Horkheimer, Max

(1895–1973)
   Horkheimer’s contribution to Marxism consists in his role in creating the Frankfurt School and developing the “critical theory” that emerged from the school. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Horkheimer was educated at the universities of Munich, Freiburg and Frankfurt, graduating from the last of these with a PhD in philosophy in 1923. He became Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1930, and used his position to appoint academics of a humanist Marxist bent that would come to be known as the “Frankfurt School.” Most notable among these appointments were Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno.
   Horkheimer emigrated to the United States in 1933 where he was able to reestablish the Institute as an affiliate of Columbia University in New York, and where it continued until a return to Frankfurt was made possible in the 1950s.
   Horkheimer’s own thought underwent a series of changes, but was most notable for a critique of positivism, empiricism and rationalism generally, and determinist, scientistic interpretations of Marxism in particular. 1947 saw the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment written by Horkheimer and Adorno. This key work was strongly influenced by the background against which it was written, namely World War II and the barbarism of the Nazis. Horkheimer and Adorno linked the atrocities of the Nazis with the rational instrumentality embodied in Enlightenment thinking. The ideas and values of the Enlightenment had helped to progress humanity, but now in a dialectical shift these same ideas were serving to tyrannize humanity by destroying or degrading everything that was intangible or could not be quantified. A cold scientific logic was obliterating individuality, spirituality, and culture as everything was turned into a commodity for sale and purchase, a thing to be manipulated and controlled. Empiricism, rationalism, instrumentalism and positivism—the heirs of the Enlightenment—denied the existence and significance of what could not be observed or deduced or controlled.
   While continuing to adhere to some Marxist tenets, such as the commitment to materialism and a historical approach, Horkheimer moved away from embracing the notion of the centrality of class struggle, and his critical view of science and technology also served to distance him from Marxism. His humanistic approach has provided a useful counterweight to the overly scientistic schools of Marxism, and his tendency to pessimism is a useful corrective to the undue optimism of some Marxists.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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