Marx argued that economic systems have always involved the exploitation of workers for the benefit of a privileged class that owns and controls “the means of production.” As a result, according to Marx, workers are “alienated” from their labor, from the products they make, from other people, and ultimately from their own humanity since their lives and labor are determined not by themselves but by the demands of a privileged class and impersonal market forces.
Workers tolerate this apparent injustice, Marx explains, because exploitation is hidden from everyone’s view by a complex web of illusions he calls “ideology.” Significant obfuscations under capitalism include a wage contract that allegedly gives workers the fair value of their labor, as well as “ideological nonsense about right” such as “free and fair exchange,” “fair distribution,” and the claim that capitalists make a contribution on a par with labor. These and other illusions, along with religion and the state, all sustain capitalism as a system of exploitation and alienation.
Marx’s account of ideology or “false consciousness” is his most enduring legacy in the West. It provides the intellectual foundations for the work of the Marxists who founded the Frankfurt School in the 1920s and continued developing it until the 1970s. They provided the basis for what is called “critical theory,” which, drawing on Marxist and Freudian ideas, emphasizes the underlying, often hidden forces that determine the shape of culture. The three books reviewed here survey the lives and ideas of the most famous members of the Frankfurt School.
The Institute for Social Research, known as the Frankfurt School, opened in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1924 as a neo-Marxist institute devoted to examining and criticizing contemporary capitalist society. It was endowed by the world’s largest grain trader, Hermann Weil; his son Felix asked him to fund a multidisciplinary academic institute that would explain why the Communist revolution had failed in Germany and how it might succeed in the future. From 1930 to 1958, the philosopher Max Horkheimer was director of the institute. His tenure included the Frankfurt School’s period of exile in the United States from 1934, after the Nazis took power, until the early 1950s.
The leading thinkers of the Frankfurt School were Horkheimer, the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.1 The literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, though not officially a member of the institute, was closely associated with it and strongly influenced its thinking. All of these figures, except Fromm, were the children of successful Jewish businessmen. Like Felix Weil, they rejected their capitalist fathers’ material success while simultaneously benefiting from it.
Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries, a well-regarded British journalist and cultural critic, is an engaging and accessible history of the lives and main ideas of…
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