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The Frankfurt School’s Other: Socialist Émigrés Who Made Capitalist Culture in America, 1918–1956

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

What are the essential formal qualities of socialism, and how may those forms be translated by migrants in new national-social contexts in which alternative economic values prevail? My study considers the intersecting careers of a cohort of entrepreneurial socialists who formed their beliefs and practiced their professions in the new republics of post-Habsburg Central Europe: the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, the architect Victor Gruen, and the artist-designer László Moholy-Nagy. Having come of age during the period of interwar socialist experimentation in Vienna, Budapest, and Berlin, they arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Nazism during the New Deal era of the 1930s, a time of extraordinary openness to social-democratic thinking. While the critical theorists of Max Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research—Lazarsfeld’s fellow exiles at Columbia University—have become known to intellectual historians as the chief antagonists of twentieth-century consumer capitalism, the émigrés I consider in this project became the unlikely avatars of European-style social democracy in the “free enterprise” culture of American business. They interpreted the research methods, pedagogical techniques, and urban values they had acquired in a social-democratic cultural context for the American system. Their socialistic Weltanschauung was fundamental, I argue, to some of their most important works in the U.S., including the suburban shopping center, the “focus” group, and a new Bauhaus school of design in Chicago.