Grand Hotel Abyss

The Lives of the Frankfurt School

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Stuart Jeffries
  • Brooklyn, New York: 
    , September
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stuart Jeffries has written a book that tells the story of the Frankfurt School from its earliest days until the present. For this reason, Jeffries’s book is commendable. As he notes, “we still live in a world like the one the Frankfurt School excoriated” (10), and thereby their critique(s) are—as Jeffries rightly argues—as relevant as ever (terribly so, as I write this on the eve of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States of America). The book is thereby difficult to summarize since it deals with dozens of figures; dozens more ideas; a space that involves both coasts of the US, Europe, and the former Soviet Union; and a temporal frame that involves almost a century.

What is the nature of the Frankfurt School critique? One easy way to understand the orientation of the School, and the way that Jeffries traces out quite well in several key chapters [chapters 4, 6, and 14], is to see it as attempting to blend the insights of Karl Marx—notably his critiques and assessments of capitalism—and Sigmund Freud—notably his understandings and estimations of the human. Although the chief impetus for their initial reflections was capitalism, equally important proved to be the Nazi genocide, Soviet totalitarianism, and Western late capitalism;  the fact that their analysis is oriented around two male figures should not be neglected, a point that Jeffries mentions briefly, but does not consider with any seriousness. Yet, the motor that drove the School was a consideration of suffering: the suffering that capitalism generates: both structurally, as in wealth inequality and scarcity, and subjectively, as in alienation and commodification, all topics that Jeffries deals with compactly. Jeffries does a good job of tracing these Marxist elements through their various permutations in figures as diverse as György Lukács and Henrik Grossman, and then connecting them to motifs in key “first generation” Frankfurt School figures like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, and Walter Benjamin. Although, as Jeffries’s own accounts reveals with a discussion of Carl Grünberg, this “first” generation is already really a “second’ generation.” The book ends with a quick, but nonetheless workable overview of ‘later’ generations of critical theory such as Jürgen Habermas (“second generation”) and Axel Honneth (“third generation”). These concluding chapters feel rushed and somewhat arbitrary. After all, if mentioning Habermas and Honneth and including a concluding chapter on the “future” of the school, one might have been inclined—in a book that is already large and thereby unlikely to be affected by a few more pages—to include figures like Albrecht Wellmer, Christoph Menke, or Rainer Frost, all of whom strike me as important to the continuing story of the School. This is a minor critique, though, and again, Jeffries ought to be commended for aspiring to include a synoptic view of the School, including discussions of its prehistory and early days in figures such as Franz Kafka (166) and Walter Benjamin (161); and its present day influences such as in the work of Angela Davis (319).

What this book does especially well is to focus on the Frankfurt School’s elaborate and polyvalent inquiries into the human suffering generated by modern institutions of various stripes. He traces their involvement in understanding the prison industrial complex (152, 319), in understanding authoritarianism (157), reification (91), conceptual possibilities in a manifestly unjust society and order (325), anti-Semitism (252), human sexuality (280), conformism and the withering of imaginative capacities (313), and so forth. In addition to these “meta” themes, Jeffries also patiently traces out various scene of encounter, for example Fromm vs. Ernest Bloch or Adorno vs. Karl Popper, and others. Jeffries touches on all of the great themes of the Frankfurt School, except for one: religion—this is especially notable in Benjamin, but also persists in Adorno. Although he mentions this aspect to Benjamin’s thought, it doesn’t seem to get the sort of serious consideration that he brings to bear elsewhere as, for example, in the debate between Popper and Adorno where Jeffries is willing to go out on a limb and insert Kuhn as an interesting interlocutor between them. Why not do so here, considering say, the work of Hent de Vries?

My only serious hesitation about this book is a hesitation about its purpose. From reading the book, one gets the sense that Jeffries thinks—as I do—that the Frankfurt School has much still to teach us, especially at the present moment. Yet, the theories of the Frankfurt School are essentially averse to the sort of presentation that Jeffries puts together. What we get is a nice, sorted—indeed, one shouldn’t hesitate to say commercial—presentation that doesn’t delve much into the details. Indeed, occasionally things get quite muddled, as for example, in the discussion of verstand vs. vernunft on 146 or on the presentation of the culture industry on 228. What emerges consistently is a picture of the Frankfurt School as summarized essentially by the slogan or byline of “resistance” or “the necessity of thinking differently” (392), which is, of course, entirely correct—but missing here is also the necessity of thinking correctly. The Frankfurt School did not “merely” oppose dominant social trends—although it engaged in this wholeheartedly—but rather opposed them because of a complex philosophical orientation and trajectory, one that simply gets too generalized and too flattened in a book even as “long” as this. In this way, while the book will—I hope—serve to pull more people into studying the Frankfurt School, it cannot itself serve as a proper introduction to their thought, from the inside out, or in any serious philosophical sense, but only presents a sort of blurb-like summary of their views. This says however, more about our culture—and the fact that it lacks a substantive interest and foundation in philosophy—than it does about Jeffries book, which I recommend as a sort of “pop” account of the Frankfurt School.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Shuster is assistant professor and director of Judaic Studies in the Center of Geographics of Justice and Cultures at Goucher College.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stuart Jeffries worked for the Guardian for twenty years and has written for many media outlets including the Financial Times and Psychologies. He is based in London.


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