By Sid Simpson

A typical genealogy of the Frankfurt School traces the roots of its critical theory back to what Martin Jay calls the “intellectual ferment” of mid-nineteenth-century German intellectual history (41). Seeking to transcend Hegel’s heady idealism and wrest his legacy from the politically conservative Right-Hegelians, the so-called Left-Hegelians, among them Karl Marx, re-grounded philosophy in progressive practice by developing a materialist approach to apprehending social reality. Ironically, this framework would eventually reify into a scientistic metaphysics of its own. Thus, so the story goes, Frankfurt School forerunners György Lukács and Karl Korsch went beyond vulgar Marxism by looking back to its Hegelian roots and in doing so inspired the Hegelian-Marxism now closely associated with the Institute for Social Research. While no doubt a largely accurate account, this story leaves out a particular voice in the nineteenth-century German philosophical scene that profoundly shaped the Institute’s work. As Theodor Adorno himself made clear in a 1963 lecture, “to tell the truth, of all the so-called great philosophers I owe [Nietzsche] the greatest debt—more even than to Hegel” (172).

The more one looks, the more one finds Friedrich Nietzsche both implicitly and explicitly in the writings of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. In Dialectic of Enlightenment(1944), Adorno and Max Horkheimer place Friedrich Nietzsche alongside Hegel in “recogniz[ing] the dialectic of enlightenment. He formulated the ambivalent relationship of enlightenment to power” (36). In this way we might see, as Gillian Rose has argued, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity’s self-undermining, indictment of modern culture, and critique of reason as foreshadowing many of Adorno and Horkheimer’s arguments in Dialectic. The continuities are more than merely thematic, however. For example, Nietzsche’s aphoristic writing style is the guiding structure for the fragmentary form of Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), which he describes as a product of his “melancholy science”—a knowing inversion of Nietzsche’s famous “gay science” (in addition to the Magna Moralia once attributed to Aristotle). Likewise, Nietzsche and the early Frankfurt School can be linked on account of a shared ethics of radical creation in the face of stupefying conformity. Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969)is a case in point: Marcuse explicitly invokes Nietzsche and the very same “gay science” in order to articulate an aesthetic ethos of liberation. Nietzsche’s influence and omnipresence were such that Rolf Wiggershaus, noted historian of the Frankfurt School, claimed that the original members of the Institute “find in him, as in no other philosopher, their own desires confirmed and accentuated” (145).

Despite these clear continuities, we must also take stock of how the early Frankfurt School broke from and, in some cases, condemned Nietzsche. In Minima Moralia, a work already so indebted to Nietzsche, Adorno laments that the seemingly inescapable horrors of the twentieth-century transformed the well-known Nietzschean liberatory dictum amor fati into nothing more than a conservative “love of stone walls and barred windows,” the “last resort of someone who sees nothing and has nothing else to love” (98). At the same time, Horkheimer points out that the master morality Nietzsche articulated in response to the Christian slavishness of the nineteenth century metamorphosed into a projection of the oppressed masses, who having lost their spontaneity lionize the antics of faux-supermen (159–160). But the most stringent critique of all appears in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the very same text in which Adorno and Horkheimer also praise him for his insight into the interpenetration of reason and power. There, Nietzsche is accused of “maliciously celebrat[ing] the mighty and their cruelty” (77) and advocating a “cult of strength” which taken to its “absurd conclusion” as a “world-historical doctrine” results in atrocities like German fascism (79). Further, Adorno and Horkheimer dig into the Nazi connotations of Nietzsche’s infamous blond beast, quoting at length from the Genealogy of Moralsto describe its “pleasure in destruction” and “taste for cruelty.” Finally, they make the strong claim that “from Kant’s Critique to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, the hand of philosophy had traced the writing on the wall; one individual put that writing into practice, in all its details” (68). As the text makes clear, that one individual is Adolf Hitler.

While we might reason that the early members of the Frankfurt School invoked no one uncritically, their all-but-explicit association of Nietzsche with fascism in Dialectic is bizarre given their explicit interest elsewhere in rescuing him from these trappings. For example, in his early essay “Egoism and the Freedom Movement: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era” (1936), Horkheimer writes that Nietzsche’s superman “has been interpreted along the lines of the philistine bourgeois’ wildest dreams, and has been confused with Nietzsche himself” but is precisely the “opposite of this inflated sense of power” (108–109).Wiggershaus, who already described the Nietzschean streak in their writing, contended that transcripts of early conversations between Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and a handful of other associated thinkers display a clear agreement that “Nietzsche must be rescued from fascist and racist appropriations” (145). If that’s true, what seems to be going on in Dialectic? How do we make sense of this relationship, and what does it teach us about the Frankfurt School itself?

In an article forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory I argue that the early Frankfurt School saw in Nietzsche not only their desires confirmed, as Wiggershaus puts it, but also their fears: that a radical critique of reason risks courting fascism if it cedes all recourse to reason. In this way, the striking presentation of Nietzsche in the pages of Dialectic is less an interpretive aberration than a performative exaggerationof how Nietzsche’s critical insights made possible his own misappropriation. In other words, the authors wish to draw attention to how Nietzsche is himself an exemplar of enlightenment’s relapse into barbarism. What’s more, knowing that Nietzsche would balk at his uptake by the ressentiment-fueled National Socialists, Adorno and Horkheimer nevertheless exaggerate the proximity between master morality and National Socialism as a way to differentiate themselves profoundly on the question of reason; whereas Nietzsche asks, “why not unreason?” Adorno and Horkheimer remain committed to an admittedly elusive form of positive enlightenment precisely so that they have a bulwark against the barbarism that coopted Nietzsche. As they make clear in the preface to Dialectic, though enlightenment thinking already contains within it the “germ of the regression that is taking place everywhere today,” it is at the same time indispensable for freedom (xvi).

In the final analysis Nietzsche, like Hegel, is turned on his head in the writings of the first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers. Elements of his radical critique were extended while his articulation of master morality and morally-generative radical autonomy were written off as abstract negations of bourgeois reality that risked being appropriated by fascists. For Adorno and Horkheimer in particular, Nietzsche’s most powerful contribution was exposing the domination at the heart of enlightenment. That his moral and political visions could not also be separated from this violence was his prime limitation. And yet, Nietzsche’s shortcoming was of critical interest given their own hostility to abstract utopia and skittishness about articulating the positive form of enlightenment which would serve as the boundary between their own critique of enlightenment rationality and irrationalism. Right alongside their admiration for Nietzsche’s artistic style and critical subtlety was their anxiety about its repercussions and how they might proceed anew. Whereas most descriptions of the early Frankfurt School place them solely within a Hegelian-Marxist framework (though perhaps with an occasional mention of Freud), it is also entirely the case that they took up and reworked this fundamental Nietzschean problematic.

In some ways, labelling the first generation of critical theory (but especially Adorno and Horkheimer) “Nietzschean” not only illuminates their own project but also the contours of the Frankfurt School more broadly. Adorno and Horkheimer’s concern in Dialectic with distinguishing their own disposition toward reason from Nietzsche’s would ironically become a site of contestation within the Frankfurt School, between Adorno and Horkheimer on the one hand and their protégé Jürgen Habermas on the other. In much the same way that Dialectic took issue with Nietzsche’s total evacuation of reason, Habermas writes in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981) that Adorno and Horkheimer’s reliance on the elusive mimetic impulse (their “positive” form of enlightenment) results in an aporia. As he puts it, “the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ is an ironic affair: It shows the self-critique of reason the way to truth, and at the same time contests the possibility ‘that at this stage of complete alienation the idea of truth is still accessible’” (383). Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985) drives the wedge between the first and second generations of the Frankfurt School even deeper: given the aporetic culmination of Adorno and Horkheimer’s appeal to mimesis, Habermas condemns them with precisely the irrationalism they attempted to differentiate themselves from in Nietzsche. Here, Habermas pulls no punches: “Horkheimer and Adorno find themselves in the same embarrassment as Nietzsche: If they do not want to renounce the effect of a final unmasking and still want to continue with critique, they will have to leave at least one rational criterion intact for their explanation of the corruption of all rational criteria.” (126–127). Thus, paying attention to Nietzsche’s hyperbolized presentation in Dialectic brings into relief the distinct irony that Adorno and Horkheimer’s own attempt to “rescue” some form of enlightenment (the title Horkheimer proposed for a sequel volume that was never written) was subjected to the same charges of irrationalism that they performatively raised against Nietzsche.

If Nietzsche looms large both in the early Frankfurt School’s theoretical approach as well as in the critiques leveled against it, a further chapter in the story of their dialectical relationship seems to be on the horizon. Dialectic was in part an attempt to understand how Nietzsche was coopted and mobilized by the far right—a tradition that persists up to the present day (one need only note Richard Spencer as an example). However, it may well be the Frankfurt School’s own turn to be conscripted into the culture wars; as Jay lays out in a recently-published collection of essays, a vulgar right-wing meme is emerging that traces the “cultural Marxism” ostensibly responsible for the “subversion of Western civilization” directly back to the Institute for Social Research (155).

In the same way that Nietzsche’s critical acumen was perverted and mobilized for precisely the ends it sought to undermine, the legacy of Adorno, Horkheimer, and the other early lights of the Frankfurt School is currently being twisted into precisely the prohibition on thinking they vehemently rejected. For the far right, “Critical Theory” has become shorthand for the academic and intellectual forces ostensibly seeking to stifle free speech with its “wokeness” and “social justice,” ultimately destroying Western culture. It’s no surprise, then, that right-wing critics seeking to attack Angela Davis—to many the modern face of radical communism and identity politics in the United States—emphasize her “radical Marxist” training under Marcuse and Adorno. This vast conspiracy theory has proven deadly: Anders Breivik, a Norwegian neo-fascist who believed himself to be combatting “cultural Marxism” when he murdered 77 people in a 2011 killing spree, even recommended Jay’s Dialectical Imaginationas a resourceto his imagined followers. More recently, Trump’s “Patriotic Education Commission” likewise defines itself as a response to Critical Theory—though over time Trump has begun to call out Critical Race Theory, clearly not understanding that the two terms do not mean the same thing.

Of course, even ironic reversals of historical narratives are not total. Despite Nietzsche’s continued misuse and caricature by the right—notably on the issue of antisemitism—his work remains of critical inspiration to progressive social theory after Adorno and Horkheimer, from Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault on through contemporaries such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. In a short piece debunking the facile argument that “postmodernism gave us Trump,” Ethan Kleinberg seems to open a way to recuperate the critical Nietzschean legacy of “French Theory” for combatting the far-right “post-truth” ideologies they are wrongly conflated with. In much the same way, the Frankfurt School continues to be a deeply generative critical tradition regardless of their embattled position in current right-wing ideology.

Sid Simpson is Perry-Williams Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy and Political Science at the College of Wooster.

Featured Image: Friedrich Nietzsche (circa 1875), courtesy of Wikimedia.