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The View from the Tower

John Banville

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries, Verso, 448 pp, ISBN: 978-1784785680

In Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator grants that “underground people” such as he must be kept in check, but then goes on ominously to assert: “Though we may be capable of sitting underground for forty years without saying a word, if we do come out into the world and burst out, we will talk and talk and talk ...” To us in the so-called digital age, and particularly in this Time of Trumpery, when the air everywhere around us sizzles with ceaseless electronic chatter, it may seem that the underground man’s moment has come, and with a vengeance.

But have “underground people” ever been quite as quiet as Dostoyevsky imagined, in his tormented soul? A glance back through the centuries will show that there have been repeated “burstings out” by the silenced, by those, that is, who considered themselves kept down and kept voiceless. We could go back as far as the English Peasant Revolt at the start of the 1380s, and hearken to that ringing challenge issued by the Lollard priest John Ball: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The muted ones have a mighty voice, did they but know it, and the little people, when they clamber onto the shoulders of their fellows, can loom as large as Leviathan.

For political intellectuals the first problem has always been what to do about “the people”, the polity, the proletariat, or whatever term the time chooses for the common folk. The question posed by John Ball and so many others before and after him hinges upon a deeper quandary, which is, in what does freedom consist, and how much of this heady and highly flammable stuff is to be permitted us? The most formidable minds of past ages have bent their best energies to providing an answer, with, to say the least, mixed results. How to find even the finest common thread between, say, Plato and Epicurus, Rousseau and Hobbes, Danton and Maistre, Marx and Mill?

The “Frankfurt School”, the popular name for the determinedly Marxist Institute for Social Research, flourished, ironically, on a capitalist fortune. Hermann Weil was the world’s largest trader in grain, but after his death in 1928 his son Felix, in a classic instance of oedipal rebellion, used his inheritance to provide an annual grant of 120,000 marks to ensure the continued solvency of the institute, which had been founded in 1923 by Carl Grünberg, a professor of law at the University of Vienna. Grünberg’s successor, the sociologist Max Horkheimer, took over the directorship in 1930, and brought in many of the school’s leading figures, including Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and the much younger Jürgen Habermas, who is today one of Europe’s most formidable philosophical voices.

From the outset the Frankfurt School had its passionate detractors. It was the Hungarian Marxist critic György Lukács who contemptuously dubbed it the “Grand Hotel Abyss”, equipped, as he wrote, “with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”. As Stuart Jeffries writes, Horkheimer, Adorno and Co were regarded as “virtuosic at critiquing the viciousness of fascism and capitalism’s socially eviscerating, spiritually crushing impact on western societies, but not so good at changing what they critiqued”.

Yet leading figures of the school such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Fromm cannot be accused of hypocrisy or Sartrean bad faith. They acted according to their lights, and they can hardly be condemned if those lights were reminiscent of the soft radiance of the chandeliers they would have remembered illuminating the drawing rooms of the great pre-1914 mansions of Jewish merchant princes in Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt in which many of them had spent their formative years.

For the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, the dilemma as to the possibilities and the limits of freedom was acute and, in the end, irresolvable. In the first paragraph of Grand Hotel Abyss, Jeffries lays out the complexities of the Frankfurters’ predicament with admirable clarity and force:

Not long before he died in 1969, Theodor Adorno told an interviewer: “I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?” That, for many, was the problem with the Frankfurt School: it never stooped to revolution. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” wrote Karl Marx. But the intellectuals of the Frankfurt School turned Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach upside down.

In his lively, irreverent, serious but never solemn book, Jeffries, a journalist who has written for newspapers as ideologically divergent as London’s Guardian and Financial Times, is determined to be fair both to the Frankfurt School and to its detractors. He has researched not only the major works of the philosophers who are his subjects but has also looked into their more elusive and evanescent writings. The results are subtly enlightening. For instance, his reading in Max Horkheimer’s adolescent fictions uncovers some still-bright nuggets. In a novella of 1916, with the stirring title Work, the young Horkheimer describes a character who incites his father’s labour force to revolution because he believes an uprising of the people aimed at achieving better living conditions “would give them access to true culture”. Here Jeffries pounces, perhaps a little overeagerly:

That phrase ‘true culture’ suggests that the revolution is a cultural rather than material one, with culture normatively conceived by a patrician Marxist sensibility that we ... encounter repeatedly as we trace the history of the Frankfurt School, especially in Adorno’s essays on the culture industry: the workers, once freed of the yoke of oppression, would march to the sunlit uplands of Beethoven, rather than wallow in the sewers of Hollywood.

This is a significant assertion. The one trait that the savants of the Frankfurt School shared with Hollywood executives was a fundamental tendency to underestimate, even to hold in contempt, the common man, despite the fact that the common man was the very focus of their attention and efforts. Jeffries provides a devastating quote from Rolf Wiggershaus, a historian of the school: “None of [the leaders of the school] put any hopes in the working class.” For all their left-wing convictions, the Frankfurters glumly acknowledged the people’s distressing readiness to succumb to the blandishments of capitalism, in the same way as they revelled in the mindless pap served up to them by the movie industry. Even Lukács the arch-Marxist made “a key distinction”, Jeffries observes, “between the ascribed and actual consciousness of the proletariat ‑ the higher ascribed consciousness was embodied in the revolutionary party, while the actual consciousness may not be able to grasp its historic role”. In other words, the Party knows what is best for the people.

The Frankfurt School’s abiding concern with culture, especially in its loftier forms, is highlighted particularly in the work of the great German scholar and literary theorist Walter Benjamin, who, while he was a pervasive intellectual influence on the school, was never a member of it. Jeffries quotes Hannah Arendt’s shrewd judgement that the oedipal conflicts engaged in by the young Jewish intellectuals of Mitteleuropa in the inter-war years were usually resolved “by the sons’ laying claim to being geniuses” and their rich fathers’ acceptance of this as “a valid excuse for not making a living”. Thus Benjamin refused to take a job in the moneyed world of his father, or anywhere else, for that matter, and expected his parents to support him and his wife and child while he remained, Jeffries writes, “functionally unemployable. It’s difficult not to think of him as ludicrously mollycoddled and entitled, not least when one learns that he blamed his ostensibly overbearing mother for the fact that, aged forty, he was unable to make a cup of coffee.”

The case of Benjamin throws into strong relief the tension between the concern that European Marxist intellectuals had, or believed they had, for the plight of the proletariat, and their abiding though unacknowledged nostalgia for the high bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century that war and ideology between them all but destroyed. Benjamin’s most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, is riven at its core by the contradiction between his enthusiasm for the Marxist drive towards the politicisation of art on the one hand and his unacknowledged but ineradicable bourgeois love of art for art’s sake on the other.

Even as Benjamin in the essay is celebrating the destruction of the art-work’s “aura”, its precious uniqueness, by the new methods of mass reproduction, at the same time he is, despite himself, lamenting all that is lost in the process. He is much excited by the recently invented art of film: “Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.” But in his heart, did he really yearn for the destruction of European high culture? On a visit to Moscow he recognised that “Bolshevism has abolished private life” and ruefully asked, “What figure does the man of letters cut in a country where his employer is the proletariat?” Indeed, when his friend Gershom Scholem suggested that Benjamin’s writings were counter-revolutionary, he could only agree.

As the 1930s progressed, a number of the Frankfurt School idealists “lost faith”, Jeffries writes, “in the power of critical thinking to transform society”. What role could the left-leaning intellectual have in a time when the socialist revolution was failing and fascism seemed set to conquer Europe? Max Horkheimer was one of those who despaired of the struggle, fearing that the “commodity economy” would bring a period of progress so that “after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism”. Arthur Koestler might describe communism as “The God That Failed”, but for the Frankfurt School it was man who was the failure, in stubbornly refusing his duty to join the revolution and break free from the capitalist chains that bound him.

So it was that Herbert Marcuse seized upon the student movements of the 1960s as offering the possibility of a new form of class struggle, in which young middle class activists would replace the proletariat as the battling vanguard. When in a debate in Hanover in 1967 Jürgen Habermas rounded on the student leader Rudi Dutschke and accused him and his followers of “left-fascism”, Adorno supported his young colleague. Two years later, in January 1969, a lecture room at the Institute for Social Research was occupied by student activists, and Adorno and Habermas called in the police to arrest them. This was seen as unforgivable treachery, and a few months later the students had their revenge, when protesters disrupted a lecture series by Adorno, and, in the infamous “Busenaktion”, three young women surrounded him on the lecture platform and bared their breasts before him; the professor grabbed his hat and fled.

Faced with such anarchy and humiliations, Adorno wrote to his old colleague Marcuse requesting him to interrupt his exciting sojourn at the University of California in Berkeley and come to his aid. Marcuse declined the invitation, replying that he would despair of himself and the school “if I (we) would appear to be on the side of a world that supports mass murder in Vietnam ...” Marcuse disapproved of Adorno’s summoning of the police to deal with the student occupiers, writing to him blandly: “Occupation of rooms (apart from my own apartment) without ... a threat of violence would not be reason for me to call the police. I would have left them sitting there and left it to somebody else to call the police.” In this last sentence we glimpse the hypocrisy and heedlessness that lay at the heart of much of what “the Sixties” represented. When, during a garbage strike in 1968, Abbie Hoffman and his fellow members of the Youth International Party dumped refuse in a fountain outside Lincoln Center in New York, someone, as Stuart Jeffries wryly observes, had to clean up the mess, and it was not Abbie and his band of pranksters.

Jeffries closes his book with a fine, admiring yet sceptical chapter on Habermas’s “turn” from the Marxism of the Frankfurt scholars, whose mantle he inherited, to the “extraordinary hope” that society can be changed, and saved, “by means of creating truly democratic institutions that are capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of capitalism”. One such institution that Habermas put his faith in was the European Union ‑ but what state must that faith be in now? Jeffries admires Habermas for what he sees as his Pollyannaish optimism, but he has extreme doubts as to the possibility of his redemptive democratic programme succeeding. At the close of his book he writes:

In our age, anyone resuscitating critical theory needs to have a sense of irony. Among capitalism’s losers are millions of overworked, underpaid workers ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history (China’s) who have been driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism, are keeping it on life support.

In the dark satanic mills where the bright new technologies are forged, underground man is still mute. But for how long?


Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is “A Tearless People”, a review of Karl Schlögel’s Moscow, 1937 by Pádraig Murphy. Here is an extract:

The population of Moscow had doubled within a decade. While the Stalinist general plan for Moscow envisaged a grandiose city for the glorious communist future, the reality was quite different. There had been huge immigration from the countryside, especially to the factories, which needed working hands so badly they asked few questions and demanded few or no qualifications. The workforce of the main Moscow car factory grew from 1,798 in 1928 to 19,329 in 1932 and was 37,000 in 1937, to reach 40,000 in 1940. These rural immigrants were housed in wooden houses at best, often in jerry-built barracks, and sometimes even in holes dug in the ground. Schlögel remarks on “the outbursts of rage, despair, hatred and desire for revenge that were common occurrences in the works meetings of 1937”. The divisions were fanned by party paranoia, urging the rooting out of Trotskyists, Bukharinites, counter-revolutionaries of all stripes, all of this being urged on immigrants who were largely illiterate and had no idea what Trotskyism or any of the other ism might consist of.
The year was, of course ‑ if one brings in the immediately preceding period ‑ preeminently that of the show trials of precisely these Trotskyists, Bukharinites and others. In August 1936 it was the turn of Kamenev and Zinoviev. Schlögel devotes much thought to the dynamics of these trials which have intrigued many then and since – they are, for instance, the main theme of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. While a certain mysteriousness remains about how it all functioned, Schlögel does, in the course of the book, succeed in laying bare much of the psychology behind the process. The trials aimed at rooting out what was called “double dealing”, a term which covered those who allegedly maintained a mental reservation to the party line. They thus aimed at “disciplining ordinary members of society – indeed, society itself – especially those acting in and around the Party”. There was a distinction between former members of the exploiting classes and indeed, foreign experts, many of whom had been dealt with in repressions before now, and members, or former members of the party, including foreign Comintern activists resident in Moscow, all of whom now became targets. Here a dynamic of public declaration of fault and a supposed cleansing punishment came into play.