‘The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory’ by Beverley Best, Werner Bonefeld and Chris O’Kane (eds) reviewed by Gustavo Racy

Reviewed by Gustavo Racy

About the reviewer

Gustavo Racy is a researcher at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi), at the …


Reviewing an edition as monumental as the new SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory is, itself, a monumental task. However, a sort of “informational” review, focused on introducing the work for a broader, more general academic public seems possible as one assumes that a critical review, informed by the same concept of “critique” that illustrates the title of the edition, can only be accomplished within time by the many authors that will surely refer to this handbook from its publishing onwards.  This is, of course, the first quality of Beverly Best, Werner Bonefeld and Chris O’Kane’s edition: the articles that comprise these volumes are not only carefully selected, but as conceptually consistent and deep as the premises announced in the introduction to the first volume show.

The handbook departs from the original formulation of critical theory as one ‘thinking against the flow of the (reified) world [in] an attempt to brush against its grain to reveal its foundation in historically specific social relations’ (2). Adornian with Benjaminian brushstrokes, this definition leaves no room for contestation and shows the backbone that sustains the perspective that the authors adopt. It is, however, Horkheimer’s ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ that the editors will indicate as the formative text of the Frankfurt School since many of the theoretical observations that the critical theorists will assume and develop may be observed in it in nuce, like the dismissal of Lukács’ concept of “false consciousness”, despite the importance of his History and Class Consciousness to the School. Granting concession of Critical Theory’s premises to Horkheimer, however, does not mean granting him hegemony within the School. On the contrary, the edition recovers and brings to light those who were deemed peripheral to the Institute, either by means of its organic development in later decades, or by will of Horkheimer himself, director of the Institute, as Karsten Olson points out in his approach to Franz Neumann (89-104), who was left to administer many of the Institute’s legal cases, unable, therefore, to research and publish. This way, the handbook does not avoid criticism to the School itself, accrediting such criticism to both later adherents of Critical Theory and their rivals.

The structure of the edition is another proof of the work’s excellency. Choosing simplicity, each volume but the second is divided into three parts. Beginning, obviously, with “Key Texts and Contributions to a Critical Theory of Society”, the editors present a consistent discussion on the general theories of the members of the Frankfurt School. Special attention is to be given to the above-mentioned forgotten members of the Institute like Henryk Grossmann, Franz Neumann, and Otto Kirchheimer. Together, these three intellectuals, as well as Leo Löwenthal, may be seen as the missing parts of the jigsaw that forms the Institute’s first generation, adding to Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectics, Benjamin’s baroque philology, Marcuse’s radical political philosophy and Fromm’s Marxist revision of Freud, critical assessments to political economy, Gestalt theory, Law, and sociology of literature. Following these introductory, contextual remarks, the second and third parts of the first volume inquire on the direct collaborators, interlocutors or challengers of critical theory, bringing forth the importance of the reflections happening coevally to those in the Institute, both during its initial years and afterwards, in Europe and elsewhere, as in the US, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador or the UK.

The second volume of the edition, divided in two parts, is dedicated to “Key themes in the Context of the Twentieth Century”. Serving as a bridge between the first and the third volumes, the first part, State, Economy, Society, articulates concepts such as “totality”, “materialism”, “theology”, and “nature” in depth, questioning and theorizing further on the main topics approached by the different members of the Institute. It does so by exploring ‘critical theory as a critique of the social object and the social subject, of society and culture’ (581), which leads to the volume’s second part, Culture and Aesthetics, moving from the base to the superstructure, to use the Marxian vernacular, or from social to cultural forms. As it happens in the first volume, the introduction to the second is almost a review of the edition itself. However, what is important in this volume overall is the fact that the approaches, investigations and reflections on the different topics and authors of the Frankfurt School do not fall into any kind of revisionism, which could be an easy trap when one attempts to delineate an update of theories emerged on a particular historical context. On the contrary, criticism is the heart of the handbook, which shows the author’s awareness of their own topic. On a Benjaminian fashion, the editorial work gives the compilation of chapters a certain character that brings the past into the present. In the attempt to cast a light into society as both object and subject, the authors focus both on Frankfurt School’s theory of the State and of contemporary culture, bringing into light the dynamics proper to capitalism and the possibilities for critique that it allows, not without denying some practical limitations by Horkheimer and Adorno, which are countered by other members of the School itself, like Benjamin or Kluge, as in Matthew Charles’ ‘Erziehung: The Critical Theory of Education and Counter-Education’ (988-1005), or Patrick Murray’s “Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: From Critical Political Economy to the Critique of Political Economy”, in which ‘the failure of critical theorists to grasp the Marxian critique of political economy’ (764-782) is laid bare through the approach to the works of Moishe Postone and Barbara Brick.

Finally, the third and last volume of the handbook introduces the reader to a roll of updated themes directly approached through both the first and latter generations of the Frankfurt School. Although the volume is entitled “Contexts of Critical Theory”, the authors accomplish much more than a simple exposé of topics, critically constructing, articulating and reassessing key concepts and categories that were once explored by Critical Theory. In this attempt, the third volume offers a rich, and rather unique, selection of articles that accomplish, indeed, to show how relevant is Critical Theory today. Themes such as form (Greig Charnock), mass culture (Nick-Dyer-Witheford), feminism (Roswitha Scholz), and crisis (Joshua Clover, Amy Chun Kim, Aaron Benanav and John Clegg), acquire a new dressing and, contrary to what most readers are used to when it comes to Critical Theory, that is, the commentary on one or other topic within one of the theorists oeuvre, in this final volume they are introduced to new perspectives within Critical Theory as an ongoing process.

Besides the introduction to first and later Frankfurt School generations in the first and second volumes of the handbook, the third volume introduces us to authors that are beyond the generational split. As they set out to explore contemporary topics and contexts, they give voice to a more authorial and personal development of ideas than in the other two volumes, as the temporal gap between the text and the object shortens. That means that in the third volume, especially in its final part, the contemporaneity of the topics bring out a more essayistic and original character, as the concern is, exactly, to talk about the present. In this, more than a commentary on earlier theorists, the authors dive into the negative character of critical theory, revealing why it is, still, so challenging to the status quo, there comprised liberal democratic movements.

Highlighting the negative within critical theory echoes Adorno’s later work and of course he and Horkheimer seem to be the main reference in the overall context of the handbook. It is, indeed, difficult not to go back to their work, considering that it was theirs the works that drew the lines within which the academic production of the Institute would be developed. This, however, is not solely an expression of the importance of their philosophy, but of the School’s structure as an Institute provided with its own hierarchy and bureaucracy. Many are the references to such structure throughout the handbook, exposing to the reader that we might have both material, through letters and memoirs, and reason enough to explore and acknowledge further that the functioning of the Institute under Horkheimer and Adorno, especially, was perhaps alienated from the conclusions that their own philosophies arrived at.

In between 99 articles, including the introductions to each volume, it becomes difficult to comment on one or other specific analysis. The range of topics and themes offered by the handbook is so large and consistent that one feels like reading one singular piece of work, which makes it difficult to focus on a singular. At the same time, since it is composed of articles, the handbook provides, as stated above, enough material for almost unending criticism. Each professional that engages with individual articles will surely be motivated to review, criticise and expand upon one or other of the articles of the handbook. Particularly, attention to economic theory within the Frankfurt School is what I believe to be most needed in the current moment, and the handbook sets out to explore this by going back to the works of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Moishe Postone. This trend started to be approached anew recently, especially with  Postone’s death in 2018 and the consequent attention to his work. To many outside Europe and the USA, his was an unknown work, seldom translated, and the handbook stimulus for reading his and other economists works within Critical Theory must be seen also as an introduction to new topics in Critical Theory for many outside Eurocentric academia. Furthermore, whereas in many places, a work such as this handbook would give more attention to the psychoanalytic debate within the Frankfurt School, this approach to economic theory certainly breaks down with a hierarchical reading of Critical Theory that allocates culture and social interaction as purely subjective phenomenon as the main concern of the School. A critique and revision of the role of psychoanalysis within Critical Theory is much needed, and the editors and authors are correct not to emphasize much of Adorno’s reading of Freud, as it is done for instance in South America, pointing out, instead, how ‘Erich Fromm’s role in Frankfurt School critical theory has historically been under-acknowledged and under-analysed’ (55).

The shift from a more Adorno-inspired psychoanalytical understanding of Critical Theory to that of an intellectual movement composed of complex, polysemic assemblage of cultural-economic and psychological approaches, without leaving aside the theological and the juridical, is the sort of understanding of Critical Theory that the editors are correct to put forth. Under this perception, the overall experience of reading the handbook is that we can overcome contradictions within the Frankfurt School since there is more to it than Adorno, Horkheimer or Marcuse, or even Benjamin. Of course, the approach to the work of these four philosophers in the handbook is superb. Despite the centrality of the concept of aura in the introductory chapter to Benjamin given by David Kaufman (123-141), Sami Khatib’s discussion on Society and Violence (607-324), Amy Swiften’s article on Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Law (870-885), and Dennis Johannβen’s approach to Humanism and Anthropology from Walter Benjamin to Ulrich Sonnemann (1252-1269) breaks up with the obvious and outdated reading of Benjamin as a sort of mystical Kabbalistic thinker that still serve to many commentators. The same deviation happens throughout the handbook, as authors chose to bring into light new perspectives on each philosopher, if not when choosing to focus on specific theories, like that of John Holloway’s theory of interstitial revolution, analysed by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein (533-549) or of the negative-dialectical presentation of capitalist socialization, explored by Lars Heitmann (589-606).

In such a short number of pages, there is little more to be said about The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory except, perhaps, that it comes in good timing. In an age when fake news, post-truth(s) and blatant minority discrimination are battled with an academic leftist rhetoric that satisfies itself with ad hominin fallacies and old-fashioned post-modern jargons of authenticity that reproduce much of the regulatory discourse it means to deconstruct, the update of Critical Theory as promoted by this handbook reminds us that authority and oppression must be fought not only through rhetoric and language dispositive, but through an integral social program, empirically and theoretically attentive to economic, psychological and sociocultural phenomena. Even if all individual freedom must be celebrated, only as a whole, can humanity make itself free. This is an important principle that the authors in this edition remind their readers of. Ironically, it is through the Frankfurt School’s hässliche Entlein, Walter Benjamin, that we know this goal not to be utopian: human redemption is not something planned for the future, but rather, a program for today. In this sense, critically assessing society may not yet make us free, but it sure allows us undoing our illusions that the “the future will be better”. This handbook is part of a much-needed comeback to this awareness.

21 May 2019


  1. Pity about the price and there is no paperback copy – clearly not intended for a wider public?

  2. Book prices are (oft) a crime. Said crime, axiomatically, is founded on the (generalised) crime of capitalism. Slave or enslave? No. Extirpate Trump. Smash capitalism.

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