Franz J.T. Lee, July, 2006

Learning from the Frankfurt School: Critical Theory & Revolutionary Praxis

Having read my curriculum vitae, many Bolivarian comrades have asked me to comment about the Frankfurt School, where I obtained my Ph.D. in Philosophy & Political Science, and about its theoretical Marxist lessons for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.

Our readers would recollect that in previous articles, we have stated that it is imperative for the future of Venezuela to link our own revolutionary praxis and theory to real workers' interests and needs, to concrete class struggles, that is, directly to global human emancipation.

Scientifically, historic experiences around the globe, especially of the 20th century, have verified that this is by no means an easy task. In fact, the current serpentine road of the Bolivarian Revolution across the corporate wilderness, towards democratic freedom is crossing the lairs of a dangerous fascist generation of local, national and global vipers. They, the so-called "opposition," in alliance with the Bush elitist corporate clique, the Machiavellian arch-enemies of the impoverished classes, form a mamba species so insatiably venomous that the whole world is in danger of being mortally poisoned by their daily diatribal lies, politickery and conspiracy.

According to them, as part of the Bush "axis of evil," the authoritarian, totalitarian "dictator" and "tyrant" Chavez has become a global menace, who threatens world peace and democracy. Really, we are approximating the Rubicon, the final possibility of human emancipation on Earth, For centuries already, time and again, our liberatory efforts have mercilessly been nipped in the bud by treachery, treason, sabotage, vendettas, corruption, assassination, military intervention and coups, world wars and fascist genocide. Class structures, class rule, ruling classes played havoc with human daydreams, with the most sacred hopes of humanity towards social happiness of billions.

Within the context of Venezuela, of the concrete Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America, we have underlined the importance of dialectically synchronizing natural praxis and social theory. Reciprocally both Marxism and a possible "New Socialism of the 21st Century" have to nurture and enrich each other. One thing is developing a project for a national democratic constitution, something else is to apply it to continental reality. However, in an aggressive, imperialist, fascist environment, it is something completely different to plan a "New Socialism" on a continental and world scale. Logically, corporate imperialism will defend itself with all its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, hence, the construction of real, true socialism anywhere on earth will cost hundreds of millions of lives.

Because of such deliberations we have suggested a profound, renewed scientific analysis of all socialist experiments in universal history, inter alia, to study Georg Lukacs' classic, "History and Class Consciousness" in order to refresh our memory and to understand central Marxian socialist concepts of class consciousness, class struggle and how to develop real workers' subjectivity (conciencia).

We are not fighting world imperialist fascism simply because it is a reigning world order, also we are not negating it because corporate capitalists are victorious in exploiting, dominating and discriminating millions of toiling workers. Departing from transhistoric reality, from labor totality, natural and social science has confirmed already that within the existing labor system, within the master-slave relations, we the condemned "scum of the earth" truly never had a real chance of emancipating ourselves, to realize our human, humane and humanist youthful daydreams. The alienating processes of denaturalization, dissocialization and dehumanization within the universal labor system have reduced the absolute majority of us to "speaking tools" (Aristotle), human "commodities, to "labor market forces of production" (Marx).

Marxism is not a cheap ware of capitalist consumption, that could be bought everywhere on the world market. It is not something when it is worn out and when its guarantee is over, that we simply could throw away and rush off to the nearest shop to buy the next "Neo-Marxist" blockbuster.

Capitalists do not fear their innocently brain-washed workers, they depend on them, and vice versa. What they fear most are all real and true Marxists, all "communists" and "terrorists." They fear that billions could discover the truth of their earthly existence. Hence, those who know what capitalism is all about have to be exterminated.

During the era of the two intra-imperialist world wars, when it seemed that "orthodox" Marxism as revolutionary "panacea" was failing, many fair weather "Marxists" and "socialist" dissidents, especially in the metropolitan academic world, did everything to bury Marxist dialectics and revolutionary praxis and theory forever under the belligerent American rubble and Nazi debris of World War II. Decades later, after the expected crash of the moribund Soviet Union, of "real, existing socialism," once more the "Seven Wise Men" of the Neo-Marxist Left, of the Frankfurt School tried to bury Marx again. However, it seems that the Marxian "cat" is a real die-hard, it has nine lives. Not so long ago, on BBC, British workers and listeners again resuscitated Marx, by declaring him the "Man of the Millennium."

Now, to avoid that we commit the same errors of the academic "New Left" of the 20th century, that denigrated Marxism to the status of an old shoe, let us take a fast look at the Frankfurt School, as an example of how Marx should not be revived, also to see how ivory-tower, metropolitan academia have converted Marxist, creative humanism into sterile, repetitive practice and ossified decadent ideology.

Surely, the Bolivarian Revolution should study and apply all varieties of socialism, past and present, but to fail to know and understand the real negation of capitalism and imperialism would be a fatal mistake. Marxism was born with modern capitalism, it is a historical product of modern capitalist technology and industrialization, of globalization, it will only disappear with the annihilation of world imperialism and fascism. As far as its essence, existence and transcendence within capitalism are concerned, it is irrelevant whether we declare it "obsolete," "communist" or "terrorist," as long as master-slave relations exist, whether we like it or not, Marxism is here to stay!

In 1930, at the time of a severe capitalist-imperialist crisis, after two devastating world wars and during the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, the Institute for Social Research (Institut fur Sozialforschung) of the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany was founded by Max Horkheimer and others. As a result of the failure of the socialist movement to extend itself beyond the October Revolution and to spread to Western Europe and other countries, it became necessary to rethink, to revise Marxist praxis and theory. As such, the so-called "Frankfurt School" came into existence, dedicated to stringent academic Marxist social research, theory and philosophy. With the rise of Hitler, this Institute, together with its main theorists, was forced to emigrate to the USA.

It is not our intention here to describe this school of thought in detail or to introduce its main protagonists, rather with reference to the Bolivarian Revolution, what interests us here are its main ideas, especially in its early phase, concerning praxis and theory, revolution and emancipation.

Its main thinkers were confronted with similar theoretical problems like ours today. They were experiencing a dangerous confrontation with world fascism and barbarism. Some, like Walter Benjamin, lost their lives in the emancipatory struggle. Fighting against current global fascism in the making, there are numerous lessons to be learned from them, especially from their ideological flaws and elitist, eurocentrist behavior patterns.

Originally, this school came into existence to gather all dissident Marxists, especially those who abhorred the revisionism and reformism of "social democracy," as were propagated by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. It also criticized the orthodox "parrots" of "Marxism-Leninism," and the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by several dogmatic "communist parties" and staunch, fanatic Stalinists.

Among the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School we find Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Erich Fromm, Alfred Schmidt, Jürgen Habermas and Oscar Negt; among their notable critics count Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Henryk Grossman and Umberto Eco.

In their attempts to further, to renew, to update Marxism, under modern global conditions, they were searching for scientific answers in other spheres of social sciences: hence, inter alia, they were influenced by Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud. As such, Freudo-Marxism was born, as was expounded by well-known philosophers like Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich.

Of great significance to us is their critique of theory, their theory of critique, Critical Theory. They launched all this in the philosophic tradition of critique of religion, critique of ideology, and critique of thought itself. In the Bolivarian schools and universities of Venezuela, such revolutionary critique of our indigenous beliefs and Christian religion, of our practice and ideology, praxis and theory, of our science and philosophy, is imperative for emancipatory success on a continental and world scale.

They were conscious of their intellectual limits, of the mental pot-holes of empiricism, positivism, crude, mechanical materialism and idealist phenomenology. Hence, they had to return to Kant's critical philosophy and to Hegel's objectivist, idealist, dialectical philosophy, especially to his concepts of Negation and Contradiction. (See: Franz J. T. Lee, Venezuela: De la Revolucion Bolivariana a la Emancipacion Humana, IMMECA, Merida (Venezuela), Dic. 2006, pag. 290 - 366.)

As a result of the publication of Marx' Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology in the 1930s, Marcuse was able to show the philosophical "praxico-theoretical" connection between Hegel and the "young Marx."

However, what was the major problem of Critical Theory?

The problem was that the Frankfurt School was busy criticizing Marx, was occupied to prove him "wrong," for example, that he neglected the "psychological factor" and did not pay enough attention to the alienated psyche of the metropolitan working masses. However, the critical theory showed its limitations in only being able to point to the negative aspects of current society, without being capable of defining the new society in a "positive," that is, affirmative way. In the end, the critics of Marx themselves drifted away from the revolution, from socialism, and became reformists, defending the very capitalist system that they theoretically so vehemently criticized.

At this level, the Institute claimed that its members were suffering a disillusionment with orthodox Marxism, and therefore, by negating the dialectic and the class struggle and aided by a coming "miraculous" break in the continuum of history, they thought they would eventually find a new social motor to guide humanity towards freedom and happiness. Precisely this kind of counter-revolutionary capitulation should not happen in the Bolivarian Revolution.

Strange enough, thereafter, their philosophic endeavors were directed towards the major historic contradiction, that is, towards the unilateral relations between Society and Nature before and after capitalism. In fact, as the "Young Marx" already had indicated, this concerns the labor process, human history itself.

In two classics of 20th century philosophy ... Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944) and Minima Moralia (Adorno, 1951) ... originally, the authors touched central contemporary themes: the development of Marxist critique of capitalism towards a fundamental critique of Western civilization. Within this analytic process they used the philosophic concept of "Odyssey" as guideline for the scientific analysis of ratio, of Reason, of bourgeois class consciousness.

They focused on a central element of modern wage labor, on its ecological aspect of economic exploitation, on the capitalist technological domination of nature:  "The analysis of reason now goes one stage further. The rationality of Western civilization appears as a fusion of domination and of technological rationality, bringing all of external and internal nature under the power of the human subject. In the process, however, the subject itself gets swallowed up, and no social force analogous to the proletariat can be identified that will enable the subject to emancipate itself."

In his "Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life," Adorno formulated it as follows: "For since the overwhelming objectivity of historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one, individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself. The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself." (ibid.)

Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the deep desire for human emancipation depends on a collective memory of previous non-repressive conditions and relations, that over the ages have been destroyed or are lost. For Critical Theory the real problem is how to reconcile Nature and Society.

Well, as far as we are concerned, the answer is very simple: by creating conditions and relations so as to abolish labor, that is, the process of production, of alienation per se. Contrary to Marxism, the Frankfurt School considered praxis an impossible thing in modern society, except as a concept in theory itself. Also, here we could note that Critical Theory was capitalist reformism and revisionism, was an ideological rejection of basic scientific socialist tenets and philosophic principles.

We could imagine what Adorno would have said today at the eve of Orwellian global Nazism. Here we have the explanation why "classic" Marxist revolutionary praxis and theory have become "obsolete," why the world proletariat is being "swallowed up" by bourgeois technology, society and civilization.

However, it is of interest to note that more than half a century ago, it seemed that imperialist capitalist reality itself was being transformed into ideology, into fiction, fantasy, lies, illusions and hoaxes. Hence, Critical Theory left the domain of Marx's "Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach," of "changing the world," and returned to the habit of just interpreting the existing daily dialectical contradictions.

Of course, they discovered that the mother of internal, systemic dialectics is formal logics, and thus concluded that even dialectics as a method of thinking did not necessarily contain historic truth, consequently, it could become an effective arm of capitalist domination. According to Critical Theory, the truth of dialectics lies in the latency and tendency, in the intention of the labor process, in the process of production, in history.

In this way, Critical Theory was drifting away from Marxism, lost its Critical Praxis, and was approximating "redemption," spiritual freedom and eternal happiness.

In the 1960s, returning from exile in the United States of America, the exponents of Critical Theory suddenly discovered that the metropolitan working classes were no more capable of forming a future revolutionary, class-conscious proletariat. Hence, in Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man and Adorno's Negative Dialectics, in a purely normative sense, negating Hegel and Marx, also in a reformist sense as sort of a logical "scapegoat," dialectics was reduced to a useless, absolute method of negativity. Of course, Adorno claimed that he was modernizing, re-examining and re-defining dialectics.

Unwillingly, expressed in other terms, Horkheimer and Adorno stated something important about ruling class Society vis-a-vis dominated class Nature, about the parasitic Subject versus toiling Object. They referred to the "original sin" of (dominant) thought, that is, of European ruling class Society, which progressively was eliminating everything that was not thought, not capitalist thinking, in other words, eliminating emancipatory Praxis.

Across the labor process, chained by the master-slave relations, the subject was devouring the object. In this sense, they just repeated what Hegel's World Spirit in any case was doing all the time, that is, devouring Nature. In this sense, they claimed that thought and theory had become accomplices of political and social domination.

Hence, Negative Dialectics should come to the rescue of the "preponderance" of the object. What does this mean? Because the Frankfurt School, like the revisionists and reformists, lost all faith in the working classes of the global capitalist world, they had to rely on the metropolitan individual subject. This always happens when in revolutionary and emancipatory matters we deny the existence of social reality, of social classes, of class struggles on a world scale. As long as the labor process, the unilateral, perverse process of production will exist, as long as master-slave relations will reign on planet earth, we will always have class struggles of all categories.

However, the above was not enough, we are now being introduced to the era of the communication theory of Juergen Habermas. Not to terrorize us intellectually, in his complex epistemology the following is relevant: he tried to develop a new materialist theory of social evolution, that supposedly forms part of a quasi-transcendental theory of emancipatory knowledge, which nowadays has become the modern foundation stone of what is left of Critical Theory.

Definitely, from all over philosophic criticism has emerged. Ernst Bloch unveiled Critical Theory as "bourgeois ideology," other critics saw it as elitist critique of academia dressed in red Marxist clothing, left critique identified Critical Theory as bourgeois idealism, as metropolitan Neo-Marxism. In reality, apart from the political efforts of Herbert Marcuse, trying to find the revolutionary subject in the "Third World," and from influencing the socialist student movements in the roaring sixties, Critical Theory remained in academia, in the institutes, isolated from real revolutionary struggles of contemporary history, because it had no inherent social relation to emancipatory political praxis and theory.

Georg Lukacs, one of the main critics of Critical Theory, indicated that its main theorists all suffered from the "Grand Hotel Abyss" syndrome.

Out of our own history, out of the revolutionary experiences of the past seven years of the Bolivarian Revolution, we have to give birth to our own popular praxis and citizen theory, our sovereign dialectical dynamo for human emancipation.