On Max Horkheimer and the Challenges of Critical Theory Today

This sociology went beyond the critical theory of society conceived by Marx in order to reflect reality more adequately. One point is very important. For Marx had the ideal of a society of free human beings. He believed that this capitalist society would necessarily have to be overcome by the solidarity spelled by the increasing immiseration of the working class. This idea is wrong. This society in which we live does not immiserate the workers but helps them to build a better life. And apart from that. Marx did not see that freedom and justice are dialectical concepts. The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom. The critical theory which I conceived later is based on the idea that one cannot determine, what is good, what a good, a free society would look like from within the society which we live in. We lack the means. But in our work we can bring up the negative aspects of this society, which we want to change.”

By R.C. Smith

Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) was a German philosopher and sociologist. He served as the director of the Institute for Social Research and as Professor of Social Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt from 1930–1933, and again from 1949–1958. In the period between his directorships, Horkhiemer lead the Institute in America, during a time of exile.

Arguably Horkheimer’s most important works are The Eclipse of Reason (1947), Between Philosophy and Social Science (1930-1938) and, in collaboration with Theodor W. Adorno, the Dialectical of Enlightenment (1947). He offered significant contributions to many other works to have emerged from out of the Institute, and should be credited as a key figure behind the epistemological and methodological orientation of Frankfurt School critical theory.

While Horkheimer developed several substantial theses, all of which are still very much relevant today, his work will forever be defined by many by his unwavering commitment to disclose the relation between suffering and complex social structures and forces.

According to Horkheimer, the general normative principles of critical theory are as follows:

– Develop a multidimensional understanding of society that is “dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life” (1)

– Develop a multidisciplinary theory which reveals the inherent antagonisms and negative social conditions of contemporary society, and condemn existing social institutions and practises as “inhumane” (2)

– Develop a fundamental critique of society, which contemplates the need for “an alteration of society as a whole” (3)

Critical theory is critical of capitalism and also of other (bad) social systems to have emerged in human history. It is grounded in understanding the evolution of human society as that which is principled on a drive toward domination. But in terms of understanding the historical unfolding of capitalism, and even the constant crises of capitalism, Horkheimer defines the critical theoretical perspective rather brilliantly:

“the critical theory of society begins with the idea of the simple exchange of commodities /… The theory shows how an exchange economy, given the condition of men (which, of course, changes under the very influence of such an economy), must necessarily lead to a heightening of those social tensions (i.e., inherent antagonisms of the social structure) which in the present historical era lead in turn to wars and revolutions …/ The theory says that the basic form of the historically given commodity economy on which modern history rests contains in itself the internal and external tensions of the modern era; it generates those tensions over and over again in an increasingly heightened form; and after a period of progress, development of human powers, and emancipation of the individual, after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism.”(4)

While there is still much to be said about the meaning and role of critical theory today, this brief essay at least offers a glimpse of where Heathwood is coming from as an organisation determined to advance Frankfurt School critical theory in 21st Century society. I would argue that contemporary critical theory must anchor itself in a new, radical philosophy of the social sciences (seeing how at the very heart of critical theory is the aim to achieve a multidisciplinary – or even supradisciplinary – account of human society) as well as develop new standpoints of fundamental critique so as to better capture the internal antagonisms of modern society. In the not so distant future I intend to publish an extensive essay on the subject, however in the spirit of our present introductory discussion it is perhaps satisfactory to continue with a introductory account by citing the following passage by Christian Fuchs, who wonderfully captures the essence of critical theory in the 21st Century in his essay on the critical theory of information, communication, media and technology:

Critical theory is a transdisciplinary project that at the epistemological level employs methods and theoretical categories that are employed for describing reality as dialectical contradictory field that poses risks and opportunities so that at the ontological level reality is grasped in terms that address ownership, private property, resource distribution, social struggles, power, resource control, exploitation, and domination so that at the axiological level dominative structures are judged as being undesirable and potential ways for alleviating suffering and establishing a co-operative, participatory society are identified that can enter as impulses into into political struggles and political transformations of society.

Two central texts of Critical Theory, Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory and Marcuse’s Philosophy and Critical Theory, can be interpreted for not being constitutive for Frankfurt School Critical Theory, but for critical theory in general. In these works, Horkheiemr and Marcuse on the one hand stress the limits and one-dimensionality of positivism that they consider as stabilizing forces that neglect potential alternatives to capitalism in their analyses. On the other hand, the most important uniting feature of the two works that makes them grounding works for critical theory in general is the axiological questioning of domination and the focus on the necessity of the establishment of a non-dominative society.

For Horkheimer, the goal of critical theory is the improvement of society: “In the interest of a rationally organized future society”, critical theory sheds “critical light on present-day society (…) under the hope of radically improving human existence” (Horkheimer 1937: 233). He specifies this improvement as the right kind of society that in negative terms is non-exploitative: “The Marxist 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” (Horkheimer 1937: 218). Critical theory strives for “a state of affairs in which there will be no exploitation or oppression” (241), a “society without injustice” (221).

This emancipation in positive terms would bring happiness and self-determination for all: “Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (249) and “the happiness of all individuals” (248). Critical theory advances “the idea of self-determination for the human race, that is the idea of a state of affairs in which man’s actions no longer flow from a mechanism but from his own decision” (Horkheimer 1937: 229). Such a society is shaped by “reasonableness, and striving for peace, freedom, and happiness” (222) and the “the establishment of justice among men” (243). Mankind will then become conscious of its existence: “In the transition from the present form of society to a future one mankind will for the first time be a conscious subject and actively determine its own way of life” (233). Political transformation is a process of negation, the corresponding theoretical procedure in critical theory is the method of negation: “The method of negation, the denunciation of everything that mutilates mankind and impedes its free development, rests on confidence in man” (Horkheimer 1947/1974: 126).

For Marcuse, critical theory is oriented against the negative totality of capitalism: “Marx’s theory is a ‘critique’ in the sense that all concepts are an indictment of the totality of the existing order” (Marcuse 1941a: 258). In turning negativity into a potential positive result, Marcuse (1937: 135) says that critical theory is concerned “with human happiness, and the conviction that it can be attained only through a transformation of the material conditions of existence“ is a central element of critical theory. Its goals is “the creation of a social organization in which individuals can collectively regulate their lives in accordance with their needs“ (Marcuse 1937: 141f), a societal condition, in which we find “the subordination of the economy to the individuals’ needs“ (Marcuse 1937: 144). It struggles for universal freedom and can therefore be considered as a universalistic theory. It claims that “all, and not merely this ort hat particular person, should be rational, free, and happy. (…) Critical theory’s interest in the liberation of mankind binds it to certain ancient truths. It is at one with philosophy in maintaining that man can be more than a manipulable subject in the production process of class society“ (Marcuse 1937: 152f). Critical theory’s task is “to demonstrate this possibility and lay the foundation for a transformation“ (Marcuse 1937: 142). It wants to bring “to consciousness potentialities that have emerged within the maturing historical situation“ (Marcuse 1937: 158).(5)

However, with this description of critical theory held close it is important to take note here that critical theory also faces many challenges in the 21st Century.

There is a problem, as David Sherman puts it, “which is reflected in certain variants of postmodernism” about “whether there is any concept of philosophy left that has not been completely assimilated by the “totally administered society,” such that philosophy has been abolished by virtue of the very fact that it has ultimately not realised itself.” This problem is as evident today as the crisis of capitalism and of the historical reemergence of dominant social systems. But with the dominating forces of modern society increasingly taking on new forms, the need for a radical new account of philosophy and an interdisciplinary and foundational critical theory is of paramount importance.

As Sherman observes: “[o]f course, theory lives on – but the issue is whether it lives on as critical theory.”(6) Not only does this question require a fundamental critique of traditional leftist politics (as well as the modern right), which as milieu often misleadingly claims to be the source of an ’emancipatory politics’ – our challenge today is to also establish new standpoints of critique and ultimately ground calls for new norms of critique in a foundational, holistic theory of society which can support the development of actual democratic alternatives. Just as the sociology of the Frankfurt School ‘went beyond the critical theory of society conceived by Marx in order to reflect reality more adequately’, in order to meet the challenges of 21st Century society we must advance critical theory as a whole in order to retrieve and ultimately progress this tradition so that it reflects more adequately both the unique and historically-rooted problems we face today.


(1) Max Horkheimer, 1972. Traditional and Critical Theory, tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro, in Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Herder & Herder), pp. 198-199, 208, 209, 210.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Max Horkheimer, 1972. Traditional and Critical Theory, tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro, in Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Herder & Herder), pp. 226-227 (Parenthetical id est mine)

(5) Fuchs, Christian, 2013. Critical theory of information, communication, media and technology. (Heathwood Press), online publication: http://www.heathwoodpress.com/critical-theory-of-information-communication-media-technology/

(6) David Sherman, 2007. The Dialectics of Subjectivity: Sartre and Adorno (New York: Suny), p. 238.

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