A Timeline of the Predominant Anglophone Reception of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Critical Theory

Anglo Reception Timeline of the predominant reception of  Adorno and Horkheimer’s Critical Theory

The following timeline represents my attempt to understand how and when the 5 tenets of the predominant reception of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory were developed in the anglophone world.

I take the 5 tenents to be the following:

  1. That Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical theory focused on culture rather than the sciences of economics or politics
  2. That Horkheimer and Adorno had a derivative Lukacsian and humanist interpretation of Marx that eliminated praxis
  3. That Horkheimer and Adorno jettisoned this interpretation of Marx for a transhistorical theory of instrumental reason in Dialectic of Enlightenment
  4. That Adorno’s pessimistic and one-dimensional social theory of the totally administered world eschewed praxis
  5. Consequently, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory marked the dead end of Western Marxism

Rather than simply being true, I believe these tenets developed in the context of new left debates over strategy, Western Marxism, the rise of Habermasian critical theory, and the ensuing convention of understanding the Frankfurt School in terms of generational development.  

(books are simply listed by their titles, articles by the name of the journal they were published in)

1959 – Daniel Bell, The Rediscovery of Alienation

1964 – Merleau Ponty, Sense and Nonsense (Published in France in 1948)

1965 – Fromm (ed), Socialist Humanism

1967 – Lictheim, Adorno TLS article (republished in his from Marx to Hegel collection in 1971)

1969 – Piccone, “Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness Half a Century Later” (Telos)

1970 – Therborn, The Frankfurt School (NLR), Breines (ed), Critical Interruptions: New Left Perspectives on Herbert Marcuse, Radical America issue on Marcuse, Breines, “Notes on Georg Lukacs’s The Old Culture and the New Culture (Telos), Piccone and Delfini “Marcuse’s Heideggerian Marxism”, Merlau Ponty, “Western Marxism” (Telos)

1971 – Steadman Jones, The Marxism of the Early Lukacs (NLR), Wellmer, Critical Theory of Society (published in Wester Germany in 1969), Arato, “Lukacs’s Path to Marxism”, Schroyer, Review of Wellmer (Telos), Bemi, “Review of Habermas Towards a Rational Society” (Telos), Howard, ‘Review of Jargon of Authenticity ‘

1972 – Howard (ed), The Unknown Dimension, Colleti, From Rousseau to Lenin, Arato, “Lukacs’s Theory of Reification” (Telos), Breines, “Praxis and It’s Theorists: The Impact of Lukacs and Korsch in the 1920s” (Telos), Piccone, “Dialectic and Materialism in Lukacs” (Telos), Schroyer “The Dialectical Foundations of Critical Theory: Jürgen Habermas’ Metatheoretical Investigations” (Telos), Buck-Morrs, “The Dialectic of Theodor W. Adorno” (Telos)

1973 – Jay, Dialectical Imagination, Colletti, Marxism and Hegel, Schroyer, The Critique of Domination, Merleau Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic (publised in France in 1955), Jay, “Some Recent Developments in Critical Theory” Breines, “Introduction to Horkheimer’s The Authoritarian State” (Telos), Jacoby, “Postcript to Horkheimer’s The Authoritarian State” (Telos), Kellner, “Introduction to On the Philosophical Concept of Labour” [by Marcuse] (Telos), Piccone, “Review of Dialectical Imagination” (Telos)

1974 – “Introduction to Adorno” (Telos) [for publication of theses against occultism and stars down to earth excerpts], Kellner “Review of english translation of the jargon of authenticity” (Telos), Patrick Murray, “Introduction to Krahl The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory” (Telos), Schmidt, “Critical Theory and the Sociology of Knowledg: A response to Martin Jay” (Telos), Jay, “Answer to Crutches vs. Stilts: An Answer to James Schmidt on the Frankfurt School” (Telos), Jacoby, “A Review of Dialectical Imagination” (Theory and Society), 

1975 – Schoolman, “Marcuse’es Second Dimension” (Telos), Schmidt “The Concrete Totality and Lukacs’s Concept of Proletarian Bildbunt (Telos), Miller “Review of Legitimation Crisis” (Telos), Jay and Jacoby, “Marxism and Critical Theory” (Theory and Society)

1976 –  Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, Schoolman, “Introduction to Marcuse’s On the Problem of the Dialectic (Telos), Shapiro, “Reply to Miller’s Review of Legitimation Crisis” (Telos), Aronowitz, S., Jacoby, R., Piccone, P., & Schroyer, T. (1976). Symposium on Class. (Telos), Piccone, Considerations on Western Marxism. (Telos), 

1977-  Buck Morrs, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, Howard, The Marxian Legacy (revised editions, 2nd edition? 3rd edition 2019), Tarr, The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Marx Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School: a Marxist Perspective, Jay, “The Concept of Totality in Lukacs and Adorno” (Telos), Jay,  “Further Considerations on Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism” (Telos), Arato, A., & Piccone, P. Rethinking Western Marxism: Reply to Martin Jay (Telos), Berman, “Adorno, Marxism, and Art” (Telos), Piccone, “The Changing Function of Critical Theory” (New German Critique), Jacoby, “Review of Slater” (Telos), Jacoby “Reply to Slater and Plautt” (Telos)

1978 – Kolakowski, The Main Currents of Marxism Volume 3: The Breakdown, Arato, Gebhardt (ed.), The Frankfurt School Reader (introduction by Piccone), Piccone, “The Crisis of One-Dimensionality” (Telos)

1979 – Arato and Breines, The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism, Agger, Western Marxism: an Introduction, Fetischrift for Habermas (Telos), Honneth, “Communication and Reconciliation Habermas’ Critique of Adorno” (Telos)

1980 – David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory

1981 – Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat, Benhabib, “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory” (Telos), Piccone, “Introduction to interview with Habermas” (Telos), 

1982 – Bookchin, Finding the Subject: Notes on Whitebook and “Habermas Ltd.” (Telos)

1983, Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, 

1984 – Jay, Marxism and Totality and Adorno, Bottomore, The Frankfurt School and It’s Critics

1985 – Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the development of Critical Theory (published in 1978)

1986 – Benhabib, Critique, Norm, Utopia, Feenberg, Marx, Lukacs, and the Origins of Critical Theory 

1989– Kellner and Bronner (ed) Critical Theory and Society Reader

1991– Hohendahl, Reappraisals: Shifting Alignments in Postwar Critical Theory 

1998 – Brunkhorst, H., & Krockenberger, P. (1998). “Paradigm-core and theory-dynamics in critical social theory: people and programs” 

1994 – Wiggershaus (published in 1986), Bronner Of Critical Theory and its Theorists

1996 – Lowy, Figures of Weberian Marxism

2000 – Joel Anderson, “The Third Generation of the Frankfurt School”

2004 – Cook, Adorno, Habermas and the Search for a Rational Society

2009– Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile

2013 – Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School

2014 – Feenburg, The Philosophy of Praxis

2016 – Jay Reason After Eclipse: on Late Critical Theory, Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss

2017 – Thompson (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory, Zwarg “Half a Heart and Double Zeal: Critical Theory’s Afterlife in the United States” (New German Critique), Pensky, “Third Generation Critical Theory.”

2018 – Arato, “Critical Theory in the United States: Reflections on Four Decades of Reception” 

2020 – Jay Splinter, (ed), Gordon, Hammer, Honneth, The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School, Prosser, Dialectic of Enlightenment in the Anglosphere

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On The Reception of Western Marxism

Been looking into the reception of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism in the English speaking world. I am doing this to try to ascertain where and how what I think of as the core tenets of the predominant interpretation of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical theory were formed and how they developed. 

I see these core tenets as the following:

  • Horkheimer and Adorno  focused on culture rather than economics or politics
  • Horkheimer and Adorno had a derivative Lukacsian and humanist interpretation of Marx that eliminated praxis
  • Horkheimer and Adorno jettisoned this interpretation of Marx for a transhistorical theory of instrumental reason in Dialectic of Enlightenment
  • Adorno’s pessimistic and one-dimensional social theory of the totally administered world marked the end of western marxism.

I will save the reconstruction of the development of these views for the book.

Here I just want to jot down how important the context of the reception of Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School were (and still are) for their reception in the English speaking world. As I now see it, Western Marxism was a category of contestation between factions within the New Left. The reception of the Frankfurt School happened within this process of contestation. Neither of these factions were particularly focused on Adorno and Horkheimer. Rather they were interested in advocating for different Marxist lineages, which they thought offered pertinent perspectives on the questions of social analysis, organization, and strategy. Those who developed the views that became the predominant reception of Western Marxism – Colletti – were opposed by people – including Paul Piccone, Paul Breines and others – who  developed an interpretation of Western Marxism as a lineage that began with Lukacs’s notion of praxis and his critique of reified culture and ended with Marcuse, which they argued should be the basis for social analysis, organization and strategy.  Adorno and Horkheimer’s work was interpreted within this context with Therborn and Jay mirroring Colletti’s perspective and Russell Jacoby and James Schmidt opposing this perspective. Yet by the mid-70s Telos was changing course. Piccone was moving post-left and Habermas was becoming more influential in the anglosphere. Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism marks the last point of this process of contestation, with Piccone and Breines writing a scathing review of the book in Telos and Jay defending it. Several years later Jay’s Marxism and Totality would mirror Anderson’s analysis of Western Marxism and Adorno and Horkheimer. So too would Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action. Despite Jacoby’s Dialectic of Defeat the predominant reception of Western Marxism and Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory was set. It lives on in the recent history of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, the justificatory narratives of the development of the generations of the Frankfurt School, and the recent attempts to revive a Lukacsian critical theory. But the history behind the category of Western Marxism and Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory has been lost. So to has any realization of how this history shaped and distorted the interpretation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory to the point where the core tenets of the predominant reception are repeated even though they do not hold up. Western Marxism then needs to be historized in this context and a new reading of critical theory has to be developed. 

My book will contribute to such a new reading. It will go against the grain of this predominant reception by focusing on the role of Adorno and Horkheimer’s distinct interpretation of Marx and their critical social theory of fetishistic social domination and showing how subsequent generations of overlooked critical theorists drew on and developed these aspects of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical theory. 

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Political Economy and Critical Theory

Over the last week or so I made my way through the early issues of Telos as part of my attempt to reconstruction the reception of Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School in the English speaking world. I found the process illuminating for reasons I may write about later on. I also found a number of contributions — by authors such as Russell Jacoby, James Schmidt, and others the represent a Marxist interpretation of the Frankfurt School that was more or less lost. Among these contributions was Giacomo Marramao’s Political Economy and Critical Theory

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The Critical Theory of Society: Present Situation and Future Tasks

William Leiss’s The Critical Theory of Society: Present Situation and Future Tasks is an interesting artifact I found on my Telos deep dive. Written around the same time as Goran Therborn’s polemic against the Frankfurt School, Leiss’s work represents one of the first sympathetic overviews of the frankfurt school in the english speaking world. It was part of the edited collection on Marcuse that came out of the first Telos conference, yet it also mentions and focuses other figures who had been neglected at that time: Schmidt, Adorno, and especially the early Horkheimer. Finally, it focuses on how Critical Theory draws on the critique of political economy. Yet rather than treating it as a dead tradition, it points to critical theories contemporary relevance and further development. Sadly, this work would soon be eclipsed by the publication of Dialectical Imagination and its interpretation of the development of critical theory.

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The Anglophone Reception of Critical Theory and Western Marxism

In the past few weeks, I have been trying to reconstruct the development of the predominant reception of Frankfurt School Critical Theory in the Anglophone world for the introduction to my book. This has led me to do a deep dive into Telos, which I have discovered is a vanishing mediator of the perspectives on the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism popularized by the work of Jay and Perry Anderson. More specifically, it seems to me that the categories of Western Marxism and Frankfurt School Critical Theory were objects of contestation in a debate that occurred in the decade following the crisis of the New Left over which theory and strategy should be pursued. Telos advocated for a Western Marxist perspective that included the Frankfurt School. Their interlocutors advocated for classical Marxism, marxist and bourgeois science. (at times Telos harkened this debate back to the debates between Lenin and the ultraleft) Hence Jay’s, Anderson’s and others interpretations and criticisms of Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School are themselves criticized by authors such as Russell Jacoby and James Schmidt. Sadly, Telos’s perspective and this debate has been more or less lost and Anderson and Jay’s position predominate in Marxist and Habermasian Critical Theory scholarship. Moreover, I wonder to what extent this debate has repeated itself following Occupy and the electoral defeats of Corbyn and Sanders?

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Adorno, Authoritarianism, and Critical Social Theory

I thought I would post my contribution to yesterday’s AAG roundtable on The Stars Down To Earth. It’s short and speculative, but I hope it will generate interest and discussion as the roundtable intended.

What does Adorno mean by authoritarianism?

In spite of what you may read during the Trump administration in the middle brow popular press and academic journals, it’s not just some guy bossing people around. Nor is it just about some bossy guy’s uneducated, irrational followers. Finally, it’s not a horseshoe theory of what the left or the right have in common. Instead, Adorno’s theory of authoritarianism is part of his critical theory of society. In other words, it’s about social subjectivity and the organization of society. In this contribution I want to provide an overview of authoritarianism in the context of Adorno’s critical social theory, then discuss how this is reflected in Stars Down to Earth. Then I want to speculatively propose three areas of contemporary society where this theory might still be applicable. In so doing, I hope to point out that authoritarian tendencies are inherent to our society, and are not just the province of marginalized aspects of it, in order to generate discussion.

In contrast to traditional theory, Adorno’s critical theory offered a critique of the organization of society. For Adorno, the prehistory of capitalism amounted to the domination of external and internal nature. Capitalist society was a negativity totality premised on the domination of external and internal nature, who’s reproduction was mediated by exchange. The objective institutional aspects of such a society administered people for the sake of profit, the subjective aspects were socialized by this process of administration into depending on society.  While autonomous subjects would resist domination and administration and reorganize society in a rational way that didn’t maim them, reified society cultivated and reinforced authoritarian subjectivity. Rather than developing autonomy, dependent subjects lacked the critical capacities to grasp society for what it was, let alone the ability to live on the basis of their autonomy. Instead their dependence on social institutions was mirrored in their reliance on authority and experts, not just about how to understand society, but also about how to live in society. Yet such expertise did not cultivate subject’s autonomy or even advise subjects to transform society, but on how to live in accordance with the laws of capitalist second nature, contributing to the reproduction of capitalism.  Hence the domination of external and internal nature that necessitated self-preservation in prehistory was mirrored in the irrationality rational activity of self-preservation in capitalist second nature. Universal history is thus permanent catastrophe.

Adorno’s critical analysis of astrology columns are a micrological study that represents this larger theory. Columnists are the experts deciphering the displaced laws of second nature onto the so-called laws of the stars, offering vague advice on how to act in a way that will purportedly overcomes subjects innate anxiety and unhappiness and sense of impending social doom, but the advice they give normalizes and rationalizes capitalist everyday life. For, as Adorno’s analysis shows, the columns prioritize work over leisure, stress that subjects should follow experts, higher ups and friends, repressing and displacing the feeling of doom inherent to subjects in society, thus contributing to the reproduction of capitalist society.

What I think makes this particular analysis interesting is its mundanity. Astrology columns are a ubiquitous feature of newspapers and especially back then newspaper readers were not eccentric members of the far left or far right. The advice as previously mentioned is also mundane. Hence the typical reader is more your average joe than the people that marched on the capital. What draws them to these advice columns in Adorno’s view is that they are people who are

“dissatisfied with the veneer of mere existence and who are looking for a “key,” but who are at the same time incapable of the sustained intellectual effort required by theoretical insight and also lack the critical training without which it would be utterly futile to attempt to understand what is happening. Precisely this type, both sceptical and insufficiently equipped intellectually, a type hardly capable of integrating the various intellectual functions torn apart by the division of labor seems to be on the upsurge today.”

Yet Adorno’s theory of society is often dismissed as totalizing or as applicable to Fordism, not neoliberalism (in which presumably the market has displaced administrators). His theory of culture industry, and by extension his analysis of astrology, has also been widely criticized as the work of a cultural elitist who failed to grasp cultural types of resistance offered by  sub and countercultures. This received wisdom would lead to the conclusion that Adorno’s idea of authoritarianism is overblown, dated, or off target when it comes to contemporary society. I am not convinced. I want to offer three speculative avenues for further research in contemporary society that resemble the micrological analysis of authoritarianism offered in Stars Down to Earth. 

The first reads Stars against the grain. Rather than focusing on how Adorno interprets astrology advice columns as instances of reified second nature, it would focus on business and investment advice columns, books etc. These writings come from across the ideological spectrum, offering advice on how succeed or to save for retirement for people who want to make as much money as possible, to invest ethically or sustainably, or to pay it forward. Yet, like the astrology advice columns, I would imagine they offer general advice from the expertise that encourages people to continue to work, to save, to invest in accordance with the natural laws of capitalism. In so doing, it displaces anxiety and doom, in self interested rational irrationality, ultimately contributing to the reproduction of capitalist society.

The second would be a micrological analysis of the academic advice industry. As I’m sure we all know this industry consists in trainings, books, and websites by experts that offer discipline specific and general advice on how to write, publish, apply for jobs, present at conferences, network, take time for hobbies and thus succeed and flourish in the cut-throat world of the academic job market. While these writings may allay the intense anxiety of this dog-eat-dog world, they also advise people to act in ways that perpetuate this irrational system.

The third is COVID. Obviously, the pandemic has been terrifying. I’m also not by any means trying to argue that mask mandates or sheltering in place are authoritarian (I’m in Texas and ive been doing it for over a year now). Rather I am referring to the changing advice issued by the media that have led people in a fortunate enough position to work from home to order online or curbside pick-up, quarantine their packages, wash their groceries, remain exactly 6 feet from people, not wear mask, then wear masks, then wear a mask and face shield, then wear two masks, and now the received wisdom that the vaccines will save us. I hope it does, yet I’m skeptical. I also suspect this dynamic resembles Adorno’s analysis of astrology columns insofar as the advice individuals followed to save themselves was premised on conceiving of COVID as a sort of a nature law of fate that would befall individuals if they didn’t act safely. Yet, this ignored that COVID is a socio-natural disease reflective of how society is organized.

All these instances, would then seem to be present analogous micrological studies of authoritarianism insofar as they are instances of individuals following experts advice to undertake rationally irrational acts of self-preservation, rather than acting autonomsly and collective to transform society in a way that none of us have to worry about retirement, work, or pandemic.

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New Article: Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism

I thought this might be the last academic article I would write. First because I was stuck adjuncting and was considering quitting, then because I thought I might die of COVID. As it happened, I had no better career options, then I struck gold, then I didn’t die of COVID.

For these reasons, and more, I reckon the following pulls together a number of strands of research I had been working on and points towards where I plan on going. I’ll be the first to admit much of the ideas are compressed, but I just wanted to get them out there one way or the other. Pleased I now have the time and space to further develop them.

I hope reader’s of this blog find the article of interest.

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Alfred Schmidt — Werner Rehfeld Discussion on Marxism

Here is Alfred Schmidt and Werner Behfeld’s discussion on Marxism as published in the now out of print Karl Marx 1818 1968

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Equality, Traditional and Critical Theory

Great passage from Lecture 10 in Philosophical Elements of a Theory of Society where Adorno provides a gloss on Marx’s critique of political economy that I think illuminates the distinction between traditional approaches to political economy and the critical theory approach:

“One could say that reality is itself both logical and alogical. Now that is nothing really new; it is an inherent structural determinant of bourgeois society. Marx already viewed society as rational and examined its own claim that everything is in order, with commodities being exchanged for their equivalents, and – and this is exactly the dialectical salt in Marx’s theory of society – showed, or at least tried to show, that precisely because everything proceeds as it should, because equal is exchanged for equal, everything is not in order, for the principle of equality results in inequality, whether created or reproduced.

This may remind you of a thought I sought to convey to you in the previous session with greater or lesser success, namely that social antagonisms establish themselves because of their integration, not in spite of it, perpetuating and possibly consolidating power structures within society. But, in the older type of theory, this aspect I just mentioned did not emerge as clearly as I think it must emerge today; that is, and this is historically quite understandable, people tried for too long to come to terms with an internally contradictory and antagonistic society using a concept of contradiction-free and unified theory. Incidentally, you can see that the assertion of the link between rationality and irrationality, indeed their interconnection, is not something that was inserted into the equation after the event by the fact that, in the classically rational formulation of a theory of society, namely Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in addition to the laws of exchange that he defines objectively, the author already introduced the principle of fair play, which subsequently entered everyday language, even the German language. So this means that the entire construction applies only if certain irreducible irrational moral laws are followed, laws whose essence is that one should follow the rules of the game.”

The fact that the reality which the theory needs to grasp is an antagonistic reality in this very radical sense, a sense that can be dated back to the concept of its own reasonableness, demands a dialectical theory, as formulating a dialectical theory of society, quite simply means understanding the inner workings of society in such a way that one elaborates these irrationalities from its own concept.

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Traditional and Critical Social Theory

Wonderful passage from Aspects of Sociology that lucidly distinguishes critical social theory from traditional theory:

“But, indeed, the concept of society can hardly be separated from the polarity of the institutional and the natural. Only insofar as the cohabitation of human beings has been mediated, objectivized, “institutionalized’ has sociation actually been accomplished. However, conversely, the institutions themselves are merely the epiphenomena of the living labor of human beings. Sociology becomes a critique of society as soon as it does not merely describe and weigh institutions and processes  of society, but confronts them with what underlies these, with the life of those upon whom these institutions have been imposed, and those of whom the institutions themselves are to such a great extent composed. However, as soon as thought concerning the social loses sight of the tension between that which is institutional and that which is living, as soon as, for instance, it seeks to reduce society to the purely natural, it no longer aids in the liberation from the compulsion of the institutions, but only furthers a new mythology, the glorification of illusory-primal qualities, to which is attributed what in fact only arises by virtue of Society’s institutions.”

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