In Comment

By Gabriel Rockhill,

Published on The Philosophical Salon, June 27, 2022:

Frankfurt School critical theory has been—along with French theory—one of the hottest commodities of the global theory industry. Together, they serve as the common source for so many of the trend-setting forms of theoretical critique that currently dominate the academic market in the capitalist world, from postcolonial and decolonial theory to queer theory, Afro-pessimism and beyond. The Frankfurt School’s political orientation has therefore had a foundational effect on the globalized Western intelligentsia.

Foundations of the Global Theory Industry

Frankfurt School critical theory has been—along with French theory—one of the hottest commodities of the global theory industry. Together, they serve as the common source for so many of the trend-setting forms of theoretical critique that currently dominate the academic market in the capitalist world, from postcolonial and decolonial theory to queer theory, Afro-pessimism and beyond. The Frankfurt School’s political orientation has therefore had a foundational effect on the globalized Western intelligentsia.

The luminaries of the first generation of the Institute for Social Research—particularly Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who will be the focus of this essay—are towering figures in what is referred to as Western or cultural Marxism. For those familiar with Jürgen Habermas’s reorientation away from historical materialism in the second and then third generations of the Frankfurt School, this early work often represents a veritable golden age of critical theory, when it was still—though perhaps passive or pessimistic—dedicated in some capacity to radical politics. If there is a grain of truth in this assumption, it is only insofar as the early Frankfurt School is compared to later generations that refashioned critical theory as radical liberal—or even just blatantly liberal—ideology.[1] However, this point of comparison is setting the bar much too low, as is the case whenever one reduces politics to academic politics. After all, the first generation of the Frankfurt School lived through some of the most cataclysmic clashes in global class struggle of the 20th century, when a veritable intellectual world war was being fought over the meaning and significance of communism.

In order to avoid being the dupes of history, or of the parochialism of the Western academy, it is therefore important to re-contextualize the Institute for Social Research’s work in relationship to international class struggle. One of the most significant features of this context was the desperate attempt, on the part of the capitalist ruling class, its state managers and ideologues, to redefine the Left—in the words of cold warrior CIA agent Thomas Braden—as the “compatible,” meaning non-communist, Left.[2] As Braden and others involved have explained in detail, one important facet of this struggle consisted in the use of foundation money and Agency front groups like the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) to promote anti-communism and lure Leftists into taking positions against actually existing socialism.

Horkheimer participated in at least one junket organized by the CCF in Hamburg.[3] Adorno published in the CIA-funded journal Der Monat, the largest review of its kind in Europe and the model for many of the Agency’s other publications. His articles appeared, as well, in two other CIA magazines: Encounter and Tempo presente. He also hosted in his home, corresponded and collaborated with the CIA operative who was arguably the leading figure in the German anticommunist Kulturkampf: Melvin Lasky.[4] Founder and chief editor of Der Monat, as well as a member of the original steering committee for the CIA’s CCF, Lasky told Adorno that he was open to every form of collaboration with the Institute for Social Research, including publishing their articles and any other declaration as quickly as possible in his pages.[5] Adorno took him up on the offer and sent him four unpublished manuscripts, including Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, in 1949.[6]

Horkheimer’s lifelong collaborator was thus closely connected to the CCF networks in West Germany, and his name appears on a document, likely from 1958/59, that outlined plans for an all-German committee of the CCF.[7] What is more, even after it was revealed in 1966 that this international propaganda organization was a CIA front, Adorno continued to be “included in the expansion plans of the Paris headquarters [of the CCF],” as it was “business as usual” in the part of Germany overseen by the U.S.[8] This is only the tip of the iceberg, as we shall see, and it is nowise surprising since Adorno and Horkheimer rose to global prominence within the elite networks of the anti-communist Left.

A Dialectical Analysis of Theoretical Production

The analysis that follows is based on a dialectical account of the social totality that situates the subjective theoretical practices of these two founding fathers of critical theory within the objective world of international class struggle. It does not accept the arbitrary dividing line that many petty-bourgeois academics desperately try to erect between intellectual production and the broader socioeconomic world, as if someone’s “thought” could—and should—be separated from their “life,” as well as from the material system of theoretical production, circulation and reception that I will here refer to as the intellectual apparatus. Such a non-dialectical assumption, after all, is little more than a symptom of an idealist approach to theoretical work, which presumes that there is a spiritual and conceptual realm that functions completely independently of material reality and the political economy of knowledge.

This presupposition perpetuates intellectual commodity fetishism, meaning the idolization of the sacred products of the theory industry that prohibits us from situating them within the overall social relations of production and class struggle. It also serves the interests of those who have or aspire to part of a particular franchise within the global theory industry, if it be “Frankfurt School critical theory” or any other, because it protects the brand image of the franchise itself (which remains unsullied by the actual social relations of production). Whereas intellectual commodity fetishism is a principal feature of consumption within the theory industry, brand image management is the hallmark of production.

For such a dialectical analysis, it is important to acknowledge that Adorno and Horkheimer did indeed mobilize their subjective agency in formulating significant critiques of capitalism, consumer society and the culture industry. Far from denying this, I would merely like to situate these criticisms within the objective social world, which entails asking a very simple and practical question that is rarely raised within academic circles: if capitalism is recognized as having negative effects, what is to be done about it? The deeper one mines down into their life and work, sifting through the deliberate obscurantism of their discourse, the more obvious their response becomes, and the easier it is to understand the primary social function of their shared intellectual project. For as critical as they sometimes are of capitalism, they regularly affirm that there is no alternative, and nothing can or should ultimately be done about it. What is more, as we shall see, their criticisms of capitalism pale in comparison to their uncompromising condemnation of socialism. Their brand of critical theory ultimately leads to an acceptance of the capitalist order since socialism is judged to be far worse. Not unlike most of the other fashionable discourses in the capitalist academy, they proffer a critical theory that we might call ABS Theory: Anything But Socialism.

It is not the least bit surprising, in this regard, that Adorno and Horkheimer have been so widely supported and promoted within the capitalist world. In order to shore up the compatible, non-communist Left over and against the threat of actually existing socialism, what better tactic than to champion scholars like these as some of the most important, and even most radical, Marxist thinkers of the 20th century? “Marxism” can thereby be redefined as a kind of anti-communist critical theory that is not directly connected to class struggle from below but rather freely criticizes all forms of “domination,” and which ultimately sides with capitalist control societies over and against the purported “fascist” horrors of powerful socialist states.

Since benighted anti-communism has been so widely promoted within capitalist culture, this attempted redefinition of Marxism might not be immediately recognizable to some readers as reactionary and social chauvinist (in the sense that it ultimately elevates bourgeois society over any alternative). Unfortunately, major swaths of the population in the capitalist world have been inculcated into the knee-jerk response of uninformed calumny, rather than rigorous analysis, when it comes to actually existing socialism. Since the material history of these projects, with all of their ups and downs—rather than mythological horror stories propagandistically constructed around a communist bogeyman—will be essential to understanding the argument that follows, I take the liberty of referring the reader to the deep and rich work of rigorous historians like Annie Lacroix-Riz, Domenico Losurdo, Carlos Martinez, Michael Parenti, Albert Szymanski, Jacques Pauwels, and Walter Rodney, amongst others. I also encourage the reader to examine the important quantitative comparisons between capitalism and socialism undertaken by exacting analysts like Minqi Li, Vicente Navarro and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.[9] Such work is anathema to the dominant ideology, and for good reason: it scientifically examines the evidence, rather than relying on hoary tropes and uninformed ideological reflexes. It is the type of historical and materialist work, moreover, that has largely been overshadowed by the speculative forms of critical theory promoted by the global theory industry.

Intellectuals in the Age of Revolution and Global Class War

Although their early lives were marked by the world-historical events of the Russian Revolution and the attempted revolution in Germany, Adorno and Horkheimer were esthetes wary of the supposed morass of mass politics. While their interest in Marxism was piqued by these incidents, it was primarily of an intellectual nature. Horkheimer did become marginally involved in activities around the Munich council republic after WWI, particularly by providing support for some of those involved after the council had been brutally suppressed. However, he—the same is true a fortiori of Adorno—“continued to maintain his distance from the explosive political events of the time and to devote himself primarily to his own personal concerns.”[10]

Their class standing was far from insignificant in this regard, for it positions them and their political outlook within the larger, objective world of the social relations of production. Both Frankfurt School theorists were from affluent families. Adorno’s father was a “wealthy wine merchant” and Horkheimer’s was a “millionaire” who “owned several textile factories.”[11] Adorno “had no personal ties at all to socialist political life” and maintained throughout his life “a deep aversion to formal membership of any party organization.”[12] Similarly, Horkheimer was never “an overt member of any working-class party.”[13] The same is generally true of the other figures involved in the early years of the Frankfurt School: “none of those belonging to the Horkheimer circle was politically active; none of them had his origins either in the labor movement or in Marxism.”[14]

In the words of John Abromeit, Horkheimer sought to preserve the supposed independence of theory and “rejected the position of Lenin, Lukács, and the Bolsheviks that critical theory must be ‘rooted’” in the working class, or more specifically working-class parties.[15] He encouraged critical theorists to operate as intellectual free agents rather than grounding their research in the proletariat, which was a type of work that he disparaged as “totalitarian propaganda.”[16] Adorno’s overall position, like Herbert Marcuse’s, was summarized by Marie-Josée Levallée in the following terms: “the Bolshevik party, which Lenin made the vanguard of the October Revolution, was a centralizing and repressive institution which would shape the Soviet State in its image and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into its own dictatorship.”[17]

When Horkheimer took over the directorship of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, his stewardship was characterized by speculative concerns with culture and authority rather than rigorous historical materialist analyses of capitalism, class struggle and imperialism. In the words of Gillian Rose, “instead of politicizing academia,” the Institute under Horkheimer “academized politics.”[18] This was perhaps seen nowhere more clearly than in “the constant policy of the Institute under Horkheimer’s direction,” which “continued to be abstinence, not only from every activity which was even remotely political, but also from any collective or organized effort to publicize the situation in Germany or to support émigrés.”[19] With the rise of Nazism, Adorno attempted to go into hibernation, assuming that the regime would only target “the orthodox pro-Soviet Bolshevists and communists who had drawn attention to themselves politically” (they would indeed be the first to be put in the concentration camps).[20] He “refrained from public criticism of any kind of the Nazis and their ‘great power’ policies.”[21]

Critical Theory American Style

This refusal to overtly participate in progressive politics was intensified when the leaders of the Institute moved it to the United States in the early 1930s. The Frankfurt School adapted itself “to the local bourgeois order, censoring its own past and present work to suit local academic or corporate susceptibilities.”[22] Horkheimer had words like Marxism, revolution and communism expunged from its publications in order to avoid offending its U.S. sponsors.[23] Furthermore, any type of political activity was strictly forbidden, as Herbert Marcuse later explained.[24] Horkheimer put his energy into securing corporate and state funding for the Institute, and he even hired a public relations firm to promote its work in the U.S. Another émigré from Germany, Bertolt Brecht, was thus not fully unjustified when he critically described the Frankfurt scholars as—in the words of Stuart Jeffries—“prostitutes in their quest for foundation support during their American exile, selling their skills and opinions as commodities in order to support the dominant ideology of oppressive U.S. society.”[25] They were indeed intellectual free agents unrestrained by any working-class organizations in their pursuit of corporate and state sponsorship for their brand of market-savvy critical theory.

Brecht’s close friend, Walter Benjamin, was one of the Frankfurt scholars’ most important Marxist interlocutors at the time. He was not able to join them in the United States because he tragically committed suicide in 1940 at the border between France and Spain, the night before he faced near certain apprehension by the Nazis. According to Adorno, he “killed himself after he had already been saved” because he had “been made a permanent member of the Institute and knew it.”[26] He was “flush with funds” for his trip, in the words of the famous philosopher, and knew “that he could rely completely on us materially.”[27] This version of history, which presents Benjamin’s suicide as an incomprehensible personal decision given the circumstances, was an exercise in mendacity for the sake of personal and institutional exoneration, according to a detailed analysis recently published by Ulrich Fries. Not only were the leading figures of the Frankfurt School unwilling to assist Benjamin financially for his flight from the Nazis, Fries argues, but they also ran an extensive cover-up campaign to disingenuously present themselves as his benevolent benefactors.

Prior to his suicide, Benjamin was financially dependent on the Institute for a monthly stipend. However, the Frankfurt scholars despised the influence of Brecht and revolutionary Marxism on his work. Adorno had no compunction about describing Brecht with the anticommunist epithet “savage” when explaining to Horkheimer that Benjamin needed to be “definitively” liberated from his influence.[28] It is not surprising, then, that Benjamin feared losing his stipend due, in part, to Adorno’s critiques of his work and refusal to publish a section of his Baudelaire study in 1938.[29] Horkheimer explicitly told Benjamin around the same time, as fascist forces were closing in around him, that he should prepare for the discontinuation of his sole source of income since 1934. He claimed, moreover, that his hands were “unfortunately tied” when he refused to fund Benjamin’s journey to safety by paying for a steamship ticket to the U.S. that would have cost under $200.[30] This was literally “a month after transferring an extra $50,000 to an account at his exclusive disposal,” which was the “second time in eight months” that he had secured an additional $50,000 (the equivalent of just over 1 million dollars in 2022).[31] In July 1939, Friedrich Pollock also obtained an additional $130,000 for the Institute from Felix Weil, the wealthy son of a capitalist millionaire whose profits from a grain enterprise in Argentina, property speculation and meat trading funded the Frankfurt School.

It was political will, not money, that was lacking. Indeed, Fries concurs with Rolf Wiggershaus that Horkheimer’s cruel decision to abandon Benjamin was part of a broader pattern according to which the directors “systematically placed the realization of their private life goals above the interests of everyone else,” while propagating the false appearance of “outstanding commitment to those persecuted by the Nazi regime.”[32] As if to put the last nail in Benjamin’s coffin, his literary estate was later purged of its more explicit Marxist elements according to Helmut Heißenbüttel: “In everything Adorno did for Benjamin’s work, the Marxist-materialist side remains erased. […] The work appears in a reinterpretation in which the surviving controversial correspondent imposes his view.”[33]

Todd Cronan has argued that there was a palpable shift in the Frankfurt School’s overall political orientation around 1940—the year Pollock wrote “State Capitalism”—as it increasingly turned its back on class analysis in favor of privileging race, culture and identity. “It often seems to me,” Adorno wrote to Horkheimer that year, “that everything that we used to see from the point of view of the proletariat has been concentrated today with frightful force upon the Jews.”[34] According to Cronan, Adorno and Horkheimer “opened up the possibility from within Marxism of seeing class as a matter of power, of domination, rather than economics (the Jews were not a category defined by economic exploitation). And once that possibility was raised, it became the dominant mode of analysis on the left at large.”[35] In other words, the Frankfurt theorists helped set the stage for a more general shift away from historical materialist analysis grounded in political economy toward culturalism and identity politics, which would become consolidated in the neoliberal era.

It is highly revealing in this regard that the Institute undertook a massive study of “Anti-Semitism in American Labor” in 1944-45, under Pollock’s stewardship. Fascism had risen to power with extensive financial backing by the capitalist ruling class, and it was still on the war path around the world. Yet, the Frankfurt scholars were hired to focus on the purported anti-Semitism of U.S. workers rather than on the capitalist funders of fascism or the actual Nazis who were fighting a war against the Soviets. They reached the remarkable conclusion that the “communist-run” unions were the worst of all, and that they thus had “fascist” tendencies: “The members of these unions are less communist than fascist-minded.”[36] The study in question was commissioned by the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). One of the JLC’s leaders, David Dubinsky, had numerous ties to the Central Intelligence Agency and was involved, along with the likes of CIA operatives Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, in the Company’s expansive campaign to take over organized labor and purge it of communists.[37] By identifying the communist unions as the most anti-Semitic, and even “fascist,” the Frankfurt School appears to have provided some of the ideological justification for destroying the communist labor movement.

Some might consider the Institute for Social Research’s collaboration with U.S. authorities and self-censorship justified due to the anti-communist, and sometimes philofascist, attitudes of the U.S. power elite, not to mention the enemy alien acts and decrees.[38] Indeed, based on a detailed overview of the Institute’s history and activities on January 21, 1944, the Federal Bureau of Investigation mobilized numerous stool pigeons to spy on the scholars for about ten years due to the concern that the Institute might be serving as a communist front.[39] The informants included close associates of the Institute like Karl Wittfogel, other professional colleagues and even neighbors. The Bureau found little to no evidence of suspicious behavior, however, and its officers appear to have been reassured when some of their snitches, who were personally close to the Frankfurt scholars, explained to them that the critical theorists “believe there is no difference between Hitler and Stalin as to purpose and tactics.”[40] Indeed, as we will see below, they would claim as much in some of their writings, including when they had settled in West Germany and were no longer under the direct threat of FBI surveillance and potential detainment or deportation.

Malign the East, Defend—While in the Pay of—the West

In 1949-50, the intellectual front men of the Frankfurt School moved the Institute back to West Germany, one of the epicenters for the intellectual world war against communism. “In this milieu,” writes Perry Anderson, “in which the KPD [Communist Party of Germany] was to be banned and the SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] formally abandoned any connection with Marxism, the depoliticization of the Institute was completed.”[41] No less than Jürgen Habermas—who occasionally outflanked Adorno and Horkheimer to the left in the early years—accused the latter of “opportunist conformity which was at odds with the critical tradition.”[42] Indeed, Horkheimer had continued his censorship of the Institute’s work, refusing to publish two articles by Habermas that were critical of liberal democracy and spoke of “revolution,” daring to suggest the possibility of an emancipation from “the shackles of bourgeois society.”[43] In his private correspondence, Horkheimer candidly submitted to Adorno that “it is simply not possible to have admissions of this sort in the research report of an Institute that exists on the public funds of this shackling society.”[44] This appears to be a forthright admission that the economic base of the Frankfurt School was the driving force behind its ideology, or at least its public discourse.

It is important to recall, in this regard, that five of the eight members of the Horkheimer circle had worked as analysts and propagandists for the U.S. government and national security state, which “had a vested interest in the continuing loyalty of the Frankfurt School because a number of its members were working on sensitive government research projects.”[45] While Horkheimer and Adorno were not amongst them, since they received more support from the Institute, the latter of the two originally emigrated to the United States to work for Paul Lazarsfeld’s Office of Radio Research, one of the “de facto adjuncts of government psychological warfare programs.”[46] This center for communication studies received a substantial grant of $67,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation and worked very closely with the U.S. national security state (government money made up over 75 percent of its annual budget). The Rockefeller Foundation also funded Horkheimer’s first return to Germany in April 1948, when he took up a guest professorship at Frankfurt University.

Lest we forget, the Rockefellers are one of the greatest gangster families in the history of U.S. capitalism, and they use their foundation as a tax shelter that allows them to mobilize a portion of their stolen wealth “in the corruption of intellectual activity and culture.”[47] They were, moreover, directly involved in the national security state during the time of the Frankfurt School’s sponsorship. After serving as the director of the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (a federal propaganda agency whose work resembled that of the Office of Strategic Services and the CIA), Nelson Rockefeller became, in 1954, the “‘super-coordinator’ for clandestine intelligence operations, with the title of Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Strategy.”[48] He also allowed the Rockefeller Fund to be used as a conduit for CIA money, very much like a large number of other capitalist foundations that have an extensive history of working hand-in-glove with the Company (as revealed by the Church Committee report and other sources).

With all of these ties to the capitalist ruling class and the U.S. empire, it is nowise surprising that the U.S. government supported the Institute’s move back to West Germany with a very significant grant in 1950 of 435,000 DM ($103,695, or the equivalent of $1,195,926 dollars in 2022).[49] These funds were administered by John McCloy, the US High Commissioner of Germany. McCloy was a core member of the U.S. power elite, who had worked as a jurist and banker for big oil and IG Farben, and who granted extensive pardons and commutations to Nazi war criminals. After having served as one of the architects of the US national security state during WWII, he—in a career move indicative of the intimate relationship between the deep state and the capitalist ruling class—went on to become the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, of the Council of Foreign Relations, and of the Ford Foundation. In addition to the funds provided by McCloy, the Institute also received support from private donors, the Society of Social Research, and the city of Frankfurt. In 1954, it even signed a research contract with the Mannesmann corporation, which “had been a founding member of the Anti-Bolshevik League and had financed the Nazi Party.”[50] During WWII, Mannesmann used slave labor, and its Chairman of the Board was the Nazi Wilhelm Zangen, the War Economy Leader of the Third Reich.[51] The Frankfurt School’s postwar contract with this company was for a sociological study of worker’s opinions, with the implicit implication that such a study would help management stall or prevent socialist organizing.

Perhaps the clearest explanation of why capitalist governments and the corporatocracy would support the Institute for Social Research is to be found in the words of Shepard Stone. The latter, we should note, had a background in journalism and military intelligence before going on to serve as the Director of International Affairs at the Ford Foundation, where he worked closely with the CIA in funding cultural projects around the world (Stone even became the President of the International Association for Cultural Freedom, which was the new name given to the Congress for Cultural Freedom in a rebranding effort after its CIA origins had been revealed). When Stone was the director of public affairs for the High Commission for Occupied Germany in the 1940s, he sent a personal note to the U.S. State Department to encourage it to extend Adorno’s passport: “The Institute of Frankfurt is helping to train German leaders who will know something of democratic techniques. I believe it is important for our over-all democratic objectives in Germany that such men as Professor Adorno have an opportunity to work in that country.”[52] The Institute was doing the kind of ideological work that the U.S. state and capitalist ruling class wanted to—and did—support.

Meeting, and even surpassing, the dictates of ideological conformity to the “shackling society” that funded the Institute, Horkheimer openly expressed his fulsome support for the U.S.’s anti-communist puppet government in West Germany, whose intelligence services had been stocked with former Nazis, as well as its imperial project in Vietnam (which he judged necessary to stop the Chinese).[53] Speaking at one of the Amerika-Häuser in Germany, which were propaganda outposts in the anti-communist Kulturkampf, he solemnly declared in May 1967 that “In America, when it is necessary to conduct a war, – and now listen to me […] it is not so much a question of the defense of the homeland, but it is essentially a matter of the defense of the constitution, the defense of the rights of man.”[54] The high priest of critical theory is here describing a country that was founded as a settler colony, whose genocidal elimination of the indigenous population seamlessly merged with a project of imperialist expansion that has arguably left the bloodiest footprint—as MLK Jr. argued in April 1967—on the history of the modern world (including some 37 military and CIA interventions between the end of WWII and 1967, when Horkheimer broadcast this ignominious claim via a U.S. propaganda platform).[55]

Although Adorno often indulged in the petty-bourgeois politics of complicit passivity, avoiding public pronouncements on major political events, the few statements he did make were strikingly reactionary. For instance, in 1956, he co-authored an article with Horkheimer in defense of the imperialist invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France, which aimed at seizing the Suez Canal and overthrowing Nasser (an action condemned by the United Nations). Referring to Nasser, one of the prominent anti-colonial leaders of the non-aligned movement, as “a fascist chieftain […] who conspires with Moscow,” they exclaimed: “No one even ventures to point out that these Arab robber states have been on the lookout for years for an opportunity to fall upon Israel and to slaughter the Jews who have found refuge there.”[56] According to this pseudo-dialectical inversion, it is the Arab states that are “robbers,” not the settler colony working with core imperialist countries to infringe upon the self-determination of Arabs. We would be well served to recall Lenin’s trenchant rejection of such sophistry, which is characteristic of much of what counts for “dialectics” in the global theory industry: “Not infrequently have dialectics served […] as a bridge to sophistry. But we remain dialecticians and we combat sophistry not by denying the possibility of all transformations in general, but by analyzing the given phenomenon in its concrete setting and development.”[57] Such concrete, materialist analysis is precisely what is lacking in idealist inversions à la Adorno and Horkheimer.

The front men of the Frankfurt School published one of their most overtly political texts the same year. Rather than supporting the global movement for anticolonial liberation and the building of a socialist world, they celebrate—with only a few minor exceptions—the superiority of the West, while repeatedly disparaging the Soviet Union and China. Invoking stock racist descriptions of the “barbarians” in the East, whom they describe using the overtly sub-humanizing vocabulary of “beasts” and “hordes,” they flatly proclaim that they are “fascists” who have chosen “slavery.”[58] Adorno even chastises Germans who mistakenly think that “the Russians stand for socialism,” reminding them that the Russians are actually “fascists,” adding that the “industrialists and bankers”—with whom he here identifies—already know this.[59]

“Everything the Russians write slips into ideology, into crude, stupid twaddle,” Adorno brazenly asserts in this text, as if he had read everything they wrote, even though, per usual, he does not cite a single source (nor did he even read Russian, as far as I know).[60] Claiming that there is “an element of re-barbarization” in their thinking, which is also to be found in Marx and Engels according to him, he unabashedly asserts that it is “more reified than in the most advanced bourgeois thought.”[61] As if this was not enough disingenuous grandstanding, Adorno has the chutzpah to describe this writing project with Horkheimer as a “strictly Leninist manifesto.”[62] This is in a discussion in which they affirm that they “are not calling on anyone to take action,” and Adorno explicitly elevates bourgeois thought and what he refers to as “culture at its most advanced” above the supposed barbarism of socialist thinking.[63] Moreover, it is in this context that Horkheimer doubled down on their social chauvinism by averring, in a world-historical conclusion that provoked no rebuttal on the part of his “Leninist” collaborator: “I believe that Europe and America are probably the best civilizations that history has produced up to now as far as prosperity and justice are concerned. The key point now is to ensure the preservation of these gains.”[64] This was in 1956, when the U.S. was still largely racially segregated, was involved in anti-communist witch hunts and destabilization campaigns around the world, and had recently extended its imperial reach by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), while the European powers were waging violent struggles to hold onto their colonies or convert them into neo-colonies.

“Fascism and Communism Are the Same”

One of the most consistent political claims advanced by Adorno and Horkheimer is that there is a “totalitarian” equivalence between fascism and communism, if it manifests itself in socialist state-building projects, anticolonial movements of the “Third World,” or even New Left mobilizations in the Western world. In all three cases, those who think they are breaking out of the “shackling society,” are only making things worse. The patent fact that Western capitalist countries offered no significant bulwark against fascism, which arose within the capitalist world, and that it was precisely the Soviet Union that ultimately defeated it, does not seem to have caused them to reflect on the viability of this benighted and simplistic thesis (which is to say nothing of the importance of socialism to anti-colonial movements and the uprisings of the 1960s). In fact, for all of his moral opining on the horrors of Auschwitz, Adorno appears to have forgotten who actually liberated the infamous concentration camp (the Red Army).

Horkheimer had formulated his version of horseshoe theory with particular clarity in a limited circulation pamphlet published in 1942, which broke with the Aesopian language of many of the Institute’s other publications. Directly accusing Friedrich Engels of utopianism, he averred that the socialization of the means of production had led to an increase in repression, and ultimately to an authoritarian state. “The bourgeoisie earlier held the government in check through its property,” according to this millionaire’s son, whereas in new societies socialism simply “did not function,” except to produce the mistaken belief that one was—through the party, honored leader, or the supposed march of history—“acting in the name of something greater than oneself.”[65] Horkheimer’s position in this piece is perfectly in line with anarcho-anti-communism, which is a very widespread ideology within the Western Left: a “classless democracy” is supposed to emerge spontaneously from the people through “free agreement,” without the supposedly pernicious influence of parties or states. As Domenico Losurdo has insightfully pointed out, the Nazi war machine was ravaging the USSR in the early 1940s, and Horkheimer’s call for socialists to abandon the state and party centralization therefore amounted to nothing less than a demand that they capitulate before the Nazis’s genocidal rampage.[66]

Whereas there are vague suggestions at the end of Horkheimer’s 1942 pamphlet that there might be something desirable in socialism, later texts would bring into full relief their unequivocal rejection of it. For instance, when Adorno and Horkheimer were considering making a public statement on their relationship to the Soviet Union, the former sent the following draft of a planned co-authored piece to the latter: “Our philosophy, as a dialectical critique of the overall social tendency of the age, stands in the sharpest opposition to the politics and doctrine that emanates from the Soviet Union. We are unable to see anything in the practice of the military dictatorships disguised as people’s democracies other than a new form of repression.”[67] It is worth noting in this regard, given the overwhelming lack of materialist analysis of actually existing socialism on the part of Adorno and Horkheimer, that even the CIA recognized that the Soviet Union was not a dictatorship. In a report dated March 2, 1955, the Agency clearly stated: “Even in Stalin’s time there was collective leadership. The Western idea of a dictator within the Communist setup is exaggerated. Misunderstandings on that subject are caused by lack of comprehension of the real nature and organization of the Communist power structure.”[68]

In 1959, Adorno published a text entitled “The Meaning of Working through the Past” in which he recycled the “shameful truth” of “philistine wisdom” referenced in this earlier draft, namely that—in complete conformity with the dominant Cold War ideology in the West—fascism and communism are the same because they are two forms of “totalitarianism.” Openly rejecting the vantage point of “political-economic ideology,” which obviously distinguishes these two warring camps, Adorno claimed to have privileged access to a deeper social-psychological dynamic that unites them.[69] As “authoritarian personalities,” he asserted ex cathedra, fascists and communists “possess weak egos” and compensate by identifying themselves with “real-existing power” and “great collectives.”[70] The very notion of an “authoritarian personality” is thus a deceitful crotchet aimed at synthesizing opposites via psychologizing pseudo-dialectics. It begs the question, moreover, of why psychology and particular ways of thinking appear, at least here, to be more central to historical explanation than material forces and class struggle.

In spite of this attempt to psychologically identify fascists and communists, Adorno nonetheless suggested, in the same text, that the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union could be retrospectively justified due to the fact that the Bolsheviks were—like Hitler himself had said—a menace to Western civilization. “The threat that the East will engulf the foothills of Western Europe is obvious,” Adorno claimed, “and whoever fails to resist it is literally guilty of repeating Chamberlain’s appeasement.”[71] The analogy is revealing because, in this case, it would mean appeasing the “fascist” communists if one did not directly fight against them. In other words, as obscure and convoluted as his phraseology is, this appears to be a clarion call for military opposition to the spread of communism (which is perfectly in line with Horkheimer’s support for the U.S.’s imperialist war in Vietnam).

Adorno’s fierce rejection of actually existing socialism was also on full display in his exchange with Alfred Sohn-Rethel. The latter asked him if Negative Dialectics had anything to say about changing the world, and if the Chinese Cultural Revolution was part of the ‘affirmative tradition’ he condemned. Adorno replied that he rejected the “moral pressure” from “official Marxism” to put philosophy into practice.[72] “Nothing but despair can save us,” he asserted with his signature panache of petty-bourgeois melancholia.[73] Adding, for good measure, that the events in communist China were no cause for hope, he explained with memorable insistence that his entire thinking life had been resolutely pitted against this form—and presumably others—of socialism: “I would have to deny everything I have thought my whole life long if I were to admit to feeling anything but horror at the sight of it.”[74] Adorno’s open indulgence in despair and simultaneous abhorrence of actually existing socialism are not simply idiosyncratic, personal reactions but are affects arising from a class position. “The representatives of the modern labor movement,” Lenin wrote in 1910, “find that they have plenty to protest against but nothing to despair about.”[75] In a description that anticipated Adorno’s petty-bourgeois gloom, the leader of the world’s first successful socialist revolution then proceeded to explain that “despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.”[76]

Adorno also pursued this line of thinking, or rather feeling, in his criticisms of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist student activism of the 1960s. He agreed with Habermas—who had himself been a member of the Hitler Youth and studied for four years under the “Nazi philosopher” (his description of Heidegger)—that this activism amounted to “Left fascism.” He defended West Germany as a functioning democracy rather than a “fascist” state, as some of the students argued.[77] At the same time, he quarreled with Marcuse over what he judged to be the latter’s misguided support for the students and the antiwar movement, explicitly claiming that the answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’, for good dialecticians, is nothing at all: “the goal of real praxis would be its own abolition.”[78] He thereby inverted, through dialectical sophistry, one of the central tenets of Marxism, notably the primacy of practice. It is in this context of turning Marx on his head that he repeated, once again, the ideological mantra of the capitalist world: “fascism and communism are the same.”[79] Even though he referred to this slogan as a “petit bourgeois truism,” apparently acknowledging its ideological status, he unabashedly embraced it.[80]

Idealism is the hallmark of Adorno and Horkheimer’s reflections on actually existing socialism and, more generally, progressive social movements. Rather than studying the projects that they denigrate with any of the rigor and earnestness with which they sometimes approach other topics, they rely on stock representations and anti-communist canards devoid of concrete analysis (although they occasionally reference a few of the anti-communist publications, like those by the rabid cold warrior Arthur Koestler, that were amply funded and supported by imperialist states and their intelligence services).[81] This is particularly true in the case of their vilification of socialist state building projects. Their writings on the topic are not only remarkably devoid of references to any rigorous scholarship on the matter, but they proceed as if such serious engagement was not even necessary. These texts genuflect to the dominant ideology, stalwartly insisting on the anti-Stalinist bona fides of their authors, without being concerned with any of the details, nuances or complexities.

One cannot help but wonder, then, if the students were not correct when, in the late 1960s, they circulated leaflets asserting that these Frankfurt scholars were “left idiots of the authoritarian state” who were “critical in theory, conformist in practice.”[82] Hans-Jürgen Krahl, one of Theodor Adorno’s doctoral students, went so far as to publicly besmirch his mentor and the other Frankfurt professors as “Scheißkritische Theoretiker [shit-critical theorists].”[83] He voiced this lapidary critique of these stalwart defenders of ABS Theory when he was being arrested, at the behest of Adorno, for a university occupation related to his involvement in the Socialist German Students’ League. The fact that the author of Negative Dialectics called the police to have his own students arrested is a standard reference point amongst his political critics. As we have seen, however, it is only the very tip of the iceberg. Far from being a bizarre anomaly, it is consistent with his politics, his social function within the intellectual apparatus, his class standing, and his overall orientation within global class struggle.

The Tuis of Western “Marxism”

Brecht proposed the neologism “Tuis” to refer to intellectuals (Intellektuellen) who, as subjects of a commodified culture, get everything backwards (hence Tellekt-uellen-in). He had shared his ideas for a Tui-Novel with Benjamin in the 1930s, and he later wrote a play that emerged out of his earlier notes, entitled Turandot or The Whitewashers’ Congress. Having returned to the German Democratic Republic after WWII to contribute to the socialist state building project, unlike the Frankfurt scholars who settled in West Germany with funding from the capitalist ruling class, Turandot was in part written as a satirical critique of these Western “Marxists.”

In the play, the Tuis are presented as professional whitewashers who receive a handsome salary for making things appear the opposite of what they are. “The whole country is governed by injustice,” Sen states in Turandot, before providing a concise summary of ABS Theory: “and in the Tui Academy all you get to learn is why it has to be that way.”[84] Tui training, like the work of the Institute for Social Research, teaches us that there is no alternative to the dominant order, and it thereby forecloses the possibility of system change. In one of the most striking scenes, the Tuis are shown preparing for the whitewashers’ congress. Nu Shan, one of the teachers in the Academy, operates a pulley system that can raise or lower a basket of bread in front of the speaker’s face. In training a young man named Shi Me to become a Tui, he tells him to speak on the topic “Why Kai Ho’s position is false” (Kai Ho is a revolutionary resembling Mao Zedong). Nu Shan explains that he will raise the bread basket above his head when Shi Me says something wrong and lower it in front of his face when it’s correct. After much raising and lowering in relation to Shi Me’s ability to conform to the dominant ideology, his arguments crescendo to the point of shrill anti-communist slander devoid of rational argumentation: “Kai Ho isn’t a philosopher at all, but just a loudmouth – the basket sinks – a troublemaker, a power-hungry good-for-nothing, an irresponsible gambler, a muckraker, a rapist, an unbeliever, a bandit and a criminal. The basket is hovering just in front of the speaker’s mouth. A tyrant!”[85] This scene presents, in microcosm, the relationship between professional intellectuals and their financial backers within class societies: the former earn their bread as academic free agents by providing the best possible ideology for the latter. It is a matter of food for thought.

What the Frankfurt School had to offer the bread givers of “the shackling society” was nowise insignificant. Mobilizing pseudo-dialectical sophistry, they defended in highfalutin academic language the State Department line that communism is indistinguishable from fascism, even though 27 million Soviets had given their lives to defeat the Nazi war machine in WWII (to mention but one of the most blatant forms of opposition between communism and fascism, although there are of course many others since they are mortal enemies). Moreover, by displacing class struggle in favor of an idealist critical theory severed from practical political engagements, they shifted the very foundations of analysis away from historical materialism toward a generalized theoretical critique of domination, power, and identity thinking.

Adorno and Horkheimer thus ultimately played the role of radical recuperators. Cultivating an appearance of radicality, they recuperated the very activity of critique within a pro-Western, anti-communist ideology. Like other members of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia in Europe and the United States, which formed the basis of Western Marxism, they publicly expressed their social-chauvinistic disgust with what they described as the savage barbarians in the East, who dared to take up the weapon of Marxist theory à la Lenin and use it to act on the principle that they could rule themselves. From the relative comforts of their capitalist-funded professorial citadel in the West, they defended the superiority of the Euro-American world that promoted them against what they referred to as the levelling project of the bolshevized barbarians in the uncivilized periphery.

Furthermore, their generalized critique of domination is part of a larger embrace of an anti-party and anti-state ideology, which ultimately leaves the Left bereft of the tools of disciplined organization necessary to wage successful struggles against the well-funded political, military and cultural apparatus of the capitalist ruling class. This is perfectly in line with their overall politics of defeat, which Adorno explicitly embraced through his anti-Marxist defense of inaction as the highest form of praxis. The leaders of the Tui Academy in Frankfurt, amply funded and supported by the capitalist ruling class and imperialist states, including the U.S. national security state, were thus ultimately global spokesmen for an anti-communist politics of capitalist accommodation. Wringing their hands at the infelicities of consumer society, which they sometimes described in remarkable detail, they nonetheless refused to do anything practical about them because of the bedrock assumption that the socialist cure to such misfortunes is much worse than the disease itself.

* This article draws on and further develops a detailed analysis whose extensive references further support the claims advanced here: Gabriel Rockhill, “Critical and Revolutionary Theory” in Domination and Emancipation: Remaking Critique, Ed. Daniel Benson (London: Roman & Littlefield International, 2021). I am deeply grateful to the friends and colleagues who provided crucial feedback on earlier drafts of this article, including those who expressed reservations about some of the arguments (for which I accept full responsibility): Larry Busk, Helmut-Harry Loewen, Jennifer Ponce de León, Salvador Rangel, and Yves Winter.



[1] See my analysis of Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser in “Critical and Revolutionary Theory.”

[2] See, for instance, Thomas W. Braden, “I’m Glad the CIA Is ‘Immoral,’” Saturday Evening Post (May 20, 1967). Judging from the fact that W.W. Rostow shared, via CIA Director Richard Helms, Braden’s article with the President of the United States prior to its publication, it is most likely what the Agency calls a “limited hangout.” As former executive assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA, Victor Marchetti, explained, a limited hangout is a public relations tactic used by clandestine professionals: “When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further” (“CIA to Admit Hunt Involvement in Kennedy Slaying,” The Spotlight, August 14, 1978:

[3] See Gabriel Rockhill, Radical History & the Politics of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 207-8 and Giles Scott-Smith, “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the End of Ideology, and the Milan Conference of 1955: ‘Defining the Parameters of Discourse,’” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37 No. 3 (2002): 437-455. The Paris branch of the Institute for Social Research closely collaborated with Raymond Aron, who was in charge of overseeing which work was appropriate for a French audience (see Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Correspondance: 1927-1969, Vol. I, eds. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, trans. Didier Renault (Paris: Klincksieck: 2016), 146. I cite this French edition here and elsewhere because Adorno and Horkheimer’s complete correspondence is not available in English, as far as I know). In the postwar era, Aron became the philosophic figurehead of the CCF and an indefatigable anti-communist ideologue whose public visibility was immensely enhanced by CIA support.

[4] By “operative,” I mean that Lasky worked closely with the CIA—as well as other U.S. government agencies—in his expansive anti-communist propaganda efforts, not that he was himself a CIA “case officer” (which has not been confirmed, as far as I know). Lasky’s collaboration with the CIA and other agencies has been proven by numerous internal documents, as well as the work of researchers like Frances Stonor Saunders, Michael Hochgeschwender, Hugh Wilford and Peter Coleman, amongst others. Some of Lasky’s correspondence with Adorno is available in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Correspondance: 1927-1969, Vol. I-IV, eds. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, trans. Didier Renault (Paris: Klincksieck: 2016).

[5] See Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. III, 291.

[6] See Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. III, 348.

[7] See Michael Hochgeschwender, Freiheit in der Offensive? Der Kongreß für kulturelle Freiheit und die Deutschen (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1998), 488.

[8] Hochgeschwender, Freiheit in der Offensive?, 563.

[9] See, for instance, Minqi Li, “The 21st Century: Is There an Alternative (to Socialism)?” Science & Society 77:1 (January 2013): 10-43; Vicente Navarro, “Has Socialism Failed? An Analysis of Health Indicators under Capitalism and Socialism,” Science & Society 57:1 (spring 1993): 6-30. Tricontinental has provided numerous in-depth analyses of actually existing socialism and how it compares to actually existing capitalism:

[10] John Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 42.

[11] Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 24; Ingar Solty, “Max Horkheimer, a Teacher without a Class,” Jacobin (February 15, 2020):; Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile, 13.

[12] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1989), 33; Steven Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 94.

[13] Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, 33.

[14] Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995), 104.

[15] Abromeit, Max Horkheimer, 150. Any scant and circumspect hope that Horkheimer had placed in the Soviet Union dissipated in the early 1930s, and “after 1950, Horkheimer began defending the liberal-democratic political traditions of the West in a manner that was […] one-sided” (Abromeit, Max Horkheimer, 15, also see 181).

[16] “Critical theory,” Horkheimer claimed, “is neither ‘deeply rooted’ like totalitarian propaganda nor ‘detached’ like the liberalist intelligentsia” (Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and others (New York: Continuum, 2002), 223-4).

[17] Marie-Josée Levallée, “October and the Prospects for Revolution: The Views of Arendt, Adorno, and Marcuse,” The Russian Revolution as Ideal and Practice: Failures, Legacies, and the Future of Revolution, eds. Thomas Telios et al. (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 173.

[18] Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 2.

[19] Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 133. Also see Solty, “Max Horkheimer, a Teacher without a Class” and Rose, The Melancholy Science, 2.

[20] Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 181.

[21] Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 181. “Even in his private letters,” Müller-Doohm writes, “until well into the mid-1930s, we find no more than rather generalized, pessimistic mood-pictures, and no unambiguous statements on the political situation” (181).

[22] Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, 33. Thomas Wheatland explains that the Horkheimer Circle in New York chose to “remain silent about the major political questions of the day and […concealed] its Marxism almost completely. […] Horkheimer remained unwilling to risk the possible repercussions of political activism or even political engagement with the major topics of the era” (The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 99).

[23] See Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2017), 72 and 197.

[24] See Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile, 72 (also see 141).

[25] Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 136. Brecht maintained that “the Frankfurt School perpetrated a bourgeois sleight of hand by posturing as a Marxist institute while at the same time insisting that revolution could no longer depend on insurrection by the working class, and declining to take part in the overthrow of capitalism” (Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 77).

[26] Cited in Ulrich Fries, “Ende der Legende: Hintergründe zu Walter Benjamins Tod,” The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory 96:4 (2021), 421, 422. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Helmut-Harry Loewen, who drew my attention to this important article and shared his partial translation of it with me.

[27] Cited in Fries, “Ende der Legende,” 422, 422.

[28] See Adorno’s letter to Horkheimer on January 26, 1936, published in Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. I, 110.

[29] See the epistolary exchange between them in Ronald Taylor, ed., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1977), 100-141.

[30] Cited in Fries, “Ende der Legende,” 409.

[31] Fries, “Ende der Legende,” 409, 424.

[32] Fries, “Ende der Legende,” 414.

[33] Cited in Fries, “Ende der Legende,” 410.

[34] Quoted in Jack Jacobs, The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism (Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, 2014), 59-60.

[35] Todd Cronan, Red Aesthetics: Rodchenko, Brecht, Eisenstein (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021), 132.

[36] Cited in Cronan, Red Aesthetics, 151.

[37] On the JLC’s leadership, see Catherine Collomp, “‘Anti-Semitism among American Labor’: A Study by the Refugee Scholars of the Frankfurt School of Sociology at the End of World War II,” Labor History 52:4 (November 2011): 417-439. On Dubinsky’s work with the CIA, see the documents available on the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room (, as well as Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008) and Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 1999).

[38] See David Jenemann, Adorno in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 181-2.

[39] See Adorno’s FBI file:

[40] See Adorno’s FBI file:

[41] Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, 34.

[42] Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 297. Habermas himself, we should recall, was a member of the Hitler Youth and would later support the Persian Gulf War and NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia.

[43] See Horkheimer’s jeremiad against Habermas and Marxism in his letter to Adorno on September 27, 1958 in Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. IV, 386-399.

[44] Quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 554.

[45] Jenemann, Adorno in America, 182.

[46] Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.

[47] Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 397.

[48] John Loftus, America’s Nazi Secret (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, LLC, 2011), 228.

[49] See Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 434.

[50] Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 479.

[51] See Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 2001), 281.

[52] Cited in Jenemann, Adorno in America, 184. Adorno said as much himself in his affidavit: “The Institute of Social Research at Frankfort [sic] University was founded with the support of HICOG and largely supported by American means. It is the aim of this Institution to develop an integration of American and German research methods and to help in the education of German students in the spirit of American democracy” (Jenemann, Adorno in America, 184).

[53] According to Wiggershaus: “Horkheimer did not, like Paul Tillich, defend socialism or, like Hugo Sinzheimer or Hermann Heller, belong to the committed democrats and declared opponents of Nazism” (The Frankfurt School, 112). On Adenauer, see Rockhill, “Critical and Revolutionary Theory,” as well as Philip Agee and Louis Wolf, Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe (New York: Dorset Press, 1978).

[54] Quoted in Wolfgang Kraushaar, ed., Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung: Von der Flaschenpost zum Molotowcocktail 1946-1995, Vol. I: Chronik (Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard GmbH & Co. Verlags KG, 1998), 252-3.

[55] See William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (London: Zed Books, 2014).

[56] Quoted in Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 297.

[57] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 309.

[58] The racialization of communists has been an important part of anti-communist ideology, as Domenico Losurdo explained in War and Revolution, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2015).

[59] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” New Left Review 65 (September-October 2019), 49.

[60] Adorno and Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” 59.

[61] Adorno and Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” 59.

[62] Adorno and Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” 57.

[63] Adorno and Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” 57, 59.

[64] Adorno and Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” 41. Horkheimer expressed similar pro-capitalist, anti-communist views on numerous occasions. For instance, in a long letter to Adorno dated September 27, 1958, he claimed that “revolution really means the passage to terror” and asserted that what must be defended is “the remainder of bourgeois civilization where the idea of individual freedom and authentic society still has its place” (Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance: 1927-1969, Vol. IV, 395). In 1968, to cite another example, he quite explicitly described his position as counter-revolutionary: “An open declaration that even a dubious democracy, for all its defects, is always better than the dictatorship which would inevitably result from a revolution today, seems to me necessary for the sake of truth” (Horkheimer, Critical Theory, viii). After recalling Horkheimer’s condemnation of the “savage barbarism of the East,” Stefan Müller-Doohm writes in his 700-page biography of Adorno that “Adorno and Horkheimer were in agreement in their assessment of the so-called Eastern bloc, i.e. the Soviet Union, but also communist China” (415). Regarding colonialism, Horkheimer wrote to Adorno that although “the European dream of permanent superiority in the colonial era” was “abominable,” it nevertheless had “its good sides” (Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. IV, 466).

[65] Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State,” Telos 15 (spring 1973): 16.

[66] See Domenico Losurdo, El Marxismo occidental: Cómo nació, cómo murió y cómo puede resucitar, trans. Alejandro García Mayo (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2019). This book, originally written in Italian, is being translated into English by Steven Colatrella for 1804 Books.

[67] Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, eds. Alfred Schmidt and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Vol. 18 (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1985), 73. Also see Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 334. Adorno went so far as to explicitly endorse the position of the militant anti-communist and CIA collaborator Arthur Koestler, writing that “communism has become a ‘rightwing party’ (which Koestler highlighted) and […] it has completely identified itself with Russian imperialism” (Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondance, Vol. IV, 655).

[68] See this document in the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room: I would like to express my gratitude to Colin Bodayle for drawing my attention to this document.

[69] Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 94.

[70] Adorno, Critical Models, 94.

[71] Adorno, Critical Models, 94.

[72] Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 438.

[73] Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 438.

[74] Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 438.

[75] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 16 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 332.

[76] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 16, 332.

[77] As I have argued in “Critical and Revolutionary Theory,” this assessment on the part of the students was fully justified.

[78] Adorno, Critical Models, 267. Adorno’s faux dialectical praise of inaction as the best form of action is reiterated in his correspondence with Marcuse regarding the student protests: “We withstood in our time, you no less than me, a much more dreadful situation—that of the murder of the Jews, without proceeding to praxis; simply because it was blocked to us. […] To put it bluntly: I think that you are deluding yourself in being unable to go on without participating in the student stunts, because of what is occurring in Vietnam or Biafra. If that really is your reaction, then you should not only protest against the horror of napalm bombs but also against the unspeakable Chinese-style tortures that the Vietcong carry out permanently” (Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 233 (January-February 1999), 127). He makes similar statements elsewhere, such as in his 1969 text on “Resignation” where he celebrates the “utopian moment in thinking” over and against any form of action: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. […] Thinking is actually the force of resistance” (Adorno, Critical Models, 293).

[79] Adorno, Critical Models, 268.

[80] Adorno, Critical Models, 268.

[81] Koestler was a major figure in the networks of the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom and MI6’s Information Research Department.

[82] Quoted in Esther Leslie, “Introduction to Adorno/Marcuse Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 233 (January-February 1999), 119 and Kraushaar, Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung, Vol. 1, 374.

[83] Kraushaar, Frankfurter Schule und Studentbewegung, Vol. 1, 398. Krahl was the only activist not released from jail the same night, and Adorno decided to press charges against him, like he had in 1964 against the student group Subversive Aktion, in spite of pressure to drop the charges.

[84] Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays: Six, eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Random House, 1998), 189.

[85] Brecht, Collected Plays: Six, 145.


Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He teaches at Villanova University and Graterford Prison, and he directs the Critical Theory Workshop at the Sorbonne. His recent books include Counter-History of the Present (2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought (2016) and Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014). Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill. For more information:

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