For the most part, we read a work of nonfiction for two intertwined reasons — to learn about a particular subject and to enjoy the intellectual company of the book’s author. I started “Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School ” because I’d long wanted to know more about the careers and thought of social theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and their loosely affiliated fellow thinker, the literary critic Walter Benjamin. I steeled myself for a hard slog — these were, after all, German theorists — but almost immediately discovered that British journalist Stuart Jeffries could summarize complex arguments so clearly that even a bear of little brain could grasp them. He was, moreover, witty, skeptical and an active presence on the page, questioning and probing each of the Frankfurt School’s various hypotheses, assertions and insights. As a result, this seemingly daunting book turned out to be an exhilarating page-turner.

"Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School," by Stuart Jeffries (Verso)

The Institute for Social Research, as the Frankfurt School was formally called, initially came into existence in 1923 to explore why Germany failed to produce a successful socialist revolution in the years immediately following World War I. Its members were virtually all Jewish, the sons of well-off bourgeois families, and they viewed themselves as analysts rather than activists or revolutionaries. Nonetheless, they relied on Marx’s ideas about class, alienation and capitalism for the tools they needed to interpret and understand contemporary society. Over time, however, this set of heterodox neo-Marxists gradually shifted its investigative focus from production to consumption, from the examination of proletarian class consciousness (or its lack) to studies of the ways advanced societies employed the culture industry as a means of social control. Their aim, however, remained the same: to awaken us from a life of illusion.

In brief, people of advanced industrial societies lived with the false consciousness that they were free agents but were, in fact, constantly manipulated by advertisements, marketing, Hollywood, new technologies and, now, social media. As a result, our identities have come to be shaped by the largely passive consumption of mass-produced goods and, in the 21st century, by an increasing addiction to mindless screen culture at the expense of genuine human interaction. In an insidious double whammy, Henry Ford perfected the dehumanization of work through the assembly line and simultaneously turned his employees into desiring-machines. Modern commodity fetishism — the compulsive desire for a new car, name-brand sneakers or the most recent smartphone — transformed the world into a gaudy phantasmagoria, what Walter Benjamin, in Jeffries’s summary, would call “a ring of hell in which the consumerist faithful endlessly buy and sell, eternally deluded in believing that this activity will bring fulfillment.”

To analyze these pervasive forms of capitalist domination, the Frankfurt School employed what it called “critical theory,” a kind of deconstructionism defined by Jeffries as “a radical rethinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and intellectual endeavour.” Thus Walter Benjamin turned away from approved canonical literature to study “the overlooked, the worthless, the trashy, the very things that didn’t make sense within the official version of history but which, he maintained, encoded the dream wishes of the collective consciousness.” Benjamin would go on to consider the Paris shopping arcades as an artificial paradise — a consumerist retreat that excluded the real world outside — and eventually to write what would become, with the possible exception of T.S. Eliot’s almost diametrically opposed “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the most influential literary-critical essay of the 20th century: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In the opening chapters of “Grand Hotel Abyss”— the title derives from philosopher Gyorgi Lukacs’s derogatory description of what he regarded as the Frankfurt School’s radical chic — Jeffries examines the Oedipal rebellion of these often mollycoddled sons against uncomprehending merchant-fathers, who had assimilated German secular culture and frankly disdained working-class East European Jews with their long beards and kaftans. (Siegfried Kracauer — remembered now as a film theorist — wittily remarked that these last “were Jews who looked so authentic, you thought they must be imitations.” ) Naturally, Adorno, Benjamin and their intellectual comrades refused to actually work for a living and instead blithely and incongruously relied on Daddy’s business profits to pay their allowances and fund their anti-capitalist projects.

After Hitler assumed power in 1933, the Institute for Social Research was forced to relocate to Switzerland and later to the United States, where it was loosely linked to Columbia University and where, to avoid trouble and help gain financing, it played down its Marxist past and emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of its sociological research. But in New York, Horkheimer and the others clashed with hard-line communist thinkers —notably Sidney Hook — and, for obvious reasons, could never accept the American way of life. (While Benjamin had hoped to join his friends abroad, he was temporarily thwarted and, fearful of arrest, had committed suicide in 1940.) In due course, several of the Frankfurters moved to Los Angeles and joined a community of German exiles there that included playwright Bertolt Brecht, film director Fritz Lang and novelist Thomas Mann. Having studied with composer Alban Berg, Adorno was soon advising Mann about the musical sections of his last great novel, “Doctor Faustus.” After the war, many members of the school returned to Europe.

But not all. Erich Fromm stayed and produced several popular books, including “The Art of Loving,” which emphasized the importance of tenderness in intimate relations. His friend and eventual enemy, Herbert Marcuse, went further, rejecting Freud’s theory that civilization required the repression of the libido and arguing instead for a more open, polymorphous sexualization of the world. Little surprise that in the 1960s and ’70s Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization ” and “One-Dimensional Man ” became bibles of the counterculture. A somewhat younger member of the school, Jurgen Habermas — still with us and the subject of a just-published biography by Robert Holub (Routledge) — later acknowledged that Marxism might now seem redundant given the West’s material prosperity, but rightly pointed out that “liberation from hunger and misery does not necessarily converge with liberation from servitude and degradation.”

Sigh. There’s so much more to the Frankfurt School than I can convey here — I haven’t even mentioned the important investigations into anti-Semitism and the authoritarian personality. Still, I hope it’s clear that Stuart Jeffries’s “Grand Hotel Abyss” is an outstanding critical introduction to some of the most fertile, and still relevant, thinkers of the 20th century.

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.

Grand Hotel Abyss

The Lives of the Frankfurt School

By Stuart Jeffries

Verso. 440 pp. $26.95