I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:
“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”
(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)
Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.
Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.
Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.
Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.
If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.
Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)
Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton & Company, London, 2008)