"Horkheimer was the entrepreneur"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Dec 31 09:37:42 MST 1999



[From "The Grand Hotel Abyss" by Michael Sprinker in the latest New Left
Review. A NLR editor, Sprinker died recently after a long battle with
cancer. His article is accompanied by tributes from the excellent Aijaz
Ahmad and Fred Pfeil. Sprinker's article depends heavily on Rolf
Wiggershaus's history of the Frankfurt School, which I plan to track down
and report on at some point.]

When the Institute returned to Frankfurt after the war, its politics were
all too apparent. However much his journals may have railed against the
degradation of human capacities under capitalism, Horkheimer was more than
willing to commit the Institute programmatically to supporting the
imperatives of the régime and the Wirtschaftswünder (economic miracle). In
a June 11 letter to prospective sponsors, he wrote:

"Not only government administration, and all the opinion-forming media such
as the press, film and radio, but also businesses maintain numerous
sociological research bodies. Social research can create the optimal social
conditions in their factories, ascertain and calculate in advance what the
public needs in their branch of business, and monitor and improve the
effectiveness of their advertising."

Horkheimer’s political trajectory would follow a similar course, as I
declined to support the Algerian liberation struggle in the 1950s,
explicitly criticized those who opposed the us war in Vietnam during the
1960s. Famously, both he and Adorno would adopt a hostile attitude towards
the upheavals that rocked German universities in the late sixties, the
latter agreeing to have the police remove the seventy-six students who
occupied the Institute on 31 January 1969—for which some female members of
SDS repaid him by disrupting his lecture on ‘An Introduction to Dialectical
Thinking’ the following April 26. In sober retrospect, then, it is
difficult to take seriously the charge levelled by the Prime Minister of
Baden-Wurttemberg, and echoed by the chairman of the CDU in Hesse, that
critical theory offered aid and comfort to the German terrorism of the
1970s. Closer to the truth, surely, is Oskar Negt’s rather bitter
recollection of the atmosphere in Frankfurt when he arrived there in the
mid-fifties:

" Horkheimer proved to be an entrepreneur, organizing things carefully and
knowing exactly how to use sympathy and fascination to grab people’s
interest. There are considerable advantages in having talents like these.
Adorno, on the other hand, frightened people off; he refused to treat his
listeners as a medium, and, although persistency and mediation of the
object were a central topic in his dialectical thought, he refused to build
bridges for teaching purposes, to be a philosopher of the market-place...
Horkheimer was the entrepreneur; Bloch was the political prophet and
storyteller; Adorno was the respectable watchmaker."

The wares on offer from critical theory were, by that time, a far cry from
those envisioned by Felix Weil when he established the Institute some
thirty years previous, and Horkheimer was no longer, if indeed he had ever
been, a closet Luxemburgist.


Louis Proyect
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