This review deals with the reformulation of orthodox Marxism by Frankfurt School Critical Theory thinker Max Horkheimer. It will show how his formulation of Critical Theory challenged the determistic factors of orthodox Marxist thinkers that confined all causality for the class struggle and the social state of affairs to the economic factors (i.e. substructure) and denied the role of human consciousness.

Marxist thinkers at the start of the 20th century stressed the emphasis of the economic substrate as the only influence on human life, a view that certainly denied free will. The critical theorists of the Frankfurt School were educated in subjectivist, idealist philosophy that emphasized individual consciousness. They brought their emphasis on consciousness to bear on their Marxist thought, challenging the purely materialistic and socially deterministic orthodoxy of Marxism that was in vogue at the time.

Max Horkheimer drew on various philosophers to bring the subjective element into Marxism. His knowledge of Kant made him open to considering the "active elements of cognition" in perception. Though Marx had criticized the philosophies before him as empty metaphysics, post-WW1 Marxists like Karl Korsch recognized that the previous generation's Marxist thinkers overemphasized the influence of economic and material factors. By doing so, they managed to neglect of the power of human consciousness as a way of effecting social change. Horkheimer moved away from the copy theory of perception inherent in Marxism, arguing against the tabula rasa constitution of objects from sense perception. He drew on Hegelian dialectics to create a more subjective theory of objects, saying that objects were defined by a combination of their material perceptual qualities as well as by the socially constructed roles granted to them by historical subjects.

Horkheimer's new subjective-flavored Marxism was significantly shaped by his encounter with turn-of-the century Lebensphilosophie, i.e life philosophy or vitalism. Three of the thinkers in this area - Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Bergson - emphasized the internal experience of the individual and separated it from the common life of society. Horkheimer believed that by making man irrational, these philosophers had freed him from the objective shackles of reason. He found the rational man's conventional morality with all its inherent duties and obligations to be nothing more than the fulfillment of Capitalism's need to reconcile its subjects to a life of misery. Overtaking Nietzsche's notion that meek, passive behavior coincided with a master's desire to pacify his slaves, Horkheimer perceived the philosophy of life's emphasis on opposition of inner experience to outer experience as a rebellion against external domination of individuals by society. Thinking of this movement in economic terms, he conceived of it as a criticism against a capitalist society that imposed its routines on everyday life. A workplace's imposition of externally-ordered time destroyed the freedom of regulating the flow of one's experience based on one's personal taste.

Horkheimer lay the blame for the expectation that man follow routines rather than be free to shape his own experience on the shoulders of Kant. Kant's categorical imperative ethics encouraged one to act in the general interest against one's own individual desires and proposed a life of an ascetic self-denial. The purpose of such a life consisted in fulfilling external social expectations and encouraged a surrender of personal freedom for the demands of capitalist production. To counter the self-denying bourgeois ideology, Horkheimer wrote an essay "Egoism and the Movement of Emancipation" that imagined egoism as the organizing principle of social interaction. In other words, the essay conceived of a society that would not seek to appoint a general interest and require its members to sacrifice of personal happiness in order to realize this interest. Instead, social interaction would center around a dialogue of mutual gratification, stemming from the egoistic sensual desires of its members.

Incidentally, Horkheimer also believed that philosophical ideologies emphasizing inward experience could sometimes serve to reinforce the ascetic self-denying status quo of capitalism instead of propogating a more free gratifying social life. They would accomplish this goal by creating a diversionary outlet for the sufferers of a freedom-limiting social environment. This diversion of entertainment would discourage the working people from participating in self-liberating (i.e revolutionary) actions. A lot of philosophical ideologies that encouraged freedom from pleasure-denying social standards were flawed in that they limited this freedom to a private realm and discouraged the adoption of such free behavior in the wider society. Such is the fault of hedonistic life philosophies. Horkheimer points his finger especially at Nietzsche, because his thought situates the achievement of egoism in the context of a retreat from social life. Nietzsche does not encourage any movement to change social life.

Horkheimer likewise criticized Bergson for his philosophy of durée because the experience of time as uninterrupted flow encouraged escapism from unpleasant social realities. Horkheimer believed that in order for a person to experience pain, his sense of time could not flow without disruption. Human beings would have to deal with the sensation of time slowing and even stopping whenever they encountered suffering. The break-up of flow through suffering is cruical because it leads to social revolt against capitalism. Pain encourages people to recognize and change the circumstances that caused it. Bergson's emphasis on the flow of experience is therefore faulty because it encourages one to smooth over the rough jagged edges of experience and withdraw from contemplating the injustices of society that were responsible for them.

Sometimes, the problem that Horkheimer perceives in philosophies of life is their naive neglect of abstract material and economic factors, an oversight that arises from too much emphasis on subjective human factors. While Horkheimer thinks that human agency has an important role to play in thought about capitalism and class struggles, he does not approve when it is considered to be the only important element. It is in this vein that Horkheimer levels a criticism against Wilhelm Dilthey, another thinker belonging to the philosophy of life movement. Dilthey's concept of Verstehende Geisteswissenschaft proposes the idea that the method of writing history is dependent upon an intuitive understanding of historical structures by the mind. Horkheimer argues against this method of reading history. He makes the point that the human mind is not always capable of understanding historical events intuitively since history is often controlled by factors that elude intuitive human understanding. These intution-defying factors are related to abstract, economic, and material conditions. Understanding them requires the transcendence of mere intution and a reliance upon scientific analysis.

Though Horkheimer's opennness to subjective elements moved his thought away from the orthodox Marxist belief that the superstructure of culture was dominated by the substructure of material and economic forces, he still believed that these economic forces were important enough to merit consideration in the creation of historical narratives. To apply Horkheimer's thought to a more concrete matter, it would suffice to take the history of the development of capitalism as an example. Writing this history would depend on the analysis of raw materials, transportation methods, and financial currencies as much as on the actions of the people involved.

Source: Jay, Martin. Genesis of Critical Theory. In The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, (pp 41 - 85). Little, Brown, and Company: Boston, 1973

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