Late one Sunday morning at the public library, a year or so before COVID hit I spotted a copy of Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Standing upright with its cover prominently displayed to all, I sensed it was some librarian’s official or unofficial recommendation. Knowing little about the Frankfort School, I had some vague recollection of its influence on mid-20th century leftist thought. So I made a mental note to someday read Jeffries’s book only later to forget.
Fast forward to earlier this summer, when, after telling one of my professor buddies who’s deep into the Frankfort School about the book he ran out and bought a copy. The next thing I knew he’d read the first two chapters and invited me to discuss Grand Hotel Abyss with him over wine at a local winery. Accepting his kind invitation I borrowed a Kindle edition of Jeffries’s 2016 book through Overdrive and went to work reading.
In the early 1920s a group of German Jewish intellectuals of the Marxist persuasion found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Within their ranks it had been a tenet of faith that when the time came for the working class to finally revolt against their capitalist masters it would begin in Germany. Lo and behold, much to their surprise when the revolution did break out it happened not in Germany, the birthplace of Karl Marx but in Russia. (On top of that, when Lenin and company did seize power it was more like a coup and not a workers’ uprising.) Adding insult to injury, in the following years the nation’s working class began showing its reactionary side, preferring to support conservative politicians and causes. Instead of embracing the communists or even the more moderate socialists many backed the Nazis.
With seed money from a wealthy grain merchant (no pun intended) the group founded an independent research agency in Frankfort to understand why capitalism, at least outside of Russia, survived even in the face of German hyperinflation and worldwide economic depression. Operating outside established academia, the organization’s highly-educated Marxist scholars (influenced as well by Freud, Proust and Weber) began their critique of not just capitalism but society as a whole. At first their influence, even in the rarefied realm of academia was minimal. Unable and unwilling to engage with members of the working class many saw them as nothing more than a high-minded talking club. György Lukács, the great Hungarian Marxist philosopher and historian called them “a hotel on the edge of the abyss”, voyeurs perched upon high watching the world slip into fascism.
Staffed by Jewish Marxists, the institute was firmly in the Nazi’s crosshairs when they seized power in 1933. With the unfortunate exception of Walter Benjamin, (who committed suicide after being denied entry into neutral Spain) members found sanctuary in either Britain or America, with several following their countrymen to Los Angeles. No strangers to academia, many landed positions at universities. During the Second World War several even went to work for the OSS as intelligence analysts thanks to their understanding of German society.
In latter years Frankfort School alumni and their disciples would shift their attention from fascist Europe to the capitalist West. Ironically, some adherents now saw unbridled American consumerism as dehumanizing as Nazism. Others helped inspire a new generation of radicals like Angela Davis, those committed to overthrowing oppression and ushering in a more egalitarian order.
This is a meaty book of considerable depth. True to the book’s subtitle much of it’s a biography of the individual Frankfort School thinkers, in addition to their ideas and the greater political and social contexts from which they sprung forth. Few can deny some of their more arcane criticisms, especially of jazz, movies and consumerism in general come across as downright loopy. But their ideas, or perhaps more importantly their questions have influenced countless individuals over the decades as they labored to understand, and ultimately change the dominant sociopolitical order. Please consider Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School highly recommended.