Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas

By Joan Alway | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Horkheimer and Adorno: Despair and Possibility in a Time of Eclipse

When optimism is shattered in periods of crushing defeat, many intellectuals risk falling into a pessimism about society and a nihilism which are just as ungrounded as their exaggerated optimism had been. They cannot bear the thought that the kind of thinking which is most topical, which has the deepest grasp of the historical situation, and is most pregnant with the future, must at certain times isolate its subject and throw him back upon himself.

Max Horkheimer "Traditional and Critical Theory,"214

Dialectic of Enlightenment is an expression of shattered optimism in a period of crushing defeat. It offers, as we have seen, only the faintest hope for social change. In examining Horkheimer's and Adorno's later work, we will find that while Adorno maintained this faint hope, persisting in a belief that a better world was at least a possibility, Horkheimer lapsed into pessimism. An important factor in their divergent paths was their response to and appropriation of Marxism. For Horkheimer Marxism was not so much a science or political theory as it was a moral program tied to the realization of a just society. When its historical moment passed, his primary interest in a just society was maintained through a return to religion, a return in which practice would be reduced to faith. Adorno, on the other hand, approached Marxism as a method of analysis, as a way of uncovering the "truth" of social reality. Never having associated such "truth" with a particular group or political program, he had less difficulty continuing his project of radical critique once the moment of Marxism's practical promise appeared to have passed. As a consequence, it is in Adorno's work that indications of a new conception of practice can be found.

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