Soviet critique of the Frankfurt School and “Critical Theory”

[This text is taken from a book called “Filosofian Historia” (History of Philosophy) volume 2 by progress publishers.]

“During the third quarter of the 20th century there emerged an attempt in the philosophical thought of the developed western bourgeois countries, to find new forms for theoretical struggle against marxism. New systems appeared in philosophy which were anti-marxist, but still resembled marxism in their external appearance. A bourgeois philosophical fake-marxism was born, and it has nourished both right and “left” revisionism, because in some of its variations it has even taken a supposedly revolutionary appearance. One of the most influential and typical forms of this trend, which has also been called “neo-marxism”, has been the doctrine of the Frankfurt philosophical-sociological school.

The fake-marxist systems of the Frankfurt school began to take shape in the early 1930s, especially after Marx’s work Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was published (1932). The fashionable slogans of bourgeois philosophy “Back to Kant!”, “Back to Hume!” were supplemented with the slogan “Back to the young Marx!”. During the years this slogan has been especially emphasized. The relationship between bourgeois philosophy and revisionism is now altogether different then what it was at the end of the previous century. In the past, revisionists borrowed their ideological program from bourgeois philosophers and provided “in exchange” political economic and scientific socialist theories in distorted revisionist forms. These contemporary revisionists have focused their attention to philosophy proper. Once they began “building a philosophical system”, they began adopting fake-marxist interpretations of professional bourgeois philosophy. Bourgeois “experts” of marxism began delivering near complete revisionist philosophical systems for revisionist politicians. In a prominent position among these systems, are the theoretical systems of the Frankfurt School. They also demonstrate that the time when the bourgeois could simply ignore Marx as a philosopher, has definitively ended. Modern bourgeois ideologists spend a lot of energy trying to transform marxism into something “harmless” and “tolerable” for their class. At the same time, they try to make their doctrines appear different from the reformism that has discredited itself. The peak manifestations of the influence of the Frankfurt School were the anarchistic actions of French and West German university students in May of 1968 and the nearly simultaneous actions by anti-socialist and counter-revolutionary forces in Czechoslovakia (1967-1968).

The school is named after the work place of its founders (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Pollock, Fromm etc.). They had founded an Institute for Social Research in the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. The institute’s paper Journal for Social Research, began publication in 1932 edited by the leader of the Institute, Horkheimer. The activity of the school was fairly progressive in the 1930s. It exposed the inhumanity of the nazi ideology and spread awareness of the philosophical fundamentals of marxism. After the fascists came to power in Germany, and during the second world war, the philosophers and sociologists of the Frankfurt School were in exile, largely in the USA. After the war Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt am Main. During the 1960s, the “second generation” of the school appeared: Jürgen Habermas, A. Schmidt, Oskar Negt, Alexander Mitscherlich, Albrecht Wellmer etc. By the mid-1970s many of the original founders of the school had died. However, the bourgeois press made their ideological systems well known. Their primary works were republished and a media spectacle was created around them. The ideologists of imperialism try to use the teachings of the Frankfurt School to mislead public opinion, and to ideologically split the intelligentsia of the socialist countries and convert them to the side of anti-communist propaganda.

The contemporary social-philosophy of the school is anti-communism dressed in the garb of anti-capitalist phrases. Expressed in philosophical terms the doctrines of the Frankfurt School represent a specific kind of subjective idealism and a fake-dialectical method. They particularly emphasize categories like alienation and negation, the exaggeration of which the founders of the school justified by saying there was a need to “philosophize” all the marxist categories. There has appeared the so-called negative dialectics of Adorno and Marcuse. It reflects in a distorted form, the critical attitude towards capitalism that has grown among broad circles of bourgeois society, and the move towards the left of the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia, as well as the strength of the prejudices against really existing socialism in petit-bourgeois consciousness.

Of this doctrine’s theoretical influences should be mentioned the teachings of Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Nietzsche, Lukacs’s early work History and class consciousness as well as a neo-hegelian interpretation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In the “frankfurtian” interpretation of Marx’s Manuscripts took shape a tendency similar to modern philosophical anthropology. According to this anthropology man is above class, alienated labour is identified with hegelian objectification of consciousness and practice becomes “totally” revolutionized. Hegel’s dialectics began to be interpreted as a doctrine of “total negation”. Already in his book Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity published in 1933, Herbert Marcuse depicted Hegel’s ontology from the point of view of irrationalist “Lebensphilosophie”. He began his revision of marxist philosophy with the article New foundations of historical materialism. Explanation of newly found manuscripts of Marx.[36]*

[*Original title “Neue Quellen zur Grundlegung des Historischen Materialismus in Die Gesellschaft” later published in english under a less accurate title: “The Foundation of Historical Materialism”.~MLT]

In another book focused on Hegel Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941) Marcuse utilized extensively the hegelian alienation doctrine of Lukacs’s early period, according to which all objectification is alienation, and therefore the latter is eternal. Marcuse imposed this view on Marx. Marcuse also utilized other early ideas of Lukacs: denied that development of nature was objective and law-governed and identified social-being with social-consciousness e.g. by appealing to the “ontological” primacy of practice. Marcuse turned hegelian reason into a symbol of the total negation of everything that exists and declared “common sense” as the methodological foundation of the conformism that according to him even Marx could not overcome. “Neither the Hegelian nor the Marxian idea of Reason have come closer to realization; neither the development of the Spirit nor that of the Revolution took the form envisaged by dialectical theory… Reason is in its very essence contradiction, opposition, negation.” [37] On the foundation of these shady theses, was built a voluntaristic sociological theory, which fostered a corresponding adventurist political action program.

The sociology of the “frankfurtians” has been called critical social theory or critical theory of ideology. Along with Marcuse, the largest contribution to it was given by Horkheimer and Adorno. They began a critique of the most varied aspects of life in bourgeois society. This critique of societal institutions, justice system, morality, art, the role of the individual etc. they generalized into a doctrine, which they declared had risen to the position of analyzing societal processes from above materialism and idealism. This doctrine is evident in Max Horkheimer’s articles Materialism and Metaphysics (1933), Traditional and Critical Theory (1937) as well as the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) co-authored by him and Adorno and somewhat in Marcuse’s book Reason and Revolution, mentioned earlier.

In its main ideas “critical sociological theory” can be traced back to certain elements of Weber’s rationalization theory. They interpreted rationalization as the ever intensifying and all-encompassing mission of common sense, throughout all ages. As the typical features of this rationality they described the tendency towards formalistic manipulation, combination technique and conformism towards any social order. Inhuman “rationalization” rises to its culmination in “united industrial society”, by which the frankfurtians mean both modern capitalism and really existing socialism. Nowadays technocrats and right-opportunists cling to the concept of “united industrial society” like a utopia. Frankfurtians and ultra-leftists who have adopted their theories on the other hand focus their criticism against it. Frankfurtians claim that the scientific-technological rationalization which aimed at subjugating forces of nature has become an instrument “which hinders societal progress”.

“Sociologist of ontology” Karl Mannheim considered science and scientific thinking the opposite of ideology, which he considered to be societal false consciousness. Horkheimer and Adorno declared scientific thinking and its results to be a type of ideology of oppression. They strongly denied marxism to be scientific ideology, but in order to criticize marxism they distorted the conclusions of marxism that consciousness is determined socially and ideology is a reflection of societal reality. The founders of critical social theory tried to hide the fundamental antagonism between capitalism and socialism by describing both social systems as types of instrumantalized society i.e. of objectified reason.

The book by Horkheimer and Adorno The Dialectic of Enlightenment, seems in many ways like a critique of modern bourgeois society. However, its authors were aiming further then that. Their founding thesis was that “practical tendency toward selfdestruction has been inherent in rationality from the first”. [38] They ignored the dialectic class struggle and declared to an absolute, man’s dependence on some abstract “mastery”. Based on this thesis of dependence they criticized all human culture and social progress, slandered socialism. These topics receive emphasis in Marcuse’s texts Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964).

In these texts Marcuse’s attempt to combine marxism with freudism became evident. His theory of culture and art is influenced by freudian ideology: every creative activity, love and eros which is common to both of them, are manifestations of man’s certain kind of pre-social essence. The foundation of civilization is deemed to be the drive to satisfy social instincts, but the conformism of public society has distorted these instincts and made man unhappy, as well as turned art into leveling and oppresive “mass culture”. However, the main point of critical social theory is not the sweeping criticism of modern culture, but the denial of the proletariat’s revolutionary mission and the possibilities of the revolution.

Marcuse declared “industrial society” one-dimensional in that way also, that all classes belonging to it understand their “existence” as fundamentally the same, so none of those classes, especially the proletariat, are revolutionary even potentially. Against the true dialectics of the modern era, Marcuse claimed that the working class has been “integrated” into capitalism firmly and for good. In “industrial society” (i.e. in both capitalist and socialist countries) revolution is possible only for those social forces which are outside the class relations of those societies: elements who have lost their class identity, oppressed national minorities and various pariahs and outsiders. Incitement for them would come from the intelligentsia and university students. The recipe proposed by Marcuse requires the complete dismantling of all social relations and adopting sensually and emotionally “excellent lifestyle” of the sexually unrestricted “children of nature”. In An Essay on Liberation (1969) Marcuse put his hopes in beggars and hippies, in The End of Utopia (1967) he turned towards the outsiders, encouraging them to boldly demand the “impossible”. On the other hand Marcuse’s ideas encouraged struggle against really existing socialism and they were used extensively by revisionists in certain socialist countries at the end of the 1960s and by anarchistic elements of the “new left” in Western countries, that is by anti-communists of various shades.

The philosophical basis of said theories is “negative dialectics”, in which passing to the solution of a dialectical contradiction (to a dialectical synthesis) appears completely backwards. Lecturing in Prague at the 6. hegelian conference (1966) on The Concept of Negation in the Dialectic Marcuse said that “materialist dialectics remains in the shackles of idealist reason, according to which the future is always derived from the existing… the existing antagonistic totality is negated in dynamic of history from the outside…”[38] According to Marcuse’s totally subjective and metaphysical formula, contradictions in society can be overcome only by those forces to whom there is nothing of value in that which exists, and who are ready to destroy and dismantle absolutely everything, thus creating room for anarchistic unruliness.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) wrote an extensive text Negative Dialectics (1966) where he tried to prove that real dialectics “must turn against itself” without leaving anything behind [40]. The hegelian and marxist interpretations of negation are according to him not dialectical enough, i.e. they are not fully negative. Adorno was looking for total negation. That kind of negation doesn’t have anything in common with the law of negation of the negation. According to this law, negation means a positive and constructive “overthrow”, which Adorno vehemently rejects. He claims that “overthrowing” supposedly replaces “negation” with a metaphysical and conformist “sameness”.

Adorno also rejects the system structure of philosophy and sees in philosophy only a primal critical “tidal wave” and not science. He rejects thinking in concepts and suggests that thinking happens through scattered shapes or “models”. In all parts of his methodology Adorno refers pedantically to the young Marx and tries to prove above all that, Marx supposedly opposed “all ‘positivity’ and supported total ‘negation’”. In reality marxist philosophy unites organically the theses about the universality of negation, to the notion that precisely negation aids “the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.”[41]. Lenin firmly opposed interpreting dialectical negation as nihilistic, supercilious and skeptical negation [42].

Adorno called his nihilistic fake-dialectics “logic of disintegration (des Verfalls)”. Indeed, together with the similar trend of existentialism, it represents the extreme disintegration of modern bourgeois thought. Similarly to the existentialists, Adorno interpreted the objective world as “harmful” and “a hindrance” for the separation of man’s consciousness from its alienated product. According to Adorno an object is only a “terminological mask” [43]. After denying universal antagonism in philosophy Adorno and his brothers in arms demanded the total “mutual neutralization” of subject and object. Voluntaristically interpreted practice as the “melding together” of subject and object, they put forward as the alternative to matter[44] and the principle of “constructing” experiences as an alternative to the theory of reflection.**

[**In marxist philosophy, consciousness is understood as a reflection of the objective material reality in one’s brain.~MLT]

According to the “negative dialecticians” the inevitable destruction of capitalism means in principle the destruction of all of humanity. The negative dialectics of Adorno has become a tool of the latest marxologists in their struggle against communism. Let us note that according to Adorno the deep meaning of the “Oświęcim model” is that when people (people as such!***) are capable of causing suffering for each other, they are not capable of building communism.

[***Not as members of any particular class or acting on behalf of any particular class, but merely as “people generally”. It is a deeply anti-marxist point of view to look at people in that way.~MLT]

Adorno ends his book by a proclamation of bleak hopelessness: the result of victory of alienation is “always worse then that which was overcome”, i.e. when self-alienation and “desperation are the final historically and socially determined ideology”[45].

Already in 1930 in his article On the Problem of the Dialectic Marcuse condemned the neo-hegelian “tragic dialectic” of Arthur Liebert and Siegfried Mark for not being tragic enough. Their philosophy supposedly preserved contradictions in a state of tension instead of recognizing them as always moving towards disaster [46]. Sense of doom and catastrophe received a philosophical form in Adorno’s negative dialectics.

Another form of the social-philosophy of the Frankfurt School is the work of American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. In his books Escape from Freedom (1941), The Sane Society (1940), Marx’s Concept of Man (1963) etc. he accepts the basic tenets of critical social theory and combines them more then Marcuse to neo-freudism. He sharply criticizes modern bourgeois civilization and describes people living in it as altogether “sick creatures”. Fromm attempts to explain the processes of class struggle through freudian pansexualism. He describes as his mission, the “uniting” of freudism and marxism.

The primary focus of Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) representative of the second generation of the Frankfurt School are the effects of the scientific-technological revolution on social relations and human life. Of his books Theory and Practice (1963) and Knowledge and Human Interests (1968) should be mentioned. Basing himself on the thought of Weber and American sociologist Talcott Parsons, Habermas began interpreting from a subjectivist point of view the categories of historical materialism, replacing them with psychological categories of “interest” and “subjective interaction”. As the positive motor of his program he put forward the hope that capitalism could become self-regulating. Thus he moved from the fake-leftist arguments of the frankfurtians, to the typical positions of bourgeois reformists. In the 1960s in West Germany there was a debate which received a lot of attention, between “dialecticians” and “humanists” (i.e. representatives of the Frankfurt School) on the one hand, and supporters of “scientism” and “critical rationalists” (positivists and supporters of Popper) on the other. During the course of the debate the differences between the two sides grew smaller and smaller, and Habermas who participated in the debate soon became a typical ecclectic-reformist.

Despite the efforts of the bourgeois press the teachings of the Frankfurt School arrived in the 1970s to a deep crisis. Its second generation was ideologically closest to the social-democratic party. After losing its relevance in bourgeois philosophy proper, where their teachings were challenged by structuralism, postivism and religious philosophical trends as well as phenomenology and hermeneutics, the ideas of the Frankfurt School still received new supporters. They were mainly taken up by revisionists who were drawn to anthropologism and petit-bourgeois ideologists looking for a “third road” in politics. These ideas remain suitable tools of ideological sabotage aimed against socialist countries.


[Note on the translation: The text is translated from Finnish by myself. Quotes by Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse are taken directly from English translations of their work, except the quote from ‘The Concept of Negation in the Dialectic’ by Marcuse, which I couldn’t find and therefore had to translate myself.]


36. Cf. Die Gesellschaft, 8/1932

37. H. Marcuse, Hegel Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, 2. edition, New York 1954, pp. 433-434.

38. M. Horkheimer and Th. W. Adorno. Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt am Main 1969, s. 7

39. H. Marcuse. Ideen zu einer kritischen Theorie der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main 1969, s. 186-189

40. Th. W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt am Main 1966, s. 395.

41. Marx-Engels, Selected works (6 volumes), volume 6, p. 401, Finnish edition [Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy~MLT].

42. Cf. V. I. Lenin, Works, Volume 38, p. 185, Finnish edition.

43. Adorno, Mts. 191

44. “Not abstract matter but the concreteness of societal practice (?) is the real focus of the materialist theory” (A. Schmidt, Der Naturbegriff in der Lehre von Marx, Frankfurt am Main 1962, s. 30)

45. Adorno, Mts. 371, 364.

46. Cf. Die Gesellschaft, Berlin, 1/1930, s. 15-18


Soviet critique of the Frankfurt School and “Critical Theory”