quintessentially Marxist ideas (though I will offer a proviso to that attribution below).
Alienation is “the general condition of human estrangement”: it is feeling as if something that belongs to you doesn’t belong to you. One of Marx’s basic theses was that wage labourers under capitalism are alienated. This alienation takes the form of reification. “Under capitalism,” writes Jeffries, “the properties of objects, subjects and social relations become reified or ‘thinglike’ in a particular way.” Reification is treating things that aren’t independent objects as if they are. To understand this it might be helpful to think of another term which is likely more familiar to you: objectification. We talk about objectifying people, for example, which means treating some property they have as if it were an object in its own right. To sexually objectify someone is to treat their sexuality as if it were a separable thing from the rest of them, as if they could be just a “sex object.” Objectification is a bit like reification. And to Marx, the most significant instance of reification occurs with the wage-laborer’s own labor, their capacity to make things. When their labor is bought and sold as if it were a commodity, then something that belongs to them—that is them—is treated like an object.
Jeffries sums up: “Alienation is the general condition of human estrangement. Reification is a specific form of alienation.”
According to Jeffries, the Frankfurt School latched onto the ideas of alienation through reification and made it the basis for their whole method of criticizing society. This was a power move because the manuscripts in which Marx had most fully discussed these ideas, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, were being published for the first time just when the Frankfurt School thinkers came into their own. But whereas Marx seemed to think reification of labor happened occasionally and to some people (the most exploited of wage-laborers), the members of the Frankfurt School proposed to think of it as a pervasive, inescapable social condition.
According to them, we are all alienated in this way. We are fragmented self-objectifiers, and, curiously, this misperception goes both ways: since we think of persons and qualities as objects, we have a tendency to attribute personal agency to objects, to project our hopes and fears and dreams onto them. Accordingly, thinkers in the Frankfurt School spent a lot of time writing about objects, none more than Walter Benjamin.
Jeffries thinks the secret of Benjamin’s lasting allure is that he married this focus on reification of human capacities in object to modernist collage techniques: “what Benjamin started in 1920s Germany – a style of writing that borrowed its form from the best journalistic vignettes […] and its techniques from avant-garde cinema, photography and art – would prove to be one of the most enduring literary forms for later European intellectuals,” writes Jeffries. He adds:
[Benjamin] wanted to bring the collage techniques he admired in surrealism to bear on his books. […] Instead of writing history through the study of great men, he aimed to disclose history through its refuse and detritus, studying the over-looked, the worthless, the trashy—the very things that didn’t make sense to the official version but which, he maintained, encoded the dream wishes of the collective consciousness.
This mention of the “collective unconscious” brings up the second source of the Frankfurt School’s distinctive ideas: Freudian psychoanalysis. The school is sometimes summed up as the union of Marxism and Freudianism. Under capitalism, according to them, we could interpret the objects onto which we projected our reified selves as if they were a collective unconscious. We could talk about fire trucks and merry-go-rounds and bonsai trees in a way that illuminated our own displaced problems. Thus, for example, Walter Benjamin’s major (and unfinished) book The Arcades Project was to be an intimate analysis of the shopping stalls set up in covered alleys in 19th century Paris.
Benjamin hoped that his kind of writing would be, as Jeffries puts it, “a kind of Marxist shock therapy aimed at reforming consciousness,” waking people up to the dream-world they lived in under capitalism. But along with the other thinkers of the Frankfurt School, he seemed to deny the possibility of any escape from that dreamworld. “This was to become one great theme of critical theory,” writes Jeffries: “there is no outside, not in today’s […] totally reified, commodity-fetishising world.” Or, as Benjamin more memorably put it, “There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”
The point of all this exposition is to say that the Frankfurt School hugely elaborated a minor angle of criticism from Marx, and added to it a deep pessimism about the possibility of changing or escaping what they criticized. This is Jeffries’ favorite point, and it’s embodied in the book’s title: “Grand Hotel Abyss” is where the Frankfurt School dwelled, according to the mockery of the communist thinker Lukacs. Lukacs thought they were theorizing comfortably at the edge of an enormous empty chasm. They saw no hope for escaping the pathologies of society that they diagnosed. After WWII, this hopelessness found graphic expression when Theodor Adorno condemned and was condemned by the student movement of the ’60s. This gave rise to some tragicomic episodes, several of which Jeffries recalls for us in Grand Hotel Abyss:
On April 22, [Adorno] endured his bitterest humiliation. He started his lecture series […] by inviting students to ask him questions at any point. Two students demanded he perform an act of self-criticism for having called the police to clear the Institute [of a student sit in] and for starting legal proceedings against [a student leader]. It was then that a student wrote on the blackboard: ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease. ‘ Others shouted: ‘Down with the informer!’ Adorno said he would give everyone five minutes to decide if they wanted him to carry on with the lecture. Then three women protesters surrounded him on the platform, bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him. He grabbed his hat and coat, ran out from the hall and later cancelled the lecture series.
Jeffries’ narrative theme—that the Frankfurt School was a group of quietists—is diluted by at least two figures he dwells upon at length. Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas were both central to the Institute—institutionally central, not just intellectually central like Benjamin—but neither one fits the mold that gives this book its title. Marcuse stayed in America after WWII instead of returning to Frankfurt, and he became a hero of ’60s counterculture because of hugely popular books like One-Dimensional Man. He carried on a correspondence with Adorno discussing their differences over the student movement. Marcuse told Adorno that he was “willing to come to terms with patricide,” that old radicals should make way for younger ones. (Easy for him to say: he was idolized by the new radicals in his elective country.) Also Jurgen Habermas, often referred to as the leader of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt school, was essentially an optimist: “unlike his teachers, Habermas has always found reasons to be positive and ambitious about political reform.” He is a major proponent, for example, of the EU; and rather than picking fights across the academy, Habermas is known for taking up an synthesizing theories from other disciplines and schools of thought. Neither Marcuse nor Habermas can be accused of living in the Grand Abyss Hotel.
While I welcome Jeffries’ book as a readable introduction to an important strand of 20th century intellectual history, I don’t think the supposed paradox of the Frankfurt School is a good theme. Really only Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and, perhaps, Walter Benjamin, could be accused of living with this paradox. Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas are exceptions much too big to prove the rule—not to mention a host of lesser figures, some of whom went so far as to work for US intelligence services during the war, carrying out the fight against fascism in a very concrete way.
Also, and more importantly, the basic premise of the paradox, even for those to whom it does seem to apply, may be false. I’m not sure Adorno and Horkheimer conceived of themselves as fundamentally Marxist at all. The concepts of reification and alienation are older and more encompassing than Marxism. Marx was part of an intellectual movement known as the Young Hegelians, whose guiding light was the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Here is the historian of philosophy Frederick Beiser explaining how Feuerbach was the origin of the concepts Jeffries implies were unique to Marxism:
Feuerbach analyzed religious consciousness in terms of the reification […] of human powers. The gods and spirits that appeared to rule over human beings, Feuerbach argued, are really only their own subconscious creations, the projection of their powers onto the world outside them. For this process, by which human beings enslave themselves to their own creations, Feuerbach took a redolent word from the pages of Hegel: “alienation.” […] Though it began in theology, neo-Hegelian criticism soon extended to other spheres. It was the task of critique to expose alienation in all its lairs, whether in society, economy, state, or church.
One could argue that what Jeffries presents as the repurposing of a minor strain within Marxism is actually a return to a larger, pre-Marxist concept of social criticism. Why, then, should the Frankfurt School be held to the Marxist demand to change the world, or their failure to change it be held up as a contradiction? Adorno and Horkheimer seemed perfectly content (or pessimistically resigned) merely to try and understand the world. A Marxist might wish they had done otherwise, but for the Frankfurt School to embody the paradox Jeffries says they embody, then their quietism would have to be in conflict with their own ideals.
Aside from my disappointment on this point, I found Grand Hotel Abyss an impressive work of popular intellectual history. Of all the 20th century movements in need of this kind of translation for non-academics, the Frankfurt School is one of the most rebarbative. It promoted an unpopular and difficult view of the world in purposefully cryptic texts that require a lot of social and political context to make sense. The Frankfurt School is not, for the most part, a sexy subject. But it remains an historically important one, and Stuart Jeffries has made it accessible.