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Horkheimer in 1943 on party and class

Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

HORKHEIMER’S REMARKABLE ESSAY “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution -- regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality -- Marxism -- is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” -- freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” -- on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers' consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers -- as well as of intellectuals! -- that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class -- in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism -- what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century -- that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism -- which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party's struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature -- or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized "racket" capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | P


  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. 

  2. Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
    “The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” 

  3. Rosa Luxemburg had a half-century earlier expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”

    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .

    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.)  

  4. Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. 

  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M

  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,

    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”

    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.)  

  7. See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: </2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. 

  8. See Lenin's What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished "socialist" from "trade union consciousness:" "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, "It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things." Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>. 

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