Max Horkheimer Criticism - Essay

Zoltán Tar (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tar, Zoltán. “The Critical Theory of Max Horkheimer.” In The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, pp. 16-71. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1977.

[In the following essay, Tar traces Horkheimer's work as director of the Frankfurt School and places his Critical Theory within the context of twentieth-century sociological, psychological, and political thought.]


The beginnings of the institutional matrix of the Frankfurt School date back to 1923, when the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), affiliated with the University of Frankfurt, was founded. Felix J. Weil first proposed the idea of an institute of social research along Marxist lines. His father, Hermann Weil, had previously left Germany for South America to become a wealthy Argentinian grain dealer and financially supported the socialist ambitions of his son. Felix J. Weil, born and raised in Argentina, went to Frankfurt and earned his Ph.D. in 1921.1

Carl Grünberg, professor of political economy in Vienna and editor of a journal devoted to the history of socialism and the labor movement (Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung or Grünberg Archiv), became the first director of the institute and held that position until 1928. An economist of the historical school, he later became a Marxist and the first Kathedermarxist (academic Marxist) at a German university. Marxism as an economic and sociological system, until then a stepchild at German universities, was to have a home in the new institute.

The first years of the institute were shaped by the influence of Grünberg, who considered Marxism to be both a Weltanschauung and a research method. He was convinced that contemporary society was in a “transition from capitalism to socialism.” His interpretation of Marxism was vehemently antiphilosophical:

Philosophical and historical materialism have conceptually nothing to do with each other. … The problem of materialist, historical conceptualization is not to arrive at eternal categories by way of speculation, or to grasp the “thing-in-itself,” or to investigate the relationship between mind and external reality.2

To Grünberg, historical materialism had no validity independent of space and time, but only a relative and historically conditioned meaning. Its task is the investigation of “the given concrete world in its becoming and change (‘die gegebene konkrete Welt in ihrem Werden und Wandel’)”. He declared induction the correct scientific method. Grünberg's opening address emphasized the necessity of “the dictatorship of the director” of the institute: “A sharing of the direction of the institute with those who have a different Weltanschauung or methodological approaches is entirely inconceivable.”3

Among the first members of the institute were such young intellectuals as Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Henryk Grossman, Richard Sorge, and the Sinologist Karl Wittfogel. Later in the 1930s, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno joined their ranks. The research associates represented a truly interdisciplinary cross section of academia, ranging from philosophy and sociology to literary scholarship, political science, and economics. Most of them had a Jewish middle- or upper-middle-class background and were in some way active in left-wing politics. At least four of them were Communist Party members: Sorge, who later became a master spy for the Soviet Union and was executed in Japan, Wittfogel, a CP candidate for the Reichstag, Grossman, and Pollock.

In 1928 illness forced Grünberg to give up his directorship. After a short interim period under the directorship of Pollock, Horkheimer became the director, and a new era began for the annals of the institute.


A real understanding of Critical Theory would require a close scrutiny of the men, their works, and their socio-historical matrix in order to show the existential determination of the Frankfurt theorists, that is, to shed light on the correlation between biographical data and theoretical achievements. A definitive study along these lines must wait until all the information and manuscripts are available. Yet, in the light of the existing material, the significant factor of biographical information must not be ignored, and certain tentative propositions can be made. It is mandatory to look into the existential determination of the intellectual development of Horkheimer to demonstrate how his authoritarian, domineering father led to the young Horkheimer's defiance of this immediate authority, which symbolized for him the authoritarianism of the larger society of contemporary Wilhelminian Germany, prior to its collapse in 1918.

Protest against human suffering and social injustice coupled with “longing for another world” were permanent themes for Horkheimer's thinking throughout his life. His Jewish haute bourgeois family background was the source of both his protest and his longing. Working in the family business as his father wished, and being next to him in the line of command, the 20-year-old Horkheimer reflected on the situation in his diary:

I have a splendid position and an even more promising future in my father's business. I can afford all the pleasures of the world that attract me. I can immerse myself in my work or amuse myself and follow my hobbies—and yet … the burning flames of yearning consume me. … I do not seem to be able to control this longing, and so I will let myself be guided by it through all my life, regardless of where this mad journey might take me.4

Young Horkheimer, shocked and repelled by the working conditions in his father's factory, wrote to a friend:

Who can complain about suffering, you and me? We, who are complaining that the flesh of the slaughtered gives us belly aches, are cannibals. … You enjoy your peace and property for whose sake others have to suffocate, to bleed to death … and to endure the most inhuman conditions.5

This motif of remonstrance never disappears; it develops into Horkheimer's later longing that “the murderer might not triumph over his innocent victim.”6 Vehement rejection of the existing social order and a metaphysical yearning for a more perfect world were the chief motives of Horkheimer's philosophy from the very beginning. Young Horkheimer stated his Weltanschauung in 1914.

The positive, the existing is always bad, yet its constitution is the only point of reference from which we can proceed to divine its spiritual content that we cannot grasp but that constitutes its great beauty. Therein lies the reason why beautiful things can never quite satisfy us and a painful yearning remains. This is a yearning for perfection, which cannot be attained as long as we possess a body and perceive it through senses. … We wish salvation from the earth and yet we are attached to it with our whole heart.7

Horkheimer's conflict and his revolt against paternal authority was aggravated by additional problems. At the age of 21 he fell in love with his father's secretary, Rose Riekehr. She was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a bankrupt German in the hotel business. In addition, she was a gentile and eight years older than Horkheimer. His parents opposed their marriage vehemently.

A 10-year strained relationship and confrontation between father and son and a struggle for emancipation followed.8

In 1916 Horkheimer was drafted into the army, but he was never sent to the front. Under the impact of the senseless and murderous war, he turned pacifist. This marks the beginning of his political awakening. Half a century later he recalled those times:

I had been in Paris and London and so could never believe that the people there were more for war than our “peace-loving” Kaiser; I could not see that they were worse human beings than I and that therefore now I have to shoot them. … My faith in the childhood teachings of the German Reich was shaken. I had the distinct feeling that something horrible had happened to Europe and mankind that could not be reversed.9

Indeed, his immediate reaction was the rejection of the criminal war that was destined to protect the property of a few under the guise of national interests. He wrote in 1914:

I cannot believe that an act deemed to be criminal for the individual should be a noble one for a nation. … I hate the armies that are on the march to protect property. … Bestial motives guide their arms—motives that must be overcome in our drive for enlightenment and have to be destroyed if we want to become human beings.10

The dominant ideas of the young Horkheimer were the rejection of nationalism coupled with the embracing of mankind; there was also a deep underlying pessimism of mankind's future prospects, as expressed in his early writings:

Why can't I be a human being only … without belonging to any nation. … What you fight for is not my concern. Your order within nations and laws might be necessary for you because you are all predatory beasts (Raubtiere). … As long as the majority of mankind consists of blockheads and rowdies, their union, i.e., society, cannot be anything else but an inferior one whether it calls itself autocratic, socialistic or anarchistic; and I have to believe that this “as long” may seem eternity.11

The end of the war found Horkheimer in Munich, where he experienced the November 1918 revolution. He greeted the revolution enthusiastically and hailed it as a liberation from the authority of father and fatherland. The experience of the revolution moved young Horkheimer toward the problems of society and toward Marxism. In an autobiographical short story, entitled “Jochai,” he wrote of his hero:

Private Jochai could not force himself to shoot and chose to run. … The deep resentment compelled him, the Jew, not to kill but to vent his desperation, the desperation of all slaves, in a piercing scream that would reach the ears of the masters and destroy their contended indifference and help to demolish the consciousness-betraying facade of their world; in this way, he chose intellectual victory.12

Years of study at Frankfurt University with the neo-Kantian philosopher, Hans Cornelius, who was in addition a painter and a musician, was followed by further study with Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg. Heidegger's impact is explicitly acknowledged by Horkheimer: “Today, I know that Heidegger is one of the most important personalities whom I ever came across in my life. …”13 Yet, on the whole, his encounter with academic philosophy ended in disappointment, and he summarized his Freiburg experience as follows:

The more I am taken by philosophy, the further I grow from the academic understanding of philosophy as practiced at this university. What I mean is we have to look for matter-of-fact assertions [materielle Aussagen] about our life and its meaning and not search for formal laws of a theory of knowledge that are basically irrelevant.14

Yet, in view of the continuous opposition of his parents to his marriage, Horkheimer decided to pursue an academic career. He wrote in one of his fictional letters that he hated “the university and its pedantic ways” but regarded the university career as the “one and only acceptable profession” in which one can assist in the problems of society.15 Horkheimer received his Ph.D. in 1922 and three years later handed in his Habilitationsschrift. Thus he started his academic career as a Privatdozent and married Rose Riekehr.


At the time at which young Horkheimer entered the academic scene in the 1920s, a revival of Marxian theory took place in Central and Western Europe. This revival took on a multiplicity of forms, such as the Marxism of Georg Lukács in Vienna, that of Antonio Gramsci in Rome, that of Karl Korsch in Leipzig, and the “bourgeois” Marxism of Karl Mannheim in Frankfurt.

The Marxism of Lukács and Korsch was an immediate reaction to, and a theoretical reflection on, the post World War I revolutionary situation in Europe. Waves of revolutionary movements in Russia, Germany, and Hungary inspired both Lukács and Korsch. A revolutionary messianism and optimism, the expectation of a world revolution permeated the Zeitgeist of the postwar period. Lenin wrote in his farewell address to the Swiss workers that the Russian revolution is “a prelude to and a step toward the world socialist revolution.” He continued: “The objective conditions of the imperialist war make it certain that the revolution will not be limited to the first stage of the Russian revolution, that the revolution will not be limited to Russia.”16 In spite of the defeat of the 1919 Hungarian proletarian revolution, Lukács still saw in 1923 the European working class as the agent of world historical change, and as the subject and object of the world historical process. At the same time, Lukács and Korsch rediscovered the philosophical (Hegelian) and the humanist dimensions of the Marxian theory. It might be noted that a renewed interest in Hegel had commenced at the beginning of the century with Dilthey's Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels (1906) and Croce's What is Alive and What is Dead in Hegel's Philosophy (1906). Marx's lifelong interest in man's alienation in a capitalist society was uncovered by Lukács' and Korsch's careful reading of Das Kapital, especially its “commodity fetishism” chapter, a decade before the publication of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Korsch's Marxismus und Philosophie, first published in 1923, was republished in the Grünberg Archiv in 1925. Lukác's History and Class Consciousness, a collection of essays, some of them written during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic when Lukács occupied the position of Commissar of Cultural Affairs, was also published in 1923.17 Because of the diversity of these essays, they are sometimes considered somewhat contradictory, that is, Lukács is celebrated as the founder of a modern humanist-existentialist Marxism on the one hand, and he is condemned for the glorification of the Communist Party's vanguard role, supposedly outdoing Lenin, on the other. Yet creative Marxism is the unifying theme of Lukács' book, and its main theses can be summed up under five major propositions. First, “orthodox Marxism” means a return to Marx's method, which emphasized the primacy of totality. Second, Marx's dialectics is a method to be applied to historical studies of society as opposed to Engels' Dialectics of Nature. Third, the phenomenon of “reification” is the essence of capitalist society. Lukács wrote:

at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back … to the riddle of commodity-structure. … Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a “phantom-objectivity,” an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.

Reification is “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.”18 Fourth, Lukács' philosophy of history claims that the proletariat is the agent (subject-object) of an inevitable world-historical process. Fifth, the party is the “objectification of its [the proletariat's] own will [obscure though this may be to themselves].”19

The influence of the “Occidental Marxism” (Merleau-Ponty's term) of Lukács and Korsch on the Frankfurt theorists is undeniable, although the relationship is rather complex, and it is difficult to determine its exact nature. Early Critical Theory did not emphasize unequivocally the primacy of totality as expressed in Horkheimer's critical review of Mannheim (1930): “It is not the grasping of a ‘totality’ or of a total and absolute truth but the changing of certain societal conditions that was the intention of his [Marx's] science.”20 Yet at the same time Critical Theory aspired to be the comprehensive social philosophy of contemporary capitalist society. There is considerable agreement between the Frankfurt School theorists and Lukács in their anti-Engels and antiscience sentiments, both having their roots in German Idealism and romantic anticapitalist social thought. All the dichotomous formulations such as Verstand (intellect) versus Vernunft (reason), civilization versus culture, Gesellschaft versus Gemeinschaft, and Naturwissenschaft versus Geisteswissenschaft are just different manifestations of the same issue. For the early Critical Theory of Horkheimer, “exchange” was a basic category: “Critical Theory of society begins with the idea of the simple exchange of commodities. …”21 Adorno too relied on Lukács' theory of reification in his “On the Fetish Character in Music” (1938), and later the notion of society based on the “dominance of exchange value” became a central category for his Theory of Society: “The spread of the [exchange] principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.”22 The theories of both Lukács and the Frankfurt School took an all pervasive, but by no means identical, ethical stand. The main difference, due to changed historical circumstances and to differences in personalities, was concerned with the alleged “historical mission” of the proletariat, the vanguard role of the Communist parties and the use of violence—as is discussed later in this chapter.

In 1930 a chair for social philosophy was created for Horkheimer at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1931 he became the new director of the institute. In the 1930s the Frankfurt theorists faced a different social reality than Lukács and Korsch had faced a decade earlier. European societies were in deep economic and political crises. The powerlessness of bourgeois-liberal democracies had become evident. Only the communists and fascists seemed to offer alternative solutions. Horkheimer accused the communists of authoritarianism and of being addicted to the use of force. The rise of fascisms, and the emerging Stalinism, with its bureaucratic, authoritarian traits and consequent purges, and also the gradual integration of American labor into what C. Wright Mills called “the middle levels of power”—the outcome of all these historical events—left no working-class movement with which to be allied. The German working-class movement was split. In Horkheimer's opinion, the splitting of the working class on the basis of the economic process into one stratum of the unemployed, who were immediately interested in the revolution but lacked a theoretical orientation and class consciousness, and another stratum with clear theoretical consciousness but without immediate interest in revolution, was reflected in the existence of two working class parties and the fluctuation of great masses of the unemployed between the Communist and Nazi parties.23

Horkheimer, never having been committed to any organization, attempted to steer a middle course between official Party Marxisms and unaffiliated liberal left bourgeois intellectuals. He hoped to salvage the philosophical-theoretical heritage of a humanist Marxism combined with other elements of European bourgeois thought, in the hopes of being able to work out some theoretical guidelines for a possible future course of action that was destined to lead ultimately to a just society.


Horkheimer took over his new office as director of the institute in January 1931. His opening address (Antrittsvorlesung), entitled, “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research,” indicated the shift in emphasis of the future course of the institute.24

Edward Shils, in contrasting the career of Max Horkheimer and Karl Mannheim (who was also a professor of sociology at Frankfurt University before going into exile in London in 1933), concluded that Horkheimer's position at the institute was a key factor in the subsequent success of his ideas, in spite of the fact that “Mannheim was the more original and many-sided of the two.” Mannheim was not associated with any institution and truly became a “free-floating intellectual” in exile. In Shils' opinion,

institutionalization … renders more probable the consolidation, elaboration and diffusion of a set of ideas. It serves to make ideas more available to potential recipients, it renders possible concentration effort on them, it fosters interaction about them, and it aids their communication.25

In my opinion, Shils' statement seems beside the point. Mannheim has indeed become, albeit somewhat marginally, a part of American sociology through his book Ideology and Utopia, whereas the name and theories of Horkheimer never entered the mainstream of American sociology. Adorno is remembered mainly as the first name on the list of coauthors of The Authoritarian Personality, and Marcuse's world wide success in the late 1960s was not a result of his one-time association with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research some 20 years earlier.


In Horkheimer's opening address, he placed the essence of Marxian theory in the universal explanation of societal movements on the basis of class relations, as determined by economic developments. In his view, “the ultimate aim of social philosophy is the philosophical interpretation of man's fate as a member of a community.”26 Horkheimer outlined the main task of examining the interrelationship among three spheres: the economic substructure of society, the psychic development of the individual, and cultural phenomena. According to Horkheimer, the real order of the day was to establish a close and fruitful cooperation between philosophy and the specialized disciplines. Social philosophy was seen as a materialist theory of history combined with empirical research. Philosophy, in the Hegelian sense, aims at the grasping of the objective essence of appearances. It must be receptive to change and to the impact of empirical studies. The immediate task was to organize research based on philosophical formulations of problems, in which philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians, and psychologists unite in permanent research teams. The first research projects were to deal with problems of skilled laborers and white collar employees in Germany. Horkheimer called attention to the excellence of American research methods that were to be emulated and incorporated into the work of the institute, a branch of which was established in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Grünberg Archiv, the journal of the institute until 1930, ceased publication, and a new journal of the institute, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung [Journal for Social Research] was launched. Horkheimer's Preface to the first volume of the Zeitschrift states that social research (Sozialforschung) is research in special areas at different levels of abstraction intended to “promote the theory of contemporary society in its totality.” Its aim was the grasping of the societal process in its totality and presumed the possibility of comprehending forces active underneath the chaotic surface of historical events. History may appear arbitrary, but its dynamics are dominated by laws. Therefore, its cognition is a science. The work of the Zeitschrift would be based on that assumption. Thus history is concerned with all the factors of economic, psychic, and societal nature that determine social life. The treatment of problems belonging to the realm of Weltanschauung and philosophy would be included if they bore on the “theory of society”.

Social research and traditional academic sociology were not seen as identical: although both deal with societal phenomena, the former extends its research into “nonsociological areas”. The problems of this social research concern the interrelationship of specific areas of culture and the laws governing their change. One of the major tasks for the solution of this problem would be “the creation of a historically oriented social psychology”. The Zeitschrift was to deal with both general theoretical problems and specific investigations of concrete problems of contemporary society and economy.

Interestingly enough, a “value-free” social research was announced as the objective: “The obligation to scientific criteria separates social research also methodologically from politics. It must preserve the independence of its claim to cognition vis-à-vis positions of all Weltanschauungen and political stands”.27 Part 1 of Volume 1 of the Zeitschrift (1933) was still published in Germany; the second part of Volume 2 was put out in Paris by Libraire Felix Alcan. In the preface, Horkheimer thanked the publisher for making the “scholarly publication in the German language” possible and pledged the continuation of the effort of the institute “to promote the theory of society and its auxiliary sciences”. Continuity with the German cultural heritage was always emphasized and stated again in the preface to the sixth volume: (1937) “The Zeitschrift and other publications of the institute today are among the few scholarly publications that continue the German geisteswissenschaftliche tradition in the German language abroad”.28 Only the third section of the 1939 volume and the last (1940/1941) volume were published under the title Studies in Philosophy and Social Science in New York, with all contributions in English.

The Zeitschrift was somewhat comparable in its aspirations to Durkheim's Année Sociologique. A perusal of its nine volumes reveals a broad interdisciplinary spectrum of an attempted grand program. Critical Theory has no magnum opus, no Cours de philosophie positive, no Das Kapital, no Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, no systematic explication of its principles, concepts, methodology, and findings. Its dominant form of expression has been essays, articles, aphorisms, fragments, and monographs devoted to specific topics. Despite this fragmentary and multiple character, the volumes of the Zeitschrift, a torso in view of Horkheimer's program, are nevertheless a remarkable document of European intellectual history.


Horkheimer's Critical Theory was developed in about a dozen essays, most of them written in German while he was in exile in New York City and published in the Zeitschrift between 1933 and 1940. Critical Theory was meant to be a critique of the “bourgeois” (traditional) theory. It is an amalgamation of diverse influences on Horkheimer's thought, the German idealist philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer the most notable among them. Judaic ethics (i.e., concern with social justice), Gestalt psychology, and certain selected elements of Marxian thought all played their parts in the crystallization of Critical Theory.


The term “Critical Theory” was coined by Horkheimer in a programmatic article to contrast with “traditional theory”. Horkheimer identifies “traditional theory” with the influence of Descartes and Husserl. Descartes' scientific method asserts as one of its maxims,

to conduct my thoughts in an orderly way, beginning with the simplest objects and the easiest to know, in order to climb gradually, as by degrees, as far as the knowledge of the most complex, and even supposing some order among these objects which do not precede each other naturally.29

Descartes asserts that

everything which can be encompassed by man's knowledge is linked in the same way … and that one always keeps the right order for one thing to be deduced from that which precedes it; there can be nothing so distant that one does not reach it eventually, or so hidden that one cannot discover it.30

Thus traditional or hypothetical-deductive theory is a sum of propositions in a research area in which the propositions are interlocked so that some of them can be deduced from others. Husserl maintained that theory is “a systematically linked set of propositions in the form of a systematically unified deduction”.31 Validity depends on the congruence of propositions with empirical evidence. Theory is accumulated knowledge. Theoretical explanation means the establishment of a connection between pure perception of facts and the conceptual structure of knowledge. Traditional theory aims at establishing a mathematical sign system. Logical operations are rationalized to the extent that, in a great part of the natural sciences, theory construction has become identical with mathematical constructs. The same conceptualization is applied to living and nonliving nature. The unity of scientific method is a primary objective. The sciences of man and society are to follow the examples of the more successful and advanced natural sciences. Representatives of dominant schools of “traditional theory,” the philosophers of science, positivism, and pragmatism, designate prognosis and utility of results as the main task of science.

In Horkheimer's opinion:

The fruitfulness of newly discovered factual connections for the renewal of existent knowledge, and the application of such knowledge to the facts, do not derive from purely logical or methodological sources but can rather be understood only in the context of real social processes.32

If theory is made an independent predicament, that is, if it is established ahistorically, as emanating from some inner essence of cognition, then it is transformed into a reified, ideological category. But the changes exhibited by scientific structures, both of all-embracing grand theories and minute everyday research operations, always depend on specific social situations. The influence of the subject matter on theory, as well as the application of theory on the subject, is not merely an intrascientific but also a societal process. As Horkheimer argues: “Bringing hypotheses to bear on facts is an activity that goes on ultimately, not in the savant's head but in industry.”33 Regardless of the belief or nonbelief of the scientist in an independent, suprasocial knowledge, he and his science are integrated into the societal apparatus. They are moments of the self-preservation and continuous reproduction of existing socio-economic systems. Science is part of the forces of production that makes possible modern industrial systems. Diverse branches of production, in the division of labor of the capitalist mode of production, are not independent entities but historical specifications of the mode of society's confrontation with nature. This includes science, which only appears to be independent, just as there appears to be freedom of the economic subject in bourgeois society in that individuals seem to make decisions when in reality they are merely agents of concealed societal mechanisms.

Critical Theory is a critique of the “traditional theory” from an ethical standpoint. Horkheimer emphasizes continuity—the idea that there is no absolute break with past theoretical achievements, because Critical Theory “contains within it elements from traditional theories and from our declining culture generally.”34 Traditional and Critical Theory differ mainly in regard to the subject's, that is, the scientist-scholar's attitude toward his society. Critical Theory's opposition to the traditional concept of theory springs in general from the difference not so much of objects as of subjects. “For men of critical mind, the facts, as they emerge from the work of society, are not extrinsic to the same degree as they are for the savant or for members of other professions who all think like little savants.”35

“Traditional theory” is bent on the preservation and gradual reformation of society to achieve a better functioning of the social structure as a whole or of any of its particular elements. Its intention is to eliminate the abuses and disturbing or dysfunctional elements. This attitude is based on the premise that

the individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions of his existence as given and strive to fulfill them; he finds his satisfaction and praise in accomplishing as well as he can the tasks connected with his place in society and in courageously doing his duty despite all the sharp criticism he may choose to exercise in particular matters.36

Critical Theory considers the “abuses” or “dysfunctional aspects” of capitalist society “as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized.” It does not intend to achieve a better functioning of class society by perfecting and promoting dominant social arrangements. Even the terms “better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable” are suspect. The sum total of blind interactions of individual activities in capitalist society, based on its division of labor and class structure, ultimately “originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of planful decision and rational determination of goals.”

Critical Theory, concerned with a radical transformation of existing social arrangements, is proposed, in opposition to the system-maintaining “traditional theory.” As Horkheimer argues:

The self-knowledge of present-day man is not a mathematicized natural science, which claims to be the eternal Logos, but a critical theory of contemporary society, a theory permeated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions in life. (italics mine)37

The term critical is to be understood “less in the sense it has in the critique of pure reason than in the sense it has in the dialectical critique of political economy.”38

Consequently, the adherence to certain basic notions of the original Marxian conceptual framework, such as the theory of impoverishment (Verelendung) and the inevitability of the breakdown of capitalism, is asserted by Horkheimer:

The categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, pauperization, and breakdown are elements in a conceptual whole, and the meaning of this whole is to be sought not in the preservation of contemporary society but in its transformation into the right kind of society.39

Thus Critical Theory is permeated by the idea of a future society as a community of free men, which is possible through technical means already at hand. Today there is a duality of social totality: the economy and culture of the present era are products of conscious human activity with which representatives of Critical Theory can identify themselves, but at the same time they state that certain phenomena of the same society (wars and oppression) seem to work like “nonhuman natural processes.” Horkheimer argues: “That world is not theirs but the world of capital.”40 This duality is manifested in thought by their acceptance and at the same time their condemnation of societal categories such as work, value, and productivity. Today men act “as members of an organism which lacks reason.” Organism as a naturally developing and declining unity, Horkheimer contends, cannot be a sort of model for society, but only a form of deadened existence from which society must emancipate itself.41 A critical theoretical work must serve this aim of emancipation and must be permeated by it. Therefore, it must reject the “separation of value and research, knowledge and action” of traditional theory. A major part of this research might be devoted to the social determination of ideas and theories, as the sociology of knowledge does. But whereas the latter contents itself with establishing a relationship between thought and its societal conditioning, Critical Theory must go beyond that stand to “look towards a new kind of organization of work.” Its aim is to “transcend the tension and to abolish the opposition between the individual's purposefulness, spontaneity, and rationality, and those work-process relationships on which society is built.”42 The issue is the rational individual versus the irrational society; Horkheimer's firm belief in the former is emphasized again and again. He maintains that “the thrust towards a rational society … is really innate in every man (italics mine).43 A more elaborate discussion of the term rationality and its modification under different stages of bourgeois society came about when the era of the “eclipse of reason” began.

Critical Theory aims at the coordination of thought and action. For the critical theorist,

the subject is no mathematical point like the ego of bourgeois philosophy; his activity is the construction of the social present. … [Today] in reflection on man, subject and object are sundered; their identity lies in the future.44

The path to this projected identity is not only a logical process of clarification for Critical Theory but also a concrete socio-historic process, in the course of which the entire social structure changes, as does the relationship of the theorist to society. The role of historical experience in reorganizing society on the basis of reason is crucial for Critical Theory. Today production does not serve the interest of the majority but the profit interests of a minority, a state of affairs that is ultimately rooted in existing property relations.


Horkheimer's search for the societal agent of the necessary historical transformation of an unjust capitalist socioeconomic order into a “just society” leads him to an analysis of the revolutionary potential of the capitalist social structure, which in turn ends in pessimism, even though at times he wavers between optimism and pessimism.

Marx and Engels saw the proletariat as the class that “experiences the connection between work that puts even more powerful instruments into men's hands in their struggle with nature, and the continuous renewal of an outmoded social organization.”45 In view of the decline of the European proletarian revolutionary movement in the late 1930s, Critical Theory is sceptical of this insight and subsequently of the role of the proletariat. In Horkheimer's words: “Even the situation of the proletariat is, in this society, no guarantee of correct knowledge.”46 False consciousness dominates proletarian insight and Weltanschauung. Critical Theory cannot belong exclusively to the proletariat, or, for that matter, to any social class. As Horkheimer expresses it: “Nor is there a social class by whose acceptance of the theory one could be guided.” A clear rejection of the historical role of the proletariat as primary agent of revolutionary change, a role rooted in its objective socio-economic situation is reiterated: “It is possible for the consciousness of every social stratum today to be limited and corrupted by ideology, however much, for its circumstances, it may be bent on truth.”47

It is clear that the bureaucratization of German working class parties served as a major source of Horkheimer's fear of any organized movements. In Horkheimer's words: “Where the unity of discipline and freedom has disappeared, the movement becomes a matter of interest only to its own bureaucracy, a play that already belongs to the repertory of modern history.”48

Furthermore, Horkheimer stated that if Critical Theory consisted of the formulation of the specific sentiments and ideas of a class, it would not differ from other special disciplines. Systematizing the consciousness of the proletariat would not produce the real picture of its existence and interests. It would be another traditional theory with a specific problem setting and not the intellectual side of the historic process of the emancipation of the proletariat. This would be so even if one limits oneself to pronouncing not the ideas of the proletariat in general but those of its most advanced segment or part of its leadership. The process of thought and of theory construction would remain one thing and its object, the proletariat, another.


As for the intellectuals, they waver between positions of...

(The entire section is 17360 words.)

Julia Simon-Ingram (essay date spring 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon-Ingram, Julia. “Alienation, Individuation, and Enlightenment in Rousseau's Social Theory.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 24, no. 3 (spring 1991): 315-35.

[In the following essay, Simon-Ingram finds parallels between Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment and the philosophical thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.]

In their landmark study Dialectic of Enlightenment1 Horkheimer and Adorno put forth a strikingly pessimistic interpretation of reason and enlightenment. They maintain that despite the advantages gained through reason's capacity to explain and ultimately to control nature, there is a dark side to the process of...

(The entire section is 8845 words.)

Barbara Becker-Cantarino (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Becker-Cantarino, Barbara. “Patriarchy and German Enlightenment Discourse: From Goethe's Wilhelm Meister to Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment.” In Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, edited by W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub, pp. 48-64. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Becker-Cantarino examines the role of patriarchal thought in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novels and Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment.]

Patriarchy is deeply ingrained in German Enlightenment discourse and in one of the most influential works in the German literary canon, Goethe's...

(The entire section is 7446 words.)

Herbert Schnädelbach (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schnädelbach, Herbert. “Max Horkheimer and the Moral Philosophy of German Idealism.” In On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, edited by Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonß, and John McCole, pp. 281-304. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Schnädelbach investigates Horkheimer's moral philosophy by contrasting his writings on the subject with the concept of German idealism.]


Horkheimer's work contains many passages concerning moral and morally relevant problems, but one searches in vain for a completely elaborated moral philosophy. The rudiments of one may be found primarily in “Materialism and Morality”...

(The entire section is 10305 words.)

Joan Alway (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alway, Joan. “Horkheimer and Adorno: Despair and Possibility in a Time of Eclipse.” In Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas, pp. 49-70. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Alway contrasts Horkheimer and Adorno's attitude toward social change, focusing on their response to and appropriation of Marxist thought.]

When optimism is shattered in periods of crushing defeat, many intellectuals risk falling into a pessimism about society and a nihilism which are just as ungrounded as their exaggerated optimism had...

(The entire section is 11263 words.)