‘The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique’ reviewed by Javier Sethness

Reviewed by Javier Sethness

About the reviewer

Javier Sethness is author of Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse (Brill/Haymarket)…


In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.

6 June 2016


  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1989 Society Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds) (New York: Routledge).
  • Claussen, Detlev 2010 Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
  • Marcuse, Herbert 1968 Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).
  • Marcuse, Herbert 1969 An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994 The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press).


  1. I admire Javier Sethness’s ability to wade through an entire book by David North and give such an objective summary before unleashing the well-deserved critique – talk about intestinal fortitude!.

    However, correctly identifying North’s method of “ad hominem attacks” while writing dismissively of “Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles” is intellectually quite acrobatic.

    In order to have sufficient personal grounding to make such comments perhaps Javier can present us with evidence of his proletarian origins. Going back, say, three generations should be adequate.

  2. Though this review itself offers many opportunities to catalog the relationship between pseudo-left politics and philosophical conceptions which have their origins in anti-Enlightenment thought, I will confine myself to a few points:

    1. The entire first paragraph of this review simply ignores the fact that Steiner and Brenner were the ones who had accused North of abandoning the theoretical traditions of the Trotskyist movement! North’s essays demonstrated, to the contrary, that it was Steiner and Brenner who were attempting to smuggle into the Fourth International the conceptions of the Frankfurt School, which were rooted in theoretical traditions profoundly opposed to that upheld by Trotsky. In this, North was clearly correct.

    2. Sethness spends a great deal of time trying to defend the apologetic attitude of Adorno and Marcuse toward Stalinism, claiming that Marcuse especially has been slandered by North. It is worth noting, as a matter of fact, that Steiner himself wrote: “Yes, both Adorno and Marcuse were political opportunists who went along with the Moscow Trials in the name of a ‘united front’ against fascism in the 1930s.” North’s characterization of their failure to public condemn the trials and the terror as a whole as “political swinishness” is entirely legitimate.

    3. Sethness says that North slanders the Frankfurt School in saying that the thought of its members is “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist and individualistic.” North does no such thing. Adorno and Marcuse, “heterodox” eclectics that they were, claimed that the most important political events and developments of the 20th century were products of unconscious, irrational, and libidinal strivings in the darkest reaches of the human mind. Adorno even maintained with his “negative dialectic,” that human thought and science could essentially never hope to understand the objective world.

  3. As a preliminary matter, this review uses a lot of adverbs (baselessly, highly dishonest, unhinged, facilely, opportunistically, slanderously, peremptorily) that tend to serve as placeholders for actual content. One gets the sense that many of the writer’s claims are not factually well supported, and so he resorts to name-calling.

    Now, after having read your review, I got a copy of David North’s book and read it. As a disclaimer, I read the World Socialist Web Site (the ICFI’s publication) on a somewhat regular basis and I think their material is interesting. But I’ve also read Marcuse and Adorno and Horkheimer, as well as Nietzsche, Foucal, Laclau, and Badieu. In addition, I recently found and read some of Steiner and Brenner’s material online (I believe one of their documents is called “Marxism without its head or its heart.”) After having studied this material, I have to acknowledge that Mr. North’s book is a significant philosophical work and that this review is wrong on all the major points. In this sense I want to thank the reviewer for bringing attention to The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo Left: A Marxist Critique. As a young person, it helped explain a lot about the anti-socialist character of what passes for “left” politics at the university today.

    I’d like to make a few points.

    First, the review’s “theme” is to defend the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory from Mr. North’s assertion (which the reviewer bombastically claims is “unhinged”) that they represent petty-bourgeois philosophical strains that have nothing to do with Marxism. I think Mr. North is completely right on this point. Mr. Sethness claims that “it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism.” But this is precisely what they did. In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse says that the working class “no longer appears to be the living contradiction to the established society.” (35) The “laboring class in the advanced areas of industrial civilization are undergoing a decisive transformation” which has produced a “social and cultural integration of the laboring class with capitalist society.”

    Marcuse continues, “Is this a change in consciousness only? The affirmative answer, frequently given by Marxists, seems strangely inconsistent.” (One Dimensional Man, 32). There are plenty of quotes like this in One Dimensional Man and other works by Marcuse and by the likes of Horkheimer and Adorno which prove that these layers were explicitly hostile to the working class and to social revolution. These authors explicitly and by their own admission draw on the existentialism of figures like Sartre, as well as of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

    The point Mr. North makes in his book is that this type of subjective idealist approach, which takes the individual’s irrational, libidinal, and subconscious feelings and impressions as the starting point for historical change, is incompatible with Marxism. After all, as Engels writes in Chapter Three of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific: “the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”

    Second, Mr. Sethness attacks Mr. North’s assertion that Adorno “went along” with the Moscow Trials. A quote which Mr. Sethness makes note of in his review proves Mr. North correct on this matter as well. As he says, Adorno wrote in 1838 that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet.”

    Perhaps Mr. Sethness is not aware, but 1938 represented the peak of the massacres of the old Bolsheviks under Stalin’s Great Terror. As hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries were being murdered in Lubyanka and on the tundra of Siberia, the Fourth International was waging a ferocious campaign to expose the truth behind Stalin’s operations. Many leading Trotskyists would pay with their lives for failing to “keep quiet” in the face of Stalin’s great crimes against the heritage of the October Revolution. A whole generations of socialists were being murdered and the petty-bourgeois Adorno squeaks about the need to “keep quiet.” Mr. Sethness should be ashamed to defend Adorno’s acquiescence to these terrible crimes. Mr. North was entirely correct in calling-out Steiner and Brenner for their defense of Adorno.

    I should wrap up because this comment is already longer than I intended. The point is that the relationship between the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory with the working class is less “complex” than Mr. Sethness claims. Mr. North’s book is an essential review of the class nature of the subjective idealist positions put forward by these strands of thought.

    For me, the book shed light on the relationship between these philosophical positions and the abandonment of Marxism and of the revolutionary role of the working class. I attended a large US public university and was deeply frustrated with all of the sociology and geography classes I took. I was force-fed everything by Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault and the like. Yes, there are differences between them, but in the grand scheme of things these differences are minor. We were all explicitly told: the working class is dead, socialism is impossible, and all you can do is fight “micro aggression.” Essentially: Don’t worry about the state of permanent imperialist war, don’t worry about inequality, and don’t—no matter what—even think about building a political party based on Marxist principles.

    On this note, Mr. Sethness writes that “North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual ‘deviation’ from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse ‘pseudo-left,’ ‘petty bourgeois,’ ‘anti-Marxist,’ even ‘anti-socialist’ politics.” Well, after reading Mr. Sethness’ review and Mr. North’s book, I’m even more convinced than I was before that Mr. North’s claims are correct.

  4. In Marcel van der Linden’s book “Western Marxism and the Soviet Union” (2007), which I translated, it is documented that Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock created a general theory of the Soviet Union as “state capitalism” (1941), while Horkheimer wrote an essay on the “authoritarian state” describing the Stalinist regime as “integral etatism” or state socialism (1942), and Marcuse indeed wrote a full-length book on “Soviet Marxism: a critical analysis” (1958). These writers were comparing and contrasting Russian state socialism with Nazi/fascist regimes. It is therefore not true, that the Frankfurt School can be said to have “soft-pedalled” on the Stalinist phenomenon.

    If Adorno deliberately did not speak out about it in the 1930s or later, there were probably good reasons for it. First, at that time the political situation was very strongly polarized between supporters and opponents of the Soviet Union, within and outside the labour movement (split as it was between social democrats and communists); and any rational discussion was often hardly possible anyway. Second, the supporters of Trotsky were only a tiny group at that time, while Stalin’s Great Terror persecuted or liquidated a very large number of people, within the Soviet Union and abroad. Third, it was often dangerous to speak out about radical politics at that time, it could cost you not only your job, but also your life; a lot of left-wing activity was driven underground, and operated in secret. You could be found “guilty by association” for all the wrong reasons. Fourth, the Frankfurt School was never conceived as a political party with a propaganda apparatus, but as an institution for scientific research, which could not function very well if its members engaged in revolutionary political agitation themselves. Finally, Adorno himself was not especially concerned with Stalinism as such, but rather with the great transformations of Western bourgeois culture in Europe and America, from fascism through world war to the era of the long post-war boom. He sensed quite well, that Soviet socialism, whatever its merits and faults were thought to be, had little lasting credibility or appeal for the vast majority of people in Western society.

    Slavoj Žižek, in his afterword to Lukács’ Tailism and the Dialectic (2002), has similarly criticized the Frankfurt School for its tradition of “almost total absence of theoretical confrontation with Stalinism.” The Frankfurt School, Žižek suggested, had maintained “the official mask of its ‘radical’ leftist critique” and downplayed its affinity with liberal bourgeois democracy, as that would have deprived the critical theorists of “their ‘radical’ aura.” (See: Žižek, “Georg Lukács as the Philosopher of Leninism”, in: György Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic. New York: Verso, 2002, pp. 157-158). After I pointed out, that the Frankfurt School did take positions on the Soviet Union, I noticed that Žižek said in an interview: “Look, I’ve done my homework. But you will notice that the Frankfurt School almost totally ignores Stalinism — despite Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism.” (Haseeb Ahmed with Chris Cutrone, “The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today. An interview with Slavoj Žižek.” The Platypus Review, Issue #42, December 2011-January 2012, p. 2).

    Yet, as often happens in his utterances, Žižek ran together several different issues: (1) the decision of Frankfurt School members not to speak out about Stalinism at various times, (2) the fact that, overall, the Frankfurt School did not pay so much theoretical attention to the Stalinist phenomenon, because its concerns were in a different area of research, and (3) the claim, that the Frankfurt School did not think that Stalinism was very important, or that it underestimated the significance of it. But this jumble really overlooks the bigger point, that the Frankfurt School intended to create a Western alternative for Marx’s legacy to the sterile dogma’s of Marxism-Leninism. They sought an alternative to a totalitarian doctrine with its grand cosmology, which had all the answers to all of the questions already in advance, and which, precisely for that reason, could not be argued with, or fruitfully criticized. In other words, what the Frankfurt School opposed was intellectual terror from a bureaucracy that had a ready-made category for everything. There is no evidence that the Frankfurt School was particularly preoccupied with its own “radical aura” (implying it engaged in radical posturing), it was more that its members sought opportunities for a fruitful dialogue and research about the questions of concern to them, and therefore sought to present their views in certain ways to communicate. The concern about a “radical aura” is probably more a projection from Žižek’s own subconscious (Žižek can probably claim far greater affinity with liberal bourgeois democracy, since he has lectured at numerous elite colleges of the bourgeoisie in Europe and America).

    Valid criticism of what the Frankfurt School tried to achieve, in terms of the structure of their theoretical assumptions, is certainly possible. But it is superficial to blame the Frankfurt School for what it did not achieve, and for not engaging with matters which were outside their field of concern anyway.

    “Be on your way, and people chatter as they will”.

  5. Responding to several comments:

    On the question of Marx, Trotsky, and Engels being bourgeois, and Lenin and Plekhanov being nobles—this is simply the historical truth, and whether I come from serfs like Nechaev or aristocrats like Bakunin does not change the facts. Besides, I noted the “centrality” of ad hominem arguments on North’s part, while my raising of the point to which you object was meant to challenge North’s critique of “petty-bourgeois” theorists while himself employing… petty-bourgeois and aristocratic sources.

    In terms of the point about Steiner and Brenner vs. North on Trotskyism in the opening paragraph—I have no interest in affirming the Trotskyist creed, in contrast to North, Steiner/Brenner, or, seemingly, most of the commentators here.

    Actually, Alexander Fangmann is even more hardline than North when it comes to Adorno and Marcuse and the charge of their aligning with Stalinism during the Moscow Trials. North doesn’t provide a shred of evidence to accuse Marcuse (not even in Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno”), yet Fangmann is willing to take him at his word. This commentator also confuses application of the term “political swinishness,” directed by North in the original to
    Bloch only, by extending it to Marcuse and Adorno. Apparently this commentator wants to ignore Adorno’s letter to Benjamin which I cite expressing dismay at Eisler’s “feeble defence” of the Trials and his disgust at the latter’s joke over Bukharin’s murder (yes, by Stalin), and feels more qualified than Adorno’s biographer, Detlev Claussen, to comment on historical facts. On p. 238 of his text (which I cut from the review due to space, thinking readers would not be so ideological as to need it), Claussen explains: “They [Benjamin and Adorno] had earlier reached agreement about Bloch,
    whose judgment of the Moscow trials marked the unbridgeable gulf between the members of Horkheimer’s circle and the members of the Communist Party.”

    Look up the passage cited in Google Books if you don’t believe me.

    It’s a bit astounding for anyone to hold Marcuse to have been sympathetic to Stalinism. I would recommend reading Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (1958).

    Fangmann goes on to claim that Adorno and Marcuse thought the “most important
    events and developments of the 20th century” were “products of unconscious, irrational, and libidinal strivings in the darkest reaches of the human mind.” Which events and developments, exactly? Nazism? Stalinism? Monopoly capitalism? The Vietnam War and Cold War? Certainly neither of these thinkers thought any of these events or developments could be reduced to psychological explanations. Is this really the argument being put forward?

    Another thing is that it’s quite absurd to associate Marcuse or Benjamin with “anti-Enlightenment thought.” Please read the opening lines of Reason and Revolution (1941):

    “GERMAN idealism has been called the theory of the French Revolution. This does not imply that Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel furnished a theoretical interpretation of the French Revolution, but that they wrote their philosophy largely as a response to the challenge from France to reorganize the state and society on a rational basis, so that social and political institutions might accord with the freedom and interest of the individual. Despite their bitter criticism of the Terror, the
    German idealists unanimously welcomed the revolution, calling it the dawn of a new
    era, and they all linked their basic philosophical principles to the ideals that it advanced […].

    The philosophies of the French Enlightenment and their revolutionary successors all posited reason as an objective historical force which, once freed from the fetters of despotism, would make the world a place of progress and happiness. They held that ‘the power of reason, and not the force of weapons, will propagate the principles of our glorious revolution.’ By virtue of its own power, reason would triumph over social irrationality and overthrow the oppressors of [humanity].”

    Is it necessary also to cite Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)?

    “The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every
    victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turn, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history.”

    “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ’emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.”

    Eric commits the common fallacy of reducing “the Frankfurt School” to One-Dimensional Man. Please reread my words: ‘by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).’

    If readers were familiar with or would be willing to consult Marcuse’s writings from the 1970s (e.g. Counterrevolution and Revolt, Revolution or Reform?, “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism,” The Aesthetic Dimension), they would see he certainly does not “give up” on class struggle or revolution, but much the opposite, indeed.

    If Eric’s professors “presented” Marcuse by reducing his thought to ODM, then that is too bad. It doesn’t make his claims about Marcuse true. This is Marcuse invoking natural law to justify revolution in a 1967 address to the German Socialist Youth at the West Berlin Free University (yes, 3 years after ODM):

    “The doctrine of the right of resistance has always asserted that appealing to the right of resistance is an appeal to a higher law, which has universal validity, that is, which goes beyond the self-defined right and privilege of a particular group […]. Now you will say that such a universal higher law simply does not exist. I believe that it does exist. Today we no longer call it natural law, but I believe that if we say today that what justifies us in resisting the system is more than the relative interest of a specific group and more than something that we ourselves have defined, we can demonstrate this. If we appeal to humanity’s right to peace, to humanity’s right to abolish exploitation and oppression, we are not talking about self-defined, special, group interests, but rather and in fact interests demonstrable as universal rights” (Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner [London: Routledge, 2004], p. 73).

    You will not find any such arguments in Foucault or Laclau/Moffe (“minor differences”). Additionally, the claim that Marcuse was unconcerned with “permanent imperialist war” or “inequality” is untenable. Please see Marcuse’s activism against the Vietnam War and in defense of Angela Davis, both of which led to numerous death-threats being issued against him.

    Lastly, Eric, no, I am not ignorant of Stalin’s crimes, but I did not have space here to discuss the Russian Revolution and the course of its degeneration. Unlike North, and apparently, you, though, I am not willing to overlook the various bureaucratic-authoritarian measures and atrocities for which Lenin and Trotsky historically were responsible—the Red Terror, that is—precisely as forerunners of Stalin. You write that I should be “ashamed” of defending Adorno’s supposed “acquiescence to these terrible crimes” of Stalin’s, but presumably defenders of Lenin and Trotsky, who not only acquiesced to but directly ordered and implemented the murder of thousands of striking workers and starving peasants, should feel no such shame.

  6. For the sake of clarity I am not the Eric commenting above, it’s a pity that Eric hides behind a first name without disclosing his true identity,

  7. @Javier Sethness: I really enjoyed the review and, like the first commentator, have to congratulate you for wading through something published by the SEP which, to my mind, is one of the big anti-intellectual dogmatist Trotskyist groups out there. (And is pretty much confirmed by North’s supporters who have commented on this string.) Considering that your area of research is the Frankfurt School, I have no idea how you can stomach reading these kinds of straw-person engagements with the source material. Although I have a great respect for the Frankfurt School and their theoretical contributions, I’m not the largest fan – even still, I wouldn’t touch an SEP book on them because, based on an inference to the best explanation (and what you confirmed), it would make me extremely annoyed.

    As for “Eric”, I highly doubt he has read the theorists he has mentioned… It seems more like the way in which the dogmatists from the theoretical tradition I gravitate towards (maoism), best examples being today’s RCP-USA members, say they read a whole bunch of other stuff but spend all their time dismissing everyone but Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Bob Avakian (although now, arguably, they dismiss even Marx, Lenin, and Mao in favour of Avakian). Point being: it’s probably more the case that “Eric” did not pay attention to his “professors” when they taught him about thinkers other than Trotsky and SEP ideologues––it is a bit of coincidence, after all, that he groups Foucault, Adorno, Badiou, etc. together precisely as the WSWS does.

    [Also, it probably did no good to remind them about Marcuse’s support of activism against Vietnam and support for Angela Davis… These struggles, for the SEP, were “Stalinist”.]

    One thing I would add, in defense of the first commenter who, to my mind, was not attacking your review but bringing up a point of correction. While it is indeed the case that people like North use ad hominem attacks, it is best not to fall into that trap particularly since this way of looking at class is, well, Trotskyist in that it treats class as an essence and not a social relation. Class origins are important but one’s class is not determined primarily by one’s origin, and this is the Marxist break from the “estate” conception of classes, because it is made and not found. Of course, I get your reason for bringing it up to demonstrate that, by North’s own logic, he was using “petty-bourgeois” theorists but, perhaps I misread the original review, I didn’t get this until your response.

    In any case, this engaging review makes me want to read your upcoming book. Cheers.

  8. North does not say that the Frankfurt School are identical with post-modernism. His point is that the Frankfurt School’s historical pessimism, their sense of the failure of the Enlightenment, and their rejection of the primary revolutionary role of the proletariat make the School an important element of the intellectual currents that historically fed into postmodernism. North is correct to say that the Frankfurt School rejected the revolutionary role of the proletariat. This is particularly true of Marcuse. A couple of sentences in An Essay on Liberation do not change the fact that Marcuse rejected the objective basis for the revolutionary role of the proletariat, turning instead to marginalized groups such as youth and students, American blacks and Third World movements. Marcuse’s view put forward in One-Dimensional Man and central to his diagnosis of ‘industrial society’ was the notion that capitalism had stabilized itself in a deep and fundamental way, overcoming the contradiction between forces and relations of production. Of course, the recession of the next decade, the 1970s and the economic instability ever since, gives the lie to this short-sightedness and renders Marcuse’s whole framework of analysis pretty much useless today since it contains no way of understanding capitalist crisis. North is right to reject ‘state capitalism’ theory which has so many contradictions (for example, is it a lower or a higher form of capitalism?) and which cannot explain the collapse of the Soviet Union. North’s careful and lucid argument is done an injustice by this review which seems motivated by a desire to defend Marcuse at all costs. North is absolutely right to point out the huge gap between the Frankfurt School and Marxism and his diagnosis of the “pseudo-left” is vitally important for understanding not only Syriza but also the weakness and vacillations of most of the groups that claim to be ‘left’ today.

  9. Well, during most of the long boom there were no revolutionary prospects, and there was “no revolutionary role of the proletariat”. The revolutionaries that there were, had to come to grips with an epoch in which there was no political revolution happening in the West. The places where revolutionary revolts were happening, were in the “third world”. And so Sartre, Foucault and a lot of other intellectuals jumped on the barricades, for example, to protest against France’s imperialism in Algeria, and tried to aid the Algerians, and so on (while the PCF did practically nothing). Were they wrong to do that? I don’t think so. Maybe their methods did not always work, but the commitment was honorable. The big political change from the mid-1960s onward was the youth radicalisation. The youth in the West (and also elsewhere) could not identify anymore with the experience, and the norms and values of the previous generation. They grew up in a society which, economically and technologically, was getting better and better, and where there was no war in sight, but in which social relations seemed more and more stifling and incongruous. In the post-war reconstruction era, society had tried to teach people to know their place and their proper role, and stay there, for the sake of order, peace and prosperity (it was therefore hardly surprising that Talcott Parsons’s structural functionalism became the dominant paradigm in sociology). Yet the old social institutions were more and more out of sync with the real experience of young people, who increasingly found those institutions alienating, unjust, and (especially) fake or unreal (inauthentic). They were looking for alternatives, but not particularly attracted to Marxism-Leninism or to the old labour movement, which they regarded as weirdly conservative. The old labour movement for its part was not particularly interested in taking up the newly emerging social issues and supporting the new causes, in good part because of their concept of what the proper concerns of the “working class” were supposed to be. So the “new social movements” arose outside the traditional labour movement, in large part because the traditional labour movement did not care to support their causes. To some extent, the Communist parties did set up “front organizations” to deal with this new situation, but that often only increased the cold war paranoia of “reds under the bed” and Communist infiltration. That was the milieu and the situation that intellectuals like Marcuse tried to speak to, from their own position in the world. That was the radical new thing that was happening, and it sort of dovetailed subsequently with an increasing amount of strike-activity from the late 1960s into the 1970s, given that with low unemployment and a booming economy, the bargaining position of the workers was getting better and better. Did the Frankfurt School ever deny though the very potential of the working class for revolution, or did they have a principled opposition to it? I don’t think they ever did, all they concluded was that for the time being there was not much chance of a real revolution overthrowing the state in the West. That was also the opinion of the vast majority of people at the time. Just before May ’68 burst on the scene, and took people by surprise, the highly regarded sociologist Raymond Aron even declared that French society (the Fifth Republic) had never been so “stable” before. The nearest the West got to a real revolution was in Portugal. The other aspect was, that the class structure had changed, and up to 80% of the population were earning a wage or a salary, so an “orientation to the working class” was less and less meaningful. You might as well say, “an orientation to the majority of the people.” It was the Marxist-Leninists who still often had a concept of the working class as consisting only of the “productive workers”, factory workers, manual workers and the like, but in reality more and more workers were actually working in offices. Labour mobility also increased greatly in a buoyant labour market. So the whole concept of what the working class consisted of, became vaguer anyway, and that was precisely the cause of the academic disputes about “class” (intellectuals did try to make finer distinctions between different social strata etc., but this often seemed a bit schematic and arbitrary compared to the lived experience that people had). If there was political radicality in society, it was mainly among the youth, there you had an outlet for radical ideas. Was Marcuse wrong to give speeches to the youth, and directly address their concerns about liberation from an ossified society, from his perspective? I don’t see why. You might disagree with his views or be critical of them, but he believed himself to be doing his best to aid a radical critique of society. He wasn’t “adapting to postmodernism” because even the term itself was hardly known. In some respects, the dispute about “the revolutionary role of the working class” seems more like the arcane dispute of Stalin criticizing Trotsky in the 1920s for “underestimating the peasantry”, more like an intellectual storm in a tea-cup. The real political issue at the time was different: it was about how the young student radicals could somehow forge an alliance of mutual support with ordinary working folks, given that student life was a whole lot different from the life of the workers. The students did try to do that, in different ways, some more successful than others. I cannot recall though, that Marcuse or other critical theorists ever opposed such an alliance, or that the students should not even attempt it, because it was doomed to fail. At most you could say that they were encouraging the students to really study, to research, and create new ideas, new critiques for the future. If we are going to re-write history from the perspective of what we know now, or from an overarching Hegelian framework, let us be mindful that how we see things today, is very different from how things looked back then, and that the meaning of what is “progressive” or “radical” or “revolutionary” is not fixed in concrete for all time. Indeed, what was progressive in the past, relative to the situation in which people found themselves, may not be progressive anymore now. That was actually a central theme of the “New Left” in its heyday, i.e. that yesterday’s revolutionary glory and traditions might no longer be so relevant in the present time. Traditions have their place, insofar as people experience the same kind of problems and use the same kinds of tried-and-tested solutions over and over again, but it is very easy to slip into false retrospective analogies or dubious historical justifications, and mistake what was really said and done in the past, and why it was said and done.

  10. An excellent review and just indictment of an anachronistic and banal thinker whose views shall soon be – if indeed they are not already – consigned to the dustbin of history. I am a fairly regular reader of the SEP’s mouthpiece the WSWS, but the more I read it the more I find its politics irritating and naive. Their Trostkyist movement simultaneously agitates for an international revolution, yet condemns capitalist war. Even a cursory glance at history – that concept they claim to defend so rigorously – would suggest that brutal capitalist wars provide the best windows to foment revolution.

    All in all, I thank you, Javier, for saving me from having to wade through the contradictions and quaint antiquarian assertions one by one, the self-serving myopia of an old dog incapable of learning any new tricks.

  11. “Even a cursory glance at history – that concept they claim to defend so rigorously – would suggest that brutal capitalist wars provide the best windows to foment revolution.” Brodi, sorry but that’s insanity. With NATO stoking tensions with Russia and the US engaging in war planning and provocations against China, combined with the chaos that imperialism has produced in the Middle East, we are perched on the precipice of a third world war. That would mean global nuclear holocaust. It wouldn’t be a ‘window’ to anything except death and destruction. Real Marxists don’t talk about war so glibly. A key distinguishing feature of real Marxism from the pseudo-left today is the attitude toward imperialist war.

  12. Sethness writes of North: ‘He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic”’
    Slanderous, really?
    From a review of Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children on this website:
    “But, according to Wolin, Marcuse, though he renounced Heidegger the man was unable to renounce Heidegger the philosopher because Heidegger the philosopher infiltrated the fundamentals of Marcuse’s thought. Marcuse’s famous thesis of the one-dimensional nature of current society where all thought and desire becomes instrumental to the functioning of a production-consumption society, where the only possibility of escape from this one-dimensional world is through its radical destruction and replacement by a new world created by a counter-cultural intellectual vanguard, is a Heideggerian thesis. Though Marcuse thought that he had cast off Heidegger’s nihilistic ontology of Being, according to Wolin, the thesis of the one-dimensional nature of modern society with its refashioning of thought into instrumental rationality, and Marcuse’s elitism amounts to a sublimation of Heidegger’s own adaptation of Nietzsche’s trans-valuation of society by a new elite of those above ordinary humanity.
    Most of Heidegger’s Jewish students rejected Heidegger the man and thought they rejected Heidegger’s philosophy. However, they had internalized Heidegger’s philosophy to the degree that their post-Heideggerian work was still implicitly structured by Heidegger’s mind-set.
    We learn from Wolin’s book to become an aware intellectual consumer. Be aware of buying into appealing but dangerous ideas.”

  13. Marcuse cannot be said to be irrationalist or individualist. Certainly idealism is present in many of his writings, but so is materialism. There is also debate about the distinction between the two: i.e., did Hegel really believe there was to be no material ‘realization’ of the Geist?

    There is no question that Heidegger influenced Marcuse, but Wolin makes clear that Marcuse’s Marxism was primary. This became especially clear once Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts were discovered in 1932, as Marcuse reviews in “New Sources on the Foundations of Historical
    Materialism.” Please read or reread Heidegger’s Children if you are skeptical about this point. You may also consult “Heidegger’s Politics,” a 1977 interview with Frederich Olafson.

    I reiterate that the pessimism of One-Dimensional Man was only temporary, even if it is Marcuse’s best-known work. To begin with, I suggest that you consider “Beyond One-Dimensional Man” (1968). His revision to pessimism over the U.S. proletariat (to clarify, ODM analyzed U.S. society only; Marcuse was clear that one-dimensionality was not to any significant degree present e.g. in France and Italy at the time) does not surface only in the Essay on Liberation, but, to repeat, is exhibited also in a number of works from the 1970s stressing class struggle: “The Movement in a New Age of Repression,” Counterrevolution and Revolt, Revolution or Reform?, “The Failure of the New Left?”, “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism,” and so on.

  14. Javier, thanks for the references for Marcuse’s 1970s works. But are you arguing that in the 1970s Marcuse was repudiating his ‘one-dimensionality’ thesis? Did Marcuse’s writings in the 1970s contain an analysis of economic crisis, economic contradictions, and the relationship between class struggle and economic contradictions of capitalism? To do so would surely seem to go against the very notion of ‘one-dimensional’ society and of technology as an effective form of control that erases the contradiction between base and superstructure.
    Can you give a reference for Marcuse saying ‘one-dimensionality’ was not present in France and Italy? Are you claiming that One-Dimensional Man was a study of American culture specifically? I’ve not heard that before. Of course Marcuse was very much influenced by his experience in the US, but One-Dimensional Man is explicitly an analysis of ‘advanced industrial society.’ If there is anything America-specific, Marcuse seems to have thought this was where Europe was headed.
    I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say that there is materialism alongside idealism in Marcuse. That would suggest something like Weber’s material and ideal interests – not a Marxist conception. Historical materialism doesn’t mean that culture, ideas, ideology are insignificant or ‘epiphenomenal’ as critics of Marxism often claim. It is a question of where you look to as the most fundamental source of change, what is your ultimate explanans. Whether consciousness determines being or being determines consciousness is absolutely fundamental. Not satisfactory for a Marxist to say ‘well it’s a bit of both’. Question is what is determining in the last instance or at the most basic level.

  15. Charles Thorpe, above on First April, but I assume that here he is serious!!!, is not quite right.
    It is precisely when a state is falling apart, often from war, that there is the best possibility of or for revolution. This is made clear in the Middle East currently. If all the socialists had not been murdered by the capitalists over the last 30 years, there would be a possibility of a socialist revolution in the Middle East at this time. Empirical evidence for this is shown by the success of the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, where they have shown themselves the best fighters against the black-shirt fascists. And they have used the opportunity with skill to effectively carve out for themselves a Kurdish, left-wing republic, which may survive and may even be a an inspiration for the other Kurds who are also left-wing in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is to be noted that the Government of Turkey, US, and Europe regard them as terrorists and fight against them more vigorously than they fight the black-shirt fascists.

  16. Jurriaan, yes the post-WWII period of apparent stabilization of capitalism was confusing and disorienting for revolutionaries. However, Marxist method means holding theoretical conceptions up to the test of history and the notion that the working-class had been thoroughly integrated into advanced capitalism and that this stabilization was more than just a temporary phenomenon very quickly proved to be wrong. The turn away from the working class and toward ‘marginal’ groups and movements like black liberation and third world nationalism had very negative long-term consequences since it led to the turn of the ‘left’ toward identity politics and the abandonment of the working class, and the failure to oppose the growth of class inequality since the 1980s.

  17. I just want to add that I thought the responses to Eric were very unfair. If someone doesn’t want to use their full name on the internet, they’re entitled not to. Unless you want this site to be only open to university students and faculty, you should be a bit more understanding and less naive about this. There are all sorts of good reasons why someone may not want to use their full name online. Also, I really didn’t like Joshua’s patronizing comment that Eric ‘did not pay attention to his “professors”.’ This sort of academic snobbery is very unappealing, but perhaps it is revealing about the sort of milieu that is highly invested in the Frankfurt School.

  18. Part I of comment

    In his review of David North’s The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique, Javier Sethness makes the following assessment,

    Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP. [1]

    With the exception of the last sentence I fully concur. My disagreement with the last sentence is the reviewer’s assumption that North’s thinking is synonymous with Trotskyism. As I have been the chief target of North’s “slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association” in a number of polemics over the past 14 years I think I have some unique insights into this subject. In collaboration with my colleague Frank Brenner, I tried to demonstrate in a number of essays that North’s philosophical outlook bears little resemblance to Marxism and Trotskyism. If I were to pin down what his philosophy most closely resembles, I would say it is the crude reduction of Marxism to the mindless formulas of the Stalinist vulgarization of Engels that has come to be known as “diamat”. I think Mr. Sethness makes a serious error when he conflates the Marxism of Trotsky with the vulgarized caricature of Marxism espoused by North. I wrote an essay a number of years ago explaining why I thought Trotsky deserves to be remembered not only as one of the leaders of the October Revolution, but as a serious Marxist theoretician. [2] Obviously Sethness, writing from an anarchist perspective, has a different opinion about Trotsky. While I have a very different political perspective than Sethness and while my assessment of the practitioners of the Frankfurt School differs from his in important respects, I nevertheless want to acknowledge the value of Sethness review as providing a real service in contributing to the debunking of the intellectual fraud that has been perpetrated by David North for a number of years.

    I am also fully in agreement with Sethness when he writes,

    Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion.

    There is a back-story to North’s conflation of the Frankfurt School and postmodernism about which Sethness is probably unaware. The targeting of the Frankfurt School as the fount of all intellectual and political evils and the inspirer of postmodernism is a relatively recent invention of North’s. Prior to our initial polemics written in the period 2003-2006 where we had some positive things to say about some of the contributions of Critical Theory there is a barely a mention of the Frankfurt School in the works of North or other WSWS commentators. Rather at that time the bête noire of North and his followers was postmodernism. You can find a clear example of this trend in the following lecture delivered in 2005 by David Walsh, the long time art and culture critic of the WSWS, Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over “proletarian culture”. [3] This lecture, which summarizes what the author considers the Marxist position on art and contrasts it to other bourgeois trends, includes several swipes at postmodernism but does not include a single reference to the Frankfurt School or any of its practitioners. And this treatment was not unusual but was typical of articles you can find on the WSWS from that period and earlier. Now if you contrast this lecture with another lecture given by the same author 4 years later, The future of art in an age of crisis,[4] you find a very different narrative. Suddenly the full weight of Walsh’s invectives falls on the Frankfurt School with postmodernism being depicted as its intellectual descendant. What happened in the intervening period between these two lectures to account for this dramatic change in focus? The answer: our polemics and North’s response in his first outing against the Frankfurt School, Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness (MHSC). After the publication of MHSC it became de rigueur for all WSWS commentators to include lengthy denunciations of the Frankfurt School in any piece commenting on contemporary culture and its problems.

    In collaboration with Frank Brenner I began the debunking of North a decade ago in our polemic Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.[5] This was a response to North’s initial polemic against us, Marxism History and Socialist Consciousness, which contained the first statements of North’s view of the Frankfurt School. Our response to North’s polemic was a multi-level critique of the political movement led by North, the International Committee, which is responsible for the publication of the World Socialist Web Site. We focused on the theoretical issues at stake in the project of building a political movement aimed at human liberation from capitalist oppression. In chapter 6 of that book long polemic we discussed the philosophical issues that a serious Marxist critique of Horkheimer and Adorno’s influential work, Dialectic of the Enlightenment, needs to confront. [6] Summarizing our conclusion, we wrote,

    In Dialectic of the Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer mistakenly conflate “instrumental reason” with reason as such and in that sense open up a door to irrationalism. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as “instrumental reason”. The term is but another name for the constricted and reified concept of science that derives from positivism. From the standpoint of a Marxist critique of Adorno and Horkheimer, we reject the identification of “instrumental reason” with reason, but at the same time we recognize that “instrumental reason” is indeed a profound social phenomenon of our time.

    We noted that North and his acolytes did far more than challenge the pessimistic conclusions of Adorno and Horkheimer, but dismissed any attempt to critique the limitations of the Enlightenment. And through the employment of crude guilt by association type arguments, they identified any attempt to critique the Enlightenment with postmodernism. North in his broadside against this one work of Adorno and Horkheimer also repeatedly lumps together the entire Frankfurt School in all its periods of evolution.

    We also included in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, a lengthy reply to North’s flippant rejection of the place of utopianism within Marxism, his misrepresentations of Wilhelm Reich and other Freudo-Marxists as well as his bizarre depiction of Eduard Bernstein as a utopian theorist! Those who are interested should take a look at the material in Chapter 9, Remarks on Bernstein, ‘Neo-Utopianism’ and Political Amalgams [7] and Chapter 10, Mass Psychology and Marxism. [8]
    North returned to the subject of the Frankfurt School in his response to Marxism Without its Head or its Heart a year later in a diatribe he called Marxism versus the Frankfurt School: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner.[9] This was an exercise in character assassination aimed at discrediting me. In this piece North was not content with repeating his misrepresentations of the Frankfurt School – all the while ignoring our response to his earlier misstatements – but he also tried to directly link me to that intellectual current by advertising the fact that I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in the 1970s and therefore came under the influence of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. In my response to North, The Downward Spiral of the International Committee,[10] I was forced to spend a good deal of time demonstrating that North got some elementary facts wrong, including the fact that anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of the Frankfurt School would have known that the New School for Social Research long had a reputation of being hostile to the Frankfurt School! The Frankfurt School, during their period of exile in America, was affiliated to Columbia University. The New School for Social Research during that same period, when it was known as the University in Exile, was host to a number of far more conservative scholars in exile from Nazi Germany, many of whom were bitter opponents of the Frankfurt School. [11]

    By the time North wrote the Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner, his antipathy to the Frankfurt School had taken on a new and bizarre dimension. He now blamed the Frankfurt School for the decline of Marxist culture in academia and beyond. He saw the influence of the Frankfurt School echoed in everything from “pomo” literary theory to ethnic studies departments and even pinned on its shoulders the decline of what he considered serious historical research. And beyond academia he saw its influence on the larger culture as all pervasive. I pointed out that North’s demonization of the Frankfurt School was a strange echo of the demonization of Marcuse in the hand of the neo-conservative author Alan Bloom in his influential book of the 1980’s, The Closing of the American Mind.

    Apparently not content with his earlier efforts North came out in 2012 with another broadside against the Frankfurt School, his The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left.[12] In that piece he extends his denunciations of the Frankfurt School, blaming them not only for the decline of culture but also for being the inspiration for an amorphous political category he calls the “Pseudo-Left”, which according to North is responsible for a variety of evils in the history of the post-war period. What bedevils North most of all is his firm conviction that were it not for the machinations of the “Pseudo-Left” the political movement he leads would long ago have triumphed. This kind of delusional thinking permeates much of North’s “theoretical” work.

    In the summer of 2015 North made one more contribution to his denunciation of the Frankfurt School when he published a Foreword [13] to a printed version of his previous writings on the subject. The Foreword included nothing really new about the Franfkurt School but it did feature a new round of diatribes against Frank Brenner and me. This time North’s use of deliberate misrepresentations of what we said reached a new low. We responded to North in the essay, Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak. [14] I used this occasion to classify North’s work as being part of a genre that I call “Crackpot Philosophy”. What I had in mind is the kind of “philosophy” espoused by the followers of Ayn Rand. It is not so much philosophy that is presented by the followers of Rand but a mythologized history – a conspiracy theory complete with its characters of arch-villains and their courageous opponents. Likewise for North’s narrative of the Frankfurt School. It is also no coincidence that such fake historical narratives are invariably linked to a cult-like organization where it is impermissible to question the ideas of its leader, for such ill-informed narratives cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.

    Why did North return to yet another round of his ongoing screed against the Frankfurt School in 2015? I think the reason has little to do with the Frankfurt School. Rather I think that our criticism of the sectarian position of the World Socialist Web Site on Greece must have raised North’s ire. [15] That as well as our exposure of the poverty of their analysis of Russia and recent events in the Ukraine and Middle East were probably the tipping point that goaded North to return to his computer. [16] Of course I cannot prove any of this, it is just speculation on my part, but I think a reasonable one. The evidence for this is admittedly circumstantial, but it seems to fit. First of all we had not written anything about the Frankfurt School in several years, not since our last major response to North in 2009. What we did do recently was publish a number of essays that punctured the political pretensions of the group North leads, the Socialist Equality Party.

    In any case whether I am correct or not about North’s motivation for entering the fray once more against the Frankfurt School, the latest piece by North seems to have caught the attention of Javier Sethness and for that I am grateful. It is another and welcome step toward intellectual clarity that someone besides me has noticed the intellectual fraud being carried out by North. Sethness response to North largely overlaps my own, although we do have differences in our assessment of the Frankfurt School. While I certainly agree with Sethness that the Frankfurt School made some valuable contributions that should be of interest to Marxists, particularly their investigations into mass psychology and the role of the culture industry, I am on the whole much more critical of the Frankfurt School than Xavier Sethness. But that is probably a topic for another day.

  19. Part II of comment

    There is however one historical point to which I must register my strong disagreement with Sethness. In his discussion of the Moscow Trials, I think Sethness bends the stick far too much in the other direction. Granted that it may have been unfair for North to paint the entire Frankfurt School as supporting the Moscow Trials on the basis of one letter from Adorno, it must be said that without exception, the figures associated with the Frankfurt School did not acquit themselves well in relation to the Moscow Trials. If ever there was a time for intellectuals to speak out against a criminal perversion of socialism this was it. Yet those associated with the Frankfurt School, despite their private misgivings, remained silent. There is no way such an action can be excused or condoned.

    When Frank Brenner and I first began our critique of the philosophical and political position of the World Socialist Web Site almost 15 years ago, we were at that time hoping that our criticisms could set into motion a process of reform within that organization. We were probably naïve in underestimating the degree to which that organization had become a sclerotic sect even 15 years ago. The processes that led to that impasse have only accelerated in the past 15 years. If we still occasionally write about the WSWS it is no longer with the hope of rescuing this moribund organization. It is simply to set the record straight and to expose the intellectual fraud being perpetrated by David North. I should also mention that in the course of our polemics against North and the WSWS we clarified many theoretical issues that should be of abiding interest to revolutionaries long after North and company are forgotten. We believe that this positive outcome of our critique will have an impact on others who set themselves the task of preparing for a future free from capitalist oppression. Even if we do not have all the answers for how to build a movement for revolutionary social change, I think we have at least provided a good lesson in how not to build such a movement.

  20. The most amazing thing about this review and the various responses (generally a lot more than I see here) is that anyone takes David North and his sectarian politics that seriously.

    WSWS has some good movie reviews but beyond that its all boilerplate “analysis” by a group who regards themselves as the only true revolutionaries.

  21. To Charles Thorpe:

    Yes, I am saying that Marcuse had jettisoned the thesis of one-dimensionality in the 1970s, and even before that (please see my reference to “Beyond ODM” [1968] in previous comment). This is a source for the distinction in Marcuse’s mind between the U.S. and France/Italy: Marcuse and Popper, Revolution or Reform? 1976: either p. 67 or pp. 72–77 (I do not have the text in front of me). He makes a similar argument about Europe vs. the US in terms of one-dimensionality in his 1967 lecture “The End of Utopia?” (Five Lectures [1970] pp. 69–71, 73–75, 77–78).

    Marcuse clearly identified the destabilization of capitalism in the 1970s, especially in the US, pointing to the surge in wildcat strikes, workplace sabotage, absenteeism, etc.

    On idealism vs. materialism, well George Santayana claimed all idealists to be crypto-materialists. In Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, moreover, one can clearly see a blend between the two schools of thought. Beyond that, it’s simply untrue that Marcuse believed human problems of alienation, destruction, inequality, domination, etc. to be matters to be resolved solely at the mental level! In “The End of Utopia,” he argues that the development of consciousness (or a new sensibility) is a principal task of revolutionary materialism. Of course, Marcuse was very critical of the ortho-Marxist rejection of concepts like subjectivity, mind, and so on.

    To Alex Steiner:

    Thank you for your comments. I very much agree with your characterization of North’s approach as “crackpot philosophy,” and I had considered including that very point from you in preliminary drafts of the review. I also agree with the parallel you draw between North’s diatribes against the Frankfurt School and those of Alan Bloom; I think David Horowitz would be another good parallel to consider. I doubt we will be able to find common ground in terms of Trotsky and Leninism, but I concur that North’s approach is reminiscent of Stalinism, indeed. As for the question of instrumental reason, I would like to point out that it seems you are ignoring Horkheimer’s notion of “objective reason,” which he counterposes to subjective (or instrumental) reason, as delineated in Eclipse of Reason (1947).

  22. Perhaps the reason for the interest shown in the book by David North has something to do with the size of the readership of the the World Socialist Web Site. According to compete.com, this “sectarian” site was accessed in February 2016 by 228,000 individual readers. It is, by far, the most widely read socialist website. By way of comparison, your site does not attract sufficient readership to generate a number.

  23. The polemical positions – here articulated with reference to the Frankfurt School or Critical Theory – are not restricted to World Socialist Web Site and its critics, but are more widespread and in fact divide the followers of Marxism globally.

    The Enlightenment (= Modernity) with its slogan of ‘Reason, Science and Progress’ remains the key issue and I do not think that all those who are loyal or committed to Marxian theory think alike on this issue. Take science, for instance. How does dialectics relate to the epistemology or metaphysics underlying the natural sciences? I don’t think the question has been decisively answered. How many have seriously examined Marx’s thesis that sciences are alienated within capitalism? Or his contention that the dualism of natural sciences vs social sciences has to disappear in future?

    Among the followers of Marx are those who are ‘purists’. They do not want importations into their theory from other schools of thought – whether phenomenology, psychoanalysis, structuralism,
    post-structuralism or post-modernism. For them such borrowings are acts of corruption and deviation. However, they allow for ‘creative Marxism’ such as Lenin’s theory of imperialism.

    There are others who like to absorb what they consider to be fruitful insights from the non-Marxian or neo-Marxian theoretical sources dismissing the purist approach as dogmatic, sclerotic, sectarian and so on.

    David North’s position can thus be contextualised and understood. After all, it is not such an absurd, abnormal or irrational standpoint as some have tried to present it. David North and his
    supporters have the right to criticise – and criticise again and again – what they regard as anti-Marxist or anti-socialist. Of course, the rivals, too, have the right to do likewise.

    However, polemics should move towards greater light in the interests of truth and revolution.

  24. I had notes with hyperlinks for all my references but they were stripped out when I posted my comment. You can see the references with hyperlinks on the web site

    Responding to Sarban: I think you miss one of the main points here. North is free to defend whatever interpretation of Marxism he choses, however misconceived it may be. What he is not free to do is commit intellectual fraud through character assassination and guilt by association type arguments and present a historical narrative that flies in the face of the most elementary principles of historical research.

    Responding to Sethness:
    Even if we don’t agree in our assessments of Lenin and Trotsky it is still important that we defend basic principles of accuracy and fairness when it comes to a critique of the Frankfurt School.

    We can continue correspondence offline.

  25. Alex Steiner: I just made a general point. Unfortunately, I am unable to testify for or against your grave charge of ‘intellectual fraud’ against David North. I leave it to those with better knowledge. It is time North responds to the book review and the debate.

  26. I have a regular reader of this site, which I find very helpful in providing valuable coverage of left literature. However, I have been very disappointed with the treatment of David North’s book. The site should have selected a reviewer who, whatever his own politics, is capable of a reasonably objective evaluation of the book. Unfortunately, Mr. Sethness approach is that of a political opponent, hostile to North’s Trotskyist politics. It is legitimate to criticize North’s interpretation of the Frankfurt School. But this should be done in a manner that recognizes that North is arguing within a clearly identifiable Marxist materialist tradition, associated with Engels, Plekhanov and Trotsky. To refer to North’s approach to Marxism as “crackpot philosophy” is not only insulting to North, but also to theoretically informed readers of this site.

    What is missing from Sethness’s review is the context of North’s polemic. The key chapter, from a theoretical standpoint, is very first one. North answers Steiner’s claim that the betrayal of the Second International in 1914 was, first and foremost, the result of an inadequate grasp of dialectics by people such as Kautsky and Plekhanov. North — basing himself on Trotsky’s writings on this subject — insists on examining the broader historical context of the degeneration of the Second International. He makes the interesting observation that even the specific theoretical weaknesses of Plekhanov and Kautsky reflected the reformist political and intellectual climate of pre-1914 world. This is a clearly historical materialist approach. It may be viewed by some as “one-sided” but it is quite serious.

    The subsequent development of this polemic, as it is memorialized in this book, is quite fascinating. In answering Mr. Steiner, North argued that the positions of the latter reflect the influence of the Frankfurt School. Curiously, Steiner — who was then presenting himself as an orthodox Trotskyist — heatedly contested this claim. He argued that North was dragging in the Frankfurt School. This is strange, as it is obvious to anyone at this point that Steiner is, indeed, influenced by the Frankfurt School; and that North’s observation was entirely valid.

    North’s book is long and complex. I am struck by the fact that North did not ignore Steiner, but took the underlying theoretical issues seriously and answered him in great detail. North is clearly an experienced polemicist, and there are times when he is very cutting is his response to Steiner. But his arguments are focused on the theoretical and political issues.

  27. In reply to Charles Thorpe: to complete my previous remarks, I will just add five points in reply to your thesis that “The turn away from the working class and toward ‘marginal’ groups and movements like black liberation and third world nationalism had very negative long-term consequences since it led to the turn of the ‘left’ toward identity politics and the abandonment of the working class, and the failure to oppose the growth of class inequality since the 1980s.” This “original sin” idea has been a quite popular interpretation among the Marxist far Left, especially ultra-leftist Trotskyists and the International Socialists. The only problem with it, is that there isn’t any evidence for it. At best you can say is that many of the student revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s were never “working class” to begin with, and therefore really had no organic relationship with ordinary working people from the start. That was precisely the context in which the issue first arose.

    (1) The “identity politics” that exists today, with its ideologies of “intersectionalism” and so forth is a very different thing from black liberation in the 1960s and 1970s and from national liberation movements in the “third world” at that time. Back then, there were really a lot of people fighting about these issues, not just with coordinated political campaigns, but with mass protests and armed struggle. I mean, people actually died in the fight, they were jailed, they were censored and harassed badly, they were tortured, and so on. They put their lives on the line, for their causes, and they needed all the solidarity they could get. The biggest and most successful social movement of them all, the women’s liberation and feminist movement, was in no sense “marginal”. Contemporary identity politics, by contrast, occurs within the liberal framework of “competition for an equal opportunity”, and it is about how individuals ought to be treated, being who they are, about whether they ought to be entitled to a bigger slice of the pie, or what they rights ought to be (including “positive discrimination”), being who they are, about the freedom to express an identity that you have or want to take on, or about the validity or authenticity of particular identities – often disregarding what they actually do, what they are competent at, or what they have achieved and accomplished. Essentially identity politics is about the “attitudes” that people have towards others and themselves, and there is a lot of academic talk about the Other and Otherness, the acknowledgement of “difference” and “plurality”, about “the Subject” or different “subjectivities” and so forth: all in all, a radical increase but also a transformation of the new individualism which already emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but which takes new forms, given the new social relations created by the internet, the sexual revolution, and the massive increase in telecommunications. You have to get “endorsements” that affirm your identity, and to get them you need to do “good deeds”, but the good deeds are often just that you make somebody “feel good” in some way, or individually redistribute some resources.

    (2) None of the socialist or Marxist Left in the 1960s and 1970s actually said, to my knowledge and in my experience, that people ought simply to forget about the working class and prioritize the struggles of marginalized groups or national liberation movements “above all else”. That is a bad caricature of what they actually did or believed. To the contrary: they aspired to connect the different struggles “from below”, and to create political unity among all the people involved, to create one big movement (a “broad vanguard” according to some), ideally one political party that would encompass all or most them. What the political debate was really about – you guessed it – was “how you could actually do it”, how you could achieve that unity. All sorts of different tactics were proposed and followed, some more successful than others. In the 1970s, achieving that unity still seemed like a realistic prospect, I mean, at the end of the long boom there was a powerful and seemingly unstoppable wave of strikes and industrial action, there was a lot of turmoil in society, and the post-war consensus was a goner. Indeed many people began to think that a revolutionary crisis was imminent, or at least, that society was linearly heading into a revolutionary direction.

    (3) In the 1980s, after the slump of 1981-82, working-class militancy in the West began to decline; the labor movement that existed at the time was beaten, and beaten hard; and together with all that, the New Left and the new social movements as a whole began to fragment, just like the Marxist-Leninist movement did before them. Not even the most certified proletarian activists could make much political capital out of the situation. Party and trade union memberships dwindled, and interest in organized political participation declined. The previous conceptions about the conduct of struggles and political efficacy turned out to be increasingly out of sync with a newly emerging reality, which provided new routes to acquiring wealth, getting status and acclaim, or at any rate getting a better life. This whole process was also reflected in the trends of academia. The “revolutionary working class” no longer seemed such a credible or plausible idea, and so that was placed back into the bookshelf. Instead, ideas came to the fore which had already existed for a long time among a minority, but which rapidly began to gain great intellectual popularity. To a large extent, academia flip-flopped from astronomically abstract discussions about “structures” and “class forces” to phenomenological inquiry about “subjectivities” and “selves”. What was behind that intellectual transformation? Time and space does not permit me to go into this in great detail here, but essentially, it was all about a social competition among groups and strata which has less and less in common qua interests and aspirations. In the “long recession”, there was a lot of fear of unemployment and concern about job opportunities, or opportunities for a better life, especially, of course, among those in a weaker socio-economic position. If the total economic cake was shrinking because the growth of national income was cut in half, then obviously not everybody could make the gains anymore that they could before. There were winners, and there were losers, that obviously meant more social inequality. The new model for how society ought to be, was decided by the winners. The winners were not the working class, but rich people, middleclass elements, skilled people, yuppies, the neoliberals etc.; their solution of the crisis of society was to transform all (or most) forms of organization into business operations, or at least transform them into something analogous to a business; that was the only rational way to deal with allocation problems, they believed. Undoubtedly the leftwing ideologies about “organizing around your own oppression”, and the increasing distaste for abstract rants about “class” contributed to the defeat of the socialist Left. Behind that, though, was an increasing social and status competition between different social strata and groups lobbying for “empowerment” via “civil society” associations, NGO’s, interest groups and the like.

    (4) Suppose an employer advertised a job position, and got 200 applications – how would he choose a new member of his staff? At some point the criteria must become rather arbitrary, or at least it seemed that way to many applicants. Increasingly employers recruited through their informal networks. The social debate began to revolve more and more around the processes of social selection themselves, the justice of individual entitlements, and what kind of allocative principles would be fair. It was not that the issue of social inequality was put on the backburner, either by the Left or by anybody else, but rather that its successful expression could, in the new setting, only occur within the framework of (neo-)liberal pluralism, liberal individualism, and the liberal concept of the opportunity to participate in markets. In the Western economic boom of the 1990s, when money seemed to grow on trees, it again appeared for a while, that everybody could be a winner or at least that everybody could make gains if they had the will for it, or if they could handle it. There was talk of the internetized “new economy, and there was a great deal of social euphoria, also sexual euphoria, anything seemed to be possible, if you put your mind to it, or if you could handle it. Bourgeois society revitalized itself, with a splurge of social generosity and a desire for social amelioration, and new utopias were even mooted. Then came the crash, and suddenly there was a lot less money around; the previous generosity dwindled, and things got tougher: social competition once again intensified, and social inequality mattered more. But in this new situation, there are no longer any widely accepted models of political organizing, the political parties are constantly experiencing crises, and the models of the two pre-millenial generations no longer have so much purchase on reality. What you have today, is “social networking”, “websites”, cyber-politics, and more or less informally clubbing together with likeminded people or around “star” intellectuals. The scope of privacy was reduced, and people have to deal with getting reactions to everything they do and everything they say, in very quick time, affecting how they express their identity and what they are willing to speak out on. That is the real framework within which contemporary “identity politics” occurs, and it has really quite a different meaning or significance from what it had in the 1960s and 1970s.

    (5) The great interest in and response to the Occupy protests and Thomas Piketty’s book about “Capital in the 21st Century” indicates that concern about social inequality is not gone at all, and that the Left is also still fighting against it. It always will, probably. Yet symbolic protests where activists camp in a tent talking about “the one percent” do not achieve much. Piketty’s main proposal was only that the state should tax the wealthy more. There is no longer any alternative vision here of how society ought to be or how it should be organized, a vision that large numbers of people share; and “inequality” itself has become a somewhat mystical formula, not unlike “globalization” – it can mean more or less anything you want it to mean. How could it be otherwise, though, if people cannot even agree anymore, even at a very basic level, about what today’s society and the economy really are like, how social systems function, how they work? How can they pursue anything more than identity politics in the new conditions, and succeed? That is the question. It appears nowadays that on one end of the political spectrum, you can join the Labour Party, and hope that father Corbyn and his merry men will sort out the problem. At the other end of the Left-wing spectrum, you can rally to the Trotskyist flag of David North. But working-class militancy is mostly at a low ebb. Sure, there are still class conflicts, but there exists no organized struggle of social classes. It doesn’t make much sense, and is rather idealist though, to blame this on the Left’s “original sins” and its alleged pursuit of “red herrings”, alone. You have to look at what really happened in society as a whole, across the last three decades, and how that altered human subjectivities across whole populations.

  28. A coda: I recently noticed an article in the journal International Socialist Review (Dec 1968 issue, pp. 35-44) by Robert Langston called “Herbert Marcuse and Marxism”. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isr/vol29/no06/langston.htm The journal was published by the Socialist Workers Party in New York, in association with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, (although they could not legally say that at the time).

    The theme of the article is actually remarkably similar to the case made by David North, claiming that Marcuse “starts from the methodological presupposition that the working class is no longer a revolutionary force.” (p. 39). There is no real attempt though by Langston at understanding Marcuse’s position, or engaging in a dialogue with Marcuse; the main thought of the article is simply that Marcuse’s ideas were not Marxism, and that, therefore, that his ideas were just not credible.

    According to Langston, “Marcuse’s central theme is that the two-dimensional society of the past has been converted into a one-dimensional apparatus.” (ibid.).

    The article ends with the idea that “the French events are fully consistent with the Marxist theory of capitalist society and without the necessity of any improvised hypotheses. These events testify to the revolutionary potential of the working class. (…) Marcusianism offers no reliable guide either to understanding or making history, above all, the history of our own time. Marxism does” (p. 44).

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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