Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries

51eP+iTtr8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Banville at the Dublin Review of Books:

The “Frankfurt School”, the popular name for the determinedly Marxist Institute for Social Research, flourished, ironically, on a capitalist fortune. Hermann Weil was the world’s largest trader in grain, but after his death in 1928 his son Felix, in a classic instance of oedipal rebellion, used his inheritance to provide an annual grant of 120,000 marks to ensure the continued solvency of the institute, which had been founded in 1923 by Carl Grünberg, a professor of law at the University of Vienna. Grünberg’s successor, the sociologist Max Horkheimer, took over the directorship in 1930, and brought in many of the school’s leading figures, including Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and the much younger Jürgen Habermas, who is today one of Europe’s most formidable philosophical voices.

From the outset the Frankfurt School had its passionate detractors. It was the Hungarian Marxist critic György Lukács who contemptuously dubbed it the “Grand Hotel Abyss”, equipped, as he wrote, “with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”. As Stuart Jeffries writes, Horkheimer, Adorno and Co were regarded as “virtuosic at critiquing the viciousness of fascism and capitalism’s socially eviscerating, spiritually crushing impact on western societies, but not so good at changing what they critiqued”.

Yet leading figures of the school such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Fromm cannot be accused of hypocrisy or Sartrean bad faith.

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