The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay

I am reading The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 by Martin Jay (1970). It’s my introduction to the intellectual history of Critical Theory, which might provide a tool for understanding our society. I am encouraged in this view by one of the books on Amazon’s list of suggestions for people who examined Jay’s book. a book by by Michael Walsh. The description of Walsh’s book includes this:

In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Michael Walsh describes how Critical Theory released a horde of demons into the American psyche. When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a central-European nihilism celebrated on college campuses across the United States.

How could I resist Jay’s book with a recommendation like that?

The Frankfurt School is the name given a group of scholars who worked at The Institute For Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung). The Institute was formed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 with a grant from a German industrialist, Hermann Weil, and his son Felix Weil. Many of the scholars were assimilated Jews, and as the Nazis began to emerge as a serious threat, the members made arrangements to leave. Within a month after Hitler took power, they were all gone, most to Columbia University and the New School where they remained until the Institute reopened in Frankfurt in 1951.

As a group, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were dissatisfied with the explanations offered by the theories of the day to explain the explosive rise of capitalism, and the instability and other problems it created. They rejected to strict versions of Marxism. They were opposed to the fascists, the forms of socialism imposed in Soviet Russia, and to the forms of capitalism of their day. The did like the general approach of the dialectic, which stems from Hegel and on through Marx. They added a new tool, psychoanalysis, on the grounds that Marx and other theorists gave insufficient attention to the role of the individual in the processes of creation of society. Their field of research was primarily sociology and philosophy. They applied those ideas to a close study of the actual forms of society, including work lives, and cultural lives. Jay suggests that their goal was to find conditions that would lead a society to “rational institutions” and to find ways to bring about those conditions. The theory they developed came to be known as Critical Theory.

The name Critical Theory might suggest that the substance of the work of the Frankfurt School was a theory of society. It’s not. It’s a way of examining a society, or sme specific part of a society, trying to understand it in context, and trying to understand it not just in terms of a fixed formal theory, but as the interplay of the various forces active in the society. Critical Theory is a tool, not an answer. Even so, the scholars of the Frankfurt School produced important contributions to our understanding of the forces at work in our lives. A notable example is the work of Adorno on authoritarianism. A clear explanation of a problem often suggests solutions.

The best-known scholars at the outset were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Much of the later work was led by Jurgen Habermas. All of the scholars were steeped in the traditions of German intellectualism; they studied Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche among others. Much of their earliest work was devoted to analyzing these earlier works and the problems they saw in light of the then current circumstances.

This book is an intellectual history of Critical Theory. The first chapter is devoted to the history of the Institute, brief biographies, including some of the early writings, of the leading scholars, and their flight from Germany. The author had access to a great deal of material, and was able to interview most of the surviving members in the late 1960s. The second chapter begins the intellectual history proper. It describes the fundamental early ideas of Critical Theory. I’m rereading that chapter now, but I want to start writing about the ideas I have already encountered.

A note on form. I intend to be quite careful in identifying the source of the materials as I write posts. Some of what seems important is Martin Jay’s take on the ideas of the scholars, some will be quotes from those scholars, and some will be my effort to work out what I read and how it applies to our times. I note that the quotes from the scholars of the Institute are selected by Jay, and I do not have the original texts to provide context. That is a potential source of misunderstanding on my part, and should be kept in mind.

A note on my background in this area. I have only the barest understanding of Marxism, and know nothing about current Marxian writers. I have some familiarity with the philosophical terms I encounter, like phenomenology, epistemology, ontology and many more. I’ll try to focus on the ideas about society, social change, and the role of theory in political practice, and stay away from hardcore philosophy.

I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice. The left clearly has a preferred group of policies and specific ideas about preferred forms of society. Theory organizes our thinking so that we can have confidence that our preferred policies are part of a coherent view of what society can and should be, and gives us a framework for explaining our views. That seems more important than ever now, when the party in power and its adherents are utterly incoherent.

7 replies
  1. Peacerme (katie Jensen) says:

    I am a therapist who specializes in Dialectical behavior therapy. I studied with a profession who got his ph.d at the university of Philadelphia and became a communications expert for the government during the Cold War. I studied with him for 10 years and got into korzybski, chaos theory, paradigm shift etc…I am excited to read this book. I use the dialectic, the power wheel and DBT to teach people how to undo the damage of authoritarianism, specifically, the invalidation of self that translates to invalidation of other. (Which I believe is an invariant mechanism in all violent behavior). I like to think I am fighting for peace, one person st a time. The dialectic helps to conquer the black and white thinking that results from invalidation. The dialectic as used in my therapy helps save marriages, parent teen relationships, and employee employer relations.
    I have a niece who is a professor at UP in social justice. She laughs at my use of psychology believing the social patterns more helpful. The dialectic helps me here to recognize that there is truth in both perspectives. All polarities. We use this perspective in our consultation group with our colleagues and with our clients and finally client to client in process groups. The result us deeper intimate connection.

    I am looking forward to your sharing on this topic!!

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks to you and Rod; I hope to make it reasonably interesting and not too theoretical.

  2. David Uskovich says:

    As a graduate student, I barely got through the first third of this book, not because it wasn’t wonderful but because as soon as I checked it out it got recalled immediately and I had less than two weeks to read it. This book was basically constantly checked out. Every time I looked it up it was not available.

    This lack of availability indicates the book’s strength. I’m really looking forward to your commentary on it.

  3. Hubert Horan says:

    Why do you firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice? You and other individuals might personally benefit from deeper analysis of theory and history, but I see no reason to belief that much broader groups (especially groups as broad as “the left”) could ever establish coherent theories that would make their politics stronger and more effective.
    1950s conservatives felt hopelessly outnumbered by the “liberal” consensus of the day, and put in massive effort to create an “intellectual”/theoretical grounding for the movement. (Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement is a good starting point but there are many others) All of the various efforts were logically incoherent, as the effort to produce some kind of pure theory were always polluted by emotional/tribal biases (upper class elitism, love of hierarchy and status, poorly disguised racism.misogeny, etc). Where in history has there ever been “rigorous intellectual political theory” that didn’t end up as an attempt to build a quasi-religious utopian ideological faith? Remember the huge role of ex-Leninists/Trotskyites or devout Catholics and Evangelicals in the development of movement conservatism. The real challenge they faced (as leftists do now) is purely political, which by definition means combining the interests of a lot of groups whose worldviews could never be coherently reconciled. With the conservatives–in the 50s as well as today–this meant putting libertarians, hard social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists, uncompromising militarists (anti-communists then, anti-Muslim today) and a few other groups under the same tent. Conservatism grew when people with political skill and charisma (Buckley, Reagan) were able to finesse the differences between groups, and the increasing potential for political power got people to forget about theory and principles and focus on gaining more power. Despite all the effort and pretense, none of the successes of movement conservatism have anything to do with the theories put forth in past decades.
    20th Century “liberalism” (from progressives through New Deal/New Frontier through 60s civil rights/antiwar through the collapse in the 70s) was never driven by widely known intellectual “theories” –it was always politically focused. Minor groups like 1930s communists excepted, it was never utopian or quasi-religious and battles were over political turf and tactics, not over ideological purity. There was plenty of searching for ideas about how to solve key problems or reach broader audiences, but very few wasted time searching for the One Great Unifying theory that the masses would line up to support. As with the conservatives, emotional biases (elitism, virtue signaling, desire to protect narrow economic interest, etc) caused lots of problems, but this wasn’t going to be solved with more rigorous theory development.
    I find some of these theoretical/historical issues fascinating, and best of luck with your research. I could imagine it might help establish a small faction within “the left” but I can’t see how it could have a powerful impact on “the left” as a whole.

    • Ed Walker says:

      This is a great comment. I generally agree with your history, but not necessarily with your view of theory. You neglect the role of neoliberal theory in the rise of conservatism. I’ve gone over a lot of this in other posts, many of which are centered on Foucault and Mirowski, here and earlier at the late lamented FireDogLake. There is a nice history in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

      The story of neoliberalism gets rolling in the late 1940s under the auspices of the Mont Pelerin Society and its founders, including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, to name to well-known figures. Members and affiliates produced mountains of papers, studies, PR materials, and more, and played a huge role in launching first Margaret Thatcher’s and then Ronald Reagan’s actual programs. Those ideas continue to guide the Republican Party and it’s drive to deregulate and cut taxes for the rich.

      The Frankfurt School never had that kind of influence in the US for several interesting reasons, although it’s cultural criticism continues to be important.

      Your argument is that interest group politics is the important thing in both parties. Maybe so, but the coherence of Reagan’s policies came from the neoliberals, and their dominance of economic and political discourse is a central problem for progressives and leftists.

      Given the behavior of the current administration and the brutal Republicans, it’s clear that neoliberalism has reached the end of the road. But its rotting corpse will continue to infect the nation until something better emerges. I offered this earlier:

      At present, the Democratic Party embraces a softer form of neoliberalism than the Republicans. For example, HRC, in the last primary, followed your lead, with a set of proposals for each of the interest groups in the Democratic Party, including a 14-point plan for re-regulating banks. Most of the ideas were at least sensible, but only in the context of a society distorted by the Republicans, and in my view they were tweaks to a system she basically supported. There was no coherent vision of a different future. That changed a bit in the general election.

      Bernie offered a more direct repudiation of neoliberalism, as did JeremyCorbyn in Great Britain. They did surprisingly well. Neither referred to theory, but the language and the proposals added up to a rejection of neoliberalism, fairly explicitly.

      I think rejection of enoliberalism, either directly or in the form of setting out an alternative vision that rejects neoliberalism, is the best way to achieve social change.

      Again, your comment is an important reminder that theory is not decisive. And believe me, I have not the slightest hope that what I write has a chance of effecting change by itself. Ideas, unlike wealth, do trickle out into the world, though, and therein lies my hope.

  4. Hubert Horan says:

    No disagreement with any of your points about neoliberalism. The next historian of postwar conservatism after Nash I would have mentioned would have been Mirowski.
    The difference, perhaps semantic, is that I don’t think anything supporting modern neoliberalism rises to the stature of “theory.” My guess is that the major conservative theorists of the 50s and 60s (Burnham, Kirk, Chambers, Rusher, Meyer, et. al) would have recognized modern neoliberal advocacy for what it is–faux-analysis to feed the propaganda needs of wealthy plutocrats. They certainly would have recognized that it was not “conservative” or theoretically rigorous.
    Yes, there was a transitional period where some legitimate intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek) laid important groundwork for what later mutated into neoliberalism. Little of Friedman’s serious academic analysis served the neoliberal agenda, but most of his popular tracks did. Conservative “theorizing” had major impacts only after they abandoned the model of independent academic analysis for a propaganda model serving the political objectives of their paymasters.

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