What came to be informally known as “The Frankfurt School” of Critical Social Theory was originally established in Germany in 1923 as the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Initially funded by Felix Weil, a young and financially well-off Marxist thinker, the goal of the institute was to bring together different strands of Marxist thinking into one interdisciplinary research center. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, the institute attracted some of most important Marxist scholars of the time (see the “Notable Theorists” section below).
The thinking of the Frankfurt School was heavily shaped by three key historical events: (1) the failure of the working-class revolution that Marx had predicted in Western Europe, (2) the rise of Nazism and (3) the expansion of capitalism into a new, “mass” form of production and consumption, often referred to as “Fordism” after the assembly line production practices of Henry Ford’s automotive company. Confronted with modern historical events that Marx himself did not predict, the theorists of the Frankfurt School began to redevelop Marxist thought to help them make sense of these new cultural conditions. In addition Marx, members of the Frankfurt School were influenced by the ideas of other major social theorists and philosophers such as Georg Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the founders of the school moved the institute first to Geneva and then to New York City in 1935. Over the next 30 years, the theorists of the Frankfurt School developed some of most provocative theories of modern society. Inspired by the idea that social theory should be a critical enterprise aimed at the emancipation of society and individuals from harmful social structures, the Frankfurt School developed thoroughgoing critiques of not only capitalism, but of instrumental rationality, the culture industry, and the failed promises of Western modernity and Enlightenment thought.
In 1953, the Institute for Social Research was re-established in Frankfurt where it still functions today. While some of the school’s prominent theorists returned to Germany during this time, several others remained in the United States.
The theories of the Frankfurt School continue to inspire people both within and outside of academia. In academia, the Frankfurt School has inspired new generations of critical theorists, including major contemporary scholars like Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Fredric Jameson, and Nikolas Kompridis. Outside of academia, the writings of the Frankfurt School theorists continue to inspire leftist, pro-democracy, and anti-captialist political activists alike. While the scholars of the Frankfurt School can easily be accused of being overly pessimistic (even Habermas thought so), it is hard to come away from their readings about rationalization and mass culture without a deeper and more critical understanding of the dark side of modern social life. The Frankfurt School wrote with a critical edge and urgency that is arguably without parallel in contemporary social theory.
Horkheimer was one of the first and most important scholars associated with the Institute for Social Research, being appointed director of the school in 1930 and remaining in that position until his retirement in the late 1950s. Horkheimer first developed the concept of “critical theory” in his 1937 book, Traditional and Critical Theory. Horkheimer argued that while traditional theory attempted to remain in the purely objective, observational mode of neutrally describing the “laws” of social life, critical theory sought to self-critically examine and expose the structures of society for the purposes of human emancipation. The term “critical theory” came to characterize the thought of the entire Frankfurt School.
Horkheimer is perhaps best known for his book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he co-authored with Theodor Adorno. Horkheimer and Adorno offer a penetrating critique of modernity, arguing that while the Enlightenment promised the liberation of humanity through reason, modern life is characterized by domination. In this book, the authors explain the historical sources of modern forms of domination and attempt to resuscitate the liberating promises of Enlightenment thought.
Adorno became director of the Institute for Social Research in 1958, after Horkheimer’s retirement. Along with co-authoring The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno wrote several other influential books, including The Authoritarian Personality and Minima Moralia. The Authoritarian Personality was Adorno’s attempt to understand what kinds of character traits could lead to the fascist tendencies which characterized German Nazism. In the book, Adorno developed a Freudian social-psychological model that identified nine personality traits he argued were associated with fascist thought and behavior. Minima Moralia is Adorno’s critique of the amoral character of modern society, arguing through a short series of self-reflective essays that the ethical pursuit of living a good life is no longer possible under modern social conditions.
Perhaps the most politically radical member of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse was often referred to as the “Father of the New Left” because of the influence his ideas held among leftist political activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Two of Marcuse’s most prominent works are Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse synthesizes the ideas of Marx and Sigmund Freud to argue that advanced industrial society suppresses humanity’s erotic instincts and prevents us from living in a non-repressive social order. One-Dimensional Man is Marcuse’s scathing indictment of the “advanced industrial societies” of the modern West. Here he famously argues that modern persons are becoming almost thoroughly controlled by the rationalizing forces of mass media, advertising, science, and technology, and, as a result, becoming increasingly “one dimensional” in their thoughts and activities
A student of Horkheimer and Adorno, Jürgen Habermas is one of the most important social theorists living today. While heavily influenced by the founders of the Frankfurt School, Habermas came to believe that their theories had become too contemplative and pessimistic and did not do enough to develop constructive theories of how society could combat the negative aspects of modernity.
Habermas held Horkheimer’s former chair of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt from 1964 to 1971, and was director of the Institute for Social Research from 1984 until his retirement in 1993. Habermas remains a prolific and influential writer.
His most famous works include Toward a Rational Society (1967), in which he critiques the instrumental rationality characterizing modern society and argues for a more truly rational society based on democratic politics, and Theory of Communicative Action, a theory of the type of democratic, communicative rationality Habermas believes can counterbalance modern society’s over-reliance on instrumental rationality.
The place where the Frankfurt School began, the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, is still alive and well. Check it out at:
The first of a five-part interview with Herbert Marcuse discussing the Frankfurt School:
A brief clip in which Horkheimer explains his idea of critical theory:
And here’s a fun clip of a fellow student explaining how Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of “The Culture Industry” applies to contemporary film, music and celebrity bad boy Charlie Sheen: