The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded in the Weimar Republic (1918-33), during the European interwar period (1918-39), the Frankfurt School comprised intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents who were ill-fitted to the contemporary socio-economic systems (capitalist, fascist, communist) of the 1930s. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics occurring in ostensibly liberal capitalist societies in the 20th century. Critical of capitalism and of Marxism-Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organisation, the School's critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realising the social development of a society and a nation.
The Frankfurt School perspective of critical investigation (open-ended and self-critical) is based upon Freudian, Marxist and Hegelian premises of idealist philosophy. To fill the omissions of 19th-century classical Marxism, which could not address 20th-century social problems, they applied the methods of antipositivist sociology, of psychoanalysis, and of existentialism. The School's sociologic works derived from syntheses of the thematically pertinent works of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, of Sigmund Freud and Max Weber, and of Georg Simmel and Georg Lukács.
Like Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School concerned themselves with the conditions (political, economic, societal) that allow for social change realised by way of rational social institutions. The emphasis upon the critical component of social theory derived from surpassing the ideological limitations of positivism, materialism, and determinism, by returning to the critical philosophy of Kant, and his successors in German idealism -- principally the philosophy of Hegel, which emphasised dialectic and contradiction as intellectual properties inherent to the human grasp of material reality.
Since the 1960s, the critical-theory work of the Institute for Social Research has been guided by Jürgen Habermas, in the fields of communicative rationality, linguistic intersubjectivity, and "the philosophical discourse of modernity"; nonetheless, the critical theorists Raymond Geuss and Nikolas Kompridis opposed the propositions of Habermas, claiming he has undermined the original social-change purposes of critical-theory-problems, such as what should reason mean; the analysis and expansion of the conditions necessary to realise social emancipation; and critiques of contemporary capitalism.
The term Frankfurt School informally describes the works of scholarship and the intellectuals who were the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), an adjunct organization at Goethe University Frankfurt, founded in 1923, by Carl Grünberg, a Marxist professor of law at the University of Vienna. As such, the Frankfurt School was the first Marxist research center at a German university, and originated through the largesse of the wealthy student Felix Weil (1898-1975).
At university, Weil's doctoral dissertation dealt with the practical problems of implementing socialism. In 1922, he organized the First Marxist Workweek (Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche) in effort to synthesize different trends of Marxism into a coherent, practical philosophy; the first symposium included György Lukács and Karl Korsch, Karl August Wittfogel and Friedrich Pollock. The success of the First Marxist Workweek prompted the formal establishment of a permanent institute for social research, and Weil negotiated with the Ministry of Education for a university professor to be director of the Institute for Social Research, thereby, formally ensuring that the Frankfurt School would be a university institution.
Korsch and Lukács participated in the Arbeitswoche, which included the study of Marxism and Philosophy (1923), by Karl Korsch, but their Communist Party membership precluded their active participation in the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School); yet Korsch participated in the School's publishing venture. Moreover, the political correctness by which the Communists compelled Lukács to repudiate his book History and Class Consciousness (1923) indicated that political, ideological, and intellectual independence from the communist party was a necessary work condition for realising the production of knowledge.
The philosophical tradition of the Frankfurt School -- the multi-disciplinary integration of the social sciences -- is associated with the philosopher Max Horkheimer, who became the director in 1930, and recruited intellectuals such as Theodor W. Adorno (philosopher, sociologist, musicologist), Erich Fromm (psychoanalyst), and Herbert Marcuse (philosopher).
In the Weimar Republic (1918-33), the continual, political turmoils of the interwar years (1918-39) much affected the development of the critical theory philosophy of the Frankfurt School. The scholars were especially influenced by the Communists' failed German Revolution of 1918-19 (which Marx predicted) and by the rise of Nazism (1933-45), a German form of fascism. To explain such reactionary politics, the Frankfurt scholars applied critical selections of Marxist philosophy to interpret, illuminate, and explain the origins and causes of reactionary socio-economics in 20th-century Europe (a type of political economy unknown to Marx in the 19th century). The School's further intellectual development derived from the publication, in the 1930s, of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1932) and The German Ideology (1932), in which Karl Marx showed logical continuity with Hegelianism, as the basis of Marxist philosophy.
As the anti-intellectual threat of Nazism increased to political violence, the founders decided to move the Institute for Social Research out of Nazi Germany (1933-45). Soon after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Institute first moved from Frankfurt to Geneva, and then to New York City, in 1935, where the Frankfurt School joined Columbia University. In the event, the School's journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung ("Magazine of Social Research") was renamed "Studies in Philosophy and Social Science". Thence began the period of the School's important work in Marxist critical theory; the scholarship and the investigational method gained acceptance among the academy, in the U.S and in the U.K. By the 1950s, the paths of scholarship led Horkheimer, Adorno, and Pollock to return to West Germany, whilst Marcuse, Löwenthal, and Kirchheimer remained in the U.S. In 1953, the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School) was formally re-established in Frankfurt, West Germany.
As a term, the Frankfurt School usually comprises the intellectuals Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal and Friedrich Pollock. Although initially of the FS's inner circle, Jürgen Habermas was the first to diverge from Horkheimer's research program, as a new generation of critical theoreticians.
Associates of the Frankfurt School:
Critical theoreticians of the Frankfurt School:
The works of the Frankfurt School are understood in the context of the intellectual and practical objectives of critical theory. In Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Max Horkheimer defined critical theory as social critique meant to effect sociologic change and realize intellectual emancipation, by way of enlightenment that is not dogmatic in its assumptions. The purpose of critical theory is to analyze the true significance of the ruling understandings (the dominant ideology) generated in bourgeois society, by showing that the dominant ideology misrepresents how human relations occur in the real world, and how such misrepresentations function to justify and legitimate the domination of people by capitalism.
In the praxis of cultural hegemony, the dominant ideology is a ruling-class narrative story, which explains that what is occurring in society is the norm. Nonetheless, the story told through the ruling understandings conceals as much as it reveals about society, hence, the task of the Frankfurt School was sociological analysis and interpretation of the areas of social-relation that Marx did not discuss in the 19th century -- especially in the base and superstructure aspects of a capitalist society.
Horkheimer opposed critical theory to traditional theory, wherein the word theory is applied in the positivistic sense of scientism, in the sense of a purely observational mode, which finds and establishes scientific law (generalizations) about the real world. That the social sciences differ from the natural sciences inasmuch as scientific generalizations are not readily derived from experience, because the researcher's understanding of a social experience always is shaped by the ideas in the mind of the researcher. What the researcher does not understand is that he or she is within an historical context, wherein ideologies shape human thought, thus, the results for the theory being tested would conform to the ideas of the researcher, rather than conform to the facts of the experience proper; in Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Horkheimer said:
The facts, which our senses present to us, are socially performed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived, and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception.
For Horkheimer, the methods of investigation applicable to the social sciences cannot imitate the scientific method applicable to the natural sciences. In that vein, the theoretical approaches of positivism and pragmatism, of neo-Kantianism and phenomenology failed to surpass the ideological constraints that restricted their application to social science, because of the inherent logico-mathematic prejudice that separates theory from actual life, i.e. such methods of investigation seek a logic that is always true, and independent of and without consideration for continuing human activity in the field under study. That the appropriate response to such a dilemma was the development of a critical theory of Marxism.
Because the problem was epistemological, Horkheimer said that "we should reconsider not merely the scientist, but the knowing individual, in general." Unlike Orthodox Marxism, which applies a template to critique and to action, critical theory is self-critical, with no claim to the universality of absolute truth. As such, critical theory does not grant primacy to matter (materialism) or to consciousness (idealism), because each epistemology distorts the reality under study, to the benefit of a small group. In practice, critical theory is outside the philosophical strictures of traditional theory; however, as a way of thinking and of recovering humanity's self-knowledge, critical theory draws investigational resources and methods from Marxism.
The Frankfort School reformulated dialectics into a concrete method of investigation, derived from the Hegelian philosophy that an idea will pass over into its own negation, as the result of conflict between the inherently contradictory aspects of the idea. In opposition to previous modes of reasoning, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers ideas according to their movement and change in time, according to their interrelations and interactions.
In Hegel's perspective, human history proceeds and evolves in a dialectical manner: the present embodies the rational Aufheben (sublation), the synthesis of past contradictions. History thus is an intelligible process of human activity, the Weltgeist, which is the Idea of Progress towards a specific human condition -- the realization of human freedom through rationality. However, the Problem of future contingents, of considerations about the future, did not interest Hegel, for whom philosophy cannot be prescriptive and normative, because philosophy understands only in hindsight. The study of history is thus limited to descriptions of past and present human realities. Hence, for Hegel and his successors (the Right Hegelians), dialectics inevitably lead to the approval of the status quo -- as such, dialectical philosophy justified the bases of Christian theology and of the Prussian state.
Karl Marx and the Young Hegelians strongly criticized that perspective, that Hegel had over-reached in defending his abstract conception of "absolute Reason" and had failed to notice the "real"-- i.e. undesirable and irrational -- life conditions of the proletariat. Marx inverted Hegel's idealist dialectics and advanced his own theory of dialectical materialism, arguing that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Marx's theory follows a materialist conception of history and geographic space, where the development of the productive forces is the primary motive force for historical change, and, according to which, the social and material contradictions inherent to capitalism lead to its negation -- thereby replacing capitalism with Communism, a new, rational form of society.
Marx used dialectical analysis to learn and know the truth by uncovering the contradictions in the predominant ideas of society, and in the social relations to which they are linked -- which exposes the underlying struggle between opposing forces. Therefore, only by becoming aware of the dialectic (i.e. class consciousness) of such opposing forces in a struggle for power, that men and women can intellectually liberate themselves, and so change the existing social order by way of social progress. The Frankfurt School understood that a dialectical method could only be adopted if it could be applied to itself; if they adopted a self-correcting method -- a dialectical method that would enable the correction of previous, false interpretations of the dialectical investigation. Accordingly, critical theory rejected the historicism and materialism of Orthodox Marxism.
|Historical context||Transition from small-scale capitalism to large-scale capitalism and colonialism; the socialist labour movement matures into a reform movement and fosters the emergence of the welfare state; the Russian Revolution (1917) and the rise of Communism; the neotechnic period; the emergence of mass communications media and of mass popular culture, Modern art; and the rise of Nazism.|
|Weberian theory||Comparative history of Western rationalisation in capitalism, the modern state, secular scientific rationality, culture, and religion; analyses of the forms of dominance hierarchy and of modern rational-legal bureaucratic domination; articulation of the hermeneutic method in the social sciences.|
|Freudian theory||Critique of the psychological repression of the reality principle of advanced civilization, and of the neuroses of daily life; discovery of the unconscious mind, primary-process thinking, and the psychological impact of the Oedipus complex anxiety upon a man's mental health and life; analyses of the psychic bases of the irrational behaviours of authoritarianism.|
|Antipositivism||Critique of positivism as philosophy, as a scientific method, as political ideology and as conformity; rehabilitation of the negative dialectic, return to Hegel; appropriation of critical elements from phenomenology, historicism, existentialism, critique of the ahistorical, idealist tendencies of positivism; critique of logical positivism and pragmatism.|
|Aesthetic modernism||Critique of false and reified experience by breaking traditional forms and language; projection of alternative modes of existence and experience; liberation of the unconscious; consciousness of unique, modern situation; cultural appropriation of the literary devices of Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, of Arnold Schoenberg and André Breton; critique of the culture industry.|
|Marxist theory||Critique of bourgeois ideology; critique of Marx's theory of alienation (Entfremdung); historical materialism; history as class struggle and the rate of exploitation in different modes of production; systems analysis of capitalism as the extraction of surplus labour; financial crisis theory; democratic socialism, and the classless society.|
|Culture theory||Critique of Popular culture as the suppression and absorption of individual negation, and as the integration of the individual person to the status quo; critique of Western culture as a culture of social domination; the dialectical differentiation of the emancipatory aspects and the repressive aspects of élite culture; Kierkegaard's critique of the present age, Nietzsche's transvaluation, and Schiller's aesthetic education.|
The second phase of Frankfurt School critical theory centres principally on two works: Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and Adorno's Minima Moralia (1951). The authors wrote both works during the Institute's exile in America. While retaining much of a Marxian analysis, in these works critical theory shifted its emphasis from the critique of capitalism to a critique of Western civilization as a whole, as seen in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which uses the Odyssey as a paradigm for their analysis of bourgeois consciousness. In these works, Horkheimer and Adorno present many themes that have come to dominate the social thought of recent years; for instance, their exposition of the domination of nature as a central characteristic of instrumental rationality in Western civilization was made long before ecology and environmentalism had become popular concerns.
The analysis of reason now goes one stage further: The rationality of Western civilization appears as a fusion of domination and technological rationality, bringing all of external and internal nature under the power of the human subject. In the process, however, the subject itself gets swallowed up and no social force analogous to the proletariat can be identified that enables the subject to emancipate itself. Hence the subtitle of Minima Moralia: "Reflections from Damaged Life". In Adorno's words,
For since the overwhelming objectivity of historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one, individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself. The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself.
Consequently, at a time when it appears that reality itself has become the basis for ideology, the greatest contribution that critical theory can make is to explore the dialectical contradictions of individual subjective experience on the one hand, and to preserve the truth of theory on the other. Even dialectical progress is put into doubt: "its truth or untruth is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process." This intention must be oriented toward integral freedom and happiness: "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." Adorno goes on to distance himself from the "optimism" of orthodox Marxism: "beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption [i.e. human emancipation] itself hardly matters."
From a sociological point of view, both Horkheimer's and Adorno's works contain a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence that gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new critical theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology. For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society"--a tension that, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously "free" market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and "irrevocable" private property of Marx's epoch have gradually been replaced by the centralized state planning and socialized ownership of the means of production in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is thus suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination.
Of this second "phase" of the Frankfurt School, philosopher and critical theorist Nikolas Kompridis writes that:
According to the now canonical view of its history, Frankfurt School critical theory began in the 1930s as a fairly confident interdisciplinary and materialist research program, the general aim of which was to connect normative social criticism to the emancipatory potential latent in concrete historical processes. Only a decade or so later, however, having revisited the premises of their philosophy of history, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment steered the whole enterprise, provocatively and self-consciously, into a skeptical cul-de-sac. As a result they got stuck in the irresolvable dilemmas of the "philosophy of the subject," and the original program was shrunk to a negativistic practice of critique that eschewed the very normative ideals on which it implicitly depended.
Kompridis argues that this "sceptical cul-de-sac" was arrived at with "a lot of help from the once unspeakable and unprecedented barbarity of European fascism," and could not be gotten out of without "some well-marked [exit or] Ausgang, showing the way out of the ever-recurring nightmare in which Enlightenment hopes and Holocaust horrors are fatally entangled." However, this Ausgang, according to Kompridis, would not come until later - purportedly in the form of Jürgen Habermas's work on the intersubjective bases of communicative rationality.
Adorno, a trained classical pianist, wrote The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), in which he, in essence, polemicizes against popular music-because it has become part of the culture industry of advanced capitalist society[page needed] and the false consciousness that contributes to social domination. He argued that radical art and music may preserve the truth by capturing the reality of human suffering. Hence:
What radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man [...] The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes, at the same time, the technical structural law of music. It forbids continuity and development. Musical language is polarized according to its extreme; towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks [...] Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.
This view of modern art as producing truth only through the negation of traditional aesthetic form and traditional norms of beauty because they have become ideological is characteristic of Adorno and of the Frankfurt School generally. It has been criticized by those who do not share its conception of modern society as a false totality that renders obsolete traditional conceptions and images of beauty and harmony.
In particular, Adorno despised jazz and popular music, viewing it as part of the culture industry, that contributes to the present sustainability of capitalism by rendering it "aesthetically pleasing" and "agreeable". The British philosopher Roger Scruton saw Adorno as producing "reams of turgid nonsense devoted to showing that the American people are just as alienated as Marxism requires them to be, and that their cheerful life-affirming music is a 'fetishized' commodity, expressive of their deep spiritual enslavement to the capitalist machine."
This section does not cite any sources. (November 2009) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
With the growth of advanced industrial society during the Cold War era, critical theorists recognized that the path of capitalism and history had changed decisively, that the modes of oppression operated differently, and that the industrial working class no longer remained the determinate negation of capitalism. This led to the attempt to root the dialectic in an absolute method of negativity, as in Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966). During this period the Institute of Social Research resettled in Frankfurt (although many of its associates remained in the United States) with the task not merely of continuing its research but of becoming a leading force in the sociological education and democratization of West Germany. This led to a certain systematization of the Institute's entire accumulation of empirical research and theoretical analysis.
During this period, Frankfurt School critical theory particularly influenced some segments of the left wing and leftist thought, particularly the New Left. Herbert Marcuse has occasionally been described as the theorist or intellectual progenitor of the New Left. Their critique of technology, totality, teleology and (occasionally) civilization is an influence on anarcho-primitivism. Their work also heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies.
More importantly, however, the Frankfurt School attempted to define the fate of reason in the new historical period. While Marcuse did so through analysis of structural changes in the labor process under capitalism and inherent features of the methodology of science, Horkheimer and Adorno concentrated on a re-examination of the foundation of critical theory. This effort appears in systematized form in Adorno's Negative Dialectics, which tries to redefine dialectics for an era in which "philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed". Negative dialectics expresses the idea of critical thought so conceived that the apparatus of domination cannot co-opt it.
Its central notion, long a focal one for Horkheimer and Adorno, suggests that the original sin of thought lies in its attempt to eliminate all that is other than thought, the attempt by the subject to devour the object, the striving for identity. This reduction makes thought the accomplice of domination. Negative Dialectics rescues the "preponderance of the object", not through a naïve epistemological or metaphysical realism but through a thought based on differentiation, paradox, and ruse: a "logic of disintegration". Adorno thoroughly criticizes Heidegger's fundamental ontology, which he thinks reintroduces idealistic and identity-based concepts under the guise of having overcome the philosophical tradition.
Negative dialectics comprises a monument to the end of the tradition of the individual subject as the locus of criticism. Without a revolutionary working class, the Frankfurt School had no one to rely on but the individual subject. But, as the liberal capitalist social basis of the autonomous individual receded into the past, the dialectic based on it became more and more abstract.
This section does not cite any sources. (November 2009) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Habermas's work takes the Frankfurt School's abiding interests in rationality, the human subject, democratic socialism, and the dialectical method and overcomes a set of contradictions that always weakened critical theory: the contradictions between the materialist and transcendental methods, between Marxian social theory and the individualist assumptions of critical rationalism between technical and social rationalization, and between cultural and psychological phenomena on the one hand and the economic structure of society on the other.
The Frankfurt School avoided taking a stand on the precise relationship between the materialist and transcendental methods, which led to ambiguity in their writings and confusion among their readers. Habermas's epistemology synthesizes these two traditions by showing that phenomenological and transcendental analysis can be subsumed under a materialist theory of social evolution, while the materialist theory makes sense only as part of a quasi-transcendental theory of emancipatory knowledge that is the self-reflection of cultural evolution. The simultaneously empirical and transcendental nature of emancipatory knowledge becomes the foundation stone of critical theory.
In The Theory of the Novel (1971), Georg Lukács said that the Frankfurt School were:
A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss, between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered."
In "Addendum 1974: The Frankfurt School" (1994) Karl Popper said that:
Marx's own condemnation of our society makes sense. For Marx's theory contains the promise of a better future. But the theory becomes vacuous and irresponsible if this promise is withdrawn, as it is by Adorno and Horkheimer.
In his criticism of Habermas, the philosopher Nikolas Kompridis said that a break with the proceduralist ethics of communicative rationality is necessary:
For all its theoretical ingenuity and practical implications, Habermas's reformulation of critical theory is beset by persistent problems of its own ... In my view, the depth of these problems indicate just how wrong was Habermas's expectation that the paradigm change to linguistic intersubjectivity would render "objectless" the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject. Habermas accused Hegel of creating a conception of reason so "overwhelming" that it solved too well the problem of modernity's [need for] self-reassurance. It seems, however, that Habermas has repeated rather than avoided Hegel's mistake, creating a theoretical paradigm so comprehensive that in one stroke it also solves, too well, the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject and the problem of modernity's self-reassurance.
The change of paradigm to linguistic intersubjectivity has been accompanied by a dramatic change in critical theory's self-understanding. The priority given to questions of justice and the normative order of society has remodeled critical theory in the image of liberal theories of justice. While this has produced an important contemporary variant of liberal theories of justice, different enough to be a challenge to liberal theory, but not enough to preserve sufficient continuity with critical theory's past, it has severely weakened the identity of critical theory and inadvertently initiated its premature dissolution.
That to prevent that premature dissolution critical theory should be reinvented as a philosophic enterprise that discloses possibilities by way of Heidegger's world disclosure, by drawing from the sources of normativity that were blocked by the change of paradigm.
The historian Christopher Lasch criticized the Frankfurt School for their initial tendency to "automatically" reject opposing political criticisms, based upon "psychiatric" grounds:
The Authoritarian Personality  had a tremendous influence on [Richard] Hofstadter, and other liberal intellectuals, because it showed them how to conduct political criticism in psychiatric categories, [and] to make those categories bear the weight of political criticism. This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.
During the 1980s, anti-authoritarian socialists in the United Kingdom and New Zealand criticised the rigid and determinist view of popular culture deployed within the Frankfurt School theories of capitalist culture, which seemed to preclude any prefigurative role for social critique within such work. They argued that EC Comics often did contain such cultural critiques. Recent criticism of the Frankfurt School by the libertarian Cato Institute focused on the claim that culture has grown more sophisticated and diverse as a consequence of free markets and the availability of niche cultural text for niche audiences.
In contemporary usage, the term Cultural Marxism refers to a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory which claims that the Frankfurt School is part of an ongoing academic and intellectual effort to undermine and destroy Western culture and values. According to the conspiracy theory, which emerged in the late 1990s, the Frankfurt School and other Marxist theorists were part of a conspiracy to attack Western society by undermining traditionalist conservatism and Christianity using the 1960s counterculture, multiculturalism, progressive politics and political correctness.
This conspiracy theory is associated with American religious fundamentalists and paleoconservatives such as William S. Lind, Pat Buchanan, and Paul Weyrich; but also holds currency among the alt-right, white nationalists, Neo-Nazi organizations, and the neo-reactionary movement.
In 1998 Weyrich presented his version of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory in a speech to the Conservative Leadership Conference of the Civitas Institute and then published the speech in his syndicated Culture war letter. At Weyrich's request, William S. Lind wrote a short history of his conception of Cultural Marxism for the Free Congress Foundation; in it Lind identifies the presence of openly gay people on television as proof of Cultural Marxist control over the mass media and claims that Herbert Marcuse considered a coalition of "blacks, students, feminist women, and homosexuals" as a vanguard of cultural revolution.
In 2014 Lind pseudonymously published Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation Warfare, by Thomas Hobbes, about a societal apocalypse in which Cultural Marxism deposes traditional conservatism as the culture of the Western world. Ultimately, a Christian military victory deposes social liberalism and reestablishes a traditionalist and theocratic socioeconomic order based upon British Victorian morality of the late 19th century. The anti-Marxism of Lind and Weyrich advocates political confrontation and intellectual opposition to Cultural Marxism with "a vibrant cultural conservatism" composed of "retro-culture fashions", a return to railroads as public transport, and an agrarian culture of self-reliance, modeled after that of the Christian Amish folk. In the Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe (2011), the historian Martin Jay said that Lind's documentary of conservative counter-culture, Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School (1999), was effective propaganda, because it:
"spawned a number of condensed textual versions, which were reproduced on a number of radical, right-wing sites. These, in turn, led to a plethora of new videos, now available on YouTube, which feature an odd cast of pseudo-experts regurgitating exactly the same line. The message is numbingly simplistic: All the 'ills' of modern American culture, from feminism, affirmative action, sexual liberation, racial equality, multiculturalism and gay rights to the decay of traditional education, and even environmentalism, are ultimately attributable to the insidious intellectual influence of the members of the Institute for Social Research who came to America in the 1930s.
In the essay "New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and 'Political Correctness'" (1992), Michael Minnicino presented a precursor of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory on behalf of the Schiller Institute of the LaRouche political movement. Minnicino said the "Jewish intellectuals" of the Frankfurt School promoted modern art to make cultural pessimism the spirit of the counter-culture of the 1960s, based upon the counter-culture of the Wandervogel, the socially liberal German youth movement whose Swiss Monte Verità commune was the 19th-century predecessor of Western counter-culture.
In Fascism: Fascism and Culture (2003), professor and Oxford fellow Matthew Feldman traced the etymology of the term "Cultural Marxism" back to the anti-Semitic term Kulturbolschewismus (Cultural Bolshevism), which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party used to assert that Jewish cultural influence was the source of German social degeneration under the liberal régime of the Weimar Republic (1918-1939), and also the cause of social degeneration in the West.
In the article titled Hate Crimes, Vol. 5, Heidi Beirich stated that the conspiracy theory is used to demonize various conservative "bêtes noires" including feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, environmentalists, immigrants, and black nationalists.
In Europe, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik quoted Lind's usage of the term "Cultural Marxism" in his political manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, writing that the "sexually transmitted disease (STD) epidemic in Western Europe is a result of cultural Marxism", that "Cultural Marxism defines Muslims, feminist women, homosexuals, and some additional minority groups, as virtuous, and they view ethnic Christian European men as evil", and that "The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is a cultural-Marxist-controlled political entity." About 90 minutes before killing 77 people in his terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22nd, 2001, Breivik e-mailed 1003 people a copy of his 1500-page manifesto and a copy of Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology, which was edited by Lind and published by the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
In the article titled Collectivists, Communists, Labor Bosses, and Treason: The Tea Parties as Right-wing, Populist Counter-subversion Panic, Chip Berlet identifies the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory as an ideological basis of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party. The Tea Party identifies as a right-wing populist movement; its claims of social subversion echo earlier white-nationalist claims of racial, social, and cultural subversion. The economic elites use populist rhetoric to encourage counter-subversion panics. Thus, a large, middle-class white constituency is politically deceived into siding with the ruling-class social and economic elites to defend their relative and precarious socioeconomic position in the middle class. Cultural scapegoats, such as mythical conspiracies claiming that collectivists, communists, labor bosses, and nonwhite citizens and immigrants are to blame for the economic, political, and social failures of free-market capitalism. In that manner, under the guise of patriotism, economic libertarianism, traditional Christian values, and nativism, right-wing accusations of Cultural Marxism defended the racist and sexist social hierarchies specifically opposed to the "big government" policies of the Obama administration.
In the essay Cultural Marxism and the Radical Right, the political scientist Jérôme Jamin said that "next to the global dimension of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, there is its innovative and original dimension, which lets its racist authors avoid racist discourses, and pretend to be defenders of democracy in their respective countries". The essay titled How Trump's Paranoid White House Sees 'Deep State' Enemies on all Sides reported that an employee within the Trump administration by the name of Richard Higgins was dismissed from the U.S. National Security Council because he published a memorandum called POTUS & Political Warfare, wherein Higgins claimed the existence of an alleged left-wing conspiracy to destroy the Trump presidency and that "American public intellectuals of Cultural Marxism, foreign Islamicists, and globalist bankers, the news media, and politicians from the Republican and the Democrat parties were attacking Trump because he represents an existential threat to the cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative in the U.S."
In the speech titled "The Origins of Political Correctness" (2000), William S. Lind established the ideological and etymological lineage of Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory:
If we look at it analytically, if we look at it historically, we quickly find out exactly what it is. Political correctness is Cultural Marxism. It is Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. It is an effort that goes back not to the 1960s and the Hippies and the peace movement, but back to World War I, to Kulturbolshewismus. If we compare the basic tenets of Political Correctness with the basic tenets of classical Marxism, the parallels are very obvious.
Lind's history of the term and its meanings were described in "The Alt-right's Favorite Meme is 100 Years Old" (2018), in which professor of law Samuel Moyn reported that social fear of Cultural Marxism is "an American contribution to the phantasmagoria of the alt-right"; while the conspiracy theory, itself, is "a crude slander, referring to Judeo-Bolshevism, something that does not exist".
The Frankfurt school has often been referred to sarcastically as the "Frankfurt School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" by leftists poking fun at the often unknown aspects of the school and the conspiracy theories that surround it.