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“”Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant.
|—Dialectic of Enlightenment[note 1]|
The Frankfurt School is a name given to a group of Marxist researchers associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. Members of the group developed the concept of "critical theory" (as opposed to traditional theory), which involves applying Marxist theories to social matters in order to - in the words of prominent Frankfurt School member Max Horkheimer - "liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them".
The rise of Hitler in 1933 forced most of the Institute for Social Research's scholars to leave Germany, with many relocating to the USA, and the Frankfurt School became associated with Columbia University until returning to Frankfurt in 1949.
On academical ground
On a general ground, the Critical Theory is often criticized for being overly dichotomous (There's "us", and there's "them"), disregarding that the "traditional theory" (born, according to Horkheimer, from Descartes' Discours de la Méthode), is far from being a single, collective entity, or a theory, or even, traditional to begin with. There's already a lot of bickering between opposing Social Sciences' schools, without considering the Critics, and one could hardly fit the whole of Western thought on a single tradition. This is solved by most critical theorists, by arguing that everybody else's fits in some (of many, almost one for each author) reinterpretation of Weber's Ends Oriented Rational Action. How this happens is not clear, since the School itself never makes a common point, so the "agreed" consensus shift based on the fashion of the time.
There's also the common idea that they, contrary to the rest of human kind, are not tied to historical determination and are therefore objective "outsiders". Likewise, anything not-critical would be working for the sake of domination (since it's historically determined by the dominant thought/dominants), and anything thought by a non-critical, would be an ideological construct for self-domination. Despite this they have so frequently fit in with the fashion of their eras, and their general principles have changed a lot over time and among authors.
On a linguistic level, they are criticized for recurring frequently to vague categories. "Freedom" has to be the most abused and unclear concept used, ranging from more classical interpretations of alienation, to almost anarcho-libertines approaches. Diffuse ends, "liberation", "revolution", "empowering", "communicating", ideas that became pretty mainstream yet didn't bring the expected metaphysical outcomes on the affected subjects - which more often than not ended on a shift of subject and an internal revision (though political movements from such subjects tended to deny or ignore such revisions if they were given a lesser place on the Grand Scheme). For instance, Marcuse praises students and minorities, whereas previous thinkers praised the working classes, artists, intellectuals, and later ones, such as Habermas, praised certain forms of "behavior". Early figures, as Adorno and Horkheimer assumed more classic ends, to later switch after traumatic events (such as, Nazis). Also the fallacious attacks, since large parts of the argumentation is based on rhetorical ground, with little practical relevance. Experimentation, or contrastation of hypothesis, are totally out of subject, after all, as Horkheimer argues. Empirical methodology, as meant since Descartes, "organizes experience according to the questions brought by the reproduction of life in the current society".
Many classical Marxists, specially from Structural Currents, have been critics of this "bourgeois", idealist, socratical approach to Marxism. Other points touched on by classical Marxists are that Frankfurt theorist took discarded, unedited works by Marx, which were considered outdated or ideological (the main critic of this turn of events was Althusser, who would argue that Marx underwent an "epistemological rupture", going from the ideologically built German idealism, to proper scientific socialism). Another critic is that they jumped to their conclusions about scientific Marxism too fast, without listening to classical Marxists' own revision of the Soviet Union's impasse. This ends on a critique against their euro-centrism, since, in the end, the critics assumed that Marxism failed because of the present situation of the post-industrial First World, whereas Marxist schemes of class struggle were still persistent in the industrializing Third World. It may be noteworthy though, that Marcuse acknowledges this, and he would support the Center-Periphery thesis, where his "main subjects" would be students and minorities on countries experiencing "late industrialization".
Other Schools of Social sciences have directed their own critics against them, starting from Nicklas Luhman and Systems Theory, which plainly disregarded them for being "theologists".
Qualitative, interpretatitivist approaches, which often use similar research methodologies (as Grounded Theory, or structural speech analysis) also criticize them for disregarding the role of individuals in the construction of their daily lives, and their own understanding of their actions, in what's an act of inherent freedom. Otherwise, because Critical Studies gives preeminence to the intellectual superiority of the investigator, "who sees" underlying domination/subvertion figures on their subjects' discourse, their studies tend to be hardly falsifiable, the investigator can always interpret its subject despite himself, whereas an interpretativist would try to ground its work as much as possible in his informant's own image.
Cuantitative, post-positivist thought tends to be alien to their pretensions, in the measure they'are hard to prove, hard to apply, and largely impractical. Horkheimer himself concluded on "Critical Theory and Traditional Theory" that they would prove their point the day their predictions came true, a hell of a criterion for falsifiability. The Critical School orients many of its critics against this particular approach, which would have contaminated social sciences with the same reductionist thinking that haunts natural sciences. According to Marcuse, empiricism discredits ideas that could be harmful to Society's status quo, by forcing any idea to prove its operationalization, therefore killing "Reason's transcendent elements"
The Frankfurt School has often been pointed to by right-leaning pundits as being responsible for a large number of modern social ills and the terms "Frankfurt School" or "Cultural Marxism" are often used by wingnuts as dog whistles for antisemitic conspiracy theories. In his book The Death of the West Pat Buchanan argues that "the Frankfurt School must be held as a primary suspect and principle accomplice" in the titular catastrophe:
Using Critical Theory, for example, the cultural Marxist repeats and repeats the charge that the West is guilty of genocidal crimes against every civilization and culture it has encountered. Under Critical theory, one repeats and repeats that Western societies are history's greatest repositories of racism, sexism, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, fascism and Nazism. Under Critical Theory, the crimes of the West flow from the character of the West, as shaped by Christianity... Under the impact of Critical Theory, many of the sixties generation, the most privileged in history, convinced themselves that they were living in an intolerable hell.
Buchanan goes on to identify the Frankfurt School as the primary catalyst behind the feminist movement ("Female boxing, women in combat, women Rabbis and Bishops, God as She, Demi Moore's G.I. Jane, Rambo-like Sigourney Weaver comforting a terrified and cringing male soldier in Aliens, and all the films and shows that depict women as tough and aggressive and men as sensitive and vulnerable testify to the success of the Frankfurt School and the feminist revolution it helped to midwife") and sex education for children ("The appearance of sex education in elementary schools in America owes a debt to Lukacs, Reich, and the Frankfurt School").[note 2]
David Foster Wallace observed that the proliferation of ideologically consistent media echo chambers, for which right-wing talk radio deserves much of the blame, "creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which 'the truth' is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda."
Jerome Jamin, in a 2018 analysis of Cultural Marxism as a conspiracy theory, found that all the conspiratorial claims about the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism could be traced to a few sources from the start of the 1990s, regurgitated ever since across blogs and articles. The most influential figure in promoting this conspiracy theory was William Lind, author of "The Origins of Political Correctness" (2000), based on conferences held by Accuracy in Academia; editor of "Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology" published by the Free Congress Foundation in Nov 2004; and author of "The roots of political correctness" published by The American Conservative magazine's website in 2009. Another important source for later writers was Gerald Atkinson's "What is the Frankfurt School (and its effect on America)?" for Western Voices World News in 1999. The Freedom Party of Austria promoted Frankfurt School conspiracy theories from 2004, while Nick Griffin, former leader of the far-right British National Party, wrote and spoke frequently about the Frankfurt School until the end of his leadership in 2014.
11-point plan to subvert western civilization
A conspiracy theory is circulating that the Frankfurt School had a secret 11-point plan to subvert western civilization. The 11 points are:
- The creation of racism offences
- Continual change to create confusion
- The teaching of sex and homosexuality to children
- The undermining of schools' and teachers' authority
- Huge immigration to destroy identity
- The promotion of excessive drinking
- Emptying of churches
- An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime
- Dependency on the state or state benefits
- Control and dumbing down of media
- Encouraging the breakdown of the family
This list is quoted in many places, see for example:   . The source of this rumor seems to be an article by Timothy Matthews in the American Catholic weekly, The Wanderer, December 11, 2008, page 10. A reprint can be found online here: . While some of the thinkers of the Frankfurt School may have had subversive ideas, there is no documentation of the existence of the 11-point plan listed above. The list seems to fit too well to the author's own political and religious agenda, and it does not reflect sound historical research.
- Possibly inaccurate translation from: T. W. Adorno; M. Horkheimer (1947). G. S. Noerr. ed. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002..
Possibly better translation: "In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant."
- "One of these is not like the other..." While not actually part of the Frankfurt School, György Lukács at least shared its Marxist outlook, but one wonders why on earth Buchanan was including Wilhelm Reich in this company. The psychologist turned super magnetic crank had plenty of ideas revolving around sex, but had nothing to do with Marx or the Frankfurters.
- Max Horkheim. "Teoria Tradicional y Teoria Crítica". Paídos, Barcelona, 2000. Appendix. José Luiz López and López de Lizaga translation, original name, "Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie"
- Herbert Marcuse, El Hombre Unidimensional, Seix Barral, barcelona, 1971. pp. 16
- Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West, pp. 88.
- Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West, pp. 80-1.
- Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West, p. 87.
- David Foster Wallace, Host. The Atlantic, April 2005.
- Jerome Jamin. "Cultural Marxism: A survey". Religion Compass. 2018; 12:e12258. Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12258