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The Weimar Republic and critical theory.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music
A Series.





IN HIS ‘DIARY: Memories of Weimar’, Eric Hobsbawn reflects on Germany between the Wars. The Weimar Republic, he wrote, was to last only fourteen years,‘…and of these just six, sandwiched between a murderous birth…and the terminal…Great Slump, had a semblance of normality.’1 Yet Weimar Germany produced 15 Nobel Prizes, ‘…a number it took the subsequent 50 years to equal.’2In the nineteenth century, Paris might have been the centre for the arts. But by the twentieth, it was Berlin. Even Surrealism was a child of Dada. As Hobsbawn observes, in 1927 there were more than ‘…7,000… periodicals, 38,000 books (published) and the most formidable movie industry outside Hollywood….’3 Germany was the gateway for anti-Soviet Russians, and, with the fall of the Habsburg’s, Viennese intellectuals. In this flux, The Bauhaus was a paradigm. Here worked a ‘…collective of Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Swiss and Dutch.’4By 1933, however, history was turning. As a fifteen year old ‘communist militant’, Hobsbawn had emigrated to England. Refugees, such as himself – ethnically Jewish and politically Socialist – spread to the English speaking world. Although they may have had little impact on the professions of law and medicine, in the arts and sciences, it was ‘quite remarkable’. ‘This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought.’5

In the social sciences, the establishment of The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in 1923 was a part of this brief Weimar Renaissance.

In the social sciences, the establishment of The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in 1923 was a part of this brief Weimar Renaissance. Of course, it was immediately fragile. Virtually all the scholars were radical Jews. Better judgment resisted the temptation of incorporating ‘Marxist’ in its name. Jewish generosity and a socialist agenda was the midwife.

Felix Weil was the only son of a wealthy German merchant. In the 1890s, Herman Weil had moved to Argentina and exported grain back into Europe. Felix was sent to the newly created Frankfurt University. He went on to complete a doctorate in Political Science. His thesis: ‘Practical Methods for Socialism’. Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, takes up the story.

Drawing upon his own considerable funds inherited from his mother, as well as his father’s wealth, Weil began to support a number of radical ventures in Germany…The First Marxist Work Week…met in the summer of 1922…6

With the assistance of his friends, Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer, a more permanent Institute grew. Both Pollock and Horkheimer were Kantian and Hegelian scholars; together they went on to nurture and direct the Institute from 1929 until Pollock’s death in 1970. Independently endowed by the Weils, but under the umbrella of Frankfurt University, the school was housed in a modernist — Bauhaus inspired — building. A professorship at the University was a prerequisite for the Directorship of the Institute. In 1929, with money and encouragement from Weil, ‘a new chair in ‘social philosophy’ was established for Horkheimer, the first of its kind at a German university’.7

By 1931, Horkheimer had taken over the Directorship. He was not long to reside in Germany. Already the Institute’s finances had been transferred to Holland, and Horkheimer was in the Geneva branch, ailing with diphtheria. And, by 1933, when the Nazis gained power in Germany, the Institute had already left Frankfurt. Horkheimer was amongst the first faculty members to be formally dismissed.8 The Institute’s 60,000-volume library was destroyed. Casting about for a new home in Geneva, Paris or London — for ideological reasons of non-alignment, Moscow was never considered — New York was settled upon in 1934. It was free from what Martin Jay describes as the ‘impenetrable academic establishment’ of the others, and besides, a personal offer had come from the President of Columbia University. The Institute was to stay at Columbia until it returned to Frankfurt in 1949.

In its simplest formulation, Horkheimer’s notion of ‘social philosophy’ involved an amalgam of sociology with psychology. This was not just any interdisciplinary approach. Specifically, the social theory was to come from Marx and the psychology from Freud. There was, of course, many factions associated with these two thinkers, and Horkheimer gathered around a small homogeneous group of intellectuals who maintained a remarkably consistent position on both. As Marxist, they were critical of the economic determinism of other schools. As Freudians, they remained orthodox. Both Eric Fromm, trained as a psychoanalyst, and Herbert Marcuse, were the first principle theorists at the Institute. Marcuse’s work on Hegel — Reason and Revolution was published by Oxford in 1941 and was dedicated to Horkheimer. Later in America, Marcuse explored Freud. When the Institute returned to Germany in 1949, he remained, having joined the U.S. State Department in the Second World War. His book, One Dimensional Man, became the bible for the student protests in 1968. Unlike Marcuse, Fromm became a revisionist, and his ego psychology and humanism had become uncongenial to Horkheimer and Adorno. He became increasingly critical of Freud’s libido theory and the unconscious id. Psycho-sexual drives of sublimation were replaced by cultural determinants. Character arose, he believed, out of man’s relation to others. Like Marcuse, he left the Institute. Unlike other members, he had mastered a new language, English, and remained in America as a successful author.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

Horkheimer’s social philosophy also entailed the Institute’s work was grounded empirically, though not in a deductive-nomological sense. Rather, the collected data was interpreted from their starting point. Marxian or Freudian tenets were not falsified or verified by such analysis. Rather, they gave a perspective and language to describe the results. Fromm’s initial responsibility was to formulate questionnaires, and scale the responses, for their first study: ‘Character of German Workers and Employees in 1929-30’. Because of inconclusive findings, the project was never published. It was judged the sample of 600 was not representative, and only a minority of the respondents were ‘authoritarian personalities’. 9 Fromm, however, was of the opinion that the ‘range’ of socialist views of the workers counted against their ‘weight’ prevailing. He continues:

Many of the adherents of the leftist parties, although they believed in their party programs as long as the parties had authority, were ready to resign when…crisis arrived.10

This was because a great many of them had exhibited an authoritarian character, ‘…a deep seated respect and longing for established authority.11 Despite their avowed radicalism, the working class was not opposed to a right-wing grab for power; their militant ideology accepted the Nazis without resistance. This study, and work on authoritarianism, formed the basis of Fromm’s first major work, Fear of Freedom, published in England by Routledge in 1942. It became a template for themes in his subsequent books, such as The Sane Society, Man for Himself, The Art of Loving and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

The American experience had been important for the Institute. Collaboration with American Empiricists, such as Paul Lazarsfeld, gave the Institute’s manipulation of data a harder edge. The Institute’s influence on America, however, was marginal. Unlike Fromm and Marcus, Theodore Adorno never fitted in. By 1939, his collaboration with Paul Lazarsfeld on the Radio Research Project, was foundering. Adorno was interested in musical listening patterns, but Lazarsfeld could not translate this into quantifiable hypotheses. How was ‘fetishization’, for example, to be verified? Lazarsfeld’s letter to Adorno was a manifest of their problems:

You pride yourself in attacking other people because they are neurotic and fetishists, but it doesn’t occur to you how open you are yourself to such attacks…Don’t you think [it] is a perfect fetishism the way you use Latin words all through the text?… I implored you repeatedly to use more responsible language and you evidently were psychologically unable…12

From the Institute’s inception in Germany, all publications were in-house, in German and in the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung. This was for the explicit reason of maintaining and developing German culture. It also presented a consistent and unified voice for Critical Theory. There had never been a need for personal advancement or the pursuit of a university career. Foreign editors and journals did not have to be satisfied.13 The Frankfort School was an autonomous entity that had only to be in step with Horkheimer — the Director, Editor and Publisher — and his coterie.

What was actually meant by ‘Critical Theory’ is not so straightforward. To begin with, the social sciences are not simply a replication of the Logical Positivist understanding of natural science. Horkheimer’s first attack on The Vienna Circle was published in the Zeitschrift in 1937. Theory needs to be ‘critical’ in the sense of praxis. This can be achieved in the criticism of opposing positions — what they termed immanent critique – and the pointing out of pretensions in bourgeois society. Theory and praxis are dialectically connected and require resolution in political action. This is an ethical critique, along Marxian lines, what Jurgen Habermas was later to describe as advancing ‘toward a rational society’.14

Until his death in 1969, Theodore Adorno was Horkheimer’s great collaborator. They first met in 1922, at a seminar on Edmund Husserl. Both also read with the Gestalt psychologist, Adhemar Gelb. By 1924, Adorno had completed his doctorate on the Phenomenology of Husserl. Then, in 1925, his life took an interesting turn. Having met Alban Berg in Frankfurt, he decided to become a student of musical composition, and followed him to Vienna. There, over three years, he became seduced by the Schoenberg circle.15Eventually, the Circle was disbanded and Adorno left Vienna. Eventually, the Circle was disbanded, Adorno left Vienna, and after four years in Oxford, studying Beethoven and Wagner, he became a permanent member of the Frankfurt Institute in 1938. As Martin Jay has observed, he had been attracted by ‘…the same cliquish qualities [which] drew him into the orbit of Horkheimer and the younger members of the Institute.’16In the 1932, in the first issue of the Zeitschrift, he published two articles on music. This heralded an abiding interest in aesthetics, and brought together an unusual connection of musicology and philosophy.

Like Horkheimer, Adorno’s training was in German philosophy, and although their radicalism led them to Marx, they were more Neo-Kantians than Young-Hegelians. In Adorno’s case, there is a close connection between his writings on aesthetics and the notion of the dialectic. In his analysis of music, he follows Kant, not Hegel. Kant rediscovered the dialectic from the Greeks.

This is the best starting point to understand Adorno’s speculations on music, as the following instalments will demonstrate.

First in a series.

Dr Tronn Overend is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and the author of numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019.


  1. Eric Hobsbawn. ‘Diary: Memories of Weimar’, in The Mad Square. Modernity in German Art.1910-37.  Art Gallery of New South Wales. Sydney. 2000:15.
  2. Hobsbawn. 2000:18.
  3. Hobsbawn. 2000: 17.
  4. Hobsbawn. 2000: 17.
  5. Hobsbawn. 2000: 18.
  6. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination. A History of the Frankfurt School and  Institute of Social Research 1923-50, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London. 1973:5.
  7. Jay, 1973:25.
  8. Jay, 1973:29.
  9. See Eric Fromm. Fear of Freedom. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. London, 1960: 183-4.
  10. Fromm 1960: 241.
  11. Fromm. 1960: 241.
  12. Jay, 1973: 223.
  13. For Adorno, the final straw was when the Editorial Board  completely rewrote  a paper he submitted to the Psychoanalytic Society of San Francisco.
  14. Jurgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and  Politics. Beacon Press. Boston 1971.
  15. Although some of Adorno’s compositions were atonal, these did not, for whatever reason, incorporate the twelve-tone technique. See ‘Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musical Compositions’. He also composed tonal work.
  16. Jay 1973: 23.

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