The Roots of Critical Theory – Resisting Neoconservatism Today
Matthew Sharpe February 2007
It was under the directorship of Max Horkheimer, commencing in 1931, that the Frankfurt School and ‘critical theory’ made their names. It was Horkheimer’s grand vision of a reflexively coordinated program of interdisciplinary research that brought together the great names that made the school famous; Marcuse, Adorno, Fromm, Benjamin, Neumann, Pollock et al. The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, Horkheimer announced in his ‘rectorsprach’, would aim:
... to organise investigations on the basis of current philosophical issues, investigations in which philosophers, sociologists, political economists, historians and psychologists join together in ongoing groups and do in common ... what genuine researchers have always done – namely, ... pursue philosophical questions ... with the most refined scientific methods; to reformulate and sharpen these questions in the course of the work, to devise new methods, and yet not lose sight of the larger context. (PSSP, Bon)
Horkheimer himself not only directed the Institute from 1931 through 1941, supervising its move into exile in the new world and editing its journal, the Zeitschrift fur Socialforschung. In the period before the war, Horkheimer also published one monograph (significantly titled ‘On the Bourgeois Philosophy of History’) and a series of programmatic and theoretical articles in the Zeitschrift on an astonishing range of topics: from logical positivism to existentialism and lebensphilosophie in contemporary ideas; from the reformation and the early bourgeois “freedom movements” to the changing family structures and political circumstances of the early twentieth century; and from Kant, Hegel and Marx to Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Vico in the history of ideas.
Yet, unlike other great founding thinkers (think for contrast of Freud), Horkheimer’s theoretical work is little known in the Anglophone world today. His vision of an interdisciplinary program in social research – one which, as we shall see, issued directly out of his theoretical ideas – remains positively utopian today, especially amidst the “chaotic specialisation” in the neo-liberal universities which we will see that his position would allow us to expect. This essay will ask why Horkheimer should be so passed over, when Adorno, Benjamin, or Marcuse, who all worked under him, have continued to stimulate academic research, or indeed (in the case of Marcuse) partially inspired the new social movements of the 60s and 70s? But this reflection will be guided by a prior inquiry, the one which Horkheimer himself would bid us ask, were he alive today: namely, can we read young Horkheimer’s works today with more than the patronising interest of a sociologist of knowledge – as expressing his different times, weltanschauung etc. – or can his work still speak to, allow us to reframe, or even to break out of, contemporary theoretical and political impasses?
The first reason why the young Horkheimer is not more widely read today is surely the very power of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the work Horkheimer co-authored with Adorno during the war, that Habermas has called ‘the darkest book of all’. Yet this observation also begs the most decisive questions. These questions concern whether Horkheimer’s embrace of a totalising philosophy of history in this later text does not, of itself, discredit his earlier work as a whole, or whether there are aspects of this early work which might resist or even condemn this later, pessimistic move avant la lettre. Today, I would suggest, this inquiry can take on a particular piquancy, given that the Habermasian conception of critical theory, for long taken to have wholly superseded its Horkheimerian predecessor (cf. Strik), is more and more felt to suffer from its own, crippling limitations, while the post-Heideggerian or post-structuralist heritage has arguably exhausted itself in the ‘messianico-poetic’ cul de sacs afforded by total critique. The new grounding Habermas was able to provide for critical theory by way of a (quasi-)transcendental theory of communicative action, critics argue, is too formalistic. It purchases the normative and meta-theoretical (re)orientations it bequeaths to critical theory at the cost of abstracting – too far – from the ex hypothesi ‘contingent’ material concerns and historical struggles of engaged political agents. In line with this, Habermas’ recourse to systems-theory in order to explain social reproduction in complex societies bids farewell to any meaningfully Marxian sense of the contradictory potentials of later capitalism, in which its determinate negation might be espied. In this way, critics charge, Habermasian ‘critical theory’ strays very close to providing a sophisticated theoretical legitimation for the liberal, Fordist, welfare state, if not for today’s neo-liberal realignments. In either case, as Kavoulakis observes, Habermasian critical theory is arguably incapable of “giving a structural explanation of ... the ever deepening social crisis” we seem now to be lurching towards, heralded by:
... the domination of neo-liberalism in an internationalised capitalist economy, the waging of a number of new imperialist wars under the guise of the ‘war against terrorism’, the increase in police enforcement, the constant violation of the rule of law and personal freedoms for the sake of security, and the constant worsening of the ecological crisis. (Kavoulakis)
In this context, a determinate negation of Habermasian critical theory, and one which moves specifically towards an “historical, materialist and dialectical” theory of “global capitalism” and its discontents, is indeed an urgent critical-theoretic task (loc cit.), if there could be such a thing. This paper is animated by this task, as well as by the more humble aim of bringing some of young Horkheimer’s remarkable ideas into circulation in this, local, theoretical community. Having outlined what I take to be the most basic parameters of Horkheimer’s thinking (1), I will focus in the heart of the essay on Horkheimer’s groundbreaking analyses of the early bourgeois era and the un-reconcilable antinomies around which its ‘social movements’ and ideas insistently turn (2). This will allow for some concluding remarks (3) bearing on our contemporary political and theoretical conjuncture.
In the light of ongoing concerns about the residual ‘Kantian idealism’ in Habermas’ theory of communicative action, it is interesting that until 1937, Horkheimer did not call his own work “critical theory.” He called it “materialism.” (Schmidt, Brunkhorst, McCarthy, Schnadelbach) This self-designation indicates first of all the radical nature of Horkheimer’s modernist opposition to “traditional theory” and philosophy. Declaring his solidarity with the ancient materialism of Epicurus (RBCP) and the modern materialism of Hobbes and the French enlighteners (B, BPH), Horkheimer stridently contests any view which would assert either the self-sufficiency of theoria, or its priority to questions concerning the good life:
Traditional theory and reality belong to two distinct and separate provinces ... Theory remains in the realm of contemplation. Philosophers have frequently made something absolute out of this aspect of theory and, under the title of ‘logos’ or ‘spirit’, have deified the subject of these intellectual activities ... (B)
Horkheimer’s founding, paradigmatically modernist assertion of the primacy of practical reason has at least two registers. First: from “Notes on Science and the Crisis” (his opening 1931 essay in the Zeitschrift) onwards, Horkheimer consistently argues that even the ‘pure’ modern sciences are human praxeis “which can be defined only in the context of the dynamic of society.” (CT) Although young Horkheimer never calls into question the validity of the modern natural sciences’ truth-claims – these hold true “even for those who oppose it, ignore it, or declare it unimportant” (OPT) – he insists that the positive sciences do bear a “social function” as a necessary part of modern societies’ technological means of (re)production. (esp. Bon) More than this, for the allocation of its research goals, the sciences remain heteronomously dependent on socioeconomic interests, privately or publicly assigned priorities, and – as such – political struggles over the same.(cf. Bon) We will return to this in (2) below.
The second register involved in Horkheimer’s critique of what after 1937 he came to call “traditional theory” is expressly normative. For Horkheimer, who here reflects his lifelong debt to Schopenhauer (Schmidt; cf. MM), if theoretical activities always originate in the practical needs of embodied, social beings, theoria is originally betrothed to an interest in human happiness, “the banning of fear and despair from the [human] soul” (RDCP), and (in the modern figuration, see anon) the alleviation of avoidable human misery. (cf. OPT) Eschewing all deontology, Horkheimer elevates the eudaimonistic proposition “that all human beings have a claim to happiness” to something equivalent to a Kantian “fact of reason”: a ‘fact’ about the human condition which “asks [for] no [external] justification or grounds,” nor stands in need of any.(MM) The “rational justification of an action,” young Horkheimer maintains, can “in the final instance refer only to the happiness of human beings; a government [for example] that dispensed with showing that its acts have this sense for those it ruled would be mere despotism.” (RDCP; B) The “psychological” correlate of this positive, eudaimonistic anthropological constant (Cf. MM)is what Horkheimer calls “the moral sentiment” or “feeling” (gefuhl): a “sentiment” which, far from directing itself to human beings as the bearers of logos or some other, other-worldly destiny, has as its object concrete others in their creaturely finitude:
The moral gefuhl has something to do with love [says Horkheimer]...but this love is directed not towards the function and repute of a particular individual in bourgeois life, but towards his neediness and his powers, which point towards the future. Unless the aim of a future happy life for all persons, which results ...not from any revelation but from the [material] privations of the present, is taken up into the description of this love, it has no determination ... Not the corporal’s baton, but the climax of the Ninth Symphony is the expression of [this] moral gefuhl ... (MM; B)
By viewing traditional theory in the light of this unyielding prioritisation of “the finitude and worldliness of human life” (Brunkhorst), as McCarthy notes, young Horkheimer launches his own, historico-materialist and ideologico-critical, “destruction of metaphysics,” in opposition to both the linguistic-analytic and hermeneutico-ontological forms better known today. (McCarthy) For young Horkheimer, philosophy stands permanently under the suspicion of giving way to what he terms an “indwelling inhumanity.” (Brunkhorst) Again and again, his early essays criticise philosophers’ propensity to “split the world into two mutually independent realms” (at loc cit., Postone & Brick), postulating “an absolute, trans-historical subject” and/or realm of transcendent idealities in light of which the finite, contingent nature of human existence is “transfigured” so as to reappear as inessential, to be overcome or ignored. (RDCP) The “unconditional” truths which either the ataraxia of the ancient “sage” or the ‘objectivity’ of the modern scientist uncover, Horkheimer complains, only-too-readily promote a relativistic “indifference towards [the] worldly struggles” of the vast majority of human beings (at Brunkhorst):
Mind, cosmos, god, being, freedom ... [these are] the kind[s] of thing that one can investigate and live in view of without becoming outraged by the existing social system. The sage, who sees to the heart of things, may be able to see all sorts of philosophical, scientific, and ethical consequences but ... the fact that [his] ascent to the eternal can be made under the existing class relationships justifies such conditions all the more [to him] to the extent that the metaphysician ascribes absolute value to the ascent. (Schmidt)
Now: if Horkheimer’s critical theory stood or fell solely on his appeals to “ungrounded” feelings of “indignation, compassion, [and] love” (McCarthy), we would be right to join McCarthy in his deeply critical assessment of it. Yet young Horkheimer is no Shaftesbury, any more than his clear-sighted assessment of the “rule” of “chance and death” over the lives of most people living in his times (Kavoulakos) allows him a sanguine faith in the immanent “resolution of contradictions and tensions, [or] the end of the historic dynamic” proclaimed by orthodox Marxists, and dreaded by contemporary neoconservatives like Carl Schmitt.(OPT) “The moral sentiment in governments, peoples, and spokesmen of the civilised [gebildeten] world is so [manifestly] weak,” Horkheimer wrote in 1933:
... that although it is indeed expressed in relief efforts after earthquakes and mine disasters, it is nevertheless easily silenced and forgotten in the face of monstrous injustice which takes place for the sake of pure property interests ... amidst the mockery of all bourgeois values ... (MM)
Even as young Horkheimer places this moral sentiment at the heart of his self-understanding in “Materialism and Morality,” then, he emphasizes that the point is that all merely moral discourse must be transcended. The materialist’s animating “compassion,” he argues, must be tied to the project of collective, political “solidarity” (MM) aiming at the creation of forms of “social organisation which would drastically reduce human humiliation and enslavement,” if the moral gefuhl is to become efficacious at all. (Kavoulakos) The “historical struggle” for socialism, young Horkheimer hence repeats, is the form the moral impulse takes on in the contemporary period. It responds in praxis to the theoretical recognition of the constitutive importance of the socio-political structures in which people live on their ethical choices and capabilities, no less than on the direction and shaping of the modern sciences. (cf. Honneth, RPA)
The other, deeper register of Horkheimer’s “materialism,” then, involves his systematic embrace of a distinctly Hegelian species of Marxism. While repeatedly critical of how Hegel finally idealistically “hypostasizes ... his own system” (OPT), Horkheimer’s Hegelianism consists in his programmatic acceptance of the dialectical notion that “the truth” of any object, thought, or praxis can only be discerned by understanding its place or “mediations” within the larger, historical whole to which it belongs, and which may “go beyond the intentions of individual agents.” (Honneth, OPT) As Horkheimer writes in “On the Problem of Truth”:
Recognition of the conditional character of every isolated view and rejection of its absolute claim to truth does not destroy the conditional knowledge: rather, it is incorporated into the system of truth at any given time as a conditional, one-sided and isolated view. Through ... this continuous delimitation and correction of partial truths, the process itself evolves its proper content as knowledge of limited insights in their limits and connections. (at Bon; cf. OPT)
It is this position, as we shall see in (2) that most deeply underlies his critique of the “bourgeois” discourse of moral philosophy per se, and indeed inflects his entire conception of the malaises of capitalist civilisation. Following Hegel’s remarkable analysis of the dissatisfactions that necessarily attend the lives of the pre-modern masters, Horkheimer in no way turns his back on the classical-philosophical interest in the good individual life. (cf. Hegel) Far from it. (cf. RBCP) What young Horkheimer does maintain is it that it is only in a just society that any such fully kalos life could become possible. As he writes in “Egoism and Freedom Movements”:
The realisation of morality, of a state of society and individuals that dignifies humanity, is [after Hegel] not merely a psychological but a historical problem. By this insight, Hegel led idealism beyond its original boundaries [As Hegel recounts in Philosophy of Right] ‘when a father inquired about the method of educating his son to ethical conduct, a Pythagorean [truly] replied: “Make him a citizen of a state with good laws"’. (EFM)
The Marxian component in young Horkheimer’s materialism consists in his conviction, maintained throughout the 1930s, that Marxian political economy alone can provide the “fundamental” basis for an adequate theory of the reproduction of the socio-political whole under conditions of capitalism. (at Honneth 201) Here, Horkheimer deferred very largely to Mandelbaum, Meyer, and his lifelong friend Friedrich Pollock, and this is the least developed component of his early essays, I will argue with disastrous consequences.(cf. (3) below) Yet young Horkheimer everywhere accepts and adapts the two key dimensions of Marx’s critique of classical, “bourgeois” economics. With Marx’s earlier work, Horkheimer accepts the notion that the very categories bourgeois economists use to describe economic processes at once conceal the contestable, social nature of these ‘processes’, and mirror the real “autonomy which the economic forces have acquired in respect to humanity” in developed capitalism. (OPT) Even the apparently reductive component of Marxian political economy itself, which sees it try to deduce “knowledge of all social processes in the economic, political, and all other cultural fields” from “the concept of free exchange of commodities,” says young Horkheimer (OPT), “mirrors the real compulsiveness with which the production and reproduction of human life goes on in this epoch.” (OPT) Second: young Horkheimer, arguably until his 1938 essays, “The Philosophy of Absolute Concentration” and “The Jews and Europe” (cf. Stirk), accepts Marx’s later thesis of the irredeemably crisis-bound irrationality of a market economy-based society. “A number of social tendencies in their reciprocal action” are uniquely described by Marxian economics, Horkheimer writes in a representative passage in “On the Problem of Truth”:
The agglomeration of great amounts of capital as against the declining share of the average individual in relation to the wealth of society as a whole, the increase of unemployment interrupted by ever shorter periods of a relative prosperity, the growing discrepancy between the apportionment of social labour to the various types of goods and the general needs, the diversion of productivity from constructive to destructive purposes, the sharpening of contradictions within states and between them. (OPT)
Given these theoretical foundations, we can see why the interdisciplinary program announced in “The Tasks of an Institute for Social Research” is not incidental to young Horkheimer’s thought. It is part of what Habermas calls his “highly individualised,” “anti-Heideggerian response to the end of metaphysics.” (Hab) Young Horkheimer’s scepticism towards the absolute truth-claims of traditional philosophy unites with his Marxo-Hegelian sense of the need “to reconstruct an image of the social life process that can assist in understanding the critical condition of the world” (RDCP) to inform a principled openness to the fallibilistic social sciences. The proviso, one which founds Young Horkheimer’s program for the first generation of the Frankfurt School, is that their researches are coordinated, and their findings comprehended, by a critical theory “which takes society [as a whole] as its object” (TCT) and which is animated by an interest in an emancipated humanity. (MM34) In Horkheimer’s 1931 vision, to specify, the social-theoretic philosophy principally pursued by himself and Marcuse was hence to be informed by empirical research in political economy (Pollock. Meyer, Mandelbaum), a psychoanalytically-informed psychology geared towards explaining “the unknown effect[s] of economic relations upon the whole form of life” (principally, Fromm, Adorno [see (2) below]) (Bon), and – in the least well-theorised component, as Honneth notes – the “cultural disciplines” whose task was to analyse the “cultural sphere” “(to which belong not only the ... intellectual content of science and religion, but also law, ethics, fashion, public opinion, sport, leisure, life-style, etc.” (PSSP)) in the light of the changing politico-economic conditions of their production, and with a view to the social-psychological mediations to which they gave voice.(cf. Honneth)
As Habermas has remarked, young Horkheimer’s promotion of the interdisciplinary program of the Institute is then irrevocably tied to his wider, critical-"materialist” ambition to “interpenetrate” philosophical theory with progressive political praxis. The addressee of “materialism” or, after 1937, of “critical theory” is not the educated few of traditional philosophy: “above all, it is a weapon against every form of mysticism because of its ... criticism of the acceptance of a transcendent and superhuman truth ... reserved for revelation and the insight of the elect.” (OPT) Following Marx and Lukacs, the addressees Horkheimer envisages for critical theory are instead the many victims of the systematic irrationality of capitalist society, principally the working classes. Critical theory aims to be “the intellectual side of the historical process of proletarian emancipation” (TCT), young Horkheimer writes programmatically in “Traditional and Critical Theory” in 1937, although this in no way legislates the critical theorist’s complacent identification with whichever opinion the majority of this class happen to hold at any one time:
He [also] exercises an aggressive critique not only against the conscious defenders of the status quo but also against distracting, conformist, or utopian tendencies within his own household. (TCT)
The final point we need to emphasise here about young Horkheimer’s theoretical foundations, then, is that, although Horkheimer increasingly in the 1930s confronts the “darker underside” of social and political modernisation (see anon), he never gives in in this period to the temptation to totally discount the founding political ideals and socioeconomic achievements of the age of the bourgeois ascendancy, and modernity as such. To have elevated a universalist conception of “Justice,” for which “the social inequality prevailing at any time requires a rational foundation” is “an achievement of recent times” only, Horkheimer rightly reminds us. (MM) More than this, like Marx – and in line with his embrace of the modern social sciences – young Horkheimer maintains that modern technology, far from being a wholly demonic thing, also affords us historically unprecedented capacities to “improve the lot of humanity” (MM):
Human society has become so rich in the bourgeois period, and has at its disposal such great natural and human auxiliary powers, that it could [now] exist united by worthy objectives ... / ... only today have the resources of humanity become great enough that the adequate realisation of [freedom and equality] is set [for us] as an immediate historical task. (MM)
If “today it is claimed that the bourgeois ideals of Freedom, Equality, and Justice have proven themselves to be poor ones,” as conservative critics decry, Horkheimer contends in “Materialism and Morality”:
... it is not the ideals of the bourgeois, but the conditions which do not correspond to them, which have shown their untenability. The battle cries of the enlightenment and of the French Revolution are valid now more than ever. The dialectical critique of the world, which is borne along by them, consists precisely in the demonstration that they have retained their actuality rather than lost it on the basis of [this] reality. (MM – my italics)
The scandal of the modern period for the young Horkheimer, as we might say, is not that it should have adduced these ideals which, as he comments, do sublate ancient philosophy’s ideal of “the self-contemplation of reason ... [as] the highest stage of happiness” with a new historical aim: the “materialist concept of a free, self-determining society.” (at Brunkhorst) The scandal of the modern period is that, having brought both these political ideals and the technological preconditions for their realisation forth, “at no time has the poverty of humanity stood in such crying contradiction to its potential wealth as in the present.” “Unemployment, economic crisis, militarisation, terroristic regimes – in a word, the whole condition of the masses -” he argues, “are not [problems] due to limited technological possibilities, as might have been the case in earlier periods ...” (MM) It is the need to comprehend this distinctly modern scandal, as its full extent became evident with the rise of fascist states of Europe into the 1930s, that accordingly above all governs Horkheimer’s substantive essays in the 1930s, focussing on the history of the ‘bourgeois era’. And it is to these, lesser-known texts that I want now to turn.
As Robert Stirk has commented, Horkheimer’s early essays on the history of bourgeois society undoubtedly contain the key to his political philosophy. Having completed his doctorate and Habilitationschrift under the neoKantian Hans Cornelius, from 1925-1930 Horkheimer lectured at Frankfurt on the history of philosophy. In this time, he conducted a series of detailed studies on “bourgeois” thinkers, from Machiavelli and the theologians of the reformation to Kant, which formed the basis of the 1930 Anfange der Burgerlichen Geschichsohilosophie. Yet, even in the paradigmatic 1995 collection On Max Horkheimer, comparatively little attention has been paid to Horkheimer’s early history of the modern period and its ideas. This is all the more remarkable, given the fame Horkheimer’s later, speculative philosophy of history, contained in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and the very contrast these earlier essays exhibit when read alongside this text. In them, fascism is conceived not as the completion of a process beginning with the Homeric Greeks, but as the symptom of the self-contradictions intrinsic to European modernity, beginning in the Italian renaissance. Reflecting the influence of the neoKantian notion of history as the “kingdom of individualities, of details, which are not to be repeated” (Rickert), these early essays reflect a deep scepticism about the possibility of philosophies of history which would explain the meaning of events above or beneath their efficient causation, by referring the changing fabric of events back to any substantive, quasi-metaphysical principle – “an eternal riddle of the world” (OPT) possessing its own intrinsic laws of development, “whose pcomprhension once and for all is the mission of thought.” (OPT; Stirk) With this much said, it does not surprise us that instrumental reason, the monologic deux ex machina of the text with Adorno, plays little role in these essays, or appears as a positive thing. (MMs) In line with Horkheimer’s Marxian adaptation of Hegel’s dialectical method outlined above, Horkheimer rather works with the methodological principle that:
It cannot be said in general and a priori what meaning and value some particular knowledge has. That depends on social conditions as a whole at a particular time, on the concrete situation to which it belongs. Ideas which, taken in isolation, are identical in content can at one time be unripe and fantastical and at another outdated and unimportant, yet in a particular historical moment can form factors of a force that changes the world. (OPT)
The result is that these essays not only contain many of Horkheimer’s arguably most valuable, and certainly most nuanced, contributions to the history of ideas. They also present themselves – and this is my interest today – as perhaps the place to look if we are to seek out in the Horkheimer of ‘before the dialectic of enlightenment’ theoretical concepts which might still have something new to say to us in today’s particular conjuncture.
Horkheimer’s splendid 1934 polemic against the logical positivists, “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics” situates the later modern, academic scientism of Carnap and others as a deeply regressive phenomenon. “Autocrats, cruel colonial governors, and sadistic prison wardens have always wished for visitors” who hold to Hahn’s idea that thought can never “be a means of knowing more about the world than may be directly observed,” Horkheimer wryly comments. (LAM) Yet, as Horkheimer’s other early essays record, this was not always so. From the 16th through 18th centuries, he notes, scientific materialism was a progressive, even politically revolutionary doctrine, as the fates of Giordano Bruno and Galileo attest.(Stirk) Galileo’s “question about the correct path to universally valid truth, as the proper theme of unprejudiced discussion,” together with the “naturalism” promoted in political thought by Machiavelli (BPH) then Hobbes (BPH), was correctly registered by the Church as a significant challenge to the medieval, theocratic worldview, and the social arrangements this metaphysics sanctioned.(esp. BPH) The renaissance “shifted [focus] away from the otherworldly purposes taken from tradition and toward inquiry into the secular causes of the world, which were to be established by means of empirical observation.”(BPH) “In these difficult centuries,” young Horkheimer writes, “humanity learned with difficulty [the correct insight] that pleasure is not contingent on the gods, bit rather on one’s own labour.” (RPA) This provides the ground for his criticisms of the utopias of More and Camponella, despite his deep sympathy with their protest against the “contradictions” of, and “true” concrete “misery” engendered by (BPH) the burgeoning modern world. (BPH) “The founding of the state in terms of natural law and social contract,” young Horkheimer observes, “contains the veiled notion that the state was a product of the natural and vital interests of human beings.” (BPH)
While never denying (as per (1) above) the context-transcendent validity of the renaissance scientists’ discoveries – in their “na´ve joy in discovery” (BPH), “they sought the light, not profit” (BPH), young Horkheimer credits – he does overarchingly tie the birth of the new sciences, functionally, to the rise to economic pre-eminence of the bourgeois strata following the 16th century. The universally valid laws of the natural world, allowing for the prediction and limited control of its processes, Horkheimer suggests, mirror the uniformily enforceable laws required for the free exchange of commodities across sanctified feudal and territorial boundaries. (Stirk) The new anthropological ideal of the self-determining, ‘renaissance’ individual, Horkheimer observes, found its historical exemplars in the newly emergent, “great entrepreneurs, merchants, shipmasters, or bankers” of the period. (BPH) It is in this context, moreover, that Horkheimer like Neumann after him situates Machiavelli’s much-vaunted political ‘realism’, and Hobbes’, Spinoza’s or Grotius’ distinctly secular advocations of a strong state:
In the renaissance, the bourgeoisie needed a brutal ruler armed with all the means of power so that all hindrances to trade could be eliminated, the first philosophers of the modern age outlined a corresponding ideal. (BPH, cf. Stirk)
Yet that Hobbes’ “unprejudiced” political “science” could find its “greatest and intrinsic service” in opening the way to the anthropological study of individuals, outside of their patrimonial and feudal connections, only “in order to dominate them” (at Stirk – my italics), as Horkheimer puts it, indicates the overarching critical theme of these remarkable essays. The normative promise carried in the “battle cries” of liberte, egalite, fraternite that the bourgeois deployed against feudal absolutism, together with the prospects of a materially more bountiful existence promised by the new Baconian science ‘sive de regno hominis’, Horkheimer pivotally contends, threaten to engender for the victorious bourgeoisie a lasting “legitimation crisis.” If Horkheimer deeply admires the early “materialists” of the bourgeois epoch – and Vico – it is pre-eminently because they refused to abstract the meaning of these terms from a reflection on the socio-political conditions for their actualisation:
Hobbes is not speaking of the freedom to will, but of the freedom to act... Should both servant and lord possess the will to take pleasure in [luxury] ..., then they become completely indistinguishable according to the concept of idealistic freedom [see anon]...By comparison, for the physical mechanists and the followers of Machiavelli, ... [what is salient is that] when the lord takes his pleasure, he can enjoy it to the fullest sense, where the servant can satisfy the same yearning he would pay for it with his life. It is this difference in freedom that matters in social reality ... (BPH)
If the great, affirmative statements of the seventeenth and eighteenth century culminate in the opinion expressed by Fichte in The Characteristics of the Present Age – that “it is the end of the earthly life of the human race to order all its relations with freedom according to reason.” (AF) – Horkheimer soberly rejoins:
In reality, the liberation meant, before all else, that the majority of people were delivered up to the fearful exploitation of the factory system ... According to the theory, the individual was not to acknowledge the judgment of any human authority as binding upon him without first subjecting it to the test of reason. In fact, he now stood alone in the world and must adapt himself or perish. (AT)
At this point, then, I would argue that we can see the limits to McCarthy, Bon or Honneth’s contention that Horkheimer “assumes a functional parallelism between social and scientific [and philosophical] developments.” (Bon) In fact, I would contend, it is Habermas’ notion of ideology as “systematically distorted communication” that comes closer to the mark. Rather than a direct “expression” of the new economic and social rationality, for Horkheimer, the philosophic formulations, and political movements, of the bourgeois period are rather distorted by the persistent irrationalities of the ‘deregulated’ market society. Politically, the system depends on the labour of a majority of subjects expropriated or “freed” from the land and “handed over to themselves,” with only their exchangeable capacity to labour to sell. (AT) Structurally, the regulation of civil society by means of a free and expanding market means that, despite continuing fetishizations of the incalculable ‘genius’ of successful entrepreneurs and the ‘invisible hand’, “the manner in which each individual contributes to the workings of the entire society through his labour, and is at the same time influenced by it, remains completely obscure.” (at Bon) As young Horkheimer’s appreciation of the “path-breaking” work of Vico on mythology attests (BPH), his over-arching contention in the 1930s is then that these immanent social contradictions exert a pressure on the psychological constitution of subjects and cultural self-expressions of the bourgeois period, without any necessity to posit the individual malignity of the “ruling classes,” or to treat all “bourgeois” thought as so much wilful propaganda. (cf. BPH)
In “Egoism and Freedom Movements,” Horkheimer takes as his object the progressive political movements of Renaissance Italy, the reformation and enlightenment Europe, including the French revolution. What strikes young Horkheimer about the political careers of the revolutionary popular leaders Cola di Rienza (EFM), Savoranola (EFM), or even Robespierre (EFM) is their ambivalence towards the urban plebes who formed their principal constituency in the struggle against the anciens regimes. As Luther’s vitriol against the peasant revolts partly inspired by his clerical reforms paradigmatically attests (EFM), MFS), having attained to power, these leaders showed themselves typically keen to ‘keep a lid’ on the popular enthusiasm they had harnessed to come to power. Di Rienzo’s first decrees included the strengthening of penalties against “disturbers of public order” and the establishment of a people’s army, alongside the creation of a centralised administration to guarantee security and regularity of commerce. (EFM, Stirk) While young Horkheimer concedes that “the masses were not yet capable of an independent politics” in this period (Stirk), “Egoism and Freedom Movements” nevertheless patiently documents how these leaders each deployed “populist” devices (EFM) that exploited the lower strata exactly as a “mob” incapable of rational self-determination, and which were later theoretically advocated by European counter-revolutionaries, and the fascists of the twentieth century. First: Rienzo and Savoranala cultivated a cult of personality (EFM), presenting themselves as charismatic executors of the higher Power ambiguously announced by Calvin in the Institutes. Second, from Di Rienzo: who would ride into Rome adorned in “pagan” pomp (as the Pope complained) to the accompaniment of trumpets and ranks of spearmen; to Robespierre and Marat – with their revolutionary festivals, modelled on the August festivals of ancient Rome (EFM) – each of these figures embraced an aestheticization of politics, using spectacle, symbolism and pageantry to imprint the sublimity of their mission upon their popular base. Third, Horkheimer points to the changed function of rhetoric, and the increased importance in this period of populist demagoguery – Savoranola had often to abandon addresses because his audience had broken down in tears of contrition (EFM; Stirk) – including the public sermon (EFM):
In antiquity and to a great extent in the middle ages, the lower classes are kept under control by physical coercion and command, by the deterrent example of terrible earthly punishments and ... by the threat of hell. The popular address in modern times, which is half rational argumentation, half an irrational means of domination, belongs to the essence of bourgeois leadership, despite its long prehistory. (EFM)
In the cultural sphere, young Horkheimer argues that the “chaotic” lack of coordination between the sciences which motivates his interdisciplinary program in social research itself reflects the contradictory “anatomy” of the market-regulated civil society of the modern period. On the one hand, the positive sciences’ “presuppositionless” lack of reflexivity about their own social preconditions, he argues, does make them vulnerable to the “uncritical reproduction” of systemically promoted principles of “utilisation, exploitation, and administration” (Bon) – although, as we have seen, there is no sense in the early essays that the sciences, or rationality per se, could be reduced to these instrumental functions. (cf. Bon) On the other hand, young Horkheimer holds that the “neglect of the dynamic relationships between the separate object-domains” (NSC) of the different sciences reflects, within the cultural sphere, the more general antinomies of bourgeois society. The contradiction between the quantitative expansion of knowledge within, and qualitative non-coordination between, different disciplines, his bold contention is, symptomatically reproduces the wider contradiction between “general irrationalism” that stands over the micro-economic “rationalism in details” of particular capitalist ventures. (SFP)
In this context, we can see how young Horkheimer’s principal theoretical concern differs from (neo)conservative concerns about the imputed relativism of modern scientific culture – although he is highly critical of Mannheim’s “reverential and empathetic” (McCarthy) sociology of weltanschungen. (NCI) In his “Remarks on Bourgeois Anthropology” as elsewhere, young Horkheimer praises the early bourgeois’ unprecedented promotion of the virtues of honesty and the capacity to honour promises, reflected in the contractarian formulations of the great modern political philosophers. (RPA) Reflecting here again his debt to Hegel’s sublation of moral philosophy in the transition from “Reason” to “Spirit” in the Phenomenology, Horkheimer’s concern is instead that, when modern philosophy attempts to address the substantive questions of meaning and morality not addressed by the natural sciences, it is necessarily distorted by the increasing inability of subjects to “cognitively map” “the social process as a whole,” whose claim upon the individual subject morality represents. (CT) For young Horkheimer, the re-emergence of scepticism in the modern age, first in Montaigne (MFS) and later in Hume’s ‘deconstructions’ of personal identity as “fictional” or consciousness as a “theatre” (MFS, Stirk), already reflect the material disempowerment underlying the bourgeois’ paeans to the autonomous “masters and possessors of nature” . (Stirk) Young Horkheimer’s paradigmatic 1933 critique of Kant in “Materialism and Modernity” indeed argues that the “insurmountable, properly ontological” oppositions – between freedom and necessity, noumena and phenomena, subject and object, affect and obligation – that Kant’s system stabilises give metaphysical expression to the divided self-experience of subjects in a society where, increasingly, “social relations get established behind the backs of subjects” (Bon). In such a society, young Horkheimer argues, the strict inhumanity of Kant’s categorical morality – grounded in achtung for “something quite different from life” itself – symptomatically reflect the system’s latent irrationality:
Due to the lack of rational organisation of the social whole which his labour benefits, [the individual] cannot recognise himself in his true connection to it and knows himself only as an individual whom the whole affects somewhat, without it ever becoming clear how much and in what manner his egoistic activity actually effects. The whole thus appears as an admonition and demand which troubles ... individuals at their labour, both in the call of conscience and in moral deliberation. (MM)
Given this diagnosis, young Horkheimer throughout these essays directly contests Weber’s “stress on the rationalistic trait of the bourgeois mind” that will later assume such centrality in his work with Adorno. Weber’s view is not without truth, young Horkheimer writes characteristically. But it is one-sided: “[I]rrationalism is from the start no less associated with [bourgeois] history.” The principal mechanism involved in the irrational “transfiguration” of the progressive ideals of political modernism, from Cola to Kant, young Horkheimer calls “internalisation” – in McCarthy’s words, a “shifting [of] the burden of deep-seated social tensions to the site of the individual conscience” (McCarthy).Modern philosophical idealism, for all the sublimity of its ideals, must be read against the background of the socio-political and material freedoms it serves to obscure:
Not so much revolt as spiritual renewal, not so much the fight against the wealth of the privileged as the fight against general wickedness, not so much external as internal liberation, were [again and again] preached to the masses in the course of [modern] revolutionary events [and ideas]. (Stirk)
If in Kant’s moral philosophy it is still a rational law that the individual is called to sacrifice his entire ‘pathology’ for, though, in “Egoism and Freedom Movements” and “The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy,” young Horkheimer extends the argument to accommodate the philosophic antecedents of European fascism. In the face of accelerating economic, intensifying social and international crises, he contends, the hypostasization of one or other underlying ‘force’ whose incalculable potentialities promise to explain the apparently inexplicable appearances of the contemporary world does become uniquely plausible. Like Heidegger if only in this much, that is, it is as an “inversion” of traditional theory (McCarthy), rather than its ‘overcoming’, that Horkheimer situates the vitalisms of Nietzsche or of Bergson – “whose expression ‘sub specie durationis’ indeed indicates the viewpoint of change, but at the same time infinite change” (Stork) – the philosophy of “values” of Scheler or Hartmann, and even the death drive of the later Freud which, “like the Devil in the Middle Ages ... is to be blamed for all evil” without need for any more concrete forms of social-historical analysis. There is truth in these species of irrationalism, young Horkheimer characteristically accedes. Their truth lies in the insight into the real “crisis” of contemporary forms of positivistic rationalism. Their falsity, however – and the very clear and present danger embodied in the thought of Klage, Schmitt, Junger and Spengler, is to turn this insight into the vindication for a constellation of ideas whose defining poles are the valorisation of a sacrificio intellectus before the simultaneously “immediate” and “vague” Truths of life, race, “the volk” or the nation, and – in fascism – the “channelling” of “the huge amount of aggression which are emerging in a climate of destitution into self-sacrificial devotion against each particular individual or into a spirit of battle against national enemies”
In his “Critical Theory and Philosophy,” McCarthy observes that, for all the differences in time, there is an unlikely similarity between the intellectual context to which young Horkheimer responded and the contemporary conjuncture in the first world: (MCarthy) Writing in 1995, McCarthy cites the “sharp swing away from neo-Kantianism and toward pronounced forms of irrationalism” which young Horkheimer sought to arrest through the promotion of the Frankfurt School’s “philosophically informed” program of social inquiry. (McCarthy) Certainly, if we reflect on the contemporary situation in academic anglo-american philosophy, it is difficult not to see the continuing divide between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy as a paradigm instance of the type of irreconcilable disciplinary diferend Horkheimer took aim at. On the one side, philosophers of the ‘angloamerican’ stripe continue to look with distrust at the ambition of comprehending the whole to which ‘continental’ philosophers, more classically, continue to subscribe. Equally, within continental philosophy, the same tendencies to species of scepticism, vitalism and irrationalism which Horkheimer decried in his contemporaries in the 1930s continue to find representatives: Foucault’s later works retreat methodologically and substantively from his genealogical critique of modern institutions to analyses of the techniques for ethical self-mastery of the ancients; Deleuze’s vitalism brings together Nietzsche and Bergson in an uncritical paean to antinomian self-overcoming as an end in itself; while Badiou’s ‘Platonic’ attempt to reground philosophy goes hand in hand with an avowed “contempt” for political liberalism, with its “victimary conception of man,” and the fond anticipation of Events whose ‘rationality’ can only be espied post festum by individuals who have groundlessly pledged their fidelity to it. In Agamben’s thought, finally, Benjamin and late Heidegger’s pessimistic philosophies of history are conjoined by way of a direct embrace of the authoritarian legal theory of Carl Schmitt, at the same time as Schmitt is being more and more openly propounded by thinkers of the European and American right, from Alain de Benouit or Heinrich Meier to the ‘reformed’ editorial board of Telos.
What makes young Horkheimer’s diagnosis of the lack of coordination between the disciplines in the academy of his day of such potential interest today is that, writing in the crisis wherein Europe lurched from depression to fascism (2), he reads this phenomenon ‘symptomatically’, as the reflection of the wider “chaos” engendered by the capitalism of his day. Yet, I write this (in 2006) at a time when most of the nations of the first world have actively undertaken three decades of sweeping economic reform. In this period, the implementation of forms of ‘neoclassical’, supply-side or monetarist economics inspired by Hayek, Friedman and others have reshaped the forms of “state capitalism” based on welfare-protection-arbitration which emerged as hegemonic in the aftermath of depression (in the USA and Australia) and after the wars in Europe. Heralded in the 1990s as “globalisation” or even – with the collapse of the Soviet bloc – the “end of history,” we are still living the effects of these reforms, and their hegemonic period is seemingly far from over. However, as the rhetoric of the new marketing and management literature extolling “the new economy” attests, one inevitable by-product of neoliberal capital’s dismantling of national barriers to the circulation of capital and cultural commodities (and, to a lesser extent, labour) is growing vocational instability and uncertainty. What Horkheimer’s earlier position allows us, in this context, is part of a framework to challenge what seems to me to be the most vital political illusion fostered by Hayek et al: the “equation” between economic liberty (the freedom to trade) and civil, social and political liberties. Less sanguine than the neoliberals, or we have to add, many post-structuralists about the necessarily beneficent effects of opening subjects to the radical uncertainty of a future whose shape they can be less and less sure of, his position allows us to come to terms with today’s growing neoconservative reactions across the first world, which superimpose neotraditionalist cultural paradigms, combined with post-liberal state forms, on top of an economic system which is celebrated as melting everything solid into air.
Let me close then by raising again the question with which I opened, namely that of the relation between young Horkheimer’s work and The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and whether the later work represents the inevitable truth of his earlier writings, or their betrayal. Faced with this question – and for all the difference between McCarthy’s Habermasian starting point from the post-structuralist presuppositions – McCarthy’s central claim about the shortcomings of young Horkheimer’s work closely echoes these presuppositions. The young Horkheimer, McCarthy argues, primarily stands guilty of a host of errors which issue out of his continuing, inadequately examined philosophical assumptions:
In the context of contemporary critical theory, left-Hegelian formulas of ‘realising reason’ and ‘a rational organisation of society’ have a disagreeably totalising ring to them. Much in the early Horkheimer bears criticism on this score: [starting with] his tendency to conceptualise society as at least potentially a unified subject with a unified will ... (McCarthy)
Joining Axel Honneth’s critique, McCarthy continues that these shortcomings are in turn tied to what in other debates has been called Marxian “economism”: “... his over-reliance on Marxist political economy, particularly class analysis, in identifying the cause and conditions of injustice in existing social orders” (loc cit.) The primacy Horkheimer affords to political economy (at Honneth), Honneth concurs, generates a “closed functionalism” (Honnetth) in his conception of the interdisciplinary “penetration of philosophical thought with the auxiliary disciplines.” (PSSP*) In particular, Honneth stresses, young Horkheimer is led to overly functionalise the category of “culture,” submerging the importance of social action beneath a more dominant “institution-theoretic” conception (Honneth) so that all we are left with – when it comes to framing questions about transformative agency – are under-determined invocations of “historical struggle” that progressively give way under the weight of events in the later 1930s. (cf. Kavoulakos)
To make my position clear: in this historical moment, when the ascendant public-political language overwhelmingly concurs that nations no longer have economies, since they have become economies, I would contend that it behoves us to be very wary of too-quickly dismissing a critical position on grounds of its real or alleged ‘economism’. More than this, following Postone and Brick, I would argue that examination of the archival record indicates that, in the case of Horkheimer, it was not his earlier ‘economism’ that led him down the path to the impasses of The Dialectic of Enlightenment from 1938 to 1942. What Postone and Brick document is how Horkheimer’s trajectory in the late 1930s was in fact determined by his uncritical appropriation of Pollock’s argument for the new “primacy of the political” in contemporary social reproduction. Famously, alongside Meyer and Manddelbaum, Pollock adduced the category of “state capitalism” in order to explain politico-economic developments in Soviet Russia, National Socialist Germany, and the capitalist countries after the Great Depression. In each of these regimes, Pollock maintained, the price and market mechanisms had been superseded as the means of distributing the social surplus by systems of centralised administration. Now: as Postone and Brick point out, given young Horkheimer’s hopes for a more rational organisation of society which would supersede the chaotic irrationality of later capitalism, his acceptance of Pollock’s thought had to have a devastating effect. Before 1938, Horkheimer could not have conceived of the thought that new forms of state might emerge at once all-too-capable of consciously or politically organising the economy, and yet still riven by social and cultural irrationality. “With each bit of realised planning a bit of repression was ... supposed to become superfluous,” Horkheimer reflects at this time. The problem was that, as he now saw things in Europe and America via Pollock’s conception of state capitalism, “even more repression has emerged through the administration of the plans.” (Postone and Brick) The result was that the very critical pivots or foundations of his previously immanent critique of capitalism, in the vision of a more rationally organised sociopolitical regime, now folded:
“Labour and the totality earlier had been the standpoint of the critique and the basis of emancipation: they now become [in Horkheimer’s writings] the [very] grounds of repression and unfreedom. (Postone and Brick)
Yet, Postone and Brick argue, if we accept that, historically, Horkheimer’s acceptance of Pollock’s “state capitalism” thesis after 1938 was decisive in his drift towards the pessimistic philosophy of history of Dialectic of Enlightenment, a very different way of conceiving this theoretical realignment emerges. Horkheimer’s despair at the emergence of forms of economically organised, yet – in the case of Stalinism and fascism – more openly repressive regimes is not the result of his always-proto-totalising economic functionalism, Piccone and Brick contend. It is the result of the primacy he, and Pollock, both accorded within the economic sphere to questions of distribution, rather than the social relations of production. For Horkheimer’s Hegelian Marxism, as the formulations we have examined in (2) attest, it is not the issue of direct exploitation, within the sphere of production, which is the source of the irrationality and injustice of capitalism which his materialism will decry. Rather, it is irrationality that abides exclusively in a system that has delivered questions of how to distribute the social surplus over to a “blind” mechanism whose workings are beyond the comprehension of the subjects whose life conditions it nevertheless determines, and which is inclined to periodic crises of overaccumulation and the declining rates or profit. As Postone and Brick write:
Industrial production is thus understood as a technical process, intrinsically independent of [what Horkheimer and Pollock call] ‘capitalism’. The latter is conceptualised in terms of extrinsic factors, private ownership and exogenous conditions of the valorisation of capital within a market economy. Within this basic framework, industrial production based on proletarian labour, once historically established, is considered to be independent of and non-specific to capitalism ... (Postone and Brick)
More than this, once the non-conscious nature of distribution or “capitalism” is overcome by any form of centralised planning, for young Horkheimer, the very locus of the socioeconomic contradictions he has hitherto decried is also overcome. At this point, indeed, Horkheimer is left with no critical categories capable of conceiving the more and more naked forms of domination in the post-liberal regimes, short of openly voluntaristic speculations as to the political organisation of popular impoverishment, backed by state terror.
The value of this interpretation of the transition from Horkheimer’s early to his later work, beyond its evidential grounding in Horkheimer’s essays and correspondence, is evident. Postone and Brick are able to accommodate Honneth’s anxiety concerning the primacy accorded to labour in Horkheimer’s understanding of the historical process. Yet they do not make their criticism of young Horkheimer’s conception of labour, which they argue in fact remains insufficiently historicised, into the launching pad for a rejection of the grounding of critical theory in a reflexive engagement with political economy. Instead, a conception of critical theory which is able to trace the roots of concrete forms of domination within the sphere of production, and the social relations governing labour within this sphere, is called for. In the contemporary conjuncture, as Negri has pointed out, one feature of later or neoliberal capitalism, ironically, is indeed that – as Postone and Brick argue Horkheimer and Pollock do – neoliberal theory too abstracts economics from the site of production, instead conceiving it wholly as a matter of les services des biens. In this way, their critique of young Horkheimer’s decline and fall into pessimism might productively become part of a critique of this hegemonic neoliberalism, which in its own way advocates are trying to present to us as the advent of the millennium.
As with all great thinkers, then, we will have been able to learn something, even or especially from their manifest shortcomings.
1. In his April 1968 “Preface” to the belatedly released 1930s essays Horkheimer himself seems to hold to something like this interpretation: “If early theoretical efforts appear without the author having placed them in relation to contemporary insights, then he has surrendered the claim to substantial validity.” cf. Habermas, “Remarks on the Development of Horkheimer’s Work,” 59 and 3. below.
2. In this light, for example, Axel Honneth charges that Horkheimer’s ‘regression’ hails from his lack of an adequate theory of social action, while Habermas and McCarthy charge that the issue lies in how Horkheimer glimpsed but could not theorise the normative foundations afforded by a theory of communicative action, due to his residual attachments to the presuppositions of the philosophy of the subject.
3. “the fact that thought has in many cases distanced itself from the questions of a strife-ridden humanity is one of the reasons underlying mistrust towards intellectuals.”
4. “The fact that questions such as: sympathy with whom? ... indignation at what? can be, are, and should be repeatedly raised and critically considered suggest that the sharp split between irrational feelings and rational discourse is another untenable opposition tat has to be broken down.”
5. Separated from a particular theory of society as a whole, every theory of cognition remains formalistic and abstract.
6. “The direction and content of activity, along with its success, are more closely related to their theory for the historically progressive groups than for the representatives of naked power,” Horkheimer says.
7. At this point, interestingly, this almost-consensual opinion on young Horkheimer moves into unwitting proximity with the position of Ulmen and Piccone, the very editors of Telos under whose reign – motivated by what they perceive to be the absence of a political theory in Horkheimer and Habermas – Telos has gone from a Frankfurt-School oriented journal to the academic vanguard of the neoconservative Carl Schmitt revival.
8. Horkheimer gives up on the notion of the indispensable importance of the modern natural and social sciences for critical theory and human emancipation, instead collapsing their claims to independent validity into their purely instrumental role in abetting the fear-bound self-preservation of individuals, and their mutual objectification: “advance in technical facilities for enlightenment is accompanied by a process of dehumanisation.” (Postone) At the same time, the rational attempt to comprehend the social whole, in 1931 the pivot of the interdisciplinary program and what would inform and direct progressive praxis is identified with the “totalitarian” attempt to calculatively administer the entire world:
The identity of the ideal and reality is universal exploitation ... the difference between concept and reality – not the concept itself – is the foundation for the possibility of revolutionary praxis.
Finally, with all the concrete socio-political prospects critical theory might have afforded to progressive praxis in this way darkened, the “realm of freedom” Horkheimer still hopes to maintain becomes correspondingly “historically and socially indeterminate,” alternating between voluntarism and messianic despair: “the insight [from Rousseau or the bible] that ‘now or in a hundred years’ the horror will come to an end.”