Frankfurt School

Meaning of Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School was the formation of a circle of intellectuals who led the construction of the critical theory of society, constituting a current of Western Marxist thought.

It was a generation of thinkers who had experienced the impact of the workers ‘revolts that spread throughout Europe, and some of their collaborators had even been political activists on the factory workers’ councils, such as Marcuse, Korsh and Neumann.

Historical context: origin

The first years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) were of economic crisis and social conflicts. There were strikes, communist uprisings, workers’ revolts and barricades were erected periodically in the most populous cities, such as the 1918 Revolution and the Bremen Uprising.

In this context, in 1923 the Institute of Social Research was founded, linked to the University of Frankfurt, Germany, on the initiative of Felix Weil. There, a number of notable philosophers gathered, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Eric Fromm, Sigfried Kracauer, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrick Pollock, Franz Neuman, Karl Wittfogel, Karl Korsch and Jürgen Habermas.

The crucial event that profoundly marked the trajectory of the Frankfurt School, the real fire alarm for modern barbarism, was World War II . Most members of the Frankfurt School, of Jewish origin, were persecuted, which forced them into exile. Some did not survive.

It is not by chance that the authors’ studies of fascist experiences have always focused on the problem of authoritarian personality. In this sense, psychoanalysis and Freudian theory have taken a central role with Marxism.

In 1953 the institute returned to work in Frankfurt, and even today it brings together thinkers who somehow take up Marxist thinking on new bases.

Characteristics and critical theory

The Frankfurt School had as its premise to continue Marxist thought , which until then had not been studied academically, and at the same time to renew it based on the needs of the time.

To this end, it created a multidisciplinary research program that did not seek exclusively the training of specialists and that did not reproduce the university logic that separated technical training from research training, a process that until then produced an academic elite.

Critical theory has had a major influence on contemporary sociology and has become a historic landmark for Western university thinking and to this day it inspires all those who intend to investigate the capitalist society in which we live.

For the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, the theoretical work was a search for deciphering the latent negativity of the social contradictions of capitalist modernity, which demanded a rejection of the positivist perspective of classical sociology, but also of the neutrality of traditional social sciences.

It was necessary to deconstruct the separation between scientific knowledge and political practice. At first, the authors were interested in the integration between social analysis and philosophy, as well as rejecting the separation between theory and practice, a pillar of traditional theory.

As director of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer created an interdisciplinary research program based on Marx’s model of research and presentation dialectics, in which philosophy guided social scientific research and was, in turn, modified by it.

Frankfurt theorists, along their trajectories, each in their own way, were also critical of Soviet bureaucratization. They began their work investigating the failure of the 1919 Revolution and the German workers’ movement of the period.

Critical works on positivism in Marxism began to identify in this “Marxist” ideology, which believed in the “development of the productive forces”, an alignment with the bourgeois conception of history that mechanically identifies technical development with the inevitable progress of society, as if modernity was necessarily a stage for the revolutionary process and for emancipation.

The critical theory , by contrast, plays the technical development of the productive forces as an expression of what we define as “instrumental rationality”, which is nothing more than a mechanism of domination within the relationship of human rationality with the knowledge of the world is born reason as an absolute principle, even if it leads to the destruction, control and exploitation of nature. This rationality, taken to its limit, becomes its reverse, a kind of irrationality, exemplified in the domination of man by man, genocide, war and massacre.

Main thinkers

Here is some information about the main authors and their investigations.

MAX HORKHEIMER (1885-1973)

He studied literature and lived in Brussels and London until the creation of the Social Research Institute. Horkheimer was director of the Frankfurt School, responsible for the archives of the history of socialism and the workers’ movement. Then he directed the exile experience of the School, in England and Paris.

THEODOR ADORNO (1903-1969)

Jewish and from a family of musicians, Adorno studied Music and Philosophy in Vienna. In Frankfurt he met with Horkheimer and became a member of the Frankfurt School, and, with the rise of Nazism, he started to teach exile in the United States.

Among the subjects covered, he talks about what he calls “cultural industry”, which would be the main vehicle for introjection of capitalist ideology.

His reflections come mainly from his experience in American territory, which, despite not living as European countries of the time under a dictatorial regime, conditioned social behaviors based on the specificities of the advance of consumerism and individualism.


Jewish, he was born and studied philosophy in Berlin, then went to Freiburg, where he developed his theses on romantic criticism and German Baroque drama. Even in exile in Paris, he was part of the Frankfurt School, from 1933 to 1935.

Everything indicates that he committed suicide on the Spanish border, when, fleeing the war, he came across the Nazi police.

Benjamin wrote mainly on aesthetics and politics, aspects relegated by the immediately previous Marxist tradition.

He studied with special attention the impact of technical development in the era of the capacity for reproduction, on an industrial scale, of artistic works. According to the author, reproducing an image infinite times (photography, for example), and even capturing moving images and exhibiting them in all parts of the world, in rooms with large audiences, are innovations that cause the aura of the works of art to fall. art, that is, they are no longer a single product, the result of a singular authorial process at a certain time, but goods produced on a large scale like any other product.

What could bring a dimension of disenchantment, on the one hand, can also bring hope for an awareness of democratized human potential on the other. But that potentiality is a seed, whether it germinates or not.

In a short and famous text entitled The author as a producer, Benjamin approaches artists to workers in general from experiences of rupture with capitalism. Reflecting on the movement and cultural co-option present in the great wars, he states:

“This is the aestheticization of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism responds with the politicization of art. ”

Walter Benjamin also wrote about modernity in the capitalist metropolis. According to the philosopher, it diluted real life in the mutilated life of the crowd. The shock of modernity was an experience of reification (transformation of man and relationships into a thing), the city was synonymous with the commodification of life.


Also born in Berlin, the son of an assimilated Jewish family. He was a member of the German Social Democratic Party between 1917-1918 and participated in the Soldiers’ Council during the German Revolution of 1918-1919.

Between the 1920s and 1930s he studied Philosophy with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg, until the moment when his advisor publicly adhered to Nazism. Marcuse breaks up with Heidegger and becomes one of the experts at the Frankfurt Social Research Institute.

His first work focuses on the critique of fascist ideology. After Hitler’s accession to the government, Marcuse went into exile in Geneva, Paris and the United States. Marcuse starts from the same question that colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer called “a totally managed society” to develop their interpretation of the “one-dimensional society”.

In a few lines, the emphasis of the three, in different ways, was on the capacity to flatten and homogenize the customs, practices and ideas arising from the generalization of capitalism.

Marcuse was one of the strongest exponents of the Frankfurt School’s psychoanalytic current. He sought to bring together Sigmund Freud and Marx, psychoanalysis and the revolution. It markedly influenced the emergence of the new student left in the 1970s, supporting the student and anti-racist struggle in the United States, anti-colonial struggles and the end of the Vietnam War.


Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, he was an assistant to Theodor Adorno and came close to both Frankfurt’s critical theory and pragmatism. He formulated theoretical works that interpreted the concept of democracy, analyzing his concept of critical interpretation of the discourse on modernity, as well as his theories of communicative action and deliberative politics in the public sphere.

Frankfurt School

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