Critical Theory and the Failure of an “Authentic Life”

Critical theory turned Marxism away from Marxist countries to capitalist countries. For the Frankfurt School, it was not inequality that would lead to revolution but the search for a solution to prosperity. They saw that Marx’s error was in not recognizing that the constant revolution of the means of production would create inequality but raise standards of living as well, and that the rise of prosperity led to a life of inauthenticity and the destruction of the beauty of the psyche. It was not what we did but how we thought that was the problem they wanted to solve.

I entered graduate school in 1970, determined to study two things. One was political philosophy, the consideration of the nature of justice, particularly as presented by German philosophers. The second was called comparative communism, the study of communist states and movements, particularly contemporary ones. The choice of subjects wasn’t random, if perhaps presumptive. I wanted to understand Germany, the place that had defined my origins. And I wanted to understand communism, which had defined and would define much of my life. I was hostile to Marxism but deeply believed in understanding your enemy.

The more I studied, the more confused I became. Marxism seemed to have little to do with Marx, and communist regimes were rarely Marxist. Marxist movements around the world rarely consisted of workers, but rather of intellectuals and soldiers, and sometimes criminals. Similarly, Hegel and Nietzsche could be considered proto-Nazis only if you closed your eyes. The intellectual life I sought was far more coherent than the political realities around me. Since I crave order in all things, and since Marxism was more pressing at that moment than Nazism, I dove into the history of Marxism and of Marxist terrorism and MiG-21s.

In the course of this I spent a great deal of time with what was called the New Left in a number of countries. Their thoughts all ran to something called the Frankfurt School, a group of German philosophers in the 1930s and later who sought to recreate Marxism as a human imperative and system of redemption after the failures of Marxist theory and politics. Central to the Frankfurt School’s thought was critical theory, a concept they developed.

I decided to write my dissertation on the Frankfurt School, starting in 1972 and completing it in 1974 in Europe. I was 22 when I began and 24 when I submitted my first draft. It was the sort of work a 22-year-old would begin writing, one who thinks well of himself and knows little. Cornell University Press, for reasons incomprehensible to me, chose to turn it into a book, impenetrable and meandering as it was. My anti-communism remained intact, but I came to better understand that critical theory was an attempt to keep Marxism from becoming a horror to be forgotten along with Stalin and Mao.

To understand this, we need to think of Karl Marx. Marx sought an explanation for the development of capitalism and to forecast its end. Capitalism according to him emerged as the constant revolution of the means of production – in other words technology. However, as capitalism developed, wealth went with those who owned the means of production, leaving the workers, the proletariat, to live in abject poverty. That abject poverty would deepen, and as it deepened the proletariat would be forced to revolt, seize the means of production and impose the dictatorship of the proletariat, by which Marx meant simply a society in which the interests of the workers prevailed.

The problem was that history did not develop that way. Poverty was persistent in Europe, to the point of generating communist parties but not communist revolutions. Marx and his cowriter, Friedrich Engels, mentioned in passing an explanation of why there was no revolution: false consciousness. This was the idea that the workers did not understand their own interests because the system generated ideas that gave them a false understanding of the world. Lenin, rising in Russia, which by Marxist theory was not ready for a revolution, also grasped at false consciousness but saw a solution. The unwillingness of the proletariat to act required the Party to act, and the action he proposed was to ignore the workers’ consciousness with terror. The problem the Russians had was that once terror is applied, it is difficult to end and allow the workers to flower into revolutionaries. The terror continued and intensified under Stalin.

Critical theory turned Marxism away from Marxist countries to capitalist countries. For the Frankfurt School, it was not inequality that would lead to revolution but the search for a solution to prosperity. They saw that Marx’s error was in not recognizing that the constant revolution of the means of production would create inequality but raise standards of living as well, and that the rise of prosperity led to a life of inauthenticity and the destruction of the beauty of the psyche. It was not what we did but how we thought that was the problem they wanted to solve.

As standards of living rose after the war, in the United States in particular, there was contentment in the face of inequality. The Frankfurt School, some of whose members moved to the United States, had developed a theory that assumed the need for revolution not because of inequality but because of inauthenticity. In the midst of a consumer society, the minds of workers and others lost their humanity in favor of things. The primary job of capitalism was to develop needs and to use these things to pacify society. In their work, false consciousness ceased to be marginal even in the march of history, but was the fundamental reality that stole the souls of men and replaced it with things. Authentic life was impossible.

There was to me, then and now, a core question. How could the professors of the Frankfurt School avoid false consciousness and see so clearly? Why could they claim to see a truth others couldn’t fathom? The obvious answer is that as philosophers, they could understand authentic life and see the horrors of the desperate need for garbage. The problem for them was how to break the hold of modern capitalism, which invents and satisfies needs. As this advanced, Herbert Marcuse emerged, understanding that the revolution was no longer of the workers but of the young. He wrote a book called “Eros and Civilization” in which he defined authenticity as polymorphous perversity (the eros part of civilization) and worked to legitimize what every 18-year-old knew – it was party time. Now, bear in mind that it is far more complex than this, but Marcuse saw eros as a revolutionary force. Think back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and rest assured that I wasn’t just writing during this time. It was good to be young.

But the revolution of the young failed, largely because they grew up, and with life the sense of having transcended the crisis of the psyche becomes both less credible and less important. The idea of critical theory was a forced transformation of consciousness, the transformation driven by the enlightenment of the young, who would compel “mothers and fathers throughout the land” to change their consciousness. The core idea of the Frankfurt School was that revolution was a change of consciousness. This was helped along by terrorist violence such as the Weather Underground in the United States, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof and other groups in Europe, many supported by a Soviet destabilization campaign. The transformation included those who saw Lenin’s solution as superior. It became a worldwide event with the young rising in Mexico City and Paris and Prague. For the rest, it was an attempt at transforming thought by imposing terror, social and explosive.

The current resurrection of critical theory, like the old, takes political issues as merely a means of transforming the psyche. The object has been to change what we think and how we organize our thoughts. We must recognize the corruption in our minds so our lives can change. The old question of critical theory persists, of course. How can the practitioners of critical theory know so clearly what the rest of us do not? How can they have escaped the intellectual traps of the rest of us, and how can they have avoided falling into new traps? For me, the old critical theory failed because it lacked the credibility to condemn the psychic damage caused by living in a suburban home and accepting the needs imposed by capitalism. Economic desperation did not make a successful revolution in the West. The old critical theory lurched into self-righteousness coupled with incomprehensible writing. They passed from history along with Woodstock, where psyches were cleansed.

As for me, I came out of my book realizing that the celebration of eros was not to be dismissed, but that the Soviet Union might wreck the party more effectively than tract housing would. The number of tanks they had and the ability to deliver fuel to them when passing through Hanover was a much more important thing than the fact that Americans lived inauthentic lives in the suburbs. For a while, the ability of A-10s to destroy T-54s brushed aside consideration of the Frankfurt School. But the truth was that I had dismissed them from the beginning, because in spite of their hatred of Hitler, none of them served a day, even preparing food. I was not sophisticated enough to understand that I was inauthentic. I sought an understanding of why the Soviets and Chinese were so brutal, and why the New Left was so angry at America. I found the answer in critical theory but decided that their end was never clear and their means made little sense. But I did like the parties where everyone was committed to full authenticity.

I have barely touched on the complexity of critical theory, or the perverse brilliance of its creators. Nor have I done justice to its resurrection. But the single thing I have learned from Marxism is that the transformation of being is not a mass movement, and that the will to force others to change their minds to suit yours is a form of self-indulgence. The stubbornness of the human soul, for bad or good, transcends both a failed historical model and failed enthusiasm for change. The world is stubborn.

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