Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2024 > Collective Theory, Collective Guilt: The Frankfurt School in/and Exile | (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Collective Theory, Collective Guilt: The Frankfurt School in/and Exile | Aranya Majumder

Saturday 23 March 2024


In a statement made in November 2023, Jurgen Habermas made a statement in continued support of Israel’s right to exist, further stating that Israel’s attack on Palestine over the past months has been “justified in principle”. A second-generation Frankfurt School theorist, Habermas took up Horkheimer’s chair in 1964. Neither Horkheimer, Lowenthal, Fromm, and Marcuse—the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists, all of whom witnessed and survived Nazi oppression in Germany—were sympathetic to the cause of Zionism during their period of affiliation with the Institute; although their individual stances shifted over the years in their own way.

Tracing back the history of the Jewish community from a global perspective, exile, refuge, and the search for belonging have been a concurrent theme. The Jewish intellectuals’ exile, first to Switzerland, then to the U.S.A., following the perfervid rise of Fascism and anti-semitic sentiments in the Weimar Republic in 1933, played a fundamental role in their critical conceptualization. The works of the collective in exile, during which, anti-semitism was a focus of their collective intellectual project, resulted in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), authored by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, widely regarded as a fundamental work in the field of Social Psychology, which looked at the socio-economic-political and cultural markers that contributed to the rise of anti-semitism in Europe during the war years.

The Frankfurt School’s experience of exile and oppression, their exilic theorization, and their individual responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict—culminating in Habermas’ statement, brings forth the problematic of the present German stand on “Never Again”, and how perceptions of genocide warp dangerously when it emerges out of an earlier history of genocide and ethnic cleansing. “...standards of judgment slip completely when genocidal intentions are attributed to Israel’s actions,” Habermas’ statement insists. At this time, it is worthwhile to contemplate the implicit and explicit connotations of Judaism in the works, critical conceptualization and theorization of the members of the Frankfurt collective, and to ask how the intellectual production of survivors of one genocide fails in the face of another.

The Frankfurt School: Identity and Exile

The Frankfurt School holds a significant epistemological break in the analytical discourse of Post-Marx capitalist society. Comprising of perhaps some of the leading Jewish philosophers, sociologists, and economists of the period, the Frankfurt School was born out of The Institute of Social Research, Frankfurt, set up as an independently endowed research foundation in 1923. Considered a part of the 20th-century intellectual trend known as ‘critical theory’, anti-semitism was an integral thematic of their work in exile at the U.S.A, as a part of Columbia University, and an element as well as a tool in their study of the origins and development of authoritarianism.

Historically, the collective had Marxist leanings with interactions between the collective and the Marx Engels Institute run by the Bolsheviks in Moscow in the pre-war years. Although the terminology itself has come under scrutiny from social theorists and thinkers, the Frankfurt School is considered to have formative influence over what is broadly considered ‘Neo-Marxist’ thought, drawing upon the spheres of psychoanalysis and German idealism. The methodological outlook and practices of interdisciplinary studies and research also owe much of their origins to the Frankfurt School theorists, who were among the earliest to conceptualize and combine theoretical approaches with empirical studies. The intellectual impact and implications of their work were broad and widespread in the realm of social sciences.

The influence of Jewish heritage and upbringing, and forced exile because of their origins, along with their readings and re-assessments of ‘Karl Halevi’ (Karl Marx’s name following his Jewish father) provided the members of the collective with a unique social, critical, as well as a methodological worldview, the nuances of which I try to elucidate, in relation with their Jewish intellectual identity. It is widely opined that prior to the works of Althusser (1918-1990), the most significant scholarly critique/re-assessment of Communism came from Herbert Marcuse, a Jewish social theorist and philosopher, in his book Soviet Marxism, A Critical Analysis (1958). Marcuse would also be remembered as one of the foremost political authors of the 1960s with an immense impact on the European youth and the Marxist intellectual traditions. The collective consisted of minds like Henryk Grossmann, Carl Grünberg (the Institute’s first director), Julian Gumperz, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm among others, who were forced to exile and whose Jewish identity and heritage played a significant role in their theorization as well as in key stages of their individual lives. The Jewish philosopher/theorist Walter Benjamin was also associated with the collective, although he never operated at the forefront.

The Institute of Social Research can in no way be conceived as a Jewish institution, with a considerable number of non-Jewish members, although, what constituted the ‘core’ of the collective was without doubt Jewish. They were part of the Enlightenment tradition opposing authority and tradition, including religion. As secular Jews, they didn’t support organized religion or practice cultural Judaism, aligning with Heine, Marx, and Freud, for whom Judaism wasn’t a defining aspect of life or identity. Yet, elements of Judaism and Jewish identity exist with prominence in the works of the collective as well as an important thematic constituent of their work. The exile also led to interactions between the Jewish-German philosophers and the American socio-politico-cultural scenario, profusely influencing their work. The new conditions for research provided the collective with new outlooks in their study of anti-semitism and authoritarianism. The ‘exile years’ of the Frankfurt School lasted from 1933-1949, just before the separation of the German Union in October 1949. The years preceding the period in exile were known as the ‘Weimar years’. During the exile years, the two most important works of the collective were Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, and the aforementioned Authoritarian Personality. Both of these texts attempted to trace the social problematic of anti-semitism and confront hatred towards the Jews as a socio-political phenomenon. Growing concerns about rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States, coupled with a deeper understanding of Nazi antisemitism and influenced by their backgrounds, led to major shifts in Horkheimer and Adorno’s perspectives during this period.

The Reaction of Critical Theory to Anti-Semitism

Along with the alteration of the outlook of the theorists, their works impacted the larger field—new perspectives on anti-semitism and its significance largely altered the body-politic of critical theory itself. Initially, Marxist perspectives and ideas were used in the attempted de-construction of anti-semitism but a gradual shift in theorization took place along with the war years; Horkheimer’s 1939 essay, “The Jews and Europe” is an accurate example. The Marxist lineage oozing out of his prose, Horkheimer remarks, “The new anti-semitism is the emissary of the totalitarian order, which has developed from the liberal one,” and “No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the emigres put a mirror to the world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.” The shift in the intellectual outlook can be easily observed if we compare the earlier writings with later pieces. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer give us a more holistic insight into the problem, “Anti-Semitism today is for some a question affecting human destiny and for others a mere pretext. For the fascists the Jews are not a minority but the anti-race, the negative principle as such; on their extermination the world’s happiness depends.” Following the Holocaust, the emphasis gradually shifted from theoretical imperatives to the experience of the Jewish people, encountering threats and persecution. The initial critique of domination by the early Frankfurt School went beyond structural and institutional analyses. They emphasized the working classes’ thoughts and feelings as a crucial factor in shaping their existence, particularly in relation to their attitudes towards authority.

The Marxist dogmatic perceptions, although very prominent in their works during the 30s, a shift in approach and outlook came along in the works of the collective in the 1940s. The ideological basis of Anti-Semitism and its implicit and explicit socio-political connotations were thus discussed in length for the first time “Anti-Semitic behavior is unleashed in situations in which blinded people, deprived of subjectivity, are let loose as subjects.
Their actions-for those involved-are lethal yet meaningless reactions, of the kind that behaviorists register but fail to interpret. Anti-Semitism is a well-rehearsed pattern, indeed, a ritual of civilization, and the pogroms are the true ritual murders.” It may be inferred that new critical theorizations and perspectives came along with ideas of subjectivity, mass hegemony, and human psychology being used as analytical tools for the discursive formations, providing altered insights into the discourse of Anti-Semitism.
Significant in this context, is the fact that for a large section of the collective’s study of the Anti-Semitic character, a focal /vantage point of the study was labor anti-semitism. From the early 1940s, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Lowenthal published a significant number of scholarly essays on the thematic of mass and popular culture in the institute’s journal, Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences. A parallel relevant text was Walter Benjamin’s seminal work, The work of art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction, published in 1936, which elucidated the revolutionary implications, as well as the counter-revolutionary threats of mass culture as a whole. Thus, the study of anti-semitism by the Frankfurt school was attempting to bridge the epistemological as well as disciplinary gaps, while incorporating elements of psychoanalysis as Marxian thought, in relation to concepts such as nationalism, economic relations, religion, racism and sectarianism, etc. Horkheimer and Adorno provided an analysis of the post-bourgeois anti-Semitism that characterized fascism per se. In the histories of Intellectual traditions and political thought in post-war Europe, the Frankfurt School is largely placed within the theoretical locus of Marxist traditions and the corpus of ‘Neo-Marxism’, as well as within the ‘Marxist-psychoanalytic’ school of human psychology. Although the collective’s theoretical departure from the institutionalized doctrines of Marxism is given critical importance, their larger study of the body-politic of ‘Anti-Semitism’ remains somewhat overlooked, in lieu of the study, analyses, and critique of Marx and Marxist thought being the dominant discourse. Contextualising the timeline of the Second World War with the timeline of their works and publications, it may be inferred that their study of the nature and character of Anti-Semitism wasn’t merely an ‘intellectual project’, but a cognitive response to the political scenario of Europe as well as their own forced exile. “Established research on antisemitism and racism has so far largely failed to acknowledge the Frankfurt School and Critical Theorists’ role in shaping our understanding of the nature of social resentments, the politics of prejudice, and specifically of antisemitism (and authoritarianism) in the modern world.”

Survivor’s Guilt?: Criticism Then and Now

As mentioned earlier, apart from the fact that the contributions of the collective are often overlooked in the area of study of anti-semitism, the theoretical outlook of the collective has often come under criticism as well. Adorno’s famed quote from his 1949 publication, Cultural Criticism and Society, that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely.” Considering the moral-ethical pre-supposition secondary, the statement itself has a self-absorbing dualism. In his later work, Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno took to a less polemic stance on the cultural aspect, at the same time raising a moral question, reflecting on his earlier work, “It may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.” Questions can be raised on whether it is at all a ‘less cultural’ question, and if ‘survivor’s guilt’ was influencing Adorno’s statement, contextualising the fate of the European Jews who failed to flee unlike Adorno, as well as from a biographical perspective the tragedy of once compatriot Walter Benjamin’s death while being persecuted by Nazi forces.

In retrospect, we can identify two separate focal points of interest in the ‘Weimar Years’ (1923-1933) and the ‘exile years’ (1933-1949). While the study of authoritarianism remained an over-arching thematic, a shift in intellectual focus is evident going into the 1940-s, with new critical discursive perspectives bringing together elements of mass culture, sociology and human psychology to achieve a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes and contributes to the discourse of anti-semitism. “The striking disparity between the references to the Jews and anti-Semitism in the two collections of Horkheimer’s aphorisms thus mirrored a fundamental shift in the Frankfurt School’s attitude. As it moved further away from the traditional Marxist belief in the proletariat as the agent of positive totalization and more towards the conclusion that the best to be hoped for in the present world was the preservation of enclaves of negation, the attention its members paid to the Jewish question.” An underlying influence of Marxism was present, although not in the same way as it did during the ‘Weimar Years’. Thus, a focal shift in context with the political as well as cultural scenario of the period, along with the empirical experiences of the theorists, can be observed, concerning certain common thematics and perceptions that contributed to the discursive formations of the study of ‘anti-semitism’.

Certain factual nuances are important in this aspect. Horkheimer worked (or was forced to) for the OSS, the intelligence bureau of the then U.S.A., the forefather to the modern organization known as the CIA, from 1942-45. The functioning of the institute in the U.S.A. was somewhat dependent on the funding provided by the American Jewish community as well. So one observes as a counter-argument/angst that the collective’s work on anti-semitism was an intellectual project as well as an intelligence-generating machinery.

The Frankfurt School’s response to Israel may be linked twofold: to their aforementioned intellectual project and their groundedness in Judaism. As Jack Jacobs has argued, the theorists had “something of an inverse relationship between knowledge of Judaism and positive attitudes towards Israel. Fromm, the Critical Theorist with the strongest grounding in Judaism, was also the Theorist most inclined to continue to doubt the desirability of the State in the post-Holocaust era. Marcuse, the least Jewishly knowledgeable, was least inclined to continue to raise fundamental questions about the state.” Yet, once the state was formed, the cause against anti-semitism was discursively conflated with the body of the state of Israel, as attested recently by Habermas: “Jewish life and Israel’s right to exist are central elements worthy of special protection in light of the mass crimes of the Nazi era”. The Frankfurt School’s theorization on anti-semitism carries vital potential for critically and sympathetically approaching the systematic colonization and ethnic cleansing undertaken by Israel on Palestine; yet, in a failure of theory, the theorists themselves failed to observe the echoes of their own plight in the plight of the Palestinians. This, too, is a result of their intense groundedness in their background and experiences—yet in the present scenario, this is nothing short of absconding crucial responsibility through the narcissistic self-containment of the issue to Germany and German-Jewish identity.

(Author: Aranya Majumder, Presidency University, Kolkata)

Acknowledgement: This piece would not have reached its current form without the guidance and assistance of Sohini Sengupta.


  • Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Essay. In Prisms, 17–34. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. Negative dialectics: Transl. by E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
  • Catlin, Jonathon. “The Frankfurt School on Antisemitism, Authoritarianism, and Right-Wing Radicalism.” European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology 7, no. 2 (2020): 198–214.
  • Horkheimer, Max, Theodor W. Adorno, and Edmund Jephcott. “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment.” Essay. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noeri. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.
  • Horkheimer, Max. “ The Jews and Europe.” Essay. In Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, 77–95. Abingdon: Routledge, 1990.
  • Jacobs, Jack Lester. The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Jay, Martin. “The Jews and the Frankfurt School: Critical Theory’s Analysis of Anti-Semitism.” New German Critique, no. 19 (1980): 137–49.
  • Kellner, Douglas. “Erich Fromm, Judaism, and the Frankfurt School,” n.d.
  • Macey, David. “Frankfurt School.” Essay. In Dictionary of Critical Theory, 139–40. Penguin, 2000.
  • Rensmann, Lars. “How The Frankfurt School Has Shaped The Study Of Modern Antisemitism.” Introduction. In Politics Of Unreason: The Frankfurt School And The Origins Of Modern Antisemitism. State University of New York Pr, 2018.
  • Worrell, Mark P. “Authoritarianism, Critical Theory, and Political Psychology: Past, Present, Future.” Social Thought and Research, 1998, 3–33.
  • Worrell, Mark P. “The Other Frankfurt School.” Fast Capitalism 2, no. 1 (2006): 161–74.
ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.