From The Atlantic
Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm—the gang’s all here, just transposed to a new setting and sphere of influence. The famed Institute for Social Research, Wheatland contends, was not merely a pre- and postwar European phenomenon; it was also a direct and profound player in the intellectual life of Depression-era America. After fleeing the Third Reich in 1933, the fathers of Critical Theory—dissident Jewish neo-Marxists whose core philosophical, sociological, and psychoanalytical tenets were born of the doomed Weimar Republic—found a haven at Columbia University. There they warily circled counterparts like the New York Intellectuals and gained the patronage of the American Jewish Committee (which led to the landmark Studies in Prejudice and redounded to the benefit of both parties); later they played a prominent role in postwar sociology and engaged in a thorny relationship with the American New Left. Cleverly applying a modified Marxism of his own to his analysis—explaining how the Frankfurt School’s ideology was informed by its own economy, for instance, and why Columbia initially welcomed the eminent émigrés for curiously pragmatic reasons—Wheatland has produced a worthy successor to Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination and Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School.
Members of the Frankfurt School have had an enormous effect on Western thought, beginning soon after Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main, in 1930. Also known as the Horkheimer Circle, the group included such eminent intellectuals as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Friedrich Pollock. Fleeing Nazi oppression, Horkheimer moved the Institute and many of its affiliated scholars to Columbia University in 1934, where it remained until 1950.
Until now, the conventional portrayal of the Institute has held that its members found refuge by relocating to Columbia but that they had little contact with, or impact on, American intellectual life. With insight and clarity, Thomas Wheatland demonstrates that the standard account is wrong. Based on deep archival research in Germany and in the United States, and on interviews conducted with luminaries such as Daniel Bell, Bernadine Dohrn, Peter Gay, Todd Gitlin, Nathan Glazer, Tom Hayden, Robert Merton, and others, Wheatland skillfully traces the profound connections between the Horkheimer Circle’s members and the intellectual life of the era. Reassessing the group’s involvement with the American New Left in the 1960s, he argues that Herbert Marcuse’s role was misunderstood in shaping the radical student movement’s agenda. More broadly, he illustrates how the Circle influenced American social thought and made an even more dramatic impression on German postwar sociology.
Although much has been written about the Frankfurt School, this is the first book to closely examine the relationship between its members and their American contemporaries. The Frankfurt School in Exile uncovers an important but neglected dimension of the history of the Frankfurt School and adds immeasurably to our understanding of the contributions made by its émigré intellectuals to postwar intellectual life.