Peter Gordon, an intellectual historian of great distinction who teaches at Harvard, addresses in this densely argued book the way in which three philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School—Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno—tried to find meaning in history while still remaining committed to the constraints of Marxism.

The catastrophe of the First World War and the rise of the Nazis to power intensified a crisis for Marxists. Marx had prophesied the dawn of a new era, in which a socialist revolution would bring about the end of exploitation, but this happy outcome was nowhere in sight, at least for those who did not view with enthusiasm the new Soviet paradise. Further, the dark postwar days served to make more exigent the loss of purpose brought about by the secularization of the world. “The arguments developed in this book all converge upon the question as to whether it is possible for modern society to move forward without the guidance of religion. Ever since [Max] Weber set forth his grim reflections on ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ social theorists of various schools have not ceased to ask whether the process of secularization should be lamented or embraced,” Gordon writes. 

The post–World War I period affected Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno personally. All of them were of Jewish descent (Adorno only on his father’s side) and had to confront the rising anti-Semitism of the time. Although all remained Marxists and none renounced the atheism integral to that standpoint, themes from the Jewish religion suffused their thought, and a key theme of this book is to show in what ways this was true.

Here we must pause for a complication. The Nazis denounced the Frankfurt School as part of their campaign against “Jewish Bolshevism,” and for many years the members of the group were reluctant to avow publicly the Jewish roots of their thought, lest they feed ammunition to their foes. (Indeed, when Martin Jay, a Berkeley historian under whom Gordon studied, was preparing his book The Dialectical Imagination, an early and deservedly influential history of the Frankfurt School, several of its members advised him to avoid discussing Judaism, advice he did not take.) But that reluctance happily soon passed, and Adorno and Horkheimer readily acknowledged the affinities of the school with certain aspects of Judaism.

As one reads Gordon’s book, though, one is struck by the unexamined constraints within which the three protagonists worked, constraints, moreover, that to a degree Gordon shares. If one asks, “How did Marxists confront the problems of the twentieth century?” the presupposition of the salience of this question is that it is rational to be a Marxist. If it is not, the question has only biographical interest and would be analogous to the question “How should astrologers cope with the prevailing skepticism about astrology in our times?” Yet, though Gordon would no doubt disagree, it was not then rational to be a Marxist, nor is it now. The fallacies in Marxist political economy had been exposed by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk in Karl Marx and the Close of His System (1896), and the fantasies of an abundance that would ensue when central planning replaced the “anarchy of production” of capitalism were definitively exploded by Ludwig von Mises in “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” (1920), but the Frankfurt School Marxists never thought to reconsider their belief in Marxism, and, to the extent (not altogether clear) that Gordon accepts a critique of capitalism on Marxist grounds, he too has rejected the assured results of modern economic science, a claim he would no doubt dismiss as ideological.

Another constraint within which the author works should also be noted, though whether this rests upon a false presupposition is not so readily established as that of working within the “iron cage” of Marxism. A key concept of the book is a way of looking at what Gordon calls “the normative deficit of modernity,” the notion of Max Weber and his followers that because of secularization, we lack a readily apparent basis to establish meaning and value in the world. That is to say, the assumption is that only a transcendent truth beyond the world as we know it would be able to give history meaning. 

Gordon rejects this, but he thinks that his protagonists wrongly were still in its grip, though Adorno much less so than the others: “Where the Frankfurt School permitted itself to imagine only religion as the solution to our social affliction, it burdened secular modernity with the stigma of a normative deficit that cannot be healed on its own terms. But this complaint is hardly new: it has been the believer’s charge against unbelief since the birth of religious consciousness.”

If, like Gordon, one rejects the thesis of the normative deficit, one way to find meaning within history would be to look to the self-assertion of a people within history. This was the path, at least for a time, of Heidegger, and it is one that Gordon does not accept: 

In the modern era, Martin Heidegger was surely the most prominent thinker to meditate on the significance of “dwelling,” and to warn of the danger that would arise should the human being enter into a condition of metaphysical worldlessness. . . . It can hardly surprise us if this ideal of self-possession made existential ontology vulnerable to a nationalist interpretation according to which the boundaries of a people are the only proper means of marking out the limits of their collective being-in-the-world. The result was an ontologized xenophobia.

Instead, as the Frankfurt School protagonists realized, Adorno most fully so, meaning in a secular world must be sought by the full migration of religious concepts in the profane—in other words, finding secular analogues for these concepts—and this process has a greater affinity with the messianic aspect of Judaism as an interruption of history through a radical break, without positive theological content, than with the secularized Christianity of Hegel, which saw history as the unfolding on Earth of God’s plan.

We see this move to the messianic in Walter Benjamin. Gordon writes:

A genuinely materialist theory of history must break from the historicist fantasy that would see history as the unified and necessary unfolding of a single purpose. To shatter this illusion, however, demands that the historical materialist subscribe to an altogether different concept of time. Against this historicist conception of time as “empty” or “homogeneous,” Benjamin introduces a conception of time that he calls “messianic.” Time is messianic when one conceives of any moment as a “gateway” through which the messiah of revolution could arrive. Such an event is unexpected since it always marks a catastrophic rupture with the way things have been.

Benjamin, though, did not achieve the full migration in the profane of religious concepts to which Gordon is drawn. Benjamin often writes of the “aura” that artworks formerly possessed but no longer do in our age of “mechanical reproduction.” As a Marxist materialist he did not regret this transition, but he still looked back with nostalgia on the aura, and this is evidence of his incomplete transition to the secular. As Gordon puts it:

From Weber to [Carl] Schmitt . . . the grim prognosis of a normative deficit has accompanied the theory of secularization like its own shadow. A comparable theme appears in Benjamin’s reflections when he suggests that historical materialism will be reduced to a lifeless mechanism if it cannot enlist the hidden energies of theology. Such arguments . . . betray a lack of confidence in the normative potentials of secular life.

(It is surprising that in his discussion of the aura, Gordon does not mention Ludwig Klages, whose writings on the aura were a key source for Benjamin.)

Horkheimer also fell short. Gordon praises the insights of his book with Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, holding that in it the authors presented a penetrating criticism of the Enlightenment optimism of Kant that the future would see the continued growth of freedom: 

The crucial work of this narrative is to expose the ironic reversal (or bad dialectic) in the project of Enlightenment: the historical attempt to realize autonomous subjectivity culminates in a quasi-naturalistic determinism. This means that the Kantian distinction between two modes of reflection—one that allows for self-determination and another that subscribes to naturalistic causality—collapses into a single, dialectical narrative.

I venture to suggest that the failure of the Kantian defense of freedom has by no means been shown by his critics, but this requires that one take more seriously Kant’s transcendental idealism, which provides a philosophical argument for his view of freedom.

Gordon also praises The Dialectic of Enlightenment for its portrayal of the ambivalence of Judaism, as both unworldly in a sense “irrelevant to human beings in their finitude and imperfection” and at the same time prescient in its rejection of idolatry—but he also holds that in his post–World War II days, Horkheimer adopted an unduly affirmative stance toward religion, horribile dictu.

It is Adorno to whom Gordon looks for the most sophisticated account of the migration in the profane of religious concepts. He presents a brilliant discussion of the way in which Adorno’s “negative dialectics” is analogous to the account Moses Maimonides gives of predications about God (i.e., sentences that attribute qualities like omnipotence to him), according to which all direct predications about God, whether positive or negative, are rejected as inconsistent with God’s simplicity. Instead, predication about God can only proceed by way of infinite judgments, i.e., judgments that negate limitations while not affirming anything. For example, one might say that “God is not non-powerful” while not affirming that “God is omnipotent.” (In this connection, I would especially draw attention to this comment from Gordon: “For the Kantian implications of this idea, see the brilliant exposition by Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination.” I well remember listening to that great thinker and scholar lecturing on this topic so long ago as 1971.) 

But despite the penetrating insights Gordon offers in Migrants in the Profane, the reader is left wondering at the end whether the “migration in the profane” is quite as necessary as he takes it to be. Why is the migration adopted as a standard to assess the thinkers of the Frankfurt School? It would appear that Gordon has presupposed, rather than defended through argument, a secular standpoint of a particular sort. Perhaps, though, the standpoint is essential to Gordon’s penetrating and sympathetic interpretation of the Frankfurt School’s major thinkers and in that way is redeemed.