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Review of Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in Exile, Part I: Authoritarianism and the Family
October 19, 2009
Thomas Wheatland’s book, The Frankfurt School in Exile, provides a useful historical account of the travels, connections, and ideas of an important Jewish intellectual movement. The Institute for Social Research began as an orthodox Marxist organization during the Weimar period. During this period, they were dedicated to studying the class struggle and were often in close contact with members of the German Communist Party. Like several other members of the Institute, Max Horkheimer, who became head of the Institute, came from a wealthy background, but like so many Jewish radicals, had a “moral and emotional” opposition to bourgeois society (p. 15).
Wheatland agrees with other scholars that a persistent motivation of the Frankfurt School was to understand why a working class revolution failed to occur in Germany. Two main theoretical thrusts emerged from this realization: a critique that located ethnic prejudice, backward religious attitudes and lack of revolutionary fervor in the family, and a critique of mass culture seen as promoting passivity and escapism rather than revolutionary consciousness. Part I of this review deals with the first of these issues. Part II will discuss the theory of mass culture and interactions between the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals.
The Frankfurt School Finds Authoritarianism in the Family
Since Marxist revolution was so obviously desirable to the Frankfurt Intellectuals, they developed a theory in which the failure of revolution could be attributed to psychopathology in the family. As reviewed here, the epitome of psychological health was the “genuine liberal” — a radical individualist who is completely detached from all ingroups, including race and family. White people who rejected their family as role models were analyzed as psychologically healthy, while those who had positive views of their parents were analyzed as psychologically inadequate.
Such a view is obviously subversive of traditional values, since competent parents transmit their religious and cultural values to their children, and at the time of the study, many of these competent White parents had a sense of White racial identity which they were transmitting to their children. The Frankfurt School was essentially claiming that White families who successfully transmitted their ethnocentric attitudes to their children were pathological — a view for which there isn’t a shred of evidence. (Needless to say, the successful transmission of Jewish identity to Jewish children was not considered a pathology.)
A major part of the intellectual ammunition for this assault on the people and culture of the West derived originally from Erich Fromm whose association with the Frankfurt School dates from 1930. Fromm pioneered the idea of combining Marx with Freud and was responsible for the early development of the authoritarian personality concept. Fromm’s ideas are an excellent illustration of the ludicrous but deadly theories that resulted from this marriage of these two influential Jewish philosophers. For example, in Studien über Authorität und Familie (1936), Fromm wrote,
With regard to authoritarianism, masochism manifested itself in the surrender to authority, and sadism was evident in the acceptance of social hierarchy. In the developmental and sexual sense, the authoritarian character had suffered a regression from genital sexuality to infantile sexuality. Accompanying this regression of libidinal energy, Fromm also expected a shift from heterosexual to homosexual behavior among authoritarian personalities. (quoted in Wheatland, p. 68)
As a psychologist, I really can’t imagine a more ridiculous theory — unless perhaps one counts Freud’s politically useful Oedipal complex. None of these ideas ever had even a glimmer of empirical support. Freud’s theorizing — one hesitates to call it a theory — combines outrageousness with infinite plasticity. In the hands of Freudian revisionist like Fromm, it could be used as a weapon against those who resist a communist revolution. Eventually, Fromm’s ideas would be the basis for The Authoritarian Personality and its assault on White racial identity and traditional Western family values.
Wheatland, however, is utterly credulous in discussing these preposterous ideas: “Fromm had carefully examined the empirical findings. Exercising caution to make use of his data, Fromm utilized every response to each question to provide confirmation for his character models” (p. 69).
Ah yes, Erich Fromm — ever the dedicated, impartial empirical scientist. Since such findings have never been confirmed by the research of actual psychologists — indeed, they would be laughed at as the height of ridiculousness, one would think that Wheatland would at least suggest that perhaps Fromm was reading his a priori theories into the interview results — a common enough practice among psychoanalysts.
Indeed, a strikingly similar passage to Fromm’s monstrosity can be found in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), by the two leading lights of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno:
The forbidden action [of killing one’s father out of Oedipal jealousy] which is converted into aggression is generally homosexual in nature. Through fear of castration, obedience to the father is taken to the extreme of an anticipation of castration in conscious emotional approximation to the nature of a small girl, and actual hatred to the father is suppressed” (p. 192).
You can’t make this stuff up. Nevertheless, despite such passages and a generally fanciful theory of anti-Semitism (see Chap. 5 of The Culture of Critique), Wheatland refers to Dialectic of Enlightenment as the Institute’s “theoretical masterpiece” (p. 242).
Wheatland is typical of so many American intellectuals who become caught up in the well-honed mystique of the Frankfurt School, completely losing their critical sense. Even a casual reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment indicates the importance of Jewish ethnic interests in developing a theory of anti-Semitism in which the behavior of Jews is completely irrelevant. As Jacob Katz notes, the Frankfurt School has “not been notable for the accuracy of its evaluation of the Jewish situation either before the advent of Nazism or afterward” (p. 40).
Wheatland presents evidence that the Institute separated themselves from Fromm because of his revisionist views on psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, the separation was more tactical than real. Both Fromm and his former Frankfurt colleagues developed a similar intellectual rationale for radical individualism among Whites — mainly because they viewed it as effective in combating anti-Semitism. Prototypical individualists such as libertarians are much less prone to enmeshing themselves in cohesive groups — especially mass movements of ethnic defense They have no allegiance to their race, their culture, or even their family. The following is a famous passage from Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941):
There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties [e.g., family, religion, ethnic group, and race] but as a free and independent individual.... However, if the economic, social and political conditions... do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom. (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom)
In other words, psychologically healthy people have no psychological ties to anything except their "active solidarity" with all of humanity. This lack of ethnic commitment is what defines freedom.
Fromm never saw any contradictions between this philosophy and his own strong Jewish identification. Fromm derived from an Orthodox Jewish religious background and was actively involved in promoting Jewish religion and culture in his 20s. Like many secular Jews on the left, Fromm's view of Judaism was that it was a set of ethical, humanistic beliefs — indeed, it is common to assert that his view of Judaism had a strong influence on his humanistic psychology.
Obviously, such a view of Judaism ignores the strong Jewish emphasis on identifying with an ethnically-based ingroup (and all that that entails in terms of between-group conflict) rather than with humanity as a whole. It also ignores the notorious moral particularism (Is it good for the Jews?) that is so characteristic of Judaism. In any case, "although he later distanced himself from Judaism, it is reported that Fromm never tired of singing Hasidic songs or studying scripture." One suspects that whatever Fromm's public pronouncements, his identification with Judaism was quite a bit stronger than his identification with humanity.
While Fromm remained a psychoanalytic revisionist, the Frankfurt School retained an orthodox views of psychoanalysis. This had a major payoff for the Frankfurt School because it was able to ally itself with the Ernst Simmel’s Psychoanalytic Institute. Simmel, a powerful and well-connected psychoanalyst had direct ties to Freud — the gold standard of psychoanalytic royalty. (Those with direct ties to the master enjoyed a privileged position within psychoanalysis — a sure sign [among many others] that we are dealing with a cult rather than a scientific movement.) He then promoted the Frankfurt School’s work and called for research on anti-Semitism within the American Psychiatric Association (p. 325) at a time when psychoanalysis used its political muscle to dominate the APA. Simmel also sought funding for the Frankfurt School from wealthy, presumably Jewish, benefactors of psychoanalysis.
The entire episode is a wonderful example of Jewish ethnic networking that had the effect of subverting scientific psychiatry. Psychoanalysis is clearly a Jewish intellectual movement, as indicated not only by the ethnic background of the leading lights of the field, but also by the support it received from the wider Jewish community — the subject of Chapter 4 of The Culture of Critique. Fortunately, the rise of scientific psychiatry has resulted in the more or less complete eradication of psychoanalysis within mainstream psychiatry. Ultimately this was due mainly to the rise of biological psychiatry as well as the usefulness of cognitive and learning perspectives derived from mainstream psychology. During its heyday, however, psychoanalysts like Simmel used their position of power within the APA to promote psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theories of anti-Semitism — an effort that had the effect of retarding scientific research in psychiatry.
In the event, the Institute received funding for its Studies in Prejudice project (including The Authoritarian Personality) from the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Wheatland also shows that the ADL was enthusiastic about the project. The Institute’s successful funding proposal argued that modern anti-Semitism
aims not only at exterminating the Jews, but also at annihilating liberty and democracy. It has become the spearhead of the totalitarian order. … The attacks on the Jews are not primarily aimed at the Jews but at large sections of modern society, especially the free middle classes, which appear as an obstacle to the establishment of totalitarianism. (p. 236)
In other words, the war on anti-Semitism was really a war against those who would destroy democracy, freedom, and the middle classes — clearly an attempt to appeal to mainstream America.
Particularly interesting is that prior to the publication of the Studies in Prejudice series, Commentary developed a public relations campaign to promote the books. (Commentary is an important intellectual magazine published by the AJC.) “From the very first issue [in 1945], the magazine began to publish a series of [uniformly uncritical] articles that brought the work of the Horkheimer Circle to the attention of American readers” (p. 253).
After the Frankfurt School received funding from the AJC, Horkheimer’s office and Commentary were housed in the same building. Nathan Glazer, a prominent New York Intellectual, got his job at Commentary because he was already working for Horkheimer. There was an obvious congruence between the views of the AJC and the Frankfurt School:
Rather than simply fulfilling Jewish aims that had been dramatically highlighted by the Holocaust, The Studies in Prejudice series was envisioned to be a broader contribution to American society and culture — efforts consistent with the AJC’s desire to promote pluralism and Jewish cultural interests within the United States. Unlike Partisan Review which self-consciously promoted an ideal of cosmopolitan universalism that was framed by the influences of Marxism and modernism, Commentary … was envisioned to be a distinctly Jewish magazine (p. 154).
Indeed, despite a carefully crafted public image of Commentary as completely independent of the AJC, in fact its “autonomy may have been more of an illusion than a reality” (p. 155). Wheatland cites evidence that Elliot Cohen (the editor of Commentary from 1945–1959) was occasionally reprimanded by the AJC executive board and at other times was pressured to promote projects advocated by the AJC. Significantly, Cohen encouraged members of the Frankfurt School to write for Commentary, and the AJC had become the main financial support for the Frankfurt School. Wheatland shows that Commentary played a major role in promoting the Frankfurt School’s Studies in Prejudice series, including the disastrously influential The Authoritarian Personality. The Institute also appealed to the wider Jewish community, publicizing their work “through public lectures at Jewish colleges and local temples” (p. 251) as well as other public venues.
An example of Frankfurt School writing in Commentary is Leo Lowenthal’s 1947 article on Heinrich Heine, a 19th-century Jewish poet who converted to Christianity early in his career but later renounced his conversion. “Heine’s religion” is interesting because, as Wheatland notes, it reflects not only Heine’s attitudes but also the attitudes of the New York Intellectuals and the other members of the Frankfurt School. Heine “sacrificed his Jewish traditions in order to embrace the same ideal of cosmopolitanism — embodied by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — that the Frankfurt School and the prewar writers for Partisan Review adopted … For both groups [i.e., the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals] Marxism embodied the yearning for a repaired and redeemed humanity — a world in which racial prejudice and socioeconomic injustice were overcome” (p. 157).
Eventually, however, Heine and Lowenthal (and the other Frankfurters and New York Intellectuals) abandoned the Enlightenment and reverted to Jewish patriotism. Heine wrote that “my preference for Greece has declined. I see now that the Greeks were merely handsome youths, while the Jews were, and still are, grown men, mighty, indomitable men, despite eighteen centuries of persecution and misery. I have learned to rate them at their true value.” Lowenthal concurred: Judaism “was a tradition that need not be transcended in the name of loftier ideals” (p. 158).
In other words, Jews could advocate cosmopolitan universalism for Whites while at the same time retaining their own Jewish identity. This is perhaps the fundamental intellectual stance of Diaspora Jewish intellectuals since the Enlightenment (and strikingly absent in Israel). Wheatland doesn’t comment on the obvious contradiction here. White Christians are to give up their ethnic and religious attachments as outmoded and “anti-democratic” while Jews fashion an ethnic identity that wears the mask of cosmopolitan universalism.
To his credit, Wheatland presents at least some of the criticisms of the Studies in Prejudice series and, in particular, The Authoritarian Personality. As he notes, a consistent thread of the criticisms was the belief that the authors let their biases color their hypotheses and interpretations. My views on this body of work are a bit more scathing: “It is not difficult to suppose that the entire program of research of The Authoritarian Personality involved deception from beginning to end.”
After WWII, the Institute “returned to Germany with great fanfare, it received the generous support of HICOG [the US High Commissioner in occupied Germany] and the Rockefeller Foundation, … and its staff was viewed as a living bridge to the past” (p. 261). It’s fascinating that Adorno then embarked on a series of articles completely repudiating the entire concept of empirical research — perhaps agreeing with me that The Authoritarian Personality and the rest of the Studies in Prejudice series were not really empirical research at all.
Adorno would presumably not agree with me that these works were nothing more than thinly disguised, ethnically motivated ideology. But that’s what it was — aided and abetted by the organized Jewish community.
Go to Part 2 of this review.