The Woman with the Corpse in Her Carriage: Whittaker Chambers, Life Magazine, and the Enlightenment (Part 2)

Back in August, prior to what turned out to be an unexpectedly long hiatus (let’s just say that my day job — which included teaching a new course on the history of the notion of “publicity” — wound up consuming more time than I bargained on), I posted a discussion of Whittaker Chambers’ role in the production of Life magazine’s series on the “History of Western Culture.” In what follows, I’d like to tie up some lose ends by saying a few things about the article Chambers wrote for the series on “The Age of Enlightenment.”

This was article that drew me to Life’s peculiar venture in the first place. The unlikeliness of a mass-market magazine devoting this much attention (and the hours of work that it took to produce the article) to a topic that, at first glance, might seem somewhat arcane appealed to my taste for the bizarre. But, then again, the presence of an article on the Enlightenment in the most successful of Henry Luce’s ventures was not quite as strange as it might initially seem. For the Enlightenment has long been a topic of interest outside the academy: it has been condemned and celebrated, but it has not been ignored. Those of us who work on the period periodically wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

Chambers was among those inclined to see the Enlightenment as responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. As he explained in a much-quoted letter dating from 1954,

it is the duty of the intellectuals of the West to preach reaction, and to keep pointing out why the Enlightenment and its faults were a wrong turning in man’s history.

Yet the same letter went on to concede that, whatever the failings of this particular turning point, “it was a turning, and within its terms, we must maneuver at the point where to maneuver is to live.”1

In his book on the relationship between Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, Michael Kimmage suggests that something similar can be found in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.2 But this, I think, overstates the extent to which Horkheimer and Adorno saw themselves as attempting to come to terms with the historical period that we (like Chambers) have come to know as “the Enlightenment.” At the risk of repeating a point that I’ve made several times before: German does not always go easily into English and there is no reason to view every invocation of die Aufklärung in Dialektik der Aufklärung as a discussion of what we call “the Enlightenment.” While Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the dialectic of enlightenment stretches back into human prehistory, Chambers’ account was unambiguously a discussion of a particular historical period.  And the account that Chambers offered of this historical period turns out to be more peculiar than we might expect.

Authors and Collaborators

For me, the most perplexing aspect of Chambers’ article involves a question that does not appear to have much concerned Kimmage: the extent to which Chambers’ article can be seen as reflecting his’ broader views on the trajectory of modern history. Kimmage tends to see the work that Chambers produced while employed by Henry Luce as anticipating positions that he would late elaborate in the wake of the Hiss hearings. But reading these texts in this way runs the risk of assuming that Chambers had more control over what appeared in the pages of Life than might be warranted.  It is obvious that Chambers was the author of Witness.  It is less clear how we go about assigning authorship to the texts that appeared in Life.

Discussing the conclusion of the discussion of the Protestant Reformation that appeared in the June 14, 1948 issue of Life, Kimmage argues,

The final paragraph of the series completes the general argument, the story of religion formalized in the Middle Ages, of religion challenged in the Enlightenment and successively diminished in the nineteenth century, ending with the story of religious awakening in the sixteenth century, revived in Europe with Luther and Calvin, and then again in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The rise of the middle class and of capitalism, which was also Chambers’s story, was thus modified to deny that secular modernity, the product of science and technology, is the endpoint of history. Civilizations thrive only when people believe in them — religious faith might wax and wane, dark ages might put a temporary end to civilization, but faith could also be regained and civilization restored. A Protestant revolution could supplant a Russian revolution. If so, America might continue to stand at the center of modern history.3

This narrative does seem to echo positions that Chambers would go on to elaborate in Witness.  But there are a few problems with Kimmage’s approach to the text.

First, though the article on the Protestant Revolution appears to have been Chambers’ final contribution, two further articles appeared before the series finally concluded: a discussion of “Eighteenth Century England” on September 13 and a final article on the 1848 revolutions on November 22, 1948.  Hence, while Chambers wrapped up his involvement in the series with an account of how the “the new spirit” unleashed by the Reformation had “leaped the Atlantic Ocean”, cleared the forests of North America and — after purging the continent of “the remnants of stone-age man” — created “an appropriate space where the new dignity of the individual, safeguarded by his new freedom of faith could, under God, build a citadel, an arsenal and an altar,” two additional articles were either already planned or waiting in the queue.4

The series itself ended with a discussion of the 1848 revolutions that featured a closing paragraph that would seem to offer a much better summary of the general message of the series:

In 1848 freedom was still a great and simple matter. It was the trumpet which proclaimed to the world and to the heavens the rights and worth of man. It meant the individual’s protection against tyranny. But Marxism has set in motion a gigantic revolution against individualism, that view of man as a free being on which Western civilization rests. Of all the lessons of 1848 the most important is one concerning freedom. It is that freedom cannot be won, once and for all, on the barricades. Like man’s other possessions, it must be defended. 5

Those with a finer sense of Chambers’ style are in a better position than I am to judge whether this conclusion offers a markedly different account of the basic lessons of the Life series than the (premature) climax Chambers wrote for the article on the “Protestant Reformation” (much turns, I suppose, on Chambers’ sense of the alleged virtues of “individualism”).  But it does serve as a reminder that Luce’s publications were defined by a certain was a house style. Lionel Trilling’s later characterization of Chambers as having achieved a measure of “economic security and even a professional reputation of sorts with the apocalyptic pieties of his news-stories for Time and the sodden profundities of his cultural essays for Life” — while snide — was on the mark in at least one respect: Chambers’ success at Time and Life had at least something to do with his managing to find ways of producing work that conformed to the general dictates of the house style.

The series on the history of Western culture provided regular opportunities to produce new examples of the style. After all, the mission of the series was to take stock of the civilization that Americans had inherited. Reminding Americans of their past successes in exterminating those “stone-age” natives that got in the way of their deforestation project, stocking up the arsenal with the latest weapons of mass destruction, and settling down to a protracted defense of a “freedom” that could never be fully secured — all this was consistent with the early Cold War rhetoric at Time and Life. That the house style was a good fit with Chambers’ own helps to account for his success: when the need arose, he could turn out “apocalyptic pieties” and “sodden profundities.” But he had other resources and, as we shall see, wound up striking a rather different tone at the close of the Enlightenment article.

I am inclined to wonder whether it makes much sense to try to apply the notion of individual authorship to productions of this sort. Life’s “History of Western Culture” was, above all else, a collaborative project in which Chambers was responsible for producing a text that would accompany the parade of images that were Life’s stock in trade. The seemingly haphazard ordering of the various installments may be a further testimony to the collaborative nature of the undertaking.  Even if the texts that Chambers produced were able to escape the subsequent editing that seems to have been the norm at Life, they were still only one part of the Gesamtkitschwerk that this particular branch of the culture industry churned out.  With an efficiency that rivaled that of the Hollywood studio system in its glory days, various departments labored to produce a product that, issue after issue, was defined by a unified style.  When the requisite parts of a product were ready to be assembled, a new installment appeared: hence the indifference to chronology that marked a series that started with the Renaissance, moved back to the Middle Ages, returned for a look at Renaissance Venice, stopped off at the Enlightenment, jumped forward to the Edwardians, turned back to consider the “Age of Explorations,” paid a visit to the Reformation, took a look at Eighteenth Century England, and finally ended with an account of the revolutions of 1848. It may not have mattered that the initial presentation of the series appears to us as a chronological train-wreck: everything would be straightened out when the pieces were polished up and reassembled in the deluxe coffee-table book that would follow.

Terrifying Women

The word “enlightenment” (as readers of this blog are well aware) can refer either to something that individuals do (namely, enlighten one another) or the particular historical Header for Enlightenment Articleperiod that we see as exemplifying this activity: the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” The article in Life was supposed to be concerned with the latter and Chambers began his article by repeating the already old (and mistaken) notion that Kant was responsible for the “name given the era.” But, though Chambers may have been interested in writing an article that traced the evolution of “the human spirit” during this brief “interlude between the stake and fagots and the guillotine, Life‘s art department was (of necessity) less interested in ideas than in images.  Hence, the cover of the September 15, 1947 featured, not a philosophe, but instead a royal mistress: the Madame du Barry. That choice was in keeping with the divided focus of the subheading that followed the words “The Age of Enlightenment” at the start of the article: “In the reign of France’s Louis XV, the passion for reason became a religion and the rule of women reached up to the king’s throne.”6

Screenshot 2016-02-13 18.41.56While the idea that cult of “reason” was not as different from the religious beliefs that it sought to banish had, thanks to Carl Becker, become a standard trope in mid-twentieth century American critiques of the Enlightenment (and would shortly become the bête noire of a young Columbia university professor named Peter Gay), the idea that women were turning men into eunuchs must have seemed considerably more promising for a magazine devoted to images (especially images of women). The center of the opening page was dominated by an image of a “grand lady of France’s Age of Enlightenment” — wearing “a wig 3 feet high, adorned with feathers, ribbons, jewels.” The art department’s choice echoed the paragraph Chambers crafted to launch his account:

Mademoiselle de Coigny kept a corpse in her coach. The Age of Reason was dawning in France — it was the 18th Century — and there were otherwise just not enough minutes in those days of wonderful Enlightenment for mademoiselle to pursue, like other dedicated bluestockings, the fascinating study of anatomy. But with the corpse handy and her scalpel as keen as M. de Voltaire’s wickedly witty mind, she could. While rattling over the Paris cobbles, slice and eviscerate in daily officiation at the new faith whose deity was reason, whose ritual was science and whose high priests were the philosophes, the new order of literary skeptics.

Pace Trilling, passages like this might serve as a reminder that Chambers knew how to hook a reader.

Of course readers (as opposed to subscribers) were not the primary interest at Life. The relative importance of words and images was driven home by the note that occupies the lower right hand corner of the opening page:


At this point Chambers’ text drops out of sight and the art department takes over.  We see reproductions of  prints of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at Versailles, a Masonic initiation ceremony, and a tennis match.  They are followed by luscious color images of Screenshot 2016-02-14 11.10.34works by Fragonard, Watteau, and Boucher and photographs of the royal palace at Versailles.  What any of this might have to do “the Enlightenment” (as opposed to “the eighteenth century”) is not entirely clear, but  over the course of those fourteen pages the would-be reader encounters quite a few women. The captions inform us that opera singers were the “chorus girls of the day” and that they “paraded on the streets in morning dress” (77). There is a full page devoted to salons and the “grand ladies” who “presided over the centers of wit and learning” (78). A full page is devoted to Fragonard’s The Swing, a painting that, we are told, illustrates the “pseudo-pastoral pleasures of the French nobles.” There are two pages juxtaposing Louis XV and the Madame de Pompadour (“the virtual ruler of France”).7

When the flood of images ends and Chambers’ narrative resumes we are finally presented with a brief sketch of the Enlightenment and its implications.

Before the Enlightenment culture have been essentially religious. Carrying further the work of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment made culture essentially secular. Before the Enlightenment the proper study of mankind had been the will of God. The proper study of mankind, said the Enlightenment with the voice of Alexander Pope, is man. Revelation had been held to be the highest form of truth. Looking back to Descartes … and to Newton … the Enlightenment sought system and reason in all things. There is no truth, said the Enlightenment, which cannot stand the test of reason. Slowly and surely the Enlightenment began the process whereby philosophy, the search for truth, was supplanted by science, the search for facts. Theology, the effort to know God’s will, was replaced by history, the record of man’s follies. (90)

A reader familiar with Chambers’ writings from the 1950s might see this passage as foreshadowing Chambers’ own later characterization of the Enlightenment. But it bears remembering that it also echoes accounts of the “Age of Enlightenment” that had become a commonplaces in the orthodox Marxist accounts of the period with which Chambers would have been familiar from his days as a Communist. And, with the possible exception of the replacement of the “search for truth” by the “search for facts,” the passage offers little indication that there is anything lamentable about this transformation.  Indeed, on the opening page of the article (immediately before fourteen pages of images), Chambers had emphasized the significance of the Enlightenment for the one thing that would likely have been of greatest importance for  Life‘s subscribers in 1947:  America.

The great divide of cultures is the moment when men feel within themselves a force equal to the vicissitudes of new vision. The vision of the Enlightenment was freedom — freedom from superstition, freedom from intolerance, freedom to know (for knowledge was held to be the ultimate power), freedom from the arbitrary authority of church or state, freedom in trade or work without vestigial feudal restrictions. This vision was embodied in the American Bill of Rights (for 18th Century America was also a part of the Enlightenment) and in the French Revolution’s Rights of Man (75).

We find a similar assessment of the Enlightenment fourteen pages later:

Enlightenment is one great source of modern culture. In a brief 100 years, it provides the fundamental ideas of man’s destiny and purpose which civilization had developed over more than 1,000 years. The Enlightenment was the intellectual chemistry whose gradual precipitate was the modern mind – secular, practical and utilitarian.

Once again, there is little here that is inherently critical. Everything depends on the reader’s stance towards “the modern mind.”

It is not until the final paragraph of the sketch of the Enlightenment that Chambers offers once the art department has finished with its task that something approximating a critique begins to surface;

The function of the Middle Ages had been to reconstruct human civilization from the debris of the fallen Roman. The function of the Renaissance had been to liberate the creative energies of the individual man and to reunite the culture of the ancient world with the culture that man had developed since. These movements had been spontaneous and organic. Their ideas were evolved, not superimposed. The Enlightenment in France began with ideas, and its immediate purpose was to reform or revolutionize French life.

But Chambers immediately closes off the contrast between “organic” and “superimposed” ideas by noting that the attempt to reform France “was a rather discouraging prospect” since the French tended to assume that their civilization had already “reached a perfection unmatched in human history.” And with that, he ends his reflections on the overall meaning of the period and begins a discussion of Mozart, a discussion that rather rapidly turns into a series of reflections on the “terrifying hold on power” that women exercised over the course of the eighteenth century.  It is as if, somewhat improbably, Whittaker Chambers had begun to channel Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The article eventually tracks back to a brief discussion of the Enlightenment’s more significant thinkers.  There is a brief mention Montesquieu (who, we are told was “least influential in France” and important today chiefly because of his influence on the framers of the American Constitution) and Diderot (who gets two paragraphs devoted, chiefly, to the Encyclopédie) and a somewhat more protracted between Voltaire and a passing mention of Rousseau (there had been a longer discussion of Rousseau and Voltaire several pages earlier in two text blocks separate from the main essay).  The “ involuntarily witty and organically skeptical” Voltaire (it would appear that “organic” is a positive attribute in Chambers’ lexicon) comes off surprisingly well in this’ account, perhaps because Chambers employs him as the Enlightenment’s most effective critic.

His famous work, one of the few books of the Enlightenment is Candide, which savagely satirized the complacent belief, falsely derived from Orthodox philosophers, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Unlike other philosophers, Voltaire had cut deep into a more enduring subject than doctrinaire controversy or the battle of ideas – the eternal subject of human folly.

Rousseau is left to play in the role of the “great prophet of the democratic revolution.” It is because of his writings that  “the Enlightenment leads directly to the Revolution.”

We arrive at the Revolution in the middle of the closing paragraph, at which point Chambers executes a rather surprising pivot that manages to tie everything together. He notes that Rousseau was dead when the revolution he had inspired would come to pass and goes on to observe,

So was Voltaire. This was a pity, for a very minor confrontation of values during The Terror might have tickled the old philosopher’s ironic sense. Mme. de Gramont possibly never had an idea in her unenlightened head when she was called before the Revolutionary Tribunal to stand trial for her life. “Had she ever aided the aristocrats who had escaped abroad?” The court asked her.  Mme. de Gramont knew that if she answered yes she would be guillotined at once. For some seconds she looked at her judges in silence, then, “I was going to answer no,” she said, “but life is not worth the lie.”

Chambers ends this article with neither “apocalyptic pieties” nor “sodden profundities” but instead with the unexpected return of the scalpel-wielding noblewoman from the opening paragraph.  If Chambers would seem to view her efforts at enlightenment with disdain, his last sentence at least leaves her with a certain nobility.  There is perhaps a message that can be extracted here about the possible disjuncture between the acquisition of knowledge and the possession of a good will.  But Chambers was not setting the stage for a discussion of Kant’s Groundwork.  He was trying to come up way of explaining the Enlightenment to readers who —  as he must have known —  would have likely moved on to other parts of the magazine by the time his article had reached its conclusion.

It is hard to know what readers who stuck with Chambers until the bitter end might have thought about how Mme. de Gramont dealt with the question that had been posed to her.  It is even harder to know what Chambers himself, aware that he was about to appear before a Congressional committee and face other questions, might have thought about her fate.  What is clear is that when his readers finished his article and turned the page they would be greeted by the picture of a leggy “show girl”, perched on the railing of a wooden fence, lariat in hand, and an article that begins

Women’s clothes reached a non-utilitarian high in Hollywood recently with the development of riding habits which look just wonderful but unfortunately do not protect the rider from the horse. For a movie musical called Two Guys from Texas masterminds at the Warner Bros. studio posed showgirls in corrals and on cactuses in what looked like buckskin bathing suits. Even if their bare thighs got a trifle chafed, what was that where art is concerned?

And, having spent more time than I should have on this peculiar account of the Enlightenment, the only thing that I am reasonably confident in saying is that any attempt to  compare the account of the Enlightenment that Chambers offered in Life and the account that Horkheimer and Adorno provided in Dialectic of Enlightenment might begin by recognizing that Horkheimer and Adorno had it easier than Whittaker Chambers.  They didn’t have a deadline to meet, they weren’t working for Henry Luce, and Querido Verlag didn’t have an art department eager to provide them with illustrations for a deluxe illustrated edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Screenshot 2016-02-12 17.06.49


  1. Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, ed. Duncan Norton-Taylor (New York: Random House, 1964). 227. ↩︎
  2. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  3. Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 156. ↩︎
  4. “The Protestant Revolution,” LIFE June 14, 1948, 94.  Since neither Kimmage nor I (nor, it would appear, any other historian) has been able to examine the Chambers’ manuscripts, we are both relying on the selection of texts assembled by Terry Teachout in Whittaker Chambers, Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, (Washington, D.C. : Lanham, MD: Regnery Gateway, 1989).  As I noted in my previous post on this topic, a definitive judgment on what Chambers might have contributed to the series (e.g.,  was he also responsible for the supplemental material that appeared outside the main text)  and how his drafts might have been edited.↩︎
  5. “1848”, LIFE 111.  ↩︎
  6. Several studies of the role of women during the eighteenth century appear in the bibliography appended to version of the series later published in book form, including E. L. and J. A. de Goncourt’s, The Women of the Eighteenth Century (1927), Halina Sokolnikoza’s Nine Women (1932), and H. N. Williams’ studies of the Madame de Pompadour (1902) and Madame du Barry (1934).  Roger Picard’s Les Ssalons Littéraires et la Société Française (1943) is also cited.  Surprisingly, there is no mention of Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.  Less surprisingly, neither Cassirer nor Hazard appear.  It should be stressed that it is not clear what role, if any, Chambers would have had in suggesting items for the bibliography.   ↩︎
  7. It might be noted that whoever wrote the captions seems to have reversed the Mme. D’Epinay and the Mme.du Chatelet. ↩︎
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“Racket,” “Monopoly,” and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

What follows is my contribution (with a few minor corrections and additions) to a discussion organized by Todd Cronan on of Max Horkheimer’s 1943 manuscript “On the Sociology of Class Relations.”  I am much indebted to Todd for transcribing the original English version of a text that was previously available only in an edited German version in volume 12 of Horkheimer’s Gesammelte Schriften and for his invitation to join John Lysaker, Chris Cutrone, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann in a discussion of it.

Like the other discussants, my contribution focused on the so-called “racket theory” of society. My particular interest was in trying to understand the relationship of the manuscript to Horkheimer and Adorno’s work on the Philosophische Fragmente —  the 1944 version of what would become Dialectic of Enlightenment —  and to the subsequent deletions of much (but as I stress, not all) of the language associated with the racket theory in the 1947 version of the book.  There is a lot more to be said about the editing process that produced the final version and what follows doesn’t deal with certain interesting material that I’ve come across in Horkheimer’s unpublished correspondence with Lowenthal that suggests that the chief motivation for the decision to eliminate many of the occurrences of “monopoly” from the final version of the work were political, rather than theoretical (I hope to say more about that soon).



The Preface to Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) concluded with a brief discussion of the collection of “notes and sketches” that closed the book, explaining that — though they formed “part of the ideas” explored in the book — they had not “found a place in them.” The 1944 draft of the work, which had been circulated in hectograph under the title Philosophical Fragments among friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research, went on to specify a group of texts that had been excluded in the interest of maintaining a “unity of language.” The list included a variety of works that had been written in English during Horkheimer and Adorno’s California sojourn. The second item on the list was “On the Sociology of Class Relations” (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 254).

One of the consequences of the exclusion of “On the Sociology of Class Relations” was that the so-called “racket theory” of society became a ghost in the machinery of Dialectic of Enlightenment. It had played a role in the initial formulation of the book, but vanished by the time of its publication. “On the Sociology of Class Relations”, a text that offered one of the more extended discussions of the role of “rackets” in modern society, was banished from the 1944 edition on linguistic grounds. The word “racket” itself was, in turn, eliminated from the version of the book that was published in 1947. It shared that fate with a few other terms that, while used repeatedly in the 1944 hectograph, were replaced in the 1947 book by somewhat more circumspect formulations.1

Gunzelin Schmid Noerr maintains that these alterations were a consequence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s effort to bring the argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment into line with a revised understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalism. He argues that, persuaded by a line of argument sketched by their colleague Friedrich Pollock, they concluded that “monopoly capitalism” had been replaced by the new social formation that Pollock dubbed “state capitalism.” In the wake of this shift, they found themselves forced to make adjustments in the text.2 Noerr concludes that “the racket theory held an ambiguous position” in this transformation.

On the one hand, the identification of fascist rule as an unmediated form of power and at the same time the legitimate heir of bourgeois monopoly capitalism prepared the way for a generalized racket theory of domination which went beyond the limited model of the criminal gang. On the other hand, however, such a theory was in danger — as Horkheimer himself was aware — of merely replacing an oversimplified economic concept (“monopoly”) by an oversimplified political one (“racket”). (Noerr, 240-241)

Horkheimer and Adorno found a solution to their theoretical quandry by eliminating both “monopoly” and “racket” from the text that appeared in 1947.

There are, however, a few problems with this account. First, it runs the risk of overstating the degree to which Horkheimer and Adorno accepted Pollock’s discussion of the transition to state capitalism. Second, by focusing on internal discussions within the Institute for Social Research, it overlooks both the role that discussions of rackets and racketeering had played in American legal theory and social thought during this same period and the Institute’s long-standing interest in these discussions. Finally, it fails to address the continued presence of the terms monopoly and (to a lesser extent) racket in one crucial part of the book.

The Reception of Pollock’s “State Capitalism”

Shortly before Horkheimer and Adorno began work in earnest on the manuscript that would eventually be published as Dialectic of Enlightenment, Friedrich Pollock — Horkheimer’s lifelong friend and the book’s dedicatee — published a pair of articles in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung arguing that a new social order had begun to emerge in Europe and America.3 These articles proposed that the transition from monopoly capitalism to what Pollock called “state capitalism” marked “the transition from a predominantly economic to an essentially political era” (Pollock, “State Capitalism,” 207). The first article sketched a “model” or “ideal type” of this new order. It focused on the authoritarian form of state capitalism that he saw emerging in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, but entertained the possibility that ways might be found to bring this new social formation “under democratic control” (Pollock, “State Capitalism,” 224). The second article applied this model to Nazi Germany and argued that while the National Socialist State might not be “a fully developed state capitalism or a total command economy,” it nevertheless “comes closer to these economic concepts than to those of laissez faire or of monopoly capitalism.” While Pollock was confident that “Germany will suffer military defeats and that the National Socialist system will disappear from the earth,” he stressed that there was no reason to suppose that “inherent economic forces…would prevent the functioning of the new order.”4

Drawing out the implications of Noerr’s account of the consequences of Pollock’s articles for Horkheimer and Adorno’s book, Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen see the theory of “state capitalism” as having forced a rethinking of the presuppositions on which the critical theory of society rested:

in the mid-1940s Horkheimer and Adorno, in keeping with Pollock’s analyses, had distanced themselves definitively from a form of Marxism which assumed the primacy of economics. Instead, the importance of control though politics and the culture industry moves clearly into the foreground.5

Van Reijen and Bransen argue that evidence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s agreement with Pollock’s argument can be found in revisions made prior to the publication of the 1947 version of the book. These revisions include the replacement of such terms as “ monopoly,” “capital,” and “profit” — terms that had “become charged with specific meanings thought the debate over state capitalism” — with “less charged expressions” (van Reijen and Bransen, 251).

It is, however, not clear that the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment were entirely persuaded by Pollock’s argument. Indeed, Adorno’s reaction Pollock’s initial article was overwhelmingly negative. He found its talk of “models” and “ideal types” too far removed from material reality (its style reminded him of Husserl, a comparison that, coming from Adorno, was no compliment) and warned that its publication would be a blow to the Institute’s reputation. Anticipating the reaction of Franz Neumann (who had emerged as the best-known figure in the New York branch of the Institute) and the economist Alfred Löwe (a major figure at the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research), he cautioned Horkheimer that it would “unleash a malicious cry of triumph from all the lions [Löwen], new men [Neumänner] et tutti quanti.”6

Adorno was unconvinced by Pollock’s vision of a society that, having transformed the crises that plagued earlier form of capitalism into “mere problems of administration,” could hold out “the promise of security and a more abundant life for every subject who submits voluntarily and completely.” Though he conceded that Pollock might be correct in his pessimistic assessment of the ubiquity of political domination throughout history, he rejected what he characterized as Pollock’s “optimistic” belief that the new order would be any more stable than the one it replaced. He saw such a conclusion as resting on the “undialectical assumption that in an antagonistic society a non-antagonistic economy would be possible.” What Pollock had produced struck him as an “inversion of Kafka”: “Kafka presented the hierarchy of bureaucrats as Hell. Here Hell transforms itself into a hierarchy of bureaucrats” (Horkheimer, Briefe, 54).

Adorno’s prediction that Pollock’s article would draw fire from Neumann proved correct. Two weeks later Neumann sent Horkheimer a blistering evaluation (much of which would later reappear in Behemoth, his 1942 study of the Nazi state) arguing that the article “contradicts from the first to the last page” the theory the Institute had been developing since its arrival in the United States and that it represented nothing less than “a farewell to Marxism” that “documents a complete hopelessness.”7 Horkheimer succeeded in placating Neumann and (presumably) Adorno by crafting a Preface to the volume of the Zeitschrift in which Pollock’s essay appeared (an issue that also included contributions from A. R. L. Gurland, Otto Kirchheimer, Horkheimer, and Adorno) by characterizing the articles as offering different perspectives on “problems implied in the transition from liberalism to authoritarianism in continental Europe.” In summarizing what was at stake in this transition, Horkheimer emphasized the political implications of the replacement of independent entrepreneurs by monopolies, a development that he saw as leading to a triumph of ruling elites and “cliques” whose cynical shuffling of ideologies translated “into open action what modern political theory from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Pareto has professed.”8 In the course of this discussion, Horkheimer managed to avoid (even when discussing Pollock’s article) the use of the term “state capitalism” at all. Neumann was pleased enough by the result to send Horkheimer a letter that praised him for having rendered Pollock’s contribution “completely harmless” by offering a “reinterpretation” of the article that wound up undermining its central argument.9

In framing his introduction to the issue in this way, it is conceivable that Horkheimer was merely attempting to play down the differences that separated Pollock (and, perhaps, Horkheimer himself) from other members of the Institute. But it is worth nothing that the Preface’s emphasis in on the role of “elites” and “cliques” was a faithful reflection of what Horkheimer himself seems to have regarded as the defining characteristic of monopoly capitalism. For the aspects of Pollock’s argument Horkheimer chose to emphasize were precisely the parts that meshed with the account of the transformation of the relationship between the individual and society that he had been elaborating ever since his 1936 article “Egoism and Freedom Movements.”10 He would take up this theme once again in “The End of Reason,” the lead article in what proved to be the journal’s final issue.11 Though published under Horkheimer’s name, it had been edited and revised by Adorno, and was, in effect, the first product of their California collaboration. The “racket theory” played a central role in it.

From Class Struggle to Gang Warfare

Near the close of “The End of Reason,” Horkheimer suggested that the so-called “gangster theory” of National Socialism merited more serious consideration than it had received from those who saw Hitler’s triumph as a momentary deviation from a norm that would be restored “as soon as the fester has been removed” (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 374) He argued that the relations that had defined competitive capitalism, far from constituting the normal state of affairs, might better be understood as an “interlude” in a history defined by the reign of “procurers, condottieri, manorial lords, and guilds” engaged simultaneously in the protection and exploitation of their clients (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 374). The transition to monopoly capitalism had brought with it a regime of “rackets” that, like previous forms of domination, provided a measure of protection, but only at the price of individual autonomy. For this reason, alleged “border phenomena” such as “ racketeering” might, in fact, offer “useful parallels for understanding certain developmental tendencies in modern society” (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 375).

It was left to Adorno to work out the implications of Horkheimer’s conjecture and, sometime prior to the circulation of “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” he sent Horkheimer a series of “Reflections on Class Theory.” Adorno text appears to have served as a preliminary draft for Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” which was subsequently circulated to Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Herbert Marcuse for comment. While the two texts are similar in substance, their style—as might be expected—diverged markedly.

Adorno’s manuscript opened with what amounted to a striking revision of Marx’s famous formulation from the Communist Manifesto:

In the image of the latest economic phase, history is the history of monopolies. In the image of the manifest act of usurpation that is practiced nowadays by the leaders of capital and labor acting in consort, it is the history of gang wars and rackets.12

Pace Marx, far from functioning as the motor of history class struggles might better be understood as the creature of a particular economic order: the “interlude” of liberal capitalism. With its passing, the struggles between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat took on a markedly different form.

Horkheimer’s manuscript was considerably more guarded in its assessment of the implications of triumph of monopoly capitalism for Marxian theories of class struggle. It stressed that the “concept of racket” was intended “only to differentiate and concretize the idea of the ruling class” and “not meant at all to replace it.” Yet, the very next sentence — which suggested that the racket theory promised “to overcome the abstract notion of class as it played a role in older theory” —betrayed that something more was afoot than an exercise in differentiation and concretization.

Horkheimer went on to argue that the transition from “liberal” to “monopoly” forms of capitalism forced the working class to find ways of “adapting itself to the monopolistic structure of society.” In this process, the “more or less spontaneous and radically democratic” struggles that had defined the labor movement of the nineteenth-century were replaced by struggles between “pragmatic totalities” in which the working class — abandoning its “fight against exploitation as such” — sought to find ways of integrating itself into a society populated by “wholly integrated and despotic totalities.”

Labor in monopolistic society is itself a kind of monopoly. Its leaders control labor supplies as the Presidents of Big Corporations control raw materials, machines, or other elements of production. Labor leaders trade at this kind of merchandise, manipulate it, praise it, try to fix its price as high as possible. Labor, becoming a trade among others, completes the process of the reification of the human mind.

Direct struggles between labor and capital had now been supplanted by a process of mimetic adaptation in which labor sought to beat capital at its own game. As support for the claim that labor unions mimicked large corporations in both their organizational structure and in their quest to prevent government regulatory agencies from “mingling in their affairs,” Horkheimer offered an oblique reference to the testimony of Samuel Gompers before the Lockwood Committee (i.e., the 1922 New York hearings on union activities in the building trades).

Horkheimer and his colleagues had a long-standing interest in both the history of the American labor movement and in the implications of New Deal legislation. Earlier discussions of Gompers in the Institute’s journal had noted the “dictatorial” control he exercised over the American Federation of Labor. His testimony before the Lockwood hearings had been presented as evidence that Gompers, like the heads of corporations, was committed to resisting public scrutiny of or interference in his activities.13 For Horkheimer, then, the chief difference between labor leaders and corporate heads was that the leaders of “the big capitalist trusts” were more adept at these tactics than labor leaders like Gompers. They were capable of exercising a degree of control over public opinion that enabled them to shield their activities from public discussion.

HosletterLabor’s weakness in this struggle was reflected in the history of the terms “racket” and “racketeering” themselves. The marked upsurge in the use of both terms in the early 1920s was driven, at least in part, by the efforts of pro-business publicists such as Gordon Hostetter, the long-time head of the Chicago Employers’ Association, a staunch opponent of efforts at union organizing (among the resources his organization provided to its clients was a cadre of strike breakers), and a tireless author of anti-union polemics (among them, his 1929 book It’s a Racket). As a result of his efforts, “racket,” “racketeer,” and “racketeering” — terms that had previously been associated with the activities of Chicago criminal gangs — came to be associated with the activities of union officials. The usage of these terms peaked around 1940, at which point supporters of New Deal legislation aimed at institutionalizing collective bargaining sought to limit the scope of the concept to overt criminal activity.14


When viewed within this context, Horkheimer’s rhetorical strategy becomes somewhat clearer. While Hostetter and others sought to equate labor leaders with gangsters, Horkheimer attempted to extend the scope of the concept still further by maintaining that within the structure of monopoly capitalism, all social relationship had begun to take on an uncanny resemblance to protection rackets. In an August 1942 letter to Paul Tillich, written in response to Tillich’s criticism of the “dictatorial” style of “The End of Reason,” Horkheimer explained that his choice of “linguistic method” was “not made frivolously.” He went on to quote a text he had written during the previous year.

The style of theory is becoming simpler, yet only insofar as it thereby denounces the simplicity that, on the basis of the style, the theory consciously becomes the reflection of the barbaric process. The style approximates rackets with the force of hatred and thereby becomes its opposite. Its logic becomes as arbitrary as their justice, as clumsy as their lies, as lacking in conscience as their agents — and in this opposition to barbarism becomes specific, exact, and scrupulous. The indiscriminate designation of monopolistic society as the embodiment of rackets is infinitely differentiated, since it summarily denounces undifferentiated brutality against powerlessness.15

The closing pages of “On the Sociology of Class Relations” more than matched the already extravagant use of “racket” to which Tillich had objected by projecting the concept backwards into human prehistory. Broaching certain of the concerns of the opening chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer argued that the concept promised to shed additional light on “such remote and controversial problems as the initial rites and rackets of magicians in primitive tribes” and also might clarify the workings of the “terroristic Rackets in the 16th and 17th century Europe which tortured, murdered, robbed hundreds of thousands of unfortunates and wiped out the female population of whole provinces for their alleged intercourse with Satan.”16 The ubiquity of rackets throughout history also provided Horkheimer with a hint of the form that an emancipated society would have to take: it would be “a racketless society.”

Horkheimer’s dedication to the concept was such that, as late the autumn of 1942, he still hoped that first issue of the Institute’s projected “yearbook” (a publication intended to fill the void left with the demise of the Zeitschrift) would explore the concept further. But, plans for the yearbook were eventually abandoned, leading Rolf Wiggershaus to conclude that the “racket theory” remained “an unfinished torso.”

The most important ideas were incorporated into the Dialectic of Enlightenment, without Neumann or Kirchheimer or others having collaborated closely to check the extremely drastic, far-reaching assumptions involved against concrete economic, political and legal material.17

But it is unlikely that Kirchheimer would have been inclined to dampen Horkheimer’s enthusiasm for the term. In an article intended for the yearbook, but eventually published separately, Kirchheimer would argue that the more limited legal usage of the term served merely “as a convenient tool for bringing the guilty to account and depriving them of the sympathies of the community at large.” Like Horkheimer, he saw the term’s polemical edge as something worth preserving.

If somebody asks another, “What is your racket?,” he may intend merely to inquire about the other’s professional status, but the very form of the question refers to a societal configuration which constitutes the proper basis for any individual answer. It expresses the idea that within the organizational framework of our society attainment of a given position is out of proportion to abilities and efforts which have gone into that endeavor. It infers that a person’s status in society is conditional upon the presence or absence of a combination of luck, chance, and good connections, a combination systematically exploited and fortified with all available expedients inherent in the notion of private property.18

And (again like Horkheimer) the one shortcoming he found in the concept was that it failed to clarify what would have to be done to create a society without rackets.

Monopoly, Rackets, and the Culture Industry

There was, however, one place in Dialectic of Enlightenment where the concept of racket continued to play a somewhat more circumscribed role and was grounded (albeit not always explicitly) in what would soon become an important set of legal arguments: the chapter on the culture industry. It may also be significant that this is the one place in Dialectic of Enlightenment where the term “monopoly,” while deleted elsewhere, emerged from the editing process remarkably unscathed.

Though Horkheimer and Adorno’s discussion of the culture industry is sometimes regarded as evidence of its authors’ “mandarian” contempt for “popular culture,” its portrait of Hollywood as a world dominated by rackets, patronage relations, and grotesque forms of self-assertion on the part of those who controlled (however fleetingly) the commanding heights was hardly unique. Much the same picture can be found in the memoirs of those émigrés who found refuge in Hollywood, accounts that Horkheimer and Adorno would likely have heard at first hand.19 It bears remembering that Horkheimer was friends with William (née Wilhelm) Dieterle, the Weimar actor and director who managed to establish himself as one of Warner Brothers’ more reliable directors. Horkheimer’s correspondence suggests that he spent a fair amount of time at Dieterle’s house and he seems to have thought well enough of his to solicit an article from him on the impact of the war in Europe on the American film industry for the Zeitschrift and to enlist him as a member of the Institute’s Advisory Committee.20

The link between “On the Sociology of Class Relations” and the chapter on the culture industry is nowhere clearer than in a passage that took up an argument that Horkheimer had made in his 1941 article “Art and Mass Culture”:

in contrast to genuine art, which once confronted reality with truth, … all ingenious devices of the amusement industry serve nothing else but to reproduce over and over and without betraying the slightest revolt the scenes of life which are dull and automatized already when they happen in reality.21

Adorno had made the same point even more emphatically in his “Reflections on Class Theory” when he observed,

Under the monopoly system the process of dehumanization is perfected on the backs of the civilized as an all-encompassing reification, not as naked coercion; indeed, this dehumanization is what civilization is…. Thus domination becomes an integral part of human beings. They do not need to be “influenced,” as liberals with their ideas of the market are wont to imagine. Mass culture simply makes them again what they are thanks to the coercion of the system (Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory,” 99100, 109).

On the basis of such formulations, van Reijen and Bransen conclude that “in keeping with Pollock’s analysis,” Horkheimer and Adorno “distanced themselves definitively from a form of Marxism which assumed the primacy of economics. … the importance of control through politics and the culture industry moves clearly into the foreground” (van Reijen and Bransen, 252).

But, paradoxically, it is precisely in the chapter devoted to the culture industry that the term “monopoly” — allegedly eliminated from the text of Dialectic of Enlightenment as a
way of bringing the book into line with Pollock’s account of state capitalism—was not deleted. Monopol and its various derivatives appear ten times in the 1947 version of Dialectic of Enlightenment; six of the ten occur in the chapter on the culture industry.22 The idea that the Hollywood film industry was engaged in monopolistic practices was, however, hardly radical. It had been the central claim in the extended legal battle that would culminate (a year after the book’s publication) in United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., the Supreme Court decision mandating that studios divest themselves of their theater chains and cease other monopolistic arrangements. In this light, it is likely that the revisions of Dialectic of Enlightenment had far more to do with Horkheimer’s habitual concern during his American exile to avoid calling too much attention to the radical implications of the Institute’s work than it did with his alleged embrace of Pollock’s account of state capitalism.

While the culture industry disseminated a “culture” (and, in doing so, bound the oppressed ever closer to their oppressors), it bears remembering that it was very much an industry. As such, it was the site of struggles between labor and management in which the leaders of the former—according to the racket theory—would find itself forced to imitate many of the features of the latter.

Horkheimer was well aware that, in struggles such as these, labor operated under significant disadvantages. Indeed, in “On the Sociology of Class Relations” he speculated that

It is possible that once the strongest capitalist groups … have gained direct control of the state, the actual labor bureaucracy will be abolished as well as the governmental one, and replaced by more dependable commissioners for both groups.

Since the early 1980s, the ascent of “more dependable commissioners” to positions of power has proceeded along lines that would not have surprised the author of “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” bringing with it growing inequalities in wealth and political influence.

One convenient marker for the acceleration of efforts to replace the “labor bureaucracy” with less troublesome commissioners was the 1981 strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which culminating in the firing of the striking workers and the dissolution of their union. It would probably not have surprised Horkheimer that the chief executive officer who presided over the breaking of that strike had entered public life as the leader of one of the more important unions within the culture industry. A few months before the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected President of the Screen Actors guild. During his subsequent career in Hollywood and in Washington he was a “dependable commissioner.”


  1. Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), xix ↩︎
  2. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, “Editor’s Afterword,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, 239-242. ↩︎
  3. Friedrich Pollock, “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 200-225. ↩︎
  4. Pollock, “Is National Socialism a New Order?,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:3 (1941): 452-454. ↩︎
  5. Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen, “The Disappearance of Class History in ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment,’” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, 252. ↩︎
  6. Adorno, letter to Horkheimer of June 8, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1996), 54. ↩︎
  7. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 23, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 103. ↩︎
  8. Horkheimer, “Preface,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 195-196 ↩︎
  9. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 30, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 110. ↩︎
  10. Horkheimer, “Egoismum und Freiheitsbewegung,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung V (1936): 161-233; “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1993), 49-110. ↩︎
  11. For the English version, see Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, IX:3 (1941): 366-379. For the German, see “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung,” in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1987), 320-350). ↩︎
  12. Theodor W. Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and others (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 100. ↩︎
  13. See Franz Hering’s review of Louis Adamic, Dynamite. The Story of Class Violence in Americian Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung I (1932) 219-220, Andries Sternheim’s review of Lewis Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung II (1933) 448-450, and T. J. Reynolds, Review of Leo Wolman, Ebb and Flow in Trade Unionism in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung VI (1937) 214-215. ↩︎
  14. For a discussion, see Andrew W. Cohen, “The Racketeer’s Progress: Commerce, Crime, and the Law in Chicago, 1900-1940,” Journal of Urban History 29:5 (2003): 575–596. For examples of uses of the terms during this period, see “Legal Implications of Labor Racketeering,” Columbia Law Review 37:6 (1937): 993–1004; Thomas J. Haggerty, “Spoils and the ‘Racket,’” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 189 (1937): 17–21; J. M. Nolte, “Racket Worship,” The North American Review 234:6 (1932): 510–518, and the overview in Murry I. Gurfein, “Racketeering,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: MacMillan, 1934). ↩︎
  15. Horkheimer, Letter to Paul Tillich of August 12, 1942, in Max Horkheimer, A Life in Letters: Selected Correspondence, ed. and trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 210 ↩︎
  16. For evidence that Horkheimer was not alone in thinking that the modern notion of “racket” might serve as a useful category for analyzing earlier societies, see Constance Saintong and Paul Saintong, “Eighteenth-Century Racketeering,” The Journal of Modern History 10:4 (1938): 528–41 ↩︎
  17. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 319. ↩︎
  18. Otto Kirchheimer, “In Quest of Sovereignty,” The Journal of Politics 6:2 (1944): 139–176, 160. Drawing on Kirchheimer’s article, the point was reiterated in Robert S. Lynd, “Our ‘Racket’ Society,” The Nation (August 25, 1951). ↩︎
  19. On this point, see especially David Jenemann, Adorno in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) ↩︎
  20. William Dieterle, “Hollywood and the European Crisis,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:1 (1940): 96–103 ↩︎
  21. Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 290-291. ↩︎
  22. “Racket” and “Racketeer” turn up fourteen times, only three of them can be found in the chapter on the culture industry (three other uses can be found in the chapter on Anti-Semitism, the bulk of the remainder are in the Notes and Sketches). ↩︎


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Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment (an OpenBook project from Oxford)

Tolerance:  The Beacon of the Enlightenment, a translation of a collection of eighteenth-century texts originally produced by the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle in the wake of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, is currently available as a free .pdf from OpenBook Publishers.  The translation is a joint undertaking by students and tutors of French at Oxford under the direction of Caroline Warman.



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A Memo from Walt Whitman to the Donald

With the current semester winding down, I will soon resume posting on a more regular basis.

Until then, here is a poem by Walt Whitman that I stumbled across while getting ready for a class I’ve been teaching this term on the topic of catastrophe and memory.  It struck me as having applicability beyond his intended audience of boys and girls (yes, I’m thinking of you, Donald).

Walt Whitman:  Poem of Remembrance for a Girl or a Boy

YOU just maturing youth! You male or female!
Remember the organic compact of These States,
Remember the pledge of the Old Thirteen thenceforward to the rights,
life, liberty, equality of man,
Remember what was promulged by the founders, ratified by The States,
signed in black and white by the Commissioners, and read by
Washington at the head of the army,
Remember the purposes of the founders,– Remember Washington;
Remember the copious humanity streaming from every direction toward
Remember the hospitality that belongs to nations and men; (Cursed be
nation, woman, man, without hospitality!)
Remember, government is to subserve individuals,
Not any, not the President, is to have one jot more than you or me,
Not any habitan of America is to have one jot less than you or me.

Anticipate when the thirty or fifty millions, are to become the
hundred, or two hundred millions, of equal freemen and
freewomen, amicably joined.

Recall ages–One age is but a part–ages are but a part;

The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal overthrow
of things is great,
And there is another paradox.

Recall the angers, bickerings, delusions, superstitions, of the idea
of caste,
Recall the bloody cruelties and crimes.

Anticipate the best women;
I say an unnumbered new race of hardy and well-defined women are to
spread through all These States,
I say a girl fit for These States must be free, capable, dauntless,
just the same as a boy.

Anticipate your own life — retract with merciless power,
Shirk nothing —  retract in time —  Do you see those errors, diseases,
weaknesses, lies, thefts?
Do you see that lost character? —  Do you see decay, consumption, rum-
drinking, dropsy, fever, mortal cancer or inflammation?
Do you see death, and the approach of death?

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Whittaker Chambers, LIFE Magazine, and the Enlightenment

The final version of Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that (as I’ve argued in an earlier post) may have less to do with “the Enlightenment” than its critics sometimes assume, was published at the end of 1947 and more or less ignored for the next two decades.1 A few months earlier a discussion of the Enlightenment that is now completely forgotten turned up in a rather unlikely place: the September 15, 1947 issue of LIFE magazine. No less unlikely was its uncredited author, a man who, a year later, would become famous for things other than his writing: Whittaker Chambers.

Whittaker_ChambersChambers had joined Henry Luce’s influential and profitable publishing empire eight years earlier with an article for Time on Finnegans Wake. Prior to that, he had written for various Communist publications and worked as a spy for the Soviets. By 1937 he had broken with the party and was seeking ways to extricate himself from his work for the GPU. One of the things that initially attracted him about the possibility of employment at Time was that, in addition to providing him with a living, having his name before the public might make it harder for his former employers to liquidate him.2 The most secure path out of the underground, however, would be to turn informant and, in return for his revelations, gain protection. On September 1, 1939 he met with Adolf Berle, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor on economic and diplomatic matters (efforts to meet with FDR himself were unsuccessful), and informed him that a spy ring operating in the State Department had been passing secret documents to the Soviet Union.

Chambers’ meeting with Berle in the gardens of Woodley, the Federal period mansion Berle was renting from Henry Stimson (Roosevelt’s Secretary of War) turned out rather differently than he had hoped. Berle was already aware of the questionable loyalties of the individuals whose names Chambers revealed and, from previous experiences with former Communists, was inclined to think that they tended to exaggerate the Party’s influence. Berle, in any case, had more pressing things on his mind: eight days earlier the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been announced and German troops were poised to invade Poland.3

Nine years later, with Republicans in control of the House and the Cold War ramping up, 00430001Chambers was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified that Alger Hiss, a figure of some importance in the Roosevelt State Department, had also been a Soviet spy. Denials (from Hiss), law-suits (involving Hiss and Chambers), and fame (initially for Chambers, but more significantly for the first-term California representative Richard Milhous Nixon) followed.

I would have been unaware of Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment (which, understandably, occupies a rather minor place in the literature on Chambers) were it not for Michael Kimmage’s mention of it in his book on the complicated relationship between Chambers and Lionel Trilling (who would use Chambers as the basis for one of the major characters in The Middle of the Journey, a novel that was also appeared in the eventful year 1947).4 I leave it to others to follow up on Kimmage’s suggestion that Chambers’ later comments on the Enlightenment in Witness and Cold Friday might “bear comparison” to Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia.5 But Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment in LIFE merits attention in its own right, if only for what it suggests about how one of the culture industry’s more successful venues went about presenting the Enlightenment to an audience that would be far larger than any of the better known and more respectable studies of the period.

History in Images

“The Age of Enlightenment” was the fifth in a series of ten feature articles that appeared in LIFE between 1947 and 1948 under the general title “The History of Western Culture.” The articles and the dates on which they appeared are as follows:

  1. The Renaissance (March 3, 1947)
  2. The Middle Ages (April 7,1947)
  3. Medieval Life (May 26, 1947)
  4. The Glory of Venice (August 4, 1947)
  5. The Age of Enlightenment (September 15, 1947)
  6. The Edwardians (November 17, 1947)
  7. The Age of Exploration (March 22, 1948)
  8. The Protestant Reformation (June 14, 1948)
  9. Eighteenth Century England (September 13, 1948)
  10. 1848 (November 22, 1948)

None of the articles appeared with bylines. As Dwight Macdonald, who had spent time at Luce’s Fortune before moving on to better things, observed,

As nuns sacrifice their hair, so Luce’s writers are shorn of their names. It is a symbolic renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Once they have taken the veil, any gallivanting outside the walls is discouraged. Writers who have contributed to secular journals have been “spoken to,” delicately but unmistakably.6

There were occasional exceptions to the rule. Chambers’ article on the Devil in the February 2, 1948 issue carried a byline, which prompted a letter from a reader who found it “superbly unique” and inquired “Who is Whittaker Chambers and what else or where is he writing?”7 The response on the letters page explained,

A senior editor of Time, Whittaker Chambers has edited every department in that magazine except business. He began contributing to LIFE last year by writing the long articles in LIFE’s series on the history of Western Culture. His next article, “The Age of Exploration,” will appear in the March 22 issue. Chambers, who is a Quaker, was born in Philadelphia.8

Drawing on Chambers’ subsequent discussions of his time working for Luce, Terry Teachout (the editor of his selected journalism) concluded that his involvement in the project began with the second article and ceased with the eighth.9 It is, however, unclear whether it makes sense to speak of authorship when dealing with productions of this sort.

First of all, everything that appeared in Luce’s publications was edited to bring it into conformity with the house style. As Macdonald (admittedly, an unfriendly witness) observed,

The specifications for an editorship at Time, Inc., are those for a good radio set: maximum receptivity and minimum static (read: independent thought). After years of selective breeding, Luce has developed a set of human instruments delicately adapted to their great task, the transmission of the dynamic radiations of the Lucian personality out of the ether onto the printed page (584).

Teachout suggests that during his career at Time Chambers found ways of reconciling the house style with his own and gained a measure of freedom after his transfer from the Foreign News section at Time to a “Special Projects” unit where, with James Agee, he prepared cover stories on cultural, historical, and religious themes that were too challenging for Luce’s other writers. But any assessment of Chambers’ role in the LIFE series on the “History of Western Culture” must, at some point or another, recognize that the words he supplied were but one component (and not, perhaps, the most important one) in the final product. In contrast to Time and Fortune, at LIFE the image was the dominant element.

The cover of the inaugural issue displayed the massive (and unidentified) Fort Peck dam towering over two small figures in the left foreground. The only words on the page — the soon-to-be familiar logo, the publication date, and price — provided nothing in way of orientation for viewers attempting to negotiate what, at first glance, might pass for a real life (or, as the house style would have it, “real LIFE”) version of a de Chirico landscape.10


Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.30

Turning to the first page, the viewer (it seems out of place to speak of “the reader”) is confronted with a full page image of a new-born child dangling upside down from the a doctor’s hands. At the bottom of a page that carries the painfully obvious pun “LIFE BEGINS” are six lines of text that make it clear where authority lies: “The camera records the most vital moment in any life.”

Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.47

In LIFE the camera (and the photojournalist that it pulled behind it) played the role that, at the birth of modern journalism, had been played by Addison’s Mr. Spectator: it wanders through the world, recording everything it sees. But while Mr. Spectator recounted what he had seen in prose, LIFE served up images that purported to bring its consumers face-to-page with the thing itself. The early issues of LIFE — either out of a giddy enthusiasm for what could now be done with its large format pages or, more likely, in order to differentiate this latest (and, it turned out, massively successful) product from Luce’s other publications — was a bit heavy-handed in emphasizing the novelty of what it was doing. The writers, as before, typically went uncredited, but the names of the intrepid photographers were celebrated. As might be expected, the inaugural issue was a bit over the top: photographs of FDR appeared under the rubric of “The President’s Album,” as if the viewer had been granted access to the great man’s private files, and — in a sort of imagistic celebration of images — there was a spread on paintings by John Steuart Curry (“the greatest painter Kansas has produced”), followed by a spread of photographs of Helen Hayes (”the greatest living actress”) as a child.

LIFE was the perfect vehicle for capturing a world where, as Adorno wrote, “Life has changed into a timeless succession of shocks, interspaced with empty, paralyzed intervals.”11 LIFE reproduced what life had become, allowing its subscribers to occupy a position not unlike that of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History as they turned its pages and stared awestruck at the every growing rubble pile of catastrophes: Coventry, Stalingrad, Buchenwald, Hiroshima. Years later, old copies of LIFE would become part of a peculiar rite of passage for some members of my generation when, having stumbled upon them stacked away in attics or hidden away in closets, we would open their frequently innocuous covers and catch a glimpse of what history had been preparing for us.

The Historical Image Gallery

A prefatory note in the inaugural article of LIFE’s “History of Western Culture” explained the general approach behind the project this way:

the spirit of this series will be the spirit which has moved American universities more and more to teach history not in narrow courses but in comprehensive surveys of civilization.

It went on to observe that, though there had been much recent “discussion of saving our civilization” it had not been matched by an adequate “understanding of what civilization is.” While granting that there had been “many civilizations in the world’s history,” the one that mattered to LIFE was “modern Western civilization, which owes much to classical Greece and Rome, had its roots in the Middle Ages and grew most directly out of the Renaissance,” the age that produced “the ideal kind of man ….”

Living in the fresh morning of a new era in history, he was, above all, a rounded man who took all the world for his opportunity and all knowledge for his province. He was vigorous, creative and enormously confident.

In contrast, modern Western man “is not so confident.”

Standing uncertain of his place in history, he does not know where he and his world are going. But if he does not know where he is going, Western man can at least look back and see where he came from.

There was one particular group of “Western men” that needed help in understanding from whence it had come.

Americans need perspective on their past so that they can determine their future. To an extent they have never had before, they have now the opportunity to preserve and develop the culture which they have inherited and which has in it so much greatness and beauty.

In March 1947 the Cold War was still in its early stages, but implications of the prefatory note were clear enough: with the responsibility for the defense of Western Civilization now transferred from Europe to the United States, the new trustees needed some instruction regarding what, exactly, it what it was they were preserving and developing. Hegel’s characterization of the Phenomenology as a “gallery of images [Galerie von Bildern]” might not be a bad description of what LIFE was serving up: the heirs of Western culture surveyed what history had left them by surveying the catalogue of holdings.

Since LIFE was primarily a magazine of images, any history it presented was shaped by what would look good on a page. For all of the first article’s discussion of the significance of the Renaissance image of man, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the chronologically haphazard organization of the opening articles (which started with the Renaissance and then devoted two issues to the Middle Ages, before moving on the Venice) was determined by the Art Department’s keen sense of where the best images were. The text that Chambers produced had to fight for space on pages that were awash with pictures. Typically, it was only after two or three page jumps, which pushed the text back into the nether regions of the magazine (where the images became smaller and eventually became surrounded by the cheaper black and white advertisements that were consigned to the back) that the text began to occupy the center of the presentation. How many readers were willing to chase the text that far back (especially when there were other stories along the way to catch their eye) is an open question.

Toward the Grand Coffee-Table Abyss

Three years after the series had concluded, the November 5, 1951 issue offered what it described as “a conclusion to — a culmination of” the earlier series: an article on “Western Man and American Idea.” Reiterating the earlier description, it explained that the goal of that series had been “to give America, as the West’s ‘heir and hope,’ an understanding of the wealth and glory it had inherited.” Since that point, apparently, had not been sufficiently clear at the end of the initial series, which closed with a survey of the 1848 revolutions that had been content to juxtapose the “great and simple” understanding of freedom that inspired those revolutions — “the individual’s protection against tyranny” — with the “gigantic revolution against individualism” that Marxism had set in motion.

The 1951 article was written by John Knox Jessup, one of Luce’s closest associates, who had recently ended a stint on the Board of Editors at Fortune to become chief editorial writer at LIFE. Jessup’s conclusion left no ambiguity about the stakes.

The challenge of Soviet communism is unlike any challenge America has ever in its past met and surmounted. It is like Melville’s confrontation with the fact of evil in Paradise, except that the dimensions of this evil are more colossal than Americans had ever imagined.…

In the face of this challenge. Americans are more nearly united and more nearly alone, than ever before in their history. Even our artists and intellectuals are rediscovering America and rallying to the side of freedom. And meantime the capacity of other nations for sharing the honors of leadership of the struggle has been weakened — even Britain’s — by war and the dead-end experiment socialism.

On this lonely pinnacle the American can survey more history than he is seen before. During the past generation he rediscovered his personal links with Western Man and his membership in Western civilization. Somewhere in these turbulent years America’s acceptance of responsibility for the fate of its parents’ land, for the mother and father of its own present, quietly placed itself beyond question.

Beyond the services it might be rendering to the new owners of Western culture, this new installment also contributed to the balance sheets of Time, Inc.: it was written to serve as the concluding chapter of the History of Western Man, “a LIFE-size book of 306 pages, 113 of them in full color, reproducing not only the works of art which appeared originallyOffer 1 in LIFE but many others which display the greatness of Western Man’s cultural achievements.” The “text material” from the original series was supplemented by new chapters and “hundreds of black and white illustrations.” An advertisement in September 3, 1951 issue offered readers the chance to pick up the 350 page “BUCKRAM BOUND … STAMPED IN 14 KT. GOLD … LIFE-SIZE” book for $7.95 if they acted by September 29.12

The book opened with a page that contained a list of names assembled under the corporate heading “TIME INCORPORATED” that descended from “Editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce” to the “Business Manager Louis P. Gratz” and included editors, arts directors, researchers, writers, an art department, and assistants. Chambers was listed among the writers, but there was nothing to indicate the extent of his contribution. Then again, it is not clear (which is to say, I haven’t bothered to try to figure out) how much of what he wrote wound up being revised yet again.

“Western Man, American Style”

The new book included one more attempt at explaining its general approach, an attempt that began with a quote from Carl Becker’s “delightful essay” “Everyman His Own Historian”: “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in light of its own restricted experience ….” But, since everything LIFE did had to be “LIFE-sized” or larger, the new explanation quickly assured its readers that there was nothing about recent American experience that could be considered “restricted.”

Our generation is confronted as none before it by the size and scope of time and space. It is confronted also by the massiveness of Evil, whether its symbol be the destructiveness of the Bomb or the hideousness of the concentration camp. In the face of these confrontations, and of the perhaps even more perilous abyss of the irrational “subconscious” of the human psyche, the supreme question of our time is whether anything can have any meaning. (9-10)

After a few paragraphs devoted to rehashing how much effort had been put into the volume (and who had done it) the opening discussion concluded by announcing that it was left to Americans to answer these “supreme questions.”

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the history of Western Man comes to a great forking. After the American Revolution a new and distinct branch appears in the United States where, under fresh and different circumstances, Western Man, American-style, proceeds to meet his own problems and solve his own destiny. It is the thesis of our final chapter that this American branch holds greater importance for the future of the human race than the European parent culture. For this reason this book bypasses almost entirely the nineteenth century in Europe develops the American story through a century of national growth to maturity. Only then in the twentieth century does Western Man, American-style, reverse the stark trend and returned to Europe as a mighty new force dedicated to the defense of Western civilization (10).

There were, however, a few other important things absent from LIFE’s account of the ascent of “Western Man, American-style” besides nineteenth-century Europe.

Shortly after the first installment appeared, one of the more astute readers of the series had noted that there was something crucial missing. A letter to the editor that appeared in the March 24, 1947 began by praising the general aim of the series, noting that

Such essays, thoughtful and effectively done, will go far towards broadening the horizon of 20th-century Americans. We are in such great need of perspective, as well as of maturity and judgment, that any step in that direction of providing the means by which these important requisites for successful living can be achieved is commendable.

But the reader was concerned that the approach LIFE had taken ran the risk of glossing over certain unpleasant facts:

I believe that one of the weaknesses which we always had in our study of history in US is that we have seldom taken cognizance of the unsavory aspects of our own history and culture. I hope, therefore, that your series will take into consideration the fact that there has existed, since the Middle Ages, a strong tradition of bigotry and oppression that has continuously threatened the tradition of freedom of which we are so justly proud. We certainly have had it in our own country from the time of the Puritan settlements down to the present. Our people should be aware of the great struggle that is going on between these two traditions and some effort should be made to point out that one force has stimulated progress and the other has tended to proscribe it.

The author of the letter, a young scholar who would go on to become one of the leading historians of his generation, was already quite familiar with the “unsavory aspects” of American history and would devote much of his subsequent career to exposing and rectifying them. He was teaching history at the North Carolina College for Negroes and his name was John Hope Franklin.


To be continued …

  1. A hectograph copy had been sent to a select group of friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research in 1944. ↩︎
  2. If this was his motivation, he picked the wrong place to ply his trade: the Luce publications were quite stingy with bylines. ↩︎
  3. For a discussion of the meeting, see Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997) 161-163. ↩︎
  4. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009) 156-157. ↩︎
  5. Kimmage 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  6. Dwight Macdonald, “Time, Fortune, LIFE,” The Nation, May 22, 1937 584. ↩︎
  7. On the genesis of the article, see Terry Teachout’s introduction to Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (Washington, D.C. : Regnery Gateway, 1989) xxiv. ↩︎
  8. “Letters to the Editors,” LIFE, February 23, 1948. The mention of his religion in the response suggests that it may have been written by Chambers himself who, though raised as an Episcopalian, was attracted to the Quaker faith in the early 1940s (see Tanenhaus 171). ↩︎
  9. Teachout notes that he was not granted access to Chambers’ manuscripts (which have not been archived and remain in the possession of his family) and based his selection of articles for Chambers’ work at Time and LIFE on Chambers’ own references in his later books. ↩︎
  10. The complete run of the magazine is available from Google Books.↩︎
  11. Minima Moralia #33 “Out of the Firing-Line”. ↩︎
  12. As early as December 1947 LIFE had run announcements in the magazine offering “LIFE-using Teachers” the opportunity to pick up offprints of the original series at 10 cents each for the first 25 copies and 5 cents each thereafter. ↩︎
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Hating Adorno (A Brief Compendium of Nasty Comments)

Shortly after delivering his inaugural lecture as Privatdozent in philosophy at Frankfurt in 1931, Theodor Adorno confessed to his onetime mentor and sometime friend Siegfried Kracauer “I am not entirely clear about what it was that so upset people about it.”1

While Adorno had many friends and admirers, he also seems to have also had a remarkable ability to be disliked by an astonishing number of people. About a decade ago, while working on an article that had something to do with Adorno, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to collect as many of the nasty things that others had said about him as I could and jam them into a footnote. Eventually the lunacy of the exercise became clear to me and I removed the footnote.

I was recently reminded of my folly when Corey Robin posted the great Lotte Lenya’s wicked characterization of our hero (see item #4 on the list below). Since one of the functions of this blog is to serve as a resting place for various efforts that are unlikely to find respectable homes (think of it as a sort of Dickensian orphanage for misguided ideas), I figured that this might be as good a place as any to “curate” (as it has become the fashion to say) a few of the better ones here.

  1. We can begin with the sociologist D. G. MacRae’s widely quoted recollection that, upon meeting Adorno for the first time, he found him “the most arrogant, self-indulgent (intellectually and culturally) man I had ever met.” Reflecting on his evaluation two decades later, he went on to observe, “I can think of additional claimants for that position, but I doubt if they are serious rivals.”2
  2. Hannah Arendt described Adorno to Karl Jaspers as “one of the most repulsive human beings I know” (and, let us not forget, this comes from a woman who somehow managed to find Martin Heidegger fling-worthy). The immediate cause of Arendt’s outburst was her suspicion that Adorno and Horkheimer (“a really disgusting bunch”) had been behind a recent article in Der Spiegel that raised the issue of Heidegger’s Nazism.3
  3. While Karl Jaspers responded to Arendt that he thought that Der Spiegel‘s interest in Heidegger’s National Socialist past “legitimate,” he was no kinder toward Adorno. He characterized him “a fraud” and declared “In what I have read of him, I find nothing worthy of serious consideration ….”4
  4. In a letter to Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya called Adorno a “paleface flaming asshole” — the occasion for this outburst was a letter from Adorno to Weill in support of Brecht’s proposal that Weill surrender his rights as composer of the Threepenny Opera in order that Brecht might mount a new production with different music. Adorno proposed that music for the play be supplied by a “Negro jazz ensemble” playing with “the greatest and most radical improvisatory freedom,” a suggestion that Weill described to Lenya as “completely idiotic.”5 And let me record here my admiration for the dedication that Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke put into their edition of the Weill-Lenya letters. Among its many merits is its providing an index of terms of endearment, an activity that Weill and Lenya raised to an art (in contrast, while the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence faithfully reproduces the insipid cutesy talk that these two love-birds employed, the editors failed to index it; this, I think, is no great loss).
  5. Siegfried Kracauer described an article Adorno had written on him as “emotionally laden” and “slanderous” and wrote that Adorno himself “does not shrink from telling falsehoods.”6
  6. The Leo Lowenthal papers at Harvard contain a letter from Lowenthal to Horkheimer dating from the summer of 1941 that begins with the words “I hate Teddy” and proceeds to explain, at some length, why.  Subsequent letters charged that Adorno’s “boundless narcissism” and “vanity” regularly undermined his relationships with other colleagues. Horkheimer, as far as I can tell, sensibly opted not to respond. After all, he had work to do (and so do I).

In the age of digital reproducibility one never knows what might prove useful and, since future generations of scholars might draw some benefits from having all of this collected in one place, feel free to post any that I’ve missed in the comments section below.

I hope to have something more sensible to post soon — the summer has been far busier than I’d expected.

  1. Letter to Siegfried Kracauer of June 8, 1931, quoted in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 11 ↩︎
  2. D. G. MacRae, “Frankfurters,” New Society 27 (No. 59), March 28, 1974, 786 ↩︎
  3. Letter to Karl Jaspers of April 18, 1966 in Lotte Kohler and Hans Sander, ed., Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926-1969, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992) 634 ↩︎
  4. Letter to Arendt of April 29, 1966, 638. ↩︎
  5. See Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke, Speak Low (When You Speak Love). The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) 319-322; for less colorful but no more charitable assessments from Lenya, see 154, 266. ↩︎
  6. Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles : Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) 235. ↩︎
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Adorno Considers a Career Change: The Curious Relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Conclusion)

Historians labor under the burden of knowing what those they study couldn’t have known: how things turned out. In the spring of 1941 Adorno couldn’t be sure that he would join Horkheimer in California (Marcuse, after all, was already there). Nor would it have been clear to him, in the spring of 1942, that the dictation sessions in which he and Horkheimer were engaged would wind up producing anything that resembled a book. And even if he suspected that he was considerably more gifted than his co-author, he had little reason to assume that talent alone was enough to secure a future in émigré Los Angeles. If members of the Institute for Social Research were attracted to the theory that the triumph of monopoly capitalism had  transformed society into a massive protection racket in which self-preservation required subjection to a patron, it may have had something to do with the ways in which the theory captured the often fraught relations within the Institute. While Adorno could take some comfort in knowing that Marcuse had been expelled from Paradise and that he had been called west to work with Horkheimer, there was no way for him to know whether he too might, at some point, become dispensable. Anyone who has spent much time reading the correspondence of the members of the Institute during its American exile is likely to come away with the impression that it was not the most amiable of organizations. As Leo Lowenthal once observed, “Notes on a Troubled Friendship” — the subtitle of Martin Jay’s article on Adorno’s relationship with Siegfried Kracauer — “might serve as a proper characterization for the mutual relations of all of us.”1

Jumpy, Depressed, and Looking East

Adorno's Home on Kenter Avenue

Adorno’s Home on Kenter Avenue

Exile is hard. As Brecht noted shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, “Enmities thrive here like oranges and are just as seedless.” The normal tensions of exile life were exacerbated by the Institute’s financial difficulties, which created a poisonous atmosphere in which prospects for continued support were directly proportional to one’s proximity to Horkheimer. While the difficulties confronting German émigrés in Los Angeles pale in comparison with the treatment that would soon be visited upon west coast residents of Japanese descent — not to mention, of course, the fate of those unable to escape the ever-expanding borders of the Third Reich — what might seem minor annoyances to us still took their toll on them.

Brecht reports that the 8 PM curfew imposed at the end of January 1942 made Adorno “very jumpy.” His diagnosis is confirmed in the letter Adorno sent to his parents in March 1942.  He apologized for having been out of touch, attributed his lapse to “the general state of depression affecting me”, and went on to explain,

The reason for the depression, aside from the general situation, is the completely uncertain state of affairs here. Officially, we are classed among those who are to be evacuated. On the other hand, there has been much talk of reclassification, but I am rather sceptical. At any rate, the situation is such that one really does not know what to do. … From tomorrow onwards, we have to be home no later than 8 each evening, and are not allowed to go more than 5 miles away from the house, which, with the truly monstrous distances here, amounts to being completely locked up. We can no longer go to Hollywood, only just to Beverly Hills, and our wonderful drives, our only source of relaxation, are now a thing of the past. It is particularly inexplicable that these regulations should be most strict against emigrants — the most reliable enemies of Hitler in the whole of America — and the Japanese (87).

In June he informed them that the “evacuation of the Japanese” from the region in which he lived had begun and that both Brecht and the philosopher Hans Reichenbach had been visited by the FBI.

This, then, was the context in which the strangest item in the exchange of letters between Adorno and Virgil Thomson needs be read.

Overcoming Isolation

At the end of July 1942, Thomson, working his way through a season’s worth of thomsonunanswered mail, came upon the article on Sibelius that Adorno had sent him at the end of December. Concluding that, though it had “good ideas and good phrases in it”, its “aggravated tone” was “more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius,” he returned it. But he closed the letter with an invitation to “let me know from time to time what you are up to.”2

Three months later, Adorno responded. His letter of October 21, 1942 began by thanking Thomson for the invitation to tell him “something about my present work and existence.”3 Indeed, accepting that invitation, he explained,

is more than a pleasure. For the isolation unavoidably bound up with the life of a man like myself here in the West – not to mention the curfew restrictions which do not allow me to leave the house after 8 p.m. – leads to an almost desperate urge to speak to the very few men with whom one believes to have something decisive in common; and I hardly need to tell you that I met nobody from the New World who gave me this feeling as strongly as you did, quite apart from what you have done for me by your publications.

A description of his living conditions and his work with Horkheimer followed.

We live in a quiet nice little house in Brentwood, not far, by the way, from Schönberg’s place. My work here, apart from those little songs, has been almost entirely scholarly. Horkheimer and I work on a philosophical book analyzing the present situation under the viewpoint of the dialectics of rationalism and enlightenment which today apparently have overreached themselves. A section on Mythology and Enlightenment is finished – we now plan to elaborate first the part dealing with present mass-culture. If you read the articles on the End of Reason and on Veblen in last issue of our periodical you will easily see the direction at which we aim. Apart from that, we have done, and continue to do, some work for Washington, mainly concerning German problems, which may prove helpful.

The “little songs” to which he alluded were the “cycle of ditties” that he included in his June 7 letter to Thomson; Thomson found them “very delicate and very tender.”4

Adorno’s summary of his work with Horkheimer (which jibes with other reports on the progress they were making on Dialectic of Enlightenment) was followed by an extended — and surprisingly candid — reflection on the impasse he saw himself confronting.

All would be good and right, were it not for the fact that we live in a world in which the idea to seclude oneself and to write quietly, undisturbedly sentence after sentence, has not only the touch of an obsolescent luxury – which would not deter us at all – but even of the cynical and, above all, of the impotent. The products themselves are not neutral against the conditions under which they are created and in the present situation the external futility of la science pour la science makes itself felt in one’s own writings, marring them with the marks of the superfluous. There is an almost insuperable contradiction between the critical contents of our writings and their intrinsic presuppositions. It is hard to take for granted, within one’s own process of production, the very conditions of life which, as we try to show, do not prevail any longer.

What has now become the standard critique of the “performative contradiction” that plagues Dialectic of Enlightenment was was already apparent to Adorno: he was abundantly aware that he was working on a book that questioned the very possibility of its ever being written.

He was also aware that the ability of its authors to escape from the trap they were describing turned on the slimmest of contingencies:

Of course, all this has something to do with the special situation of our Institute, saved from the Nazis and brought over here in its entirety, with all the external and internal difficulties of outsiderdom. The exceptional position the Institute took, namely, to stick without compromise and “adjustment” to our convictions, unpopular though they were, tends to increase our isolation. What I want is not to give in but rather to overcome this isolation.

As a shrewd interpreter of Richard Wagner, it might have occurred to Adorno that the Institute’s endowment — moved into accounts outside of Germany prior to the Nazi takeover — bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nibelungen horde — with Horkheimer cast in the role of Fafner. But while Fafner was content with mere possession, Horkheimer and Pollock had invested what was left of their horde in stocks and American real estate. The returns were not encouraging.

Going Public

By the spring of 1942 it was clear that, in addition to its financial difficulties, the Institute’s relationship with Columbia University was becoming increasingly problematic. With Horkheimer in Los Angeles the task of maintaining ties with the university fell to Leo Lowenthal, who sent Horkheimer a stream of letters reporting assorted intrigues.5 Gradually adjusting to the realities of exile, Horkheimer had made sporadic attempts at overcoming the insularity that had characterized the Institute’s early years in New York. The Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the Institute’s journal, had shifted from German to English and became Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. Encouraged by Paul Lazarsfeld, more aggressive efforts at securing grants had been initiated. A series of public lectures was inaugurated. Adorno’s success in using Thomson’s columns to call attention to his work on Lazarsfeld’s radio research project fits neatly into this broader effort. But the increasingly public role of the Institute was not without certain risks, especially for a group of scholars who had long been concerned about calling too much attention to their Marxian roots.

adorno_pianoThose risks became clearer on May 30 when B. H. Haggin — taking his point of departure from the discussion in Thomson’s February 8th column of the three chapters in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton’s Radio Research 1941 that had to do with musical matters — devoted his music column in The Nation to a review of Duncan MacDougald’s account of song “plugging”, Edward Suchman’s study of the efforts of WYNC to attract new listeners, and Adorno’s analysis of the “radio symphony.”6 Haggin, it seems, had a number of axes to grind.  In addition to his column for The Nation, he wrote a radio column for the Herald Tribune and his relationship with Thomson does not appear to have been a happy one. Thomson solved the problem in 1949 by eliminating Haggin’s position.7

Haggin had little to say about MacDougald’s chapter. He criticized Suchman’s “poorly ordered progression of thought”, his “imprecise writing”, and his reliance on “the jargon with which a social scientist achieves his scientific precision.” But his chief target was Adorno (and, in passing, Thomson):

I find it difficult to write temperately of the motivation, the method, the results of the Adorno performance — of the pretentiousness, the ostentation, the aggressive awareness of his own “brilliance” that leap out at once from this German philosophy professor’s tortuous and occasionally ferocious thinking and jargon, from his musico-socio-psychological schematizations – which yield the lurid conclusions that Mr. Thomson welcomes “with cries of joy.”

A series of quotations from Adorno’s text followed — intended, of course, to convey something of the dreadful prose of this “German philosophy professor.” Haggin closed his column by turning the embattled Adorno into an evil genius whose ability to control the minds of others approached that of Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse:

The alarming thing is that the matter goes further than this chapter. It isn’t only Mr. Thomson who utters cries of welcome; Adorno’s tripe is the sort of thing that social science research institutes, foundations, and journals go for. He is, we are told, “associated with the Institute for Social Research at Columbia University” and “has been in charge of the music research at the Office of Radio Research”; his influence in this research, his status and power are attested by the other writers’ genuflections to his suggestions, ideas, and writings: even MacDougald cannot mention the song publisher’s dictation to the song writer without a “Cf. T. W. Adorno, ‘The Fetish Character of Music and the Retrogression of Listening,’ Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 7, 1938, p. 336.”

And the matter goes further than Adorno. But that will have to wait.

The final paragraph’s implied threat that further secrets would be revealed proved more than enough to drive the ever-vigilant Horkheimer over the edge. “Who is Mr. Haggin anyway?”, he asked Lowenthal. Desperately searching for ways of dealing with this unknown enemy, he suggested

If I am right in supposing that [Max] Lerner once was the editor of the NATION, [Franz] Neumann could perhaps inquire about that gentleman and induce him to tell them the truth about his stupid attack. I say this only because the article contains a hidden threat which might not only be aimed at Teddie but at the Institute as well.8

Eleven days earlier, Adorno — in a letter that began by praising Thomson’s attack on Toscanini (Adorno was probably unaware that Haggin was an ardent defender of the maestro) — asked Thomson the same question that Horkheimer would ask Lowenthal:

The article of B. H. Haggin in the Nation of May 30, p. 638 is very significant in this respect and I am proud and happy to be attacked together with you. Who is the man and which [sic] is the background of the whole affair? I think something ought to be done about it but I do not want to take any step without having your opinion.

Thomson — insouciant as ever and perhaps puzzled by his correspondent’s anxieties – responded by advising Adorno that the best course of action would be simply to ignore Haggin.

The attack, which I’ve only seen today, turns out to be a quite clear outline of your thesis. I am delighted. I recommend doing nothing at all about it. The less you say, the stronger your position will be, because Mr. Haggin will be obliged to make further exposition of your thesis in the process of attacking it.9

We do not know what Adorno might have made of Thomson’s suggestion that —  at least in contests such as this one —  the smartest move was not to play. But it is possible that it was beginning to dawn on him that Thomson might be a better guide than Horkheimer in the strange world in which he had found refuge.10

The Pitch

After revealing more about Adorno’s “present work and existence” than its recipient probably expected, Adorno’s letter of October 21 took an unexpected turn. Noting that the Institute’s funds were limited and that he was faced with the need “to think, in the long run, of making some money,” Adorno suggests

The right thing to do appears to me to look for a function which safeguards what we understand by intellectual integrity while allowing for a living and bringing me closer to the actualities of American cultural life. Since you are about the only person whom I know who has created for himself a position which actually combines those desiderata, and also the only one to advise and help me, I come to you once more. I think of working once again as a music critic.

After noting that academic positions “are rare and getting rarer” (a familiar lament), he points out that he has had “more than twenty years” experience as a music critic. He concedes that, despite his past service as co-editor of the journal Anbruch and his stints at the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Vossische Zeitung, “there still remains the problem of language.” But, he continues, “since you were so kind as to encourage my English writings, I cannot believe that this problem will be insuperable, and with the help of a good secretary I think I should be capable of managing the linguistic difficulties.”

Pressing onward, Adorno at last makes his pitch:

Do you know of any opportunity? What I should like most, of course, would be to collaborate with you, but I do not know whether there is any such chance. At any rate, I should be most grateful for your advice and possible help. Please do not misunderstand me. There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure. I actually thought of some time next year. On the other hand, if something promising should turn up earlier I certainly should not like to miss it in case your own opinion is positive.

We can only wonder how long Adorno hesitated over this paragraph, weighing his words, calculating their implications, adjusting his tone and, sadly, still managing to produce a sentence — “There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure” — that betrays a vision of a world in which nothing happens unless the requisite “pressure” is applied (after all, in a society dominated by rackets, it helps to have a button man).

Adorno’s pitch is followed by two shorter paragraphs. The first informs Thomson of Dagobert Runes’ decision not to publish his article on Schoenberg and the unresolved status of his lengthy study of Walter Damrosch’s musical appreciation program. The second reads as follows:

Please forgive my bothering you with my problems: it is only due to your kindness that I am becoming such a nuisance. I wish I could see you soon.

A month later (and we can only wonder how carefully Thomson calculated how long to wait before responding), Thomson sent a brief note that read:

It was a month ago I had your letter and very welcome it was. Musical life here is unchanged by the war. I do hope you will be back among us before too many years.

 LA 1940s

Contingency and Invention

Admittedly, the prospect of Theodor Adorno leaving Los Angeles, returning to New York, and beginning a career as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune is only slightly less implausible than the likelihood of Virgil Thomson’s concluding — at the moment when the Herald Tribune was reducing its music coverage and shrinking his columns — that it would make sense to supplement his stable of reviewers with a German academic who required a secretary to police his prose. And its utter implausibility would seem to be confirmed by its not having happened. But, perhaps, our faith in The Way Things Turned Out is precisely what we need to question if we are to have any hope of understanding the experiences of Adorno and his fellow exiles.

As Tim Page points out, Thomson — who had no use for anyone “not trained in music” — sought out articles from such composers as Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Peggy Granville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison.11 If Adorno was not in the same league, he was at least playing the same game. In any case, it is only in retrospect that the prospect of Adorno working at the Herald Tribune seems less plausible than his having abandoned his studies in philosophy to begin a career as a music critic in Vienna or his leaving a bewildered Schoenberg in order to return to Frankfurt to resume his academic career and defend a Habilitation that would be published on the exact date of Hitler’s assumption of power. Nor does it seem particularly plausible that, after having been dismissed from his post at Frankfurt in the first round of Nazi purges of Jews from academic positions, he would opt to remain in Germany writing music criticism, or that — when it gradually dawned on him that the new regime was not about to collapse — he would wind up at Oxford pursuing a second doctorate with Gilbert Ryle, rubbing shoulders with A. J. Ayer, Maurice Bowra, and Isaiah Berlin before eventually reestablishing contact with Horkheimer.

The career of an exile is ruled by contingencies. Walter Benjamin showed up on the Spanish border on the day that the police started turning back refugees; Adorno continued to make visits to Germany for far longer than prudence would dictate. Survival hinges on luck and the capacity of self-invention. In 1942 the odds of Adorno’s winding up as the co-author of The Authoritarian Personality — that classic contribution to American social science — may not have been significantly greater than the odds of his winding up as an occasional contributor to the music pages of the Herald Tribune. And whatever the odds might have been, neither Adorno — nor for that matter, we — know how to calculate them.

At the close of Minima Moralia Adorno observed that the only way to practice philosophy responsibly was “to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” and, by doing so, find the means to “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in messianic light.” One of the more pressing tasks facing those of us who deal, not with the Last Things, but instead with what Adorno’s earliest mentor Siegfried Kracauer termed “the last things before the last”, is to find a way to retrieve a past that is still contingent, still pregnant with an uncertain future, a past that could have turned out differently. The gap between the way things wound up and the way things might have been is one of the places where, however briefly, we can catch a glimpse of that peculiar contingency that lies at the heart of our history and ourselves.

Interrupted Conversations

We know from Adorno’s letter of April 14, 1943 (which I discussed at the close of my second post) that his correspondence with Thomson continued did not end with his peculiar letter of October 21, 1942. But Thomson’s brief note to Adorno from November 1942 is that last letter from Thomson to Adorno in the Thomson papers other than a short letter that dates from October 18, 1957. By then, Adorno had secured a career in Germany and Thomson had retired from his career as a critic. It reads

It was a great pleasure to see you in Berlin, though I regretted the briefness of our visit. I do hope there will be another soon, when we can talk at length.

Please give my compliments to your charming wife and remember me as ever your friend and admirer.

In contrast to the formality that marked Thomson’s earlier letters — which were always addressed to “T. W. Adorno, Esq.” and always carried the salutation “Dear Mr. Adorno” — the salutation on this letter reads “Cher ami.”

The documentation in the Yale Music Library of the peculiar relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson contains two additional items: a printed card from Margarete Adorno announcing, “in deepest sorrow”, that Theodor W. Adorno “ist am 6. August 1969 sanft entschlafen” and a handwritten draft of Thomson’s letter of condolence. After conveying his “deepest sympathy” he recalled,

He and I had been in touch regarding matters musical since 1940. And although in later years we did [not] meet often, our minds were always attuned and ready to take up any conversation where last we had left off.12

Revising his draft, Thomson crossed out the word “last.” Ever the Missouri gentleman, perhaps he thought that the word’s finality would be out of place in a letter to a grieving widow. Or the gesture may have betrayed a wish to leave his conversations with Adorno suspended, rather than terminated.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

  1. Martin Jay, ed., An Unmastered Past : The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 184.
  2. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.  A slightly edited version of the letter can be found in Virgil Thomson, Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 181-182.
  3. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  4. Thomson, letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942, MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  5. See my “The ‘Eclipse of Reason’ and the End of the Frankfurt School in America,” New German Critique, no. 100 (2007): 47–76.
  6. B. H. Haggin, “Music,” The Nation, May 30, 1942.
  7. Thomson’s letter of September 20, 1949 informing Haggin that his services were no longer needed could well serve as a model of how this sort of thing should be done. See Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 237-238. Haggin would later respond with “Virgil Thomson as Critic,” The Nation, September 22, 1951 and, at greater length, with “The Imagined World of Virgil Thomson,” The Hudson Review 20:4 (1967): 625–35. Thomson was content to ignore him, explaining in a typically laconic response to an inquiring reader, “I happen not to have read Mr. Haggin’s remarks about me. Sometimes he approves of me and sometimes he doesn’t. I have long considered that the criticism of criticism was fruitless. Still less do I care to engage in polemics with any critic on the subject of myself”,  Selected Letters 274.
  8. Letter to Leo Lowenthal of June 18, 1942.
  9. Letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942,  MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  10. It might be noted that, around this same time, Thomson was dealing with what was a potentially much more threatening problem involving unwelcome publicity. On March 14 he had been arrested in a raid on a “gay bordello” near the Brooklyn naval base.  The establishment was suspected of having been infiltrated by Nazi spies who attemptedto gain information about naval movements from the sailors who frequented it. Two months later the columnist Walter Winchell, apparently relishing the chance to marry his longstanding opposition to Nazism with his penchant for gay bashing, reported, “The ad-libbers are having fun with the yarn about Brooklyn’s spy nest, also known as the swastika swishery. … The musician mentioned in the Brooklyn house will embarrass his employers. He’s got many gunning for him, and this will give them a very loud haw-haw.” See Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson : Composer on the Aisle (New York: W W Norton, 1997) 355-360.
  11. Virgil Thomson, Music Chronicles 1940-1954, ed. Tim Page (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2014) 1005.
  12. I have inserted the word “not”; without it the letter doesn’t quite make sense.
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