Note: The following is a response to a recent review by Javier Sethness Castro of David North’s publication, The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left. Javier Sethness Castro is an academic with an interest in the Frankfurt School. Politically, he is affiliated with an anarchist organization. His recently published book on Marcuse, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse, is available from Brill Publications. A paperback version is forthcoming from Haymarket Books.
by Alex Steiner
In his review of David North’s The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique, Javier Sethness makes the following assessment,
Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North's reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP. 
With the exception of the last sentence I fully concur. My disagreement with the last sentence is the reviewer’s assumption that North’s thinking is synonymous with Trotskyism. As I have been the chief target of North’s “slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association” in a number of polemics over the past 14 years I think I have some unique insights into this subject. In collaboration with my colleague Frank Brenner, I tried to demonstrate in a number of essays that North’s philosophical outlook bears little resemblance to Marxism and Trotskyism. If I were to pin down what his philosophy most closely resembles, I would say it is the crude reduction of Marxism to the mindless formulas of the Stalinist vulgarization of Engels that has come to be known as “diamat”. I think Mr. Sethness makes a serious error when he conflates the Marxism of Trotsky with the vulgarized caricature of Marxism espoused by North. I wrote an essay a number of years ago explaining why I thought Trotsky deserves to be remembered not only as one of the leaders of the October Revolution, but as a serious Marxist theoretician.  Obviously Sethness, writing from an anarchist perspective, has a different opinion about Trotsky. While I have a very different political perspective than Sethness and while my assessment of the practitioners of the Frankfurt School differs from his in important respects, I nevertheless want to acknowledge the value of Sethness review as providing a real service in contributing to the debunking of the intellectual fraud that has been perpetrated by David North for a number of years.
I am also fully in agreement with Sethness when he writes,
Another clear issue is North's conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion.
There is a back-story to North’s conflation of the Frankfurt School and postmodernism about which Sethness is probably unaware. The targeting of the Frankfurt School as the fount of all intellectual and political evils and the inspirer of postmodernism is a relatively recent invention of North’s. Prior to our initial polemics written in the period 2003-2006 where we had some positive things to say about some of the contributions of Critical Theory there is barely a mention of the Frankfurt School in the works of North or other WSWS commentators. Rather at that time the bête noire of North and his followers was postmodernism. You can find a clear example of this trend in the following lecture delivered in 2005 by David Walsh, the long time art and culture critic of the WSWS, Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over “proletarian culture”.  This lecture, which summarizes what the author considers the Marxist position on art and contrasts it to other bourgeois trends, includes several swipes at postmodernism but does not include a single reference to the Frankfurt School or any of its practitioners. And this treatment was not unusual but was typical of articles you can find on the WSWS from that period and earlier. Now if you contrast this lecture with another lecture given by the same author 4 years later, The future of art in an age of crisis, you find a very different narrative. Suddenly the full weight of Walsh’s invectives falls on the Frankfurt School with postmodernism being depicted as its intellectual descendant. What happened in the intervening period between these two lectures to account for this dramatic change in focus? The answer: our polemics and North’s response in his first outing against the Frankfurt School, Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness (MHSC). After the publication of MHSC it became de rigueur for all WSWS commentators to include lengthy denunciations of the Frankfurt School in any piece commenting on contemporary culture and its problems.
In collaboration with Frank Brenner I began the debunking of North a decade ago in our polemic Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. This was a response to North’s initial polemic against us, Marxism History and Socialist Consciousness, which contained the first statements of North’s view of the Frankfurt School. Our response to North’s polemic was a multi-level critique of the political movement led by North, the International Committee, which is responsible for the publication of the World Socialist Web Site. We focused on the theoretical issues at stake in the project of building a political movement aimed at human liberation from capitalist oppression. In chapter 6 of that book long polemic we discussed the philosophical issues that a serious Marxist critique of Horkheimer and Adorno’s influential work, Dialectic of the Enlightenment, needs to confront.  Summarizing our conclusion, we wrote,
In Dialectic of the Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer mistakenly conflate “instrumental reason” with reason as such and in that sense open up a door to irrationalism. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as “instrumental reason”. The term is but another name for the constricted and reified concept of science that derives from positivism. From the standpoint of a Marxist critique of Adorno and Horkheimer, we reject the identification of “instrumental reason” with reason, but at the same time we recognize that “instrumental reason” is indeed a profound social phenomenon of our time.
We noted that North and his acolytes did far more than challenge the pessimistic conclusions of Adorno and Horkheimer, but dismissed any attempt to critique the limitations of the Enlightenment. And through the employment of crude guilt by association type arguments, they identified any attempt to critique the Enlightenment with postmodernism. North in his broadside against this one work of Adorno and Horkheimer also repeatedly lumps together the entire Frankfurt School in all its periods of evolution.
We also included in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, a lengthy reply to North’s flippant rejection of the place of utopianism within Marxism, his misrepresentations of Wilhelm Reich and other Freudo-Marxists as well as his bizarre depiction of Eduard Bernstein as a utopian theorist! Those who are interested should take a look at the material in Chapter 9, Remarks on Bernstein, ‘Neo-Utopianism’ and Political Amalgams  and Chapter 10, Mass Psychology and Marxism. 
North returned to the subject of the Frankfurt School in his response to Marxism Without its Head or its Heart a year later in a diatribe he called Marxism versus the Frankfurt School: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner. This was an exercise in character assassination aimed at discrediting me. In this piece North was not content with repeating his misrepresentations of the Frankfurt School – all the while ignoring our response to his earlier misstatements – but he also tried to directly link me to that intellectual current by advertising the fact that I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in the 1970s and therefore came under the influence of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. In my response to North, The Downward Spiral of the International Committee, I was forced to spend a good deal of time demonstrating that North got some elementary facts wrong, including the fact that anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of the Frankfurt School would have known that the New School for Social Research long had a reputation of being hostile to the Frankfurt School! The Frankfurt School, during their period of exile in America, was affiliated to Columbia University. The New School for Social Research during that same period, when it was known as the University in Exile, was host to a number of far more conservative scholars in exile from Nazi Germany, many of whom were bitter opponents of the Frankfurt School. 
By the time North wrote the Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner, his antipathy to the Frankfurt School had taken on a new and bizarre dimension. He now blamed the Frankfurt School for the decline of Marxist culture in academia and beyond. He saw the influence of the Frankfurt School echoed in everything from “pomo” literary theory to ethnic studies departments and even pinned on its shoulders the decline of what he considered serious historical research. And beyond academia he saw its influence on the larger culture as all pervasive. I pointed out that North’s demonization of the Frankfurt School was a strange echo of the demonization of Marcuse in the hand of the neo-conservative author Alan Bloom in his influential book of the 1980’s, The Closing of the American Mind.
Apparently not content with his earlier efforts North came out in 2012 with another broadside against the Frankfurt School, his The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left. In that piece he extends his denunciations of the Frankfurt School, blaming them not only for the decline of culture but also for being the inspiration for an amorphous political category he calls the “Pseudo-Left”, which according to North is responsible for a variety of evils in the history of the post-war period. What bedevils North most of all is his firm conviction that were it not for the machinations of the “Pseudo-Left” the political movement he leads would long ago have triumphed. This kind of delusional thinking permeates much of North’s “theoretical” work.
In the summer of 2015 North made one more contribution to his denunciation of the Frankfurt School when he published a Foreword  to a printed version of his previous writings on the subject. The Foreword included nothing really new about the Franfkurt School but it did feature a new round of diatribes against Frank Brenner and me. This time North’s use of deliberate misrepresentations of what we said reached a new low. We responded to North in the essay, Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak.  I used this occasion to classify North’s work as being part of a genre that I call “Crackpot Philosophy”. What I had in mind is the kind of “philosophy” espoused by the followers of Ayn Rand. It is not so much philosophy that is presented by the followers of Rand but a mythologized history - a conspiracy theory complete with its characters of arch-villains and their courageous opponents. Likewise for North’s narrative of the Frankfurt School. It is also no coincidence that such fake historical narratives are invariably linked to a cult-like organization where it is impermissible to question the ideas of its leader, for such ill-informed narratives cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.
Why did North return to yet another round of his ongoing screed against the Frankfurt School in 2015? I think the reason has little to do with the Frankfurt School. Rather I think that our criticism of the sectarian position of the World Socialist Web Site on Greece must have raised North’s ire.  That as well as our exposure of the poverty of their analysis of Russia and recent events in the Ukraine and Middle East were probably the tipping point that goaded North to return to his computer.  Of course I cannot prove any of this, it is just speculation on my part, but I think a reasonable one. The evidence for this is admittedly circumstantial, but it seems to fit. First of all we had not written anything about the Frankfurt School in several years, not since our last major response to North in 2009. What we did do recently was publish a number of essays that punctured the political pretensions of the group North leads, the Socialist Equality Party.
In any case whether I am correct or not about North’s motivation for entering the fray once more against the Frankfurt School, the latest piece by North seems to have caught the attention of Javier Sethness and for that I am grateful. It is another and welcome step toward intellectual clarity that someone besides me has noticed the intellectual fraud being carried out by North. Sethness response to North largely overlaps my own, although we do have differences in our assessment of the Frankfurt School. While I certainly agree with Sethness that the Frankfurt School made some valuable contributions that should be of interest to Marxists, particularly their investigations into mass psychology and the role of the culture industry, I am on the whole much more critical of the Frankfurt School than Xavier Sethness. But that is probably a topic for another day.
There is however one historical point to which I must register my strong disagreement with Sethness. In his discussion of the Moscow Trials, I think Sethness bends the stick far too much in the other direction. Granted that it may have been unfair for North to paint the entire Frankfurt School as supporting the Moscow Trials on the basis of one letter from Adorno, it must be said that without exception, the figures associated with the Frankfurt School did not acquit themselves well in relation to the Moscow Trials. If ever there was a time for intellectuals to speak out against a criminal perversion of socialism this was it. Yet those associated with the Frankfurt School, despite their private misgivings, remained silent. There is no way such an action can be excused or condoned.
When Frank Brenner and I first began our critique of the philosophical and political position of the World Socialist Web Site almost 15 years ago, we were at that time hoping that our criticisms could set into motion a process of reform within that organization. We were probably naïve in underestimating the degree to which that organization had become a sclerotic sect even 15 years ago. The processes that led to that impasse have only accelerated in the past 15 years. If we still occasionally write about the WSWS it is no longer with the hope of rescuing this moribund organization. It is simply to set the record straight and to expose the intellectual fraud being perpetrated by David North. I should also mention that in the course of our polemics against North and the WSWS we clarified many theoretical issues that should be of abiding interest to revolutionaries long after North and company are forgotten. We believe that this positive outcome of our critique will have an impact on others who set themselves the task of preparing for a future free from capitalist oppression. Even if we do not have all the answers for how to build a movement for revolutionary social change, I think we have at least provided a good lesson in how not to build such a movement.
 See my comment on Trotsky’s Notebooks, http://permanent-revolution.org/archives/trotsky_notebooks.pdf
 Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, Chapter 6, http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch06.pdf pages 160-166.
 Downward Spiral of the International Committee. For an extended discussion of the history of the Frankfurt School and some of North distortions of that history see Chapter 1, pages 13-17, 23-29. http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/downward_spiral_ch01.pdf
 See, for example, the piece by Frank Brenner, Experience in scare quotes: sectarianism and the Greek election, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2015/02/experience-in-scare-quotes-sectarianism.html
 See for example our discussion, Russia as an imperialist power, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2015/11/russian-as-imperialist-power.html