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The Dialectical Imagination
A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950
By Martin Jay
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1973 Martin Jay
All rights reserved.
The Creation of the Institut für Sozialforschung and Its First Frankfurt Years
One of the most far-reaching changes brought by the First World War, at least in terms of its impact on intellectuals, was the shifting of the socialist center of gravity eastward. The unexpected success of the Bolshevik Revolution — in contrast to the dramatic failure of its Central European imitators — created a serious dilemma for those who had previously been at the center of European Marxism, the left-wing intellectuals of Germany. In rough outline, the choices left to them were as follows: first, they might support the moderate socialists and their freshly created Weimar Republic, thus eschewing revolution and scorning the Russian experiment; or second, they could accept Moscow's leadership, join the newly formed German Communist Party, and work to undermine Weimar's bourgeois compromise. Although rendered more immediate by the war and rise of the moderate socialists to power, these alternatives in one form or another had been at the center of socialist controversies for decades. A third course of action, however, was almost entirely a product of the radical disruption of Marxist assumptions, a disruption brought about by the war and its aftermath. This last alternative was the searching reexamination of the very foundations of Marxist theory, with the dual hope of explaining past errors and preparing for future action. This began a process that inevitably led back to the dimly lit regions of Marx's philosophical past.
One of the crucial questions raised in the ensuing analysis was the relation of theory to practice, or more precisely, to what became a familiar term in the Marxist lexicon, praxis. Loosely defined, praxis was used to designate a kind of self-creating action, which differed from the externally motivated behavior produced by forces outside man's control. Although originally seen as the opposite of contemplative theoria when it was first used in Aristotle's Metaphysics, praxis in the Marxist usage was seen in dialectical relation to theory. In fact, one of the earmarks of praxis as opposed to mere action was its being informed by theoretical considerations. The goal of revolutionary activity was understood as the unifying of theory and praxis, which would be in direct contrast to the situation prevailing under capitalism.
How problematical that goal in fact was became increasingly clear in the postwar years, when for the first time socialist governments were in power. The Soviet leadership saw its task in terms more of survival than of realizing socialist aims — not an unrealistic appraisal under the circumstances, but one scarcely designed to placate socialists like Rosa Luxemburg who would have preferred no revolution at all to a betrayed one. Although from a very different perspective, the socialist leadership in the Weimar Republic also understood its most imperative goal to be the survival of the new government rather than the implementation of socialism. The trade union consciousness, which, as Carl Schorske has shown,1 permeated its ranks well before the end of the Second Reich, meant the squandering of what opportunities there might have been to revolutionize German society. The split that divided the working class movement in Weimar between a bolshevized Communist Party (KPD) and a nonrevolutionary Socialist Party (SPD) was a sorry spectacle to those who still maintained the purity of Marxist theory. Some attempted a rapprochement with one faction or another. But as demonstrated by the story of Georg Lukács, who was forced to repudiate his most imaginative book, History and Class Consciousness, shortly after its appearance in 1923, this often meant sacrificing intellectual integrity on the altar of party solidarity.
When, however, personal inclinations led to a greater commitment to theory than to party, even when this meant suspending for a while the unifying of theory and praxis, the results in terms of theoretical innovation could be highly fruitful. It will be one of the central contentions of this work that the relative autonomy of the men who comprised the so-called Frankfurt School of the Institut für Sozialforschung, although entailing certain disadvantages, was one of the primary reasons for the theoretical achievements produced by their collaboration. Although without much impact in Weimar, and with even less during the period of exile that followed, the Frankfurt School was to become a major force in the revitalization of Western European Marxism in the postwar years. In addition, through the sudden popularity of Herbert Marcuse in the America of the late 1960's, the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory (Kritische Theorie) has also had a significant influence on the New Left in this country.
From its very beginning, independence was understood as a necessary prerequisite for the task of theoretical innovation and unrestrained social research. Fortunately, the means to ensure such conditions were available. The idea of an institutional framework in which these goals might be pursued was conceived by Felix J. Weil in 1922.2 Weil was the only son of a German-born grain merchant, Hermann Weil, who had left Germany around 1890 for Argentina and made a sizable fortune exporting grains back to Europe. Born in 1898 in Buenos Aires, Felix was sent in his ninth year to Frankfurt to attend the Goethe Gymnasium and, ultimately, the newly created university in that city. Except for an important year in Tübingen in 1918–1919, where he first became involved in left-wing causes at the university, Weil remained at Frankfurt until he took his doctorate magna cum laude in political science. His dissertation, on the practical problems of implementing socialism, was published in a series of monographs edited by Karl Korsch, who had been one of the first to interest him in Marxism. Drawing upon his own considerable funds inherited from his mother, as well as his father's wealth, Weil began to support a number of radical ventures in Germany.
The first of these was the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche (First Marxist Work Week), which met in the summer of 1923 in Ilmenau, Thuringia. "Its purpose," according to Weil, was the "hope that the different trends in Marxism, if afforded an opportunity of talking it out together, could arrive at a 'true' or 'pure' Marxism." Among the participants at the week-long session were Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Richard Sorge, Friedrich Pollock, Karl August Wittfogel, Bela Fogarasi, Karl Schmückle, Konstantin Zetkin (the younger of two sons of the well-known socialist leader Klara Zetkin), Hede Gumperz (then married to Julian Gumperz, an editor of the Communist Rote Fahne, later to Gerhart Eisler and then to Paul Massing), and several wives, including Hedda Korsch, Rose Wittfogel, Christiane Sorge, and Kate Weil. Much of the time was devoted to a discussion of Korsch's yet unpublished manuscript, "Marxism and Philosophy." "The EMA," Weil wrote, "was entirely informal, composed only of intellectuals," and "had not the slightest factional intention or result." Expectations of a Zweite Marxistische Arbeitswoche (a Second Marxist Work Week) came to naught when a more ambitious alternative took its place.
With the encouragement of several friends at the University of Frankfurt, Weil's idea of a more permanent institute, which he had conceived during the EMA, became increasingly clarified. One of these friends, Friedrich Pollock, had participated in the discussions in Ilmenau. Born in 1894 in Freiburg, the son of an assimilated Jewish businessman, Pollock had been trained for a commercial career before serving in the war. After its end, no longer interested in business, he became a student of economics and politics at the universities of Munich, Freiburg, and Frankfurt. He was granted a doctorate in 1923 summa cum laude from the economics department at Frankfurt with a thesis on Marx's monetary theory. Before the war, in 1911, Pollock had become friends with Max Horkheimer, who later was to emerge as the most important figure in the Institut's history, and who now lent his voice to Pollock's in supporting Weil's plan for an institute of social research.
Horkheimer, Pollock's junior by nine months, was born in 189$ in Stuttgart. At the urging of his father, Moritz, a prominent Jewish manufacturer, he too had had commercial training before entering military service. Horkheimer accepted the advice of his father on such matters as extended visits to Brussels and London, which he took with Pollock in 1913–1914 to learn French and English. But at no time were his interests solely those of the aspiring businessman. There is clear evidence of this in the series of novels he wrote (but left unpublished) during this period in his life. After 1918 he sought more disciplined intellectual training at the same three universities attended by Pollock. Initially working in psychology under the direction of the Gestaltist Adhemar Gelb, he was diverted into another field after news reached Frankfurt that a project comparable to the one in which he was engaged had recently been completed elsewhere. The new field was philosophy and his new mentor Hans Cornelius.
Although Cornelius never had any direct connection with the Institut, his influence on Horkheimer and his friends was considerable, which will become apparent when the elements of Critical Theory are discussed in the next chapter. In 1922 Horkheimer received his doctorate summa cum laude under Cornelius's direction with a thesis on Kant. He was "habilitated" three years later with another critical discussion of Kant's work and gave his first lecture as Privatdozent in May, 1925, on Kant and Hegel.
Horkheimer's relationship to Pollock was one of the cornerstones of the Institut, and it merits some comment here. An insight into it can be gleaned from a passage in Ludwig Marcuse's autobiography. Marcuse, no relation to Herbert, was the drama critic for a Frankfurt newspaper in the mid-twenties when Cornelius brought his two young protégés to his office. They were "an attractive man, Max Horkheimer, overflowing with warmth, and his reserved, externally austere friend, Fritz Pollock; but one also saw in him a little of what was being guarded behind the reserve." Among the qualities in Pollock to which Marcuse might have alluded was a self-effacing, unquestioning loyalty to Horkheimer, which marked their friendship for the sixty or so years of its duration until Pollock's death in the winter of 1970. With only brief interruptions, the two remained in close proximity for all of their adult lives. Pollock took the role of the pragmatic, prudent realist, often arranging the mundane details of their lives to allow Horkheimer the maximum time for his scholarly pursuits. As a child Horkheimer was highly protected, and during his mature years Pollock often served as buffer between him and a harsh world. Horkheimer, so one observer recalled, was often moody and temperamental. Pollock, in contrast, was steady, even obsessive. The complementarity of their personalities was one of the sources of the Institut's success. That Pollock's own scholarly career suffered to some extent was a price he seemed willing to pay. In the twenties, to be sure, this was a result that was difficult to foresee.
In fact, both men, and probably Weil as well, might have expected successful careers in their respective fields. However, entrance into the highly rigid German university system would have necessitated confining their broad interests to one discipline. In addition, the type of radical scholarship they hoped to pursue found little favor with the established academic hierarchy. Even the non-Marxist but unconventional Cornelius was very much of an outcast among his colleagues. Accordingly, Weil's idea of an independently endowed institute for social research seemed an excellent way to bypass the normal channels of university life. Such topics as the history of the labor movement and the origins of anti-Semitism, which were neglected in the standard curriculum of German higher education, could be studied with a thoroughness never attempted before. Hermann Weil, Felix's father, was approached with the plan and agreed to an initial endowment providing a yearly income of 120,000 Marks (the equivalent of $30,000 after the inflation had ended). The value of this income has been estimated by Pollock as four times what it would be in 1970. It took approximately 200 Marks (or $50.00) a month to support an unmarried assistant at the Institut. In time the initial grant was supplemented by additional capital gifts from Weil and other sources. To my knowledge, however, there is no evidence to indicate any political contributors, although allegations to this effect were sometimes made by the Institut's detractors in later years. In any event, Hermann Weil's gifts, though not enormous, did permit the creation and maintenance of an institution whose financial independence proved a great advantage throughout its subsequent history.
Although independence, both financial and intellectual, was the goal of the founders, they thought it prudent to seek some affiliation with the University of Frankfurt, itself only recently established in 1914. The original idea of calling it the Institut für Marxismus (Institute for Marxism) was abandoned as too provocative, and a more Aesopian alternative was sought (not for the last time in the Frankfurt School's history). The suggestion of the Education Ministry to call it the Felix Weil Institute of Social Research was declined by Weil, who "wanted the Institut to become known, and perhaps famous, due to its contributions to Marxism as a scientific discipline, not due to the founder's money." It was decided to call it simply the Institut für Sozialforschung. Weil also refused to "habilitate" himself and become a Privatdozent, or to consider the possibility of further academic advancement leading to the directorship of the Institut, because "countless people would have been convinced that I 'bought' myself the 'venia legendi' or, later, the chair." Holding a chair as a governmentally salaried full professor at the university was, in fact, a stipulation for the directorship of the Institut as spelled out in the agreement reached with the Ministry of Education. Weil proposed as candidate an economist from the Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Kurt Albert Gerlach. Weil himself retained control of the Gesellschaft für Sozialforschung (Society of Social Research), the Institut's financial and administrative body.
Gerlach shared with the Institut's founders an aesthetic and political distaste for bourgeois society. He had cultivated the former through connections with the Stefan George circle and the latter through an acquaintanceship with the Fabians gained during several years of study in England. His political inclinations were firmly to the left. Many years later, Pollock would remember him as a nonparty socialist, while the British historians F. W. Deakin and G. R. Storry in their study of Richard Sorge wrote: "It is probable that, like Sorge, he was at this time a member of the Communist Party." Whatever the precise nature of Gerlach's politics, when proposed by Weil, he was accepted by the economics and social science department as professor and by the Education Ministry as first head of the Institut. In early 1922, Gerlach wrote a "Memorandum on the Foundation of an Institute of Social Research" in which he stressed the synoptic goals of the Institut. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that he would deliver a series of inaugural lectures on anarchism, socialism, and Marxism. But the lectures were never given, for in October, 1922, Gerlach suddenly died of an attack of diabetes, at the age of thirty-six. (He left his library of eight thousand volumes to Weil, who passed it on to the Institut.)
The search for a successor focused on an older man who would serve as interim director until one of the younger founding members was old enough to acquire a chair at the university. The first possibility was Gustav Mayer, the noted historian of socialism and the biographer of Engels. But the negotiations foundered, as Mayer remembers it, on the demands made by Weil — whom he later dismissed as an Edelkommunist (an aristocratic communist) — for total control over the Institut's intellectual life. If this was true, Weil's insistence was certainly short-lived, for the next candidate, who actually got the position, asserted his own domination very quickly. Weil's influence on intellectual questions appears, in fact, never to have been very great.
The final choice for Gerlach's replacement was Carl Grünberg, who was persuaded to leave his post as professor of law and political science at the University of Vienna to come to Frankfurt. Grünberg had been born in Focsani, Rumania, in 1861 of Jewish parents (he later converted to Catholicism to assume his chair in Vienna). He studied jurisprudence from 1881 to 1885 Austrian capital, where he subsequently combined a legal and an academic career. In 1909 he became professor at Vienna and in the subsequent year began editing the Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung (Archive for the History of Socialism and the Workers' Movement), popularly known as Grünbergs Archiv.
Excerpted from The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay. Copyright © 1973 Martin Jay. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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