There was once a king who was troubled by all the misery he observed about him. So he summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into its causes. The wise men duly looked into the matter, and reported back to the king that the cause of all the misery was him. So runs Bertolt Brecht's parable of the founding in 1923 of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a centre for Marxist studies endowed by a wealthy German capitalist. The English are on the whole rather hostile to schools of thought, which they feel can be left to the over-conceptual Continentals. It is one of the wearier clichés of English cultural commentary that any particular school represents more a mood than a coherent doctrine, an assortment of diverse individuals rather than a unified belief system. The Frankfurt School, as it would come to be called, was certainly diverse in its interests, ranging from Schoenberg to surplus value, psychosis to the laws of capitalism, Baudelaire to bourgeois rationality. But it was united by a revisionist brand of Marxism known as Critical Theory; and from its birth in the Weimar Republic to its later flight to New York and post-war return to Frankfurt, it sustained a tenacious if turbulent institutional existence through the advent of Fascism, the defeat of socialism, the Second World War and the ideological freeze-over which followed on its heels.
LRB 12 May 1994 | PDF Download