Keeping the CRT critique honest
Summary: Theodor Adorno, though a Marxist, is a way more interesting thinker than Mark Levin
This went up last week on The American Mind. Very slightly longer version below.
That the radical racialist ideology advocated by the progressive left, commonly known as Critical Race Theory (CRT), owes something to earlier academic leftist thought including the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is certainly true. The Woke ideology of racial identity did not grow out of a vacuum. The work of the Frankfurt School is one of the several bodies of radical thought that have influenced leftist academics over the last half-century in their project to undermine traditional modes of political and cultural understanding.
When the connection between CRT and the Frankfurt School is made too neatly, though, important distinctions are lost and confusion becomes inevitable. Perhaps it is inevitable that reasonable, legitimate criticisms of the Woke ideology that guides most of our leading institutions become increasingly unfocused and inaccurate as more people with less knowledge of the relevant intellectual history articulate the criticisms. It is in the interests of that criticism to keep it honest.
What is CRT? (I use this term to describe the broad Woke view on race, even though its leftist defenders are correct in noting that CRT is in fact a more specialized subvariety within that broader perspective). In its original meaning, CRT was a framework for viewing race in light of legal practice and theory. The broader meaning of the term has to do with a set of axiomatic statements about the omnipresence and determining power of racism throughout the social and cultural order. Notwithstanding its name, CRT consists of axioms, not theories. Theories must be open to empirical test and disconfirmation. All the claims about race and racism made by CRT activists are to be accepted as true a priori, and most of them would not hold up to empirical test. At its core, CRT claims that racist oppression is a fundamental principle of Western society and that all institutions and social practices in those societies depend on and reinforce it.
The intellectual core of the Frankfurt School, which originated in Germany during the Weimar Republic and then migrated to the United States with the advent of the Nazi regime, was Marxist. However, from the standpoint of classical Marxism, it was a heterodox version mingled with several other European idea systems such as psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and existentialism. As one of its best historians, Martin Jay, noted, the Frankfurt School thinkers abhorred dogmatic, closed systems: “Critical Theory, as its name implies, was expressed through a series of critiques of other thinkers and philosophical traditions.”
Though Frankfurt School thinkers were, like other cultural Marxists of their era, looking for new framings of the relationship of economic base and cultural superstructure, they always remained loyal to the Marxian understanding that economic relations and social class are the key to understanding power, inequality, and the possibility of revolution. For classical Marxists, all cultural beliefs are ultimately determined by economic relations of production. The dominant ideas of any society will thus be the ideas of the dominant economic classes.
CRT presents quite a different understanding of the basis of identity and power relations. Though CRT is specifically focused on racial identity, it typically embraces the concept of intersectionality. This is the connection of various identities of oppression including race, gender, sexuality, and an ever-growing number of others in a complicated web of structured inequalities. There is no ultimate reduction to social class or to economic structures of domination in CRT. In fact, much of CRT is directly hostile to the idea that differences in social class position necessarily rank Karine Jean-Pierre above every Republican-voting working class heterosexual white man in America in social power. It is therefore grossly inaccurate to describe CRT as “Marxist,” as is done for example in Mark Levin’s American Marxism and other popular accounts. CRT rejects the Marxist determinism of every other form of inequality by social class.
What did the Frankfurt School have to say about how intersectional forms of identity, especially race, matter in analyzing oppression? Essentially nothing. Even Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt thinker who while on the University of California faculty interacted closely with Angela Davis and some other ‘60s cultural radicals who were steeped in the racial politics of that era, never deviated substantially on this point. (And Davis was careful always to remain orthodox—Stalinist, in fact—in her Marxism during the brief time of her relationship with him).
Though the Frankfurt School had a significant interest in the analysis of antisemitism as an element in forms of authoritarianism, there is nothing to be found in the works of its members on race as an identity category, the racial oppression of non-whites by whites, or anti-black racism. Indeed, there are significant elements of their perspective that are wholly incompatible with the CRT view of these topics.
Let’s take Theodor Adorno, one of the best known Frankfurt thinkers, as a case study. He is best known as a writer on music and nearly every bit of what he wrote on the topic is incompatible with the basic tenets of the CRT worldview. For Adorno, music, and all culture, arises in specific historical and social conditions. It reflects those conditions in its substance. Composers come along in specific historical situations, and their experiences are particular to their epochs, as are those of their listeners. Music has meaning in those contexts because of the shared historical space within which the composer and his audience exist. As a thinker informed by a Hegelian-Marxist view of the progress of history, Adorno believed that critical music would contribute to the progression through history of the various stages Marx described, ending in the realization of full human freedom. But this was not true of most music. Most music and most culture played a retrogressive role, contributing to the ongoing enslavement of men and their alienation from their deepest nature.
In classical Marxism, it was understood that the progression through history would find the proletariat inevitably rising to consciousness of their condition and then triumphing in political struggle with their captors in the bourgeois class to establish a social utopia. Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School recognized, in the historical reality of the mid-20th century, that the proletariat seemed to have fallen away from this promise. They had integrated into capitalism and strayed from the trajectory required to get them to revolutionary consciousness. Other actors, however, could potentially continue to contribute to the historical change to come, and Adorno focused specifically on aesthetic producers such as musicians. He viewed the composer as a productive worker. The forces of production came in his view to mean the techniques of musical composition as they have developed historically, while relations of production were reinterpreted as the relations between the composer and the musical material itself.
Of course, the critical task of the musician or composer could hardly be literally the same as that of the Marxian proletariat. Composers were not going to seize the factories. But Adorno thought they could engage in a kind of destructive and critical activity which could honestly represent for human beings their own suffering in the face of existing oppression and false consciousness. This would go some way toward destroying the ideological web of complicity that subjugates most of the members of modern society and even convinces them that their suffering is inevitable. Critical music would provide ideology critique of the highest sort.
In Adorno’s view, Beethoven had done this in his epoch. His work was the aesthetic culmination of an historical and social moment. It was framed by the social and political circumstances of the French Revolution and the rise of an industrial bourgeoisie in Europe. Adorno saw Beethoven as a musical spokesman for a rising bourgeois class, which was in its time revolutionary. He represented a remarkable moment of fusion and perfection of specific musical forms: the Classical and the Romantic. Because of his unique historical and social situation and his individual genius, he was able to embody the free subjectivity of bourgeois humanism that triumphed in the Revolution. In this way he was the most revolutionary and important composer of this epoch.
In Adorno's own time, he recognized Arnold Schönberg as a contemporary version of Beethoven. Schönberg’s radical break with the Western harmonic tradition constituted for Adorno a critique of the reactionary political order that had descended upon 20th century Europe. He exploded the Western art music world’s tradition of organizing tones according to a system that valorizes certain combinations of tones, melodic and harmonic structures, and developmental schemes. Schönberg threw out the existing tonal system altogether and worked with the dissonances and alternative varieties of development rejected by the Western tonal system.
Adorno saw the modern social condition as characterized by overwhelming political bleakness, in the wake of the Holocaust, Nazism, and then global communist totalitarianism. Schönberg’s atonal, unsettling music forced listeners to see with clear eyes the horrific truth of their condition.
Adorno also had much to say about popular music, that is, music oriented to an economic market. Music made for the mass public by what Adorno referred to as the “culture industry” was incapable of playing a progressive role in society. It was inherently regressive and conducive only to maintaining conditions of human oppression and enslavement. Here again, the Marxian element of Adorno’s thought was crucial. He and the rest of the Frankfurt School saw the modern capitalist West as quasi-totalitarian, less brutal than Nazism or Stalinism, but just as incompatible with real human freedom. The entirety of such social order was geared to producing men who were essentially replicas of one another. They were incapable of independent thought and belief, and dully satisfied in their slavery to the capitalist system. This sameness was produced by constant saturation in formulaic and regressive cultural forms. From cradle to grave, the citizen of what Adorno called the administered society is subjected to a totalitarian model of relations with others, objects, and ideas. This gives the impression of tremendous variety but it is based on the equalizing principle of economic utility. Everything is turned into a commodity and marketed, sold, bought, and trivialized.
This was true not just of mass music. Culture itself also becomes dominated by this dehumanizing formula. The Frankfurt thinkers were interested, as were many other cultural Marxists of that era, in explaining why communist revolution, much anticipated by Marxists in the West, had not arrived. Reactionary cultural authoritarianism and the culture industry helped explain this.
In modern capitalist societies, very little music escapes the trap of the culture industry. Adorno and his Frankfurt colleague Max Horkheimer gave perhaps the best summary of the culture industry in the penultimate chapter of their Dialectic of Enlightenment. There, they describe how engineered mass taste seeps into the whole culture, uniting even seemingly opposing political entities under a common cultural ideology: “Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.” The culture industry presents music and art solely as commercial enterprises, in which artistic success takes the form entirely of sales and popularity among the culturally benighted. Consumers of popular music are drawn to the most formulaic and dumbed-down styles. These overwhelm any musical forms of greater sophistication or critical capacity. What the Frankfurt theorists present as the capitalist myth of rags to riches that is imbued in much of this culture is enthusiastically taken to heart by those it victimizes: “The deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are…they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.” The result is a mass stupidification of culture, freedom from thought as the end of cultural consumption, and a “pseudo individuality” and “idolization of the cheap…[that] mak[es] the average the heroic.”
The administered society is not an overtly totalitarian society in which people must be locked away to prevent them from experiencing freedom and endangering the prevailing order. Rather, the population is subtly induced to believe that they have freely chosen from among the many products before them, which are objectively all the same. They come to believe that they exercise independent judgement and freedom of thought in so doing, and that they derive pleasure from these products. But one need only ask them to describe why they prefer e.g., Dua Lipa to Ariana Grande, or vice versa, that is, to ask them to make distinctions based on explainable musical criteria to see that they cannot do so. They do not know what musical pleasure might really mean. Our condition is such, in Adorno’s view, that progressive popular music can only be that music that points out the condition of unfreedom in which we exist. Music that refuses to pose these dilemmas for us and permits us to tap our foot or dance in a mob is ultimately no different than the Nazi parade music that carried German peasants along behind it, goose-stepping and stiff-arming. And merely plugging in Woke racially enlightened lyrics to a musical structure that is wholly determined by the culture industry will not change a thing.
This perspective dovetails with some conservative criticisms of popular culture. Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and his pointed attack on rock and pop music, comes immediately to mind for anyone on the right of a certain age. More recent conservative critics of the morphing of pop music into softcore porn and the idiot aesthetic level of almost all contemporary pop music, which now nearly all approximates rap, the most musically unsophisticated of all the unsophisticated popular forms, have said much the same thing. Adorno and Horkheimer are miles away from the CRT embrace of culturally relativist ideas that permit an ignorant attack on all high culture as white supremacist. The Frankfurt thinkers would have been scratching their heads at the insinuation by today’s CRT radicals that a change in the racial identities of culture industry producers will somehow magically revolutionize the content.
To see still more clearly how greatly Adorno’s perspective on popular culture and music differs from that of CRT, we might look at how he spoke of jazz, which at mid-20th century was a widely popular music form in the US. He vehemently denounced it, specifically rejecting the idea that the fact that blacks had significantly contributed to jazz meant it must be a liberatory music. Jazz was in Adorno’s view completely musically bankrupt. It was a pure aesthetic commodity, merely pseudo-individualistic since its improvisation always repeated a small number of basic structures. The black contribution to it was not rebellious; in fact, it constituted submission to its authoritarian structures. “Its rebellious gestures,” he wrote, “are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance.” This cultural slavery was more insidious than open slavery because practitioners and consumers of this mass culture industry music falsely believed they were free while they danced in shackles.
In the late ‘60s, near the end of Adorno’s life, he intended to give a series of lecture in West Germany on the basics of his philosophical system. However, the first lecture was disrupted by radical student protestors, who stripped nude on stage and threw flower petals at him, forcing the cancellation of the series. They wrote on the blackboard: “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.” These students are in a much stronger genealogical relationship to today’s CRT professors and activists than Adorno and his colleagues.
My point here is not to reinvigorate the Frankfurt School’s critique of mass culture, though conservatives without much reading in intellectual history might do well to consider how much it shares with conservative criticisms of capitalism’s ability to undermine deeper institutional spheres. Conservativism has its own such critiques in abundance, and the Marxism of the Frankfurt School effectively invalidates their work at a basic level. Accurately knowing one’s enemy, however, is essential to the likelihood of a positive outcome in the cultural war in which we are presently engaged. Sloppy thinking on CRT and its influences must be exposed to the light of criticism.