The Politics of Unreason

The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antismetism

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Lars Rensmann
SUNY Series in Philosophy and Race
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     2017.
     600 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438465937.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

During the interwar period a group of philosophers, sociologists, and psychoanalysts formed the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, which became known as the “Frankfurt School.” The school focused on critiques of modernity and life under capitalism, creating a methodological legacy known today as “critical theory.” While the capacious writings from the Frankfurt School have been examined extensively, there has been a curious scholarly neglect concerning the school’s work on antisemitism. It is precisely this gap that Lars Rensmann seeks to fill in his newest book, The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism. Offering the first systematic account of the Frankfurt School’s research on antisemitism in English, Rensmann reconstructs critical theory’s multifaceted approach to the problem of judeophobia. Rensmann’s goal is twofold: to change the traditional understanding of the Frankfurt School and, in turn, to have the Frankfurt School change traditional understandings of antisemitism (2). Rensmann often refers to the “Frankfurt School” without referencing any particular theorist by name, and I will follow the same pattern in this review.

Carefully working through the seemingly unsystematic writings on antisemitism from the school, Rensmann brings together its research in a unified form, without erasing the tensions and evolution of thought that have come to characterize the first generation of critical theory. While engaging the more overt writings on antisemitism such as The Dialectic of Enlightenment and The Authoritarian Personality, Rensmann also engages more marginal manuscripts and publications of the Frankfurt School, particularly from Theodor W. Adorno.

A major goal of the book is to finally bring together critical theory’s writings on antisemitism in a single place. Yet The Politics of Unreason is also a work of correction, arguing that the lack of critical engagement with the Frankfurt School’s writings on antisemitisim has led to major misunderstandings of their work (4). Rensmann is concerned with correcting what has been understood as the philosophical origins of the school’s work, moving beyond Freud and Marx to assessing the use of everyone from the ancient philosophers to Weber. However, it seems most important for Rensmann to once again place the Nazi persecution and extermination of the European Jews at the center of critical theory (11). Rensmann takes seriously Max Horkheimer’s insistence that modern society can only be understood through antisemitism, so he therefore wants to demonstrate that the antisemitism question is not marginal but central to the work of the Frankfurt School.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Politics of Unreason is its thoroughgoing analysis of the interdisciplinary nature of the Frankfurt School’s work on antisemitism. This is demonstrated most clearly in chapter 3, “Loving to Hate,” which offers an exhaustive account of the groundbreaking work, The Authoritarian Personality, which was authored by Theodor Adorno along with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford.

Paying close attention to Erich Fromm and Adorno in particular, Rensmann shows how the Frankfurt School’s assessment of authoritarianism brings together psychoanalytic and sociological insights to reveal the “social psychology” of authoritarianism (83). The Frankfurt School articulates modern antisemitism as a historically sedimented ideological matrix, and this comes to characterize antisemitic attitudes under late capitalism. Rensmann goes to great lengths to show that the Frankfurt School does not arrive at this conclusion carelessly, but rather that they work in an interdisciplinary manner to offer what still remains one of the most comprehensive accounts of authoritarianism and antisemitism today.

While the 400+ pages of The Politics of Unreason serve as an impressive compilation of the Frankfurt School’s work on antisemitism, those seeking an introduction, or mere overview, of the Frankfurt School’s analysis should be cautioned. Rensmann’s writing is clear and concise, but the book does assume the reader has a general understanding of the Frankfurt School, and of critical theory more generally. This is demonstrated, as mentioned previously, when Rensmann broadly refers to the “Frankfurt School” without always citing the particular thinker he has in mind. However, students and scholars of critical theory will follow the argument of the book with relative ease.

Overall, The Politics of Unreason is a much-needed work in both Frankfurt School and antisemitism scholarship. While Rensmann offers a systematic work, he also constructively shows how the enduring legacy of the Frankfurt School still remains relevant today. There is nothing simple about understanding antisemitism, and any serious analysis of its origins must take into account civilizations bent towards regression to barbarism against the Jews. This is central for the Frankfurt School, and Rensmann’s book shows how critical theory’s multifaceted work on antisemitism can aid us in taking Adorno’s new categorical imperative seriously: to arrange thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will never again repeat itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josiah Solis is a doctoral student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lars Rensmann is professor of European politics and society at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. His books include Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations (coedited with Samir Gandesha).

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