The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

An overivew of people and theory

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1964
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1964. Jeremy J. Shapiro/Creative Commons

The Frankfurt School was a group of scholars known for developing critical theory and popularizing the dialectical method of learning by interrogating society's contradictions. It is most closely associated with the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. It was not a school, in the physical sense, but rather a school of thought associated with scholars at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany.

In 1923, Marxist scholar Carl Grünberg founded the Institute, initially financed by another such scholar, Felix Weil. The Frankfurt School scholars are known for their brand of culturally focused neo-Marxist theory—a rethinking of classical Marxism updated to their socio-historical period. This proved seminal for the fields of sociology, cultural studies, and media studies.

Portrait of Max Horkheimer and Professor Rajewski
Max Horkheimer receiving the chain of office by former Rector Prof. Rajewski. Dr. Horkheimer left Germany in the early days of the Third Reich when his institute for Social Research fell under the Nazi ban. Bettman/Getty Images

Origins of the Frankfurt School

In 1930 Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute and recruited many of the scholars who came to be known collectively as the Frankfurt School. In the aftermath of Marx's failed prediction of revolution, these individuals were dismayed by the rise of Orthodox Party Marxism and a dictatorial form of communism. They turned their attention to the problem of rule through ideology, or rule carried out in the realm of culture. They believed that technological advancements in communications and the reproduction of ideas enabled this form of rule.

Their ideas overlapped with Italian scholar Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony. Other early members of the Frankfurt School included Friedrich Pollock, Otto Kirchheimer, Leo Löwenthal, and Franz Leopold Neumann. Walter Benjamin was also associated with it during its peak in the mid-20th century.

One of the core concerns of the scholars of the Frankfurt School, especially Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse, was the rise of "mass culture." This phrase refers to the technological developments that allowed for the distribution of cultural products—music, film, and art—on a mass scale. (Consider that when these scholars began crafting their critiques, radio and cinema were still new phenomena, and television didn't exist.) They objected to how technology led to a sameness in production and cultural experience. Technology allowed the public to sit passively before cultural content rather than actively engage with one another for entertainment, as they had in the past. The scholars theorized that this experience made people intellectually inactive and politically passive, as they allowed mass-produced ideologies and values to wash over them and infiltrate their consciousness.

The Frankfurt School also argued that this process was one of the missing links in Marx's theory of the domination of capitalism and explained why revolution never came. Marcuse took this framework and applied it to consumer goods and the new consumer lifestyle that had just become the norm in Western countries in the mid-1900s. He argued that consumerism functions in much the same way, for it maintains itself through a creation of false needs that only the products of capitalism can satisfy.

Moving the Institute for Social Research

Given the state of pre-WWII Germany, Horkheimer relocated the Institute for its members' safety. In 1933, it moved to Geneva, and two years later, it moved to New York in affiliation with Columbia University. In 1953, well after the war, the Institute was re-established in Frankfurt. Theorists Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth would become active in the Frankfurt School during its later years.

Philosopher Herbert Marcuse
Philosopher Herbert Marcuse in 1968 while he was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at San Diego. Bettman/Getty Images

Key works by members of the Frankfurt School include but are not limited to:

  • Traditional and Critical Theory, Max Horkheimer
  • Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
  • Critique of Instrumental Reason, Max Horkheimer
  • The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor W. Adorno
  • Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno
  • Culture Industry Reconsidered, Theodor W. Adorno
  • One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse
  • The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, Herbert Marcuse
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
  • Structural Transformation and the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas
  • Towards a Rational Society, Jürgen Habermas