by Grant Wong

Charles H. Clavey is a lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University. A specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual history, he studies the intersection of the social sciences and political thought in European and transatlantic contexts. His research on the history of philosophical concepts, social-scientific knowledge, political culture, and critical theory has appeared in Modern Intellectual HistoryHistory of European Ideas, and Journal of the History of Ideas. He is currently preparing a manuscript, titled Experiments in Theory: Social Science at the Frankfurt School, that recovers the long-neglected role of the social sciences—from cultural anthropology to industrial sociology—in the development of critical theory. 

He spoke with Grant Wong about his recent article in JHI’s October 2023 issue, “‘The Stereotype Takes Care of Everything’: Labor Antisemitism and Critical Theory During World War II.” They discuss the development of critical theory, the nature of antisemitism, and the scholarly perils of rationalizing irrationality.

Grant Wong: In your article, you follow how the intellectuals of the Institute for Social Research—better known as the “Frankfurt School”—theorized and researched the unpublished 1945 report “Antisemitism among American Labor.” As you argue, disputes among Paul Massing, A. R. L. Gurland, Leo Löwenthal, and Theodor W. Adorno over the nature of antisemitism were instrumental to the development of critical theory. What are we missing when we fail to emphasize this episode’s importance to the Frankfurt School’s intellectual development?

Charles Clavey: According to the prevailing theoretical and historical understanding, the Institute for Social Research or the “Frankfurt School” became disillusioned with both its heterodox-Marxist politics and its interdisciplinary-materialist research program over the course of the mid-to-late 1930s. Famous works of critical theory from the 1940s—especially Dialectic of Enlightenment—articulated a theoretical attitude opposed to both empirical social research and leftist politics. Most simply, my article joins others challenging this view. Recentering the Frankfurt School’s overlooked study, “Antisemitism among American Labor,” I attempt to show that Dialectic and other texts from this period were inextricably connected to ongoing research into antisemitism, arguing that the Frankfurt School’s critical theory took shape in and through empirical studies. My aim is not to be deflationary—claiming that the Frankfurt School’s insights were merely empirical—but to show how critical theory and empirical research evolved dialectically. Although this argument contains several implications of interest to specialists—about the composition of key texts, the politics of the Frankfurt School, the periodization of its critical theory, and the extent and nature of its interactions with American social science—the most important upshot is that the boundary between critical theory and empirical social science was more porous than has been believed and, moreover, could be made permeable once again.

GW: Central to “Antisemitism among American Labor” was its contention that prejudicial stereotypes could not be overcome by reason. You argue that this idea “was the source of conceptual foundations” for both Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) and The Authoritarian Personality (1950), especially in regard to how Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorized about how people relinquish their individuality. How do your findings reinterpret these seminal works? What insights of theirs become clearer when we understand them as the theoretical successors to “Antisemitism among American Labor”?

CC: One of the most important conclusions of “Antisemitism among American Labor” is that prejudices do not arise from specific stereotypes per se but from the phenomenon of stereotypy, or the pernicious tendency to think in pregiven, deep-seated, rigid, and unalterable categories. The concept of stereotypy, moreover, instantiates a vicious cycle from which escape was seemingly impossible. The Frankfurt School researchers felt that they had empirical confirmation of this phenomenon. I suggest that stereotypy is the thread that connects all three of these texts. First formulated in “Antisemitism among American Labor,” it becomes central to the diagnosis of the crisis of individuality in Dialectic of Enlightenment and Authoritarian Personality. However, the concept is surprisingly underdeveloped in these later works of critical theory. Consequently, it is only when we read “Antisemitism among American Labor” alongside Dialectic and Authoritarian Personality that we are able to grasp the full meaning and significance of Horkheimer and Adorno’s observation of the disappearance of the individual as such—a development that they identified as the most obvious and troubling evidence that the forces that had given rise to Western modernity were “culminating objectively in madness.”

GW: Reading your article, I was struck by the tragedy of the fact that the intellectual questions the Frankfurt School grappled with in “Antisemitism among American Labor” remain so pertinent today. In essence, these intellectuals were asking, “what is antisemitism?” and “how can we counteract it to make the world a safer, more democratic place?” Are there any particular takeaways from this intellectual episode that might inform how we continue to think about antisemitism and other forms of prejudice in the present day?

CC: The connections between the mid-1940s are striking—and worrying. I think that there are four key takeaways for the present moment. First, “Antisemitism among American Labor” challenges the prevailing view that organized labor is “left-wing” and prejudice, especially antisemitism, is “right-wing.” As the Frankfurt School researchers found, unionized laborers were highly susceptible to antisemitism, and by extension, latent fascist tendencies. Second, the Frankfurt School’s project demonstrates that to counteract antisemitism, it is not enough to debunk manifestly irrational prejudices. It is extremely difficult to educate people out of antisemitism. Third, the Frankfurt School’s project began from the premise that antisemitism varied by class: labor antisemitism would not be the same as middle- or upper-class antisemitism. Contemporary activists and researchers concerned with antisemitism should keep these three insights in mind. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, “Antisemitism among American Labor” highlighted the role of stereotypy in creating and reinforcing antisemitism specifically and, indeed, prejudices broadly. This insight is as important today as it was in the 1940s, and overcoming antisemitism and prejudice more broadly requires attending to stereotypy—not just stereotypes.

GW: Lastly, where do you plan to take your research from here? Are there other aspects of the Frankfurt School’s intellectual trajectory that you believe merit closer attention? More generally, have these findings encouraged you to pursue any new avenues of academic inquiry?

CC: This article is connected to a larger project that recenters the Frankfurt School’s empirical research studies within the development of critical theory. Like “Antisemitism among American Labor,” other Frankfurt School projects—from the early study The Working Class in Weimar Germany to the postwar project Group Experiment—were integral to the shaping and reshaping of critical theory. My research reconstructs these projects, which, borrowing a term from Adorno, I describe as “experiments in theory,” from the foundation of the Institute to the end of the 1950s. One central element of this research is the recovery of voices—such as Hilde Weiss and Else Frenkel-Brunswik—long diminished in histories of the Frankfurt School and critical theory. Ultimately, I hope to show how these “experiments in theory” can be put into productive conversation with the experimentalism that is ascendent in contemporary social science.

Grant Wong is a third-year History Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina, where he studies twentieth century American popular culture and consumerism. His research focuses on how capitalist market demands and discourses of taste affected the production and conception of pop, rock and roll, and rock music in the post-Second World War United States.

Featured image: Das Adorno-Denkmal 2016 auf dem Campus Westend in Frankfurt am Main, Wikimedia Commons, user Simsalabimbam, CC BY-SA 4.0.