Fathom regularly invites writers to select their favourite books about a subject. Here, Matthew Bolton recommends three on critical theory and antisemitism. A much longer piece than the norm, the editors believe this essay is a hugely valuable corrective to some contemporary misuses of the legacy of the Frankfurt School.
When it comes to assigning blame for the ‘hostile environment’ faced by many Jewish students and academics on campuses across Europe and the US, there is one intellectual tradition more than any other that is routinely dragged into the dock: ‘critical theory.’ For its critics, what unites all of the ever-proliferating branches of ‘critical theory’ – critical race theory, critical social justice, critical legal theory, critical gender studies, critical heritage studies, critical fatherhood studies, and so on and on – is a rejection of objective truth and rationality and the reduction of all political and social questions to relations of power, privilege and identity. Through this homogenising lens, Jews are cast as white oppressors, Israel and Zionism nothing but imperialist and racist domination, and antisemitism a minor issue that is the preserve of the white-nationalist far right.
Whether this is a fair description of the actual intellectual work going on in the various sub-categories of ‘critical theory’ – rather than the popularised versions propagated by various best-selling ‘race consultants’ and teenage TikTok users, and then swallowed wholesale by panicking HR departments and corporate social media content managers – is up for debate. What is not is that the broad outlines of this worldview hold an increasingly dominant position within arts and humanities departments, NGOs, third- and public-sector workplaces, and on social media. Nor is the fact that many of those who subscribe to it do indeed regard themselves as engaging in ‘critical theory’ of one sort of another.
But this loose use, by both its advocates and detractors, of ‘critical theory’ as an umbrella term incorporating everything from French post-structuralism to overzealous Diversity, Equity and Inclusion administrators is a relatively recent development. Historically, the label ‘critical theory’ was reserved for the Kritische Theorie produced by the social philosophers of the Institute for Social Research, established in Frankfurt in 1923. Known collectively as the ‘Frankfurt School,’ its best known members today are Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. In some right-wing discourses, the Frankfurt School is conflated with contemporary ‘critical theory’ through its depiction as the originator of a ‘Cultural Marxism’ that is surreptitiously subverting ‘Western culture’ – an accusation sometimes coded in antisemitic ways due to the Jewish background of the Institute’s leading members. But in terms of content, the Kritische Theorie of the Frankfurt School, particularly that of Adorno and Horkheimer, stands at some distance from its contemporary caricature.
In its crudest form, contemporary ‘critical theory’ is founded upon two basic principles. Firstly, identities are immutable, ontological categories with impermeable borders, entirely determining one’s perspective and position within the structures of oppression. One can celebrate, apologise for or seek to mitigate one’s identity by doing ‘good works,’ but never escape. Secondly, the ‘lived experience’ of that identity trumps any other form of argument or critique. This is particularly true of experiences of oppression. Indeed, any attempt to argue against or bring further contextual detail into a debate framed around ‘lived experience’ is tantamount to an oppressive act itself, especially if that critique comes from an identity position itself categorised as powerful or oppressive.
The critical theory tradition of the Frankfurt School stands adamantly opposed to both of these positions. The rejection of ‘identity thinking’ was fundamental to Adorno’s work in particular: the drive to subsume the whole of a person’s (or object’s) individuality under a rigid preformed identity was the principle target of his critical thought. And for the Frankfurt School, it was only by exposing ‘lived experience’ to conceptual reflection, critique and judgement that what they termed the ‘truth content’ of any particular situation could be grasped. Lived experience of oppression on its own offers no guarantee of privileged insight into the state of things. The contemporary elevation of ‘identity’ and ‘lived experience’ into absolute, unchallengeable values, and the commensurate denigration and even demonisation of reflection, critique and judgement, is thus precisely a symptom of the world the Frankfurt School set out to overturn.
The disparity between contemporary ‘critical theory’ and the Frankfurt School is particularly profound in relation to antisemitism. Far from ignoring, dismissing, minimising or denying antisemitism, from the late 1930s onwards – as the Nazi oppression of the Jews in Germany intensified, and the Institute was forced to leave for the USA – the critique of antisemitism was at the core of the Institute’s work. Initially relying on a crude Marxian economic determinism, over time Adorno and Horkheimer developed a highly complex and multifaceted theory of antisemitism, incorporating heterodox Marxism, Kantian-Hegelian philosophy, psychoanalysis and philosophy of nature. Rather than accepting antisemitism as an eternal verity, or an inexplicable ‘virus,’ they sought to precisely critique it – in a Kantian sense, meaning to set out its conditions of possibility, the conditions necessary for its appearance. Unlike Kant, they sought to ground this critique in historical and social conditions, namely those of capitalist modernity.
It was these conditions of ‘instrumental rationality’ – in which science, technology and bureaucracy became divorced from ethics – that gave rise to ‘identity thinking,’ the drive to impose a fixed set of abstract categories upon everything and everyone in society. Anything that does, or will, not fit the identitarian mould – and Jews are historically, and perhaps today too, the paradigmatic example here – is either forced to succumb or faces destruction. Given that from a critical theory perspective, the historical conditions that produced identity thinking and thus modern antisemitism remain in place, if not stronger than ever, antisemitism too remains a perpetual threat. And because this threat is grounded in the foundational forms of modern society as a whole, rather than being limited to particular political or social groups within that society, the potential for the activation of antisemitism is to be found in all areas of society: the far right, certainly, but the liberal centre and the left too, including those purveyors of identitarian forms of ‘critical theory’ today.
The following reading recommendations are unlikely to spring any surprises on those well-versed in the Frankfurt School’s oeuvre. They comprise in the main canonical texts in which the theory and intellectual history of the critical theory of antisemitism is set out, and key works in the subsequent tradition that in the name of ‘critical theory’ seeks to deepen and expand, rather than abandon or destroy, that legacy. Nevertheless, the insights into antisemitism produced through that theory and history remain as potent today as they did when they were first written, providing a formidable means for both the recognition and the critique of contemporary antisemitism.
Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 2002 )
Written in the midst of World War Two, during the period the Institute left Frankfurt for the USA, the analysis of antisemitism within Dialectic of Enlightenment – concentrated in but not limited to its final section, entitled the ‘Elements of Antisemitism’ – is one of the most innovative ever produced. The overall thesis of the book is that what is regarded as the great achievement of the modern era – namely the shift from irrational mythological belief to rationalistic scientific explanations of the world – was merely the latest phase in a longer history of humanity’s separation from, and effort to dominate, nature. The drive to force every natural object into an abstract scientific category had turned rationality itself into a form of myth, pursued for its own sake, with questions about its ethical purpose abandoned. The assumption that science in itself holds the answers to every question about existence meant that the world as measured by science was presented as the only way things could be, and the possibility for more fundamental change thereby denied outright. This argument does not constitute a rejection of science and rationality but rather a warning against its fetishisation and a defence of the particular qualities of things that escape the constraints of universal concepts and laws.
The ‘Elements of Antisemitism’ section contains seven theses. These range from arguments asserting that antisemitism is a ‘luxurious’ form of compensation for the discontent and self-denial that characterises modern rationalised society, which can be politically manipulated by the leaders of ‘political rackets,’ to the idea that Christianity – in modernity repackaged as a form of ‘cultural heritage’ – was engaged in a Freudian Oepidal struggle with its Jewish ‘father,’ requiring the denigration of Jews as means of assurance about future salvation. Perhaps the most original theses are those concerned with mimesis and projection. Mimesis is the instinctive response some animals have (and the argument goes, humans once had) to imminent danger: they mimic the character of the threat, in order to become invisible. As humanity separated itself from nature, such involuntary mimesis became subject to rational self-control and a source of shame – yet also an unconscious desire. As such, any group or individual who did, or would, not conform to the dominant societal standards of propriety and self-control – who persisted in their difference – became both a threat to those standards and the subject of envy. For the antisemite, the Jew represents such difference: on the one side, detested as a reminder of a shameful past left behind; on the other, a means through which the self-denying individual can let loose his repressed desires. Through antisemitism, particularly its most violent forms, the antisemite allows himself to transgress social norms in order to mimic the degenerate characteristics he ascribes to the Jew.
Projection, on the other hand, inverts the logic of mimesis: rather than replicating the fictional image of the Jew, now the image of the Jew is created through an externalisation of the antisemite’s self-hatred. Thus attacks on ‘Jewish intellectualism’ stem from a repressed recognition of one’s own lack of education; stereotypical notions of Jewish avoidance of labour or cowardice arise from the hatred one holds for their own need to work for survival, or the feeling of powerlessness in a modern bureaucratised society.
The seventh thesis is perhaps one most applicable to today’s popularised ‘critical theory’ – the idea of ‘ticket thinking.’ Here ideological positions and political opinions are combined in a range of pre-prepared ‘packages’ or ‘tickets.’ Rather than using their own faculties of reflection and critical judgement to evaluate the various stances, individuals adopt unthinkingly a complete, totalising worldview – including at times antisemitism – solely because of the ‘ticket’ to which it is attached. The mechanical repetition of pre-packaged ideas about identity, oppression and – perhaps more than any other subject – Israel is today the primary means by which adherence to a ‘progressive’ ticket is displayed on campuses and social media. This triumph of ticket mentality over independent critical thought is thus one of the main drivers of contemporary antisemitism.
Moishe Postone – ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”,’ New German Critique 19:1 (1980), pp. 97-115
My second choice is an article rather than a book. The next stage in the development of the critical theory of antisemitism was the work of a younger generation of German scholars, heavily influenced by the teachings of Adorno and Horkheimer, and disgusted by the failure of their parents’ generation to confront and take responsibility for the Holocaust. But the most seminal contribution to the debate came from a Canadian theorist of Jewish background who had spent a decade studying in Frankfurt: Moishe Postone. Over the course of thirty years, until his untimely death in 2018, Postone returned again and again to the question of the relation of modern antisemitism to capitalism, and to the nature of Nazi antisemitism in particular. While drawing on Adorno, Postone took a more explicitly Marxist approach to antisemitism, but one which rejected crude forms of economic determinism that explained antisemitism as merely an ideological instrument of the ruling class or saw attacks on Jews as the result of the declining role of market exchange in a time of state totalitarianism. Rather, Postone returned to the opening chapters of Capital in which Marx set out his theory of the commodity form and of ‘value’ in capitalism.
There Marx argued that the capitalist commodity has two sides: one, ‘concrete,’ based on the ‘use-value’ of an object, what it is physically used for; the second, ‘abstract,’ its value, which derives not from its usefulness, nor the amount of money or time spent on making it, but rather its relation to the economy as a whole, made tangible in the form of money. No matter how useful a commodity is, if it does not sell, if no one has enough money to buy it, or if someone else makes the same object in less time and thus can sell it at a cheaper price, the money and time that has gone into its production has been wasted. While production of goods in other historical eras was aimed directly at the satisfaction of immediate needs – think of the peasant producing food for their own family – production (and thus survival) in capitalist societies was dependent on matching the standards of value set by the system as a whole. The dramatic transformations in living conditions and productive processes – urbanisation, the development of mass industrial production, the growth of the state, the speeding up of production and of everyday life – that characterised the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were, from this perspective, ultimately driven by the need for national economies to fulfil the demands imposed upon them by the ‘law of value.’ Those demands were in turn themselves altered by those shifts.
Postone argued that from the perspective of an individual living in a capitalist society, the pressures placed on everyday life by the need to attain the standards of value, the ‘abstract’ side of the commodity form expressed through money, appeared not as the ‘double’ of ‘concrete’ production but as an imposition forced upon it from the outside. He suggested that modern antisemitism was the result of the intangible, yet all-powerful force of ‘creative destruction’ engendered by such a society being ‘personified’ in the image of the Jew. The conspiratorial idea of a shadowy global network of Jewish financiers ‘pulling the strings’ of national economies, causing economic crises, wars, and endless suffering, was a ‘fetishised’ or ‘truncated’ critique of the abstract side of capitalism. Rather than being seen as the premise of the ‘concrete’ side represented by use-value, industrial production and a ‘national community’ of workers, the force of the abstract, ‘concretised’ in the antisemitic imaginary in the form of the Jew, was placed in opposition to it as an external destructive power.
For Postone, the Nazis’ drive to not just dominate or enslave the Jews but to exterminate them in their entirety was rooted in a desire to purify use-value, industrial production and the ‘national community’ from the intangible yet all-powerful global power of the Jews. This reached its apogee in the extermination camps, the aim of which for Postone was
to ‘liberate’ the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip away the ‘mask’ of humanity, of qualitative specificity, and reveal the Jews for what ‘they really are’—shadows, ciphers, numbered abstractions. The second step was to then eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material ‘use-value’: clothes, gold, hair, soap.
In his later work, Postone applied his theory of the relation between antisemitism and the false opposition posited between the concrete and abstract, use and exchange value, and nation and world market, to debates around foreign policy. He focused in particular on the ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-Zionist’ tendency within contemporary leftist movements which, he suggested, ‘personify’ the abstract social domination of global capitalist development in the form of an all-powerful American and, especially, Israeli state. At the same time, they catastrophically downplay the role of antisemitic images of Jews and Zionism within fetishised critiques of power in Arab nations and Islamist movements. The two positions combined in the equivocation, if not tacit support, offered by parts of the US and European left throughout the 2000s to Islamist terrorist attacks on civilians within US, Israel and the other ‘imperialist’ powers. That the left should seek to portray such reactionary, indiscriminate violence as in some sense ‘objectively progressive’ – due to the supposedly innate ‘oppressed’ identity of the perpetrators – was for Postone a symptom of the ‘helplessness’ felt by leftists in the face of the relentless onward march of capitalist society.
Jack Jacobs – The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives and Antisemitism (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Rather than looking at antisemitism from the perspective of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, this book inverts its gaze, examining instead the Frankfurt School from the perspective of Judaism and antisemitism. While keen to emphasise that the theory of the various leading critical theorists cannot be reduced to their Jewish background – critical theory is not, contra right-wing antisemitic conspiracy theories, a ‘Jewish theory’ – Jacobs nevertheless suggests that an exploration of that background does shed fresh light on their differing trajectories. He argues that each of the key members arrived at critical theory and the Institute for Social Research by ‘travel[ing] down recognisably Jewish roads.’
The book shows how for figures like Horkheimer, raised in practicing but not orthodox Jewish families, critical theory represented a form of rebellion against their wealthy, bourgeois roots. His first serious experience of antisemitism was while undertaking post-World War One military service in the German army, and this, Jacobs contends, meant that he was aware of the role of antisemitism in German society from an early stage of his intellectual career. But Horkheimer did not engage with Jewish theology or Zionism in any serious way, unlike other members like Leo Lowenthal and the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. For Lowenthal – who was a co-author of three of the theses in the ‘Elements of Antisemitism’ – brief youthful commitments to Zionism, religious mysticism and orthodox practice acted as a critique of the German nationalism he saw in the dominant assimilationist currents within the mainstream Jewish community, including his parents, and a merging of communistic-revolutionary and messianistic aspirations. Fromm was raised in an observant household, was an active member, like Lowenthal, of Jewish youth organisations, and completed a PhD on the philosophy of Jewish law. As his interest in psychoanalysis grew, he broke with his Jewish practice, but for Jacobs the influence of his religious learning remained visible on his work throughout his career.
Adorno, for his part, had an assimilated Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and so had far less everyday experience of Jewish life in Germany than his colleagues: through the Nazi era, however, he grew more conscious of the Jewish elements of his background. Jacobs argues that it was precisely the partiality of Adorno’s Jewishness within German society that enabled him to recognise the precarity of Jewish assimilation, and thus the possibility of totalitarian antisemitism, much earlier than his more ‘altogether Jewish’ co-theorists.
The latter section of the book concentrates on the critical theorists’ attitudes to Zionism and Israel in the post-war era. Jacobs argues that, perhaps paradoxically, it was those who had been most engaged in theological pursuits, such as Fromm, who were most opposed to the State of Israel. By the 1970s Fromm had adopted a more-or-less orthodox ‘anti-imperialist’ line against Israel, albeit one blended with a theologically-tinged critique of Jewish statehood and Israeli nationalism. Those, like Adorno and Horkheimer, who had been less engaged in Jewish practice, but for whom the critique of antisemitism was central to the critique of capitalist modernity, held a more ambivalent attitude. Their critique of nationalism and the nation-state form meant they did not adhere to a political Zionist narrative which saw the establishment of Israel as the culmination of Jewish national aspirations. But they supported Israel as a practical means of protection against the antisemitism they continued to regard as a lethal threat, and so rejected the ‘anti-Zionist’ reflex that had taken hold within the ‘New Left’ of the 1960s, and which is axiomatic within ‘critical theory’ today.
Eva-Maria Ziege, Antisemitismus und Gesellschaftstheorie: Die Frankfurter Schule im amerikanischen Exil (Antisemitism and Critical Social Theory: The Frankfurt School in American Exile) (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009) – focuses on the pioneering empirical studies of antisemitism carried out by the Institute while in the US.
Lars Rensmann, The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism (State University of New York Press, 2017) – sets out the various stages of development of the Frankfurt School’s critique of antisemitism, and how they relate to their concrete experience of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy (Bloomsbury, 2014) – shows how the critical theory of antisemitism is an integral part of the broader Marxian critique of capitalist social relations.
Hylton Whyte, ‘How is capitalism racial? Fanon, critical theory and the fetish of antiblackness,’ Social Dynamics, 46:1, 22-35 – shows how conspiratorial antisemitism and anti-blackness are distinct but interrelated worldviews produced by the movement of abstract and concrete forms in capitalism.