Max Horkheimer


As I work through the proofs of In the Vale of TearsI am reminded of Max Horkheimer’s finely dialectical  definition of theology:

Theology has always tried to reconcile the demands of the Gospels and of power. In view of the clear utterances of the founder, enormous ingenuity was required. Theology drew its strength from the fact that whatever is to be permanent on earth must conform to the laws of nature: the right of the stronger. Its indispensable task was to reconcile Christianity and power, to give a satisfactory self-awareness to both high and low with which they could do their work in a corrupt world. Like the founder who paid the price for refusing to show any concern for his own life and was murdered for it, and like all who really followed him and shared his fate or at least were left to perish helplessly, his later followers would have perished like fools if they had not concluded a pact or at least found a modus vivendi with the blood-thirsty Merovingians and Carolingians, with the demagogues of crusades and with the holy inquisition. Civilization with its tall cathedrals, the madonnas of Raphael and even the poetry of Baudelaire owes its existence to the terror once perpetrated by such tyrants and their accomplices. There is blood sticking to all good things. (Critique of Instrumental Reason, p. 36)

A snippet from my chapter on Max Horkheimer in Criticism of Theology:

To use terms such as ‘longing for the other’ can only get us so far, for they eventually beg for some content. Eventually, Horkheimer invokes specifically Jewish and Christian items such as God, the prophets and Jesus Christ. Horkheimer does not need some new spin on the question of God, taking the central doctrines of creation and God’s omnipotence to argue that allegiance to God means that no power, being, man or God can stand in the way of this higher allegiance. Even more – and here he becomes quite Protestant – human beings cannot influence God although they so often try to do so, through institution, rite, covenant, or any work or deed. As soon as someone, some political group or state claims that this omnipotence actually sanctions their own position, opinion or power, we know that the radical opposition required of the doctrine has been compromised.

As far as the ‘experience of the prophets’ is concerned, Horkheimer gives most of his attention to the ‘dangerous doctrine’ and ‘inflammatory speeches’ of the founder [Stifter] of Christianity, the prophet come lately who was murdered for his uncompromising attitude of mind, resistance to power and disdain for his own life. When Horkheimer looks back at Jesus of Nazareth – the ‘Nazarene’ as he tends to call him – and the early Christians, he does so with a mix of admiration, wonderment and perplexity – admiration for the revolutionary opposition to power, wealth and privilege; wonderment at how people can be so committed that nothing can stand in the way of their cause; and perplexity at the way in which that early impulse has been so comprehensively overturned.

In regard to admiration and wonderment, Horkheimer finds the sayings and acts of Jesus clear and unambiguous. Indeed, he hopes that even with the bowdlerised Christianity he sees everywhere around him, some – whether believers or not – might be found to offer resistance like the Nazarene. The founder’s position was inescapably insurrectionist and his early followers understood him in exactly this way: ‘he thought little of prevailing rules and customs; he acted contrary to accepted ways; he was much closer to the heretic than the orthodox’. Such an implacable position is, for Horkheimer, comparable to the Resistance during the Second World War, the moment that informs so much of his work. An extraordinarily dangerous undertaking, with treacherous death crouching in every doorway and at every corner, one joined the Resistance realising full well the consequences. We might compare it today with the ‘suicide-bombers’ unleashed by militant Islamic groups in their struggle with US imperialism – except that the ‘bombs’ for Jesus and the early Christians were words and acts that challenged the power of imperial Rome. Surely compromise was and is the easier option, preserving one’s life for a better day.

The reason why Jesus and the early Christians kept true to the cause and faced an almost certain death may be found, argues Horkheimer, in the certainty of heaven, which really means absolute justice guaranteed by the divinity, a place where the last would be first and all suppression and persecution would come to an end. And it was not that heaven was a distant and barely imaginable place; it was all too near and one entered it through the doorway of death, a brief passage that could be hastened by a cross, wild beasts of the arena and flames of the stake. Since all of us, especially the lowest and the poor in spirit, are made in God’s image, such a death was a way to be near God and become more like God. Above all, each martyr’s death – on the stake, cross, or gallows, or in the arena and the gas-chambers – was ‘a symbol of Christianity’, for each one followed in the steps of that first martyr, the Nazarene. Heaven – the place where the founder had so recently gone and where he awaited to welcome newcomers with salve for their wounds and to administer stern punishment for their torturers – gave concrete reality to justice, hope and love. Although Horkheimer elsewhere admits that he mourns the loss of a ‘superstitious belief in the Beyond’ and that he sees little gain in liberal theology’s retreat to myth and symbol, ‘heaven’ is, for Horkheimer, a primary marker of the love, hope and justice of an uncorrupted totally other.

Is there any value in this interpretation of a radical Jesus and an oppositional early Church? It is, of course, hardly new, being a persistent way in which Christ has been appropriated within and without Christianity since its earliest moments – a minority tradition, to be sure, but remarkably enduring. Martyrs would go to the arena to face beast, sword and flame in defiance of repression; the desert fathers and mothers would retreat into the desert in poverty, penitence and resistance to the increasing compromise of the Church with the state; Lollards, Taborites and Bohemian Brethren in the middle ages would form communes – in the tradition of Christian communism – and at times take up armed resistance; Thomas Müntzer and the peasants would wage a revolutionary war in sixteenth-century Germany in the name of Christ and the kingdom, as did the Anabaptists in the Münster Revolution in the same period; and political and liberation-theologians in our own day would follow in the same tradition, espousing a deeply political Christ and preferential option for the poor as central to the Christian message. Even mainstream biblical scholars today argue for a more or less political and radical Jesus, whether implicitly or explicitly insurrectionist, pacifist, or non-conformist. However, Horkheimer also stands in a Marxist tradition that goes back to Engels’s argument for the revolutionary nature of early Christianity. As for Horkheimer’s own take on this tradition, he is not so interested in the apocalyptic Christ who mistakenly expected the end of the world within a few years, nor does he play up the political nature of Jesus’s resistance in his own time (Roman Empire and Jewish religious system), preferring to let such politics mutter and rumble just behind the text.

But what of Horkheimer’s explanation for this implacable resistance to power, even to the point of death? Is it enough to argue that the nearness of heaven, anticipated in the hope of God’s justice, drove them to risk death? At one level, Horkheimer’s proposal answers a curious absence I will explore in Ste. Croix’s treatment of the same material (see Chapter Three). Despite his detailed knowledge of the sources concerning the early martyrs and despite the conclusive evidence that a good number of early Christians were voluntary martyrs, the only explanation Ste. Croix finds viable is that they were pathologically disturbed believers who welcomed death – anyone who would do so must be utterly deranged. What Ste. Croix misses in all of this is the motif of the imitation of Christ – those who were hung, burnt, beheaded and mauled to death did so in the belief that they were emulating their founder and that like him they would soon ascend to heaven. For Ste. Croix – a former believer in a rather sectarian and extreme form of Christianity – this is simply nonsense. By contrast, Horkheimer allows room for the powerful motivational force of such beliefs. Yet it is not quite enough to leave the reasons in that, rather idealist, shape. What is missing is an assessment of why these beliefs had traction, particularly in light of Horkheimer’s observations elsewhere that nature, need, and social and economic conditions provide ample nourishment for religious beliefs. Relatively short and painful lives (life-expectancy for peasants was barely 30), systemic colonial oppression, brutal crushing of revolts, mass-enslavements and inordinate taxes, as well as the cultural denigration of the colonised peoples – all of these were more than enough to give urgent credence to belief in a heaven in which all such earthly trials would be overturned and the colonial oppressors brought to justice. More than one person would find it enough of a reason to fight and die.

With all this talk of the founder of Christianity, Horkheimer brushes up against an issue that threatens to undo his careful delineation of a persistent and admirable oppositional figure. I speak of the criticism of the personality-cult that Horkheimer and Adorno explore in Dialectic of Enlightenment. In a few perceptive comments that draw upon Adorno’s elaboration of the ban on images in the second commandment of the Decalogue, Horkheimer and Adorno outline the way Christology has constructed the framework for the personality-cult in political movements ever since. Their argument is not that the divination of this human being is one that would be emulated time and again throughout the two millennia to follow, for that is by no means an uncommon motif across many cultures and historical moments. Rather, what is distinct about Christian theology (in its combination of biblical narrative and Greek philosophy) is that Christ is God who has become a human being and then returns to heaven to be one with God the Father. This theological schema sets up the possibility for the personality-cult, for any charismatic leader may thereby become a son of God, catching the ride, as it were, as Christ touches on earth and sets off for heaven and divine status. The implication of such an argument, at least for my point here, is that Christianity itself faces the perpetual problem of the personality-cult – not merely in terms of pope, reformer, founder of a new church, or even major theologian, but especially in terms of Christ himself. Further, the answer is not to be found in emphasising the humanity of Jesus, whether as teacher, healer, or resolute resistance-fighter, for Christology lays a dialectical trap for the unwary who make use of such an answer: Christology’s deep logic is that the more one emphasises the humanity of Jesus with all his earthly limits (and, I would suggest, his failings), the more one brings forth his divinity – and vice versa.

So where does this leave Horkheimer’s calling upon the founder of Christianity as a model not only for Christians but also for all who seek to break out of the mechanised and monotonous life of routine capitalism? Does his quiet stress on the earthly Jesus unwittingly push his various comments towards the divinity of Christ and thereby a full-blown personality-cult? A reader who pays careful attention to the moments when Jesus does turn up will see that Horkheimer is exceedingly cautious: he prefers to write of the ‘founder [Stifter]’ or the ‘Nazarene’ rather than ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed’ one (the Greek translation of ‘meshiach’ or ‘messiah’). And he does not speak of ‘Jesus’, which is theological code for the human, earthly Christ. Further, when the founder does appear it is nearly always in a collective context. He is one of a number, found among followers, or perhaps witnesses or martyrs of the early Church, or indeed the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I get the distinct sense that Horkheimer wants to put as much distance as possible between this founder of a militant collective on the one side and a philosophically inspired Christology on the other, with its speculation over the divine and human natures of Christ, his role in the three persons of the Trinity, and concern over the economy of salvation, in which Christ comes to earth, suffers and dies and then becomes the means for salvation for all who believe. None of that elaborate gobbledegook, suggests Horkheimer; the model this founder offers is a modest one, a simple and persistent resistance to conformity with stultifying systems of economics and society.

This is, of course, the Max Horkheimer who co-wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment with Adorno and was the director of that hotbed of Marxism, the Institute for Critical Theory.

I can’t help thinking that a careful reading of Max Horkheimer might aid the red(-faced) tories and sundry hangers-on during their effort to sup with the devil Cameron. A snippet from Criticism of Theology (with a few inserts).

One of Horkheimer’s main themes in his texts on religion is the role of the state – that collective gone bad. His experiences were not the best: he had fled the Nazis in the early 1930s, resettling the Institute for Critical Theory at Columbia University in New York; he had witnessed from afar what was taking place under Stalin in the Soviet Union; he and Adorno were not enthused at all by the vigorous capitalism in the United States. With these tendencies all around, it should not be surprising that Horkheimer would scan history for similar tendencies – and he found it with both Christianity and Judaism.

As for Christianity, Constantine the Great – son of a Christian mother and who himself converted at least in 312 CE (if not earlier) before the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge in which he gained control of the Roman Empire – is the main culprit. By 313, Constantine and Licinius (then emperor in the east) issued the Edict of Milan, which legalised Christianity, and Constantine set about an aggressive programme of building churches (in the main centres of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and elsewhere in the empire), paying for a whole new class of state-bureaucrats, the priests, calling church-councils (especially the first ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325 CE) for the sake of Christian doctrinal unity, and ensuring favourable treatment for Christianity. Even though it was not until 380 CE that Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the sole religion of the Empire, the deal had been done and the Christian church had moved from a marginal religion under pressure of state-censure to become extraordinarily powerful, wealthy and used to employing strong-arm tactics against opponents.

For some, this epochal shift was the sign of Christianity’s success. The Eastern orthodox and oriental orthodox churches made Constantine a saint, and ideologues such as Eusebius of Caesaria, the first church-historian (and Blond’s much more illustrious fore-runner), opined in 320 CE that a unified Christian empire was God’s will. For others, it was the great moment of betrayal. Radical Reformers in the sixteenth century, who suffered persecution at the hands of both the Roman-Catholics and the Protestants, saw Constantine’s conversion and adoption of Christianity as the religion of empire as the moment when Christianity sold out and betrayed that for which Jesus and the early Christians had stood. Horkheimer agrees wholeheartedly: this was when Christianity became rather embarrassed at what Jesus had said and done. And so it developed ‘a secret and indomitable hatred for that attitude of mind for which its founder had earlier been put to death’.

The consequences for theology and practice were momentous: evil and hell became necessary categories for those who did not conform; orthopraxis combined with orthodoxy to define who submitted to the will of the Church and who broke ranks; prayer slid from intercession for rain, the crops, the ruler or the people to the furtherance of one’s own (later bourgeois) goals; theology began its delicate task of reconciling the clear demands found in the Gospels with the requirements of power (a deifnition of radical orthodoxy …). On this last item, Horkheimer and G.E.M. Ste. Croix would have had much to discuss over a long night, many empty beer-bottles and an overflowing ashtray – Horkheimer with the theoretical depth and Ste. Croix with his inexhaustible references.

Yet the theme that keeps recurring in Horkheimer’s observations concerning this complex betrayal is the way the longing for the other becomes identical with longing for the mother-country. At this point, Horkheimer’s invocation on the ban on idolatry from the second and third commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 has some weight: ‘critical theory … rests on the thought that the Absolute – that is God – cannot be made into an object [nicht zum Objekt gemacht werden kann]’. Adorno would make this ban on idolatry into the Bilderverbot, a persistent leitmotiv of his thought; even though the theme is more muted in Horkheimer’s writings, it still has significant critical bite. Identification of the state, the mother-country, with the Absolute is the worst form of idolatry. And, like all idols, it demands sacrifice in blood, justifies wars of aggression and bloody suppression.

Horkheimer compares this compromise to a skyscraper, in which the ‘basement is a slaughterhouse, its roof a cathedral, but from the windows of the upper floors, it affords a really beautiful view of the starry heavens’.

While I was out on my bicycle tour, Sean Burt posted this comment on my entry from 25 January called Dis/Re-enchantment:

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a bit. I fundamentally agree with you here, though I’ve been wondering — if the narrative of re/disenchantment is fundamentally of a capitalist world, what can that lead us to say about pre-capitalist (i.e. ancient) fantasy literature? I’m thinking about Apulieus, Lucian, even Tobit (maybe you could even go with apocalyptic here, but I’m thinking more of the narrative, ‘novelistic’ mode). Why would ancient people have flights of fancy if their world wasn’t disenchanted? That’s not a rhetorical question — it really is something that’s been puzzling me!

This post was ages ago in internet time, but in the chance you see this, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

In a few earlier posts (here, here and here) I had argued that the idea of re-enchanting the world is one that is generated out of a capitalist context, where the narrative of enchantment-disenchantment-re-enchantment itself arises. Only in a world that seems to be abandoned by God (Lukacs) does it become possible to dream of re-enchantment. So a politics of re-enchantment (as the Radox – Adam Kotsko’s wonderful term – people propose, or as some like Michael Carden would like to see) is itself tied in with the logic of capitalism itself.

However, Sean raises another issue: did people view the world in this way at other times and places? Initially, I would have to say yes. Think of the ancients who began to allegorise the gods of Homer, as but one example. What do I do with these earlier moments? One path is to pick up the argument of Adorno and Horkheimer and suggest that a dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment has been with us for some time now. Invoke disenchantment (science, reason, common sense) and you get all manner of enchantments cropping up; push for re-enchantment and you will find an internal push to disenchantment (as, for example, with the Christian logic of the secular state). Another path, which actually carries on from the preceding one, is to argue that the possibility of thinking in such terms only arose in a certain capitalist context, which can then be retrofitted into earlier historical moments. It’s a little like the feeling one gets in applying a new method to the Bible: it all seems to work so well, so much so that the biblical authors seem to have read Lacan, Derrida, Zizek or Marx …