For a Century, the Frankfurt School Has Studied How Domination Works in Modern Societies

The year 2023 marks a century since the founding of the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Its story is that of a long challenge to the status quo — and a refusal to accept that capitalism is the only possible reality.

Theodor Adorno speaking at an event in Frankfurt am Main on on May 28, 1968. (Manfred Rehm / picture alliance via Getty Images)

By 1923, in most of Europe at least, the gunfire had ceased. Yet in Germany, a group of young academics felt that the social upheaval following World War I still had the potential to produce catastrophe — and believed that an institute for social research was a necessary step to meet this challenge.

Already in the early part of the decade, Felix Weil, Max Horkheimer, and Friedrich Pollock had conceived the idea of establishing such a body in Frankfurt. These friends envisioned an institution that would undertake both theoretical and empirical research on society, with the aim of finding a more humane and just model for the future — while also reflecting on why the November Revolution and other recent attempts at revolution in Germany had failed. The idea was supported by Weil’s father, who was a benefactor of the University of Frankfurt.

Carl Grünberg, the institute’s first director, officially gave it a Marxist orientation. During his inaugural lecture, he passionately pledged his commitment to Marxism and declared his intention to use historical-materialistic research methods in his scientific tasks. Since the approval of various actors and administrations had to be obtained for the institute to be founded, Weil originally concealed the Marxist orientation by using “Aesopian language” in the founding document in 1922.

The unambiguous naming of the research program by Grünberg in 1923, which referred to Marx, therefore surprised and shocked many conservatives present who worked in and around the University of Frankfurt. Grünberg had in 1911 founded the journal Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung (Archive for the History of Socialism and the Labor Movement), which became the most important publication of the institute’s early years.

The institute began its public activities at Whitsun 1923 with the “Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche” (“First Marxist Work Week”), in which many young socialist intellectuals from across the continent participated, such as György Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Karl August Wittfogel. During this period, the institute also took part in other forms of international exchange resulting from Grünberg’s collaboration with David Ryazanov, a well-known editor. Ryazanov and the Austro-Marxists around Grünberg had agreed in 1911 on publishing a complete edition of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. With the decision of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, Ryazanov, the director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, came to Frankfurt in 1924 to begin work on the complete edition in cooperation with the institute.

For years, the staff worked on sifting, archiving, and documenting the writings of Marx and Engels, culminating in the first part of the complete edition in 1927. However, this cooperation was anything but free of conflict — the institute, always striving for an objective edition and a scholarly tone, increasingly resisted the political instrumentalization of this project, which led to the joint dissolution of the cooperation in 1928. Moscow had too often taken a commanding tone. Editors in Frankfurt resisted encroaching Stalinization, as Weil wrote in 1928: “You cannot ask me to persuade people who ask me for information to go to Moscow under these conditions, by which I do not mean the material conditions, but the others…”

Grünberg’s tenure as the institute’s first director also came to an end that same year, as after suffering a stroke, he was no longer able to fulfill his duties. Max Horkheimer took over as the next director and shifted the emphasis from orthodox Marxism to an interdisciplinary approach: under his leadership, socio-philosophical, sociological, economical, literary, and psychoanalytical disciplines were combined, and staff from these different disciplines were employed. With the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research), a publication was founded that led academic debates throughout the 1930s, with prominent authors such as Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Walter Benjamin.

A Journal for Social Research

Max Horkheimer’s stated aim for the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung was to bring together a wide variety of studies and approaches to the elaboration of the social. Hence, he gave the journal the purpose of exploring contemporary “society as a whole,” as he mentioned in the first preface. It should not distance itself from empirical work or lose itself in pure theoretical debates but link them. This meant that the journal should be a compilation of the different ways of looking at the world, always finding concrete reference points for them within contemporary debates.

Different experts from their disciplines contributed to this, such as Fromm from psychoanalysis or Löwenthal from literature. The aim was to formulate a critique of the prevailing conditions through interdisciplinary empirical work that would also stand out from the positivist scientific establishment.

The journal also stands as an example of the institute’s history. While the first issue in 1932 was still published in Germany and dealt with National Socialism as a possible coming regime, the next issues were published in Paris and the last two in New York City. With the development of National Socialism and the location of the institute in Switzerland and later in the United States, the viewpoints on social developments also changed. However, the journal was never just a study of political contexts, but also combined aesthetic reflections, such as the one by Adorno on Richard Wagner.

Critical Theory and Exile

In the early years before the Nazis came to power, Horkheimer and his colleagues conducted research to understand why the socialist revolution did not happen as Marx had predicted. Through their studies on family, personality, and authority, they discovered that a significant portion of the working class did not identify with the idea of a socialist revolution, but rather with conservative political views. As a result, the institute and its environment became increasingly cautious, as they anticipated an authoritarian takeover in Germany.

In 1932, Horkheimer founded a branch office of the institute in Geneva, attached to the “Internationales Arbeitsamt” (“international labor office”) with the official purpose of conducting research, but also as a preparatory measure for a possible exile. Under his direction, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung was moved to Paris, and the foundation’s funds were transferred to the Netherlands. Horkheimer himself started living in different hotels to avoid being captured.

However, their plans were met with the harsh realities of social upheaval. The first Frankfurt phase ended 1933 with the confiscation of the institute and its archive by the Gestapo (secret state police), leading to their closure. Horkheimer led the institute through the years of exile, first from Geneva, then from the United States, and tried to continue their work while taking staff members with him into exile. This sad chapter of history is particularly evident in critical theory thinkers who became victims of the Nazi regime, such as Benjamin.

Theories, Traditional and Critical

Other members of the institute, including Horkheimer, Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, continued their work in exile in the United States. During this time, they developed critical theory, which was a Marxist-inspired approach to studying society and culture that aimed to reveal and challenge the underlying power structures that shape social life.

Telling of this approach was “Traditional and Critical Theory,” a seminal essay by Max Horkheimer that compares and contrasts what he calls the two forms of social theory. Horkheimer argues that traditional theory, which focuses on social order and stability, is limited in its ability to understand and change society. It locates social problems on the side of individuals and thereby reproduces social contradictions.

In contrast, critical theory, which focuses on power and domination in society, seeks to challenge the status quo and promote social change. Horkheimer emphasizes the importance of the critical stance, which consists of always starting over and recognizing the relationship between intellectual positions and their social location. He believed that the future of humanity depended on the existence of critical theory and its ability to promote social justice and equality.

Despite all the challenges faced, the years in exile were also marked by enormous productivity. Groundbreaking work was produced in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung — always in the conviction that it was necessary to intervene, even without being able to participate. “But,” Horkheimer insisted “the idea of the Institute was not to submit so easily to this reality. Maybe it will happen, but at least it won’t be without resistance.”

During their years in exile, the institute not only kept a watchful eye on Europe, engulfed in the flames of war, but also scrutinized the developments in the United States. The institute analyzed speeches by fascist agitators, explored the emergence of radio and light theater as mass media, and observed the rise of Hollywood. Divided into two regional groups, with one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, Horkheimer and Adorno, alongside other exiles like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, had the opportunity to closely study the emergence of Hollywood’s shining stars in Los Angeles. It was during this period that they produced one their most significant works, the Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment), which was completed in the United States and published in 1949 after the end of their exile.

Like other works by the Frankfurt School scholars, it posed the question of how, after the developments of modernity in the Enlightenment, it was possible to reach the sheer horror of the concentration camps of National Socialism. Was this not impossible, the end of all reason, or had reason actually played a role in it? Written by Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment explores the relationship between the Enlightenment and modernity and the emergence of totalitarianism in Western societies. The main point of the book is the Enlightenment project, which aimed to liberate humanity from ignorance and superstition, had paradoxically led to the emergence of new forms of domination and oppression in modern societies.

After the War

After the end of the war, the institute had to make a far-reaching decision: should it stay in the United States or return to Frankfurt? In the letters between the protagonists, long-standing disputes can be traced, which nevertheless led to the decision to return and to the construction of the present-day institute. After the destruction of the previous building during the war, the old institute moved into the current premises and developed an unprecedented closeness to the students in the 1950s. In this new phase, which was about the formulated goal of strengthening individuals, Horkheimer and Adorno showed themselves with a joy in teaching and a hidden radicalism — a radicalism in the seminars behind closed doors.

As the internal protocols of those days show, there was also talk at the institute with students and staff about a formulation of theory that would remain faithful to “Marx, Engels and Lenin” (as Adorno put it) and be directed against the then chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer.

Among the staff and students are quite a few who were to decisively shape the German research landscape in the following decades, such as Jürgen Habermas and his continuation of critical theory, Elisabeth Lenk and her research in literary studies, Regina Becker-Schmidt and the extension of critical theory to feminist issues, or Friedrich Weltz and his pioneering work in qualitative social research.

Even though their paths led away from the institute, they continued the history of the institute as a teaching institution. This list should of course also include the connections to Habermas, as was the case with Axel Honneth, a later director of the institute, or the Marxist connections in the form of Alfred Schmidt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, or Jürgen Ritsert.

However, this closeness became more fragile in the 1960s. During the student revolt of this period, demands were made that the directors did not want to meet in the desired sense. Hans-Jürgen Krahl, a student of Adorno’s who died young, formulated this rupture as a swan song from the revolution to his former teacher, who had decided to call the police on the student protesters. Many voices assume that without Krahl’s tragic death, the history of the West German left would have been different.

In any case, this break in the close relationship between teacher and student can be taken as exemplary of the break between critical theory and the student movement. Further breaks also occurred with Habermas’s departure from Frankfurt and the separation of the joint path of the institute and critical theory. While critical theory and references to its basic positions were now continued elsewhere, the institute critically dealt with its legacy.

An example of this is the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration in 1999 and the criticism associated with it. The history of the institute, it seemed to the critics, was reduced to Horkheimer and Adorno; meanwhile the dismantling of staff members’ rights of democratic codetermination, which had existed in the 1970s, went ignored. In 1999, it appeared that the Institute for Social Research and critical theory had finally separated; Honneth, a later director of the institute, even asserted that for him the tradition of critical theory at the institute no longer existed.

Back to the Future

As the institute’s new director, Stephan Lessenich wants to accentuate references to the oldiInstitute and critical theory more sharply. For him, the anniversary is a unique opportunity to reform the institute and, in its present constitution, to link it to the old critical theory. The anniversary will give the work at the institute a broad public and develop a new research program in the coming years. This will also deal critically with the history of the institute and should leave behind the “self-chosen provinciality.”

While voices — from Breitbart News to Steve Bannon — in the alt-right and far-right media are spinning conspiracies about theIinstitute’s great influence having a firm grip on American society and politics and that critical theory is a true brainchild of Satanism, the current situation in Frankfurt is quite different. Lessenich wants to contribute to a globalization of critical theory in the basic position of not easily submitting to this reality. Lessenich says:

In terms of referring back to the tradition of critical theory, we aim at developing a critical sociology of domination that keeps pace with the times, with the current mode of domination. And we try to contribute to a thinking in alternatives, in alternative forms of organizing society, by way of the negation of the current state of affairs — just as critical theory always did.

This approach, which Lessenich talks about and mentions as the present goal of the institute, can be exemplified by the work of one of its current members, Alexandra Schauer.

Her monograph Mensch ohne Welt (Man Without World) can be understood as a fresh reference to the early basic attitudes of the institute. As a member of the institute’s staff, she investigates the (perceived) loss of creative possibilities in late modernity. Using the axes of time, the public sphere and the city, she meticulously traces socialization into and out of modernity.

These and similar works in today’s institute represent the history of resistance of the institute and formulate the “back to the future — putting contradictions back into the center of critical social analysis and empirical social research,” that Lessenich is striving for. Or to put it in Schauer’s words ahead of the institute’s centenary: “Let’s try what seems impossible, let’s save what is possible!”