Alfred Sohn-Rethel: Commodity Form and Thinking Form [5/10]

5. Philosophy and Commodity Production

The latter conceptions arise for the first time in Greek antiquity, in the Ionian philosophy of nature in the sixth century, in philosophy in the proper sense, in Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides, to name only the first, around 500. From a purely historical point of view, their development thus coincides with an epoch of accelerated development of trade in the Aegean and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, a growing trade of goods within the Greek Poleis, the emergence of a merchant class, and the increasing use of slave labour. In the 7th century, the first coinage was made in Lydia, and the rapid expansion of the new institution can serve as an indicator of the intensification of the exchange of goods. The dramatic consequences of these developments for the anachronistic order of Greek society have been depicted in a classical manner in On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. For Frederick Engels, they mark the transition to the developmental stage of “civilization”:

“The stage of commodity production with which civilization begins is distinguished economically by the introduction of (1) metal money, and with it money capital, interest and usury; (2) merchants, as the class of intermediaries between the producers; (3) private ownership of land, and the mortgage system; (4) slave labour as the dominant form of production.”[1]

The conclusions drawn by Engels in this work from the production of commodities “in their full growth” to the development of the family, law, classes and the state have recently been taken a step further by George Thomson. This scholar has also brought the origin of philosophy into a causal connection with the growth of commodity production. The result of his research on this point is expressed in general terms in the following sentences (at the end of the chapter on Parmenides):

“In Capital, Marx gave the first scientific analysis of those mysterious things called commodities. A commodity is a material object, but it only becomes a commodity by virtue of its social relation to other commodities. Its existence qua commodity is a purely abstract reality. It is at the same time, as we have seen, the hall‑mark of civilisation, which we have defined as the stage at which commodity production ‘comes to its full growth’. Hence, civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the ‘false consciousness’ generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of ‘substance’, may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.
In order to establish this conclusion, it would be necessary to discuss systematically some fundamental problems of modern as well as ancient philosophy; and that cannot be attempted here. That is why I have described it as provisional.[2]

The exact opposite applies to this paper. The historical analysis should not be the focus here. On the contrary, we shall attempt to conceive of that systematic analysis by which we could succeed in establishing the historical estimate as a convincing inner truth. This goal requires no more, but certainly no less than a formal deduction of the characteristic main concepts of metaphysical thinking from the commodity abstraction. Such concepts are the concept of substance, strict causality, abstract space and abstract time, etc. In other words, the forms associated with the “pure understanding” in modern philosophy, which also have been, in the same or related form, the categorial forms of metaphysical thinking in antiquity. A prerequisite for a classification of the required type is an advanced analysis of the commodity abstraction.

[1] TN: From this translation.
[2] TN: Thomson, The First Philosophers. Not a re-translation of Sohn-Rethel’s own translation, but the original text.

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [4/10]

4. Commodity form and pure headwork

The key to such an approach lies in the Marxian theorem: “As  a  general  rule,  articles  of  utility  become  commodities,  only  because  they  are  products  of  the labour  of  private  individuals  or  groups  of  individuals  who  carry  on  their  work  independently  of each other.” Where a large part of the goods needed by a society are products of such private works, there is developed commodity production. “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of  society”, Marx continues. The connection between private labour and the overall societal labour requires mediation through the exchange of the products, i.e. by means of actions which are not only qualitatively different from the activity of production, but also temporally and locally separated from it. Such a dichotomy between labour on the one hand and the societal connection of labour on the other is the extreme antithesis to communism, primitive or modern, where the work itself takes place in directly societal forms, and where the societal context, in its entirety as well as in all essential parts, is understandable and controllable by the workers. On the basis of developed commodity production, on the other hand, the cohesion of society is based on functions which are separate from independent production and therefore uncontrollable from the workers’ point of view. Here, therefore, a headwork which is independent of manual labour and resting on a separate form is becoming a societal necessity. In fact, the conceptualization of metaphysical thinking is historically found as a peculiarity of independent headwork. According to our hypothesis, the separate formal foundation of such intellectual labour is to be sought in market traffic, namely in those functions on which the connection between private labour and total societal labour is based. We would hypothesize the categories of separate or “pure” headwork as a form of societal connection where this connection is mediated by market traffic.

Be that as it may, it is clear that research of the connection of the metaphysical concept with the commodity form gives rise to the systematic questioning of the relationship between manual and intellectual labour in different societal structures. For it is scarcely necessary to emphasize that there are manifold intermediate stages and transitional forms between the two extremes of communism and fully developed commodity production, both from the development of primitive communism to commodity production, as well as from it to modern communism. In these intermediate stages various different degrees and forms of cooperative or individual production prevail, hence various forms of social connection connected with production or separate from it, and accordingly different forms of headwork, and various relations between headwork and manual labour. Also, the functions of the socialization of commodity exchange, separated from production, may take various forms, e.g. unilateral forms of acquisition such as tributes, taxes, feudal taxes, surrendered or voluntary, or even distribution and allocation of official or private nature, etc. Such one-sided forms exist everywhere, but in some epochs they play a dominant role such as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia or in the Feudalist Middle Ages. These types of separation between production and socialization also bring about necessary divorces between intellectual and manual labour. However, they are of a different character and offer much less difficulty of comprehension once the conceptual forms of traditional philosophy have been unraveled.

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [3/10]

3. Abstractness of the commodity form

The dominant trait of the commodity form is indeed abstractness, an abstractness that appears to seize hold of the entire vicinity of the commodity form. Thus, the value of a commodity or its exchange value is at first itself an abstract value as opposed to the use value. The value of a commodity is only capable of quantitative differentiation, and the quantification applied here is in turn of an abstract nature in comparison to the quantification of use values. As Marx demonstrated, even labour, as the specification of the value quantity and as the substance of value, becomes “abstract human labour”, human labour as such, labour in general. ­The form in which commodity value comes into appearance, namely money and specifically minted coin, is an abstract thing, a contradiction in itself. Within it, wealth, too, becomes abstract wealth. As the owner of such wealth, Man himself becomes the abstract Man, his individuality becomes the abstract private character of the proprietor. And, finally, a society in which the traffic of commodities is the nexus rerum is an abstract society.

Abstractness thus lies in the essence of the commodity form and dominates its entire vicinity. Furthermore, this abstractness exhibits a highly characteristic trait: it deceives the owners of commodities about the historical character of the commodity form and stamps unto their thinking that timelessly absolute claim of validity that denies all temporal origin and topical conditionality. “We  followed  up  this  false  appearance  to  its  final  establishment,  which  is  complete  so  soon the  universal  equivalent  form  becomes  identified  with  the  bodily  form  of  a  particular  commodity,  and  thus  crystallised  into  the  money-form. […] The intermediate steps of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind.”

The fetishistic character of the commodity dominates the thinking of the owners of commodities with such indomitable might that up until Marx it was an axiomatic assumption within philosophical thinking, that form, especially concept form, is not spatio-temporally derivable. Even to this day, it has completely escaped the attention of most philosophers that Marx has made a dent in this assumption. This ignorance doesn’t just come from the fact that Capital belongs to economic literature and therefore doesn’t seem to concern professional philosophers. The philosophers of academic credentials would hardly be receptive towards the Marxian deed, even if it was explicitly demonstrated to them. Were it different, the teachers of philosophy would have picked Marx’ analysis of the commodity form as their favourite target and attempted to tear it apart by the book of traditional formalism a long time ago. The habits of metaphysical thinking are, however, so deeply entrenched, that the full of the meaning of Marx’ commodity analysis as the first historical explanation of the origin of a purely formal phenomenon hasn’t even fully been appreciated by Marxist theorists.

However, it is also important for my intentions that the formal phenomenon of Marxian analysis is the economic category of value. It is none of the universal foundational concepts of philosophy, none of the categories of the so-called pure understanding or of object-thinking I general. In other words, it is none of the categories to which the method of metaphysical conceptualisation is epistemologically attached, the origin of which we have suspected to lie in the commodity form. This suspicion can therefore not be justified by the Marxian formal analysis, it goes beyond it. It is equally impossible to accompany the Marxian reduction of the economic category of value with a likewise reduction of pure object-categories. Our suspicion can only be confirmed by independently demonstrating the roots of the pure object-categories to lie in the exchange of commodities. This requires an expanded approach to the formal analysis of commodities, such that the determination of the size of value and thus the economic aspect are completely eliminated and the focus is kept exclusively on the formal problem.

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form 2/10

2. Foundational significance of the Marxian commodity analysis
The analysis of the commodity at the beginning of Capital takes a very special place within Marx’ opus. It is more than just the cornerstone of the critical analysis of the capitalist mode of production, with all this implies for Marxism. At the same time, it is Marx’ own stated instructive example for handling the historical-materialist method. It isn’t for nothing that the programmatic formulation of this method is found in the introduction to the text from 1859 in which Marx first published his analysis of commodities and money¹. Thus, the same general philosophical significance proper to this formulation of the materialist view of history also applies to its concretion in commodity analysis.
Understood in the light of the universal truth of historical materialism in general, commodity analysis uncovers an important link of mediation, through which certain load-bearing forms of consciousness determine themselves in epochs of developed commodity production. “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This sentence, in which Marx expresses his opposition to the idealist way of thinking, formulates the materialist core of the Marxian view of history, and is deserving of the most precise attention.
It is obvious that Marx doesn’t state his materialist view as a simple inversion of idealism. In the quoted sentence, the pure, abstract concept of “being” is amended with “social”. This expresses that the reversal, or, as it is called elsewhere, the “eversion” doesn’t just turn the content of the conviction into its opposite, but that the whole thinking form is transformed. The epitheton “social” introduces determinations which escape the timelessly abstract speculation of traditional philosophical thought. The process of the determination of consciousness is understood as a societal, historical, always specific process that isn’t about “the” consciousness “of” man, but about specific concepts of specific historical classes, groups and individuals. Contrary to “being” in the ontological sense, social being isn’t a final instance of determination, either. Quite the contrary, “social being” is understood as the economic structure of a society and as the determinate totality of conditions of production, which correspond to a specific stage in the development of the forces of production. Social being, understood this way, turns out to be the “real basis” of certain given forms of consciousness. Considering mind forms and the real basis not separately from each other, but in continuous relation and reciprocal constitution, such that the economic structure of a society is taken onto the corresponding forms of consciousness and that vice versa the forms of consciousness are taken to be transparent to their foundational material conditions; this is always the mark of an authentically materialist consideration of history². The Marxian materialist way of thinking thus gets rid of all instances of the timeless, absolute form of abstraction and of the rigid metaphysical demarcations and formations of opposites of traditional philosophical thinking.
It is precisely in this point that the Marxian analysis of the commodity form gains further and deeper significance. A historical materialist is under no compulsion to contend himself with the polemical opposition of the Marxian dialectical way of thinking and the traditional metaphysical form of the concept. This concept form isn’t suspended in thin air, it must itself have a specific material foundation and a necessary historical determinedness. And it is in more than one sense obvious to look for this foundation and determinedness precisely in the commodity form, for all those epochs in which developed (simple or capitalist) commodity production exists.

[1] TN: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

[2] TN: This sentence isn’t grammatically correct in the german original, either.

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [Warenform und Denkform] part 1/10

[While the first two proper entries fell under the category of Stuff That’s So Very Important No One Even Thought Of Translating It, I’ve come across one or two people who publicly stated that they might eventually get around to publishing a translation of the text at hand. Two things to anyone involved in such endeavours: 1. First! 2. Since this translation is entirely unlicensed and unofficial, I can’t technically prevent anyone from commercially using it without giving me credit. But you’ll look like a lazy jerk, and people can tell.]
[Also, the next two weeks will be spent on travels, so don’t hold your breath on part 2.]

1. A societal origin of pure understanding?
It is one of the fundamental doctrines of Marxism that the forms of human thinking are determined by societal being and subject to historical developments. As long as such thinking forms are directed at the understanding of societal relations, this doctrine does not encounter much resistance. But it also claims to be true of such forms of thinking that inform the knowledge of natural objects, and it is here that the Marxian doctrine stands in stark contrast to all other conceptions. Most accounts converge on the notion that we possess an immediate apperception of natural phenomena, and this can be conceded with regard to the sensual perceptions, or rather, to the role that our senses play in the formation of our apperception, for we have those senses in common with animals. The whole conceptual part of our notion of objective reality, however, is the product of historical development and of societal origin (actually, upon closer inspection even the sensual component isn’t really separable from the conceptual one). Our concepts do not belong to the things, are not properties of them which leap over to us, or which we read out of the things. The conceptual apparatus which we apply to things, is rather a part of us, if we are to understand “us” in the historical and societal sense, not individually or naturally.
The difficulty which this view encounters with pure concepts of objects is partially to blame on the fact that these object-concepts are tied to the conscious elimination of society from our thinking; they are what is left when the societal dimension is completely abstracted from. To most thinkers, especially to the philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, this fact is evidence for the claim that the scientific concept form represents the human mind in its authentic and original shape; a typical outlook for a class whose rule depends on the division of intellectual labour from physical labour. Modern mathematical or “theoretical” science is indeed purely intellectual labour, intellectual labour at its purest, so to speak. Because of this, the philosophers of the bourgeoisie have always been eager to demonstrate once more that due to the nature of the human mind, this kind of knowledge was immediately accessible, forever and always. It is of secondary importance to the main thesis wether this possibility is construed in materialist or in idealist terms, such that either the forms of objects arrive in the human mind from the objects or that they are primarily rooted in the human mind, even though a sharper picture of bourgeois class domination can be developed on the grounds of the latter, kantian version. Ancient philosophy is not in different in the main aspect; it also was, particularly was a philosophy of ruling classes with a monopoly on the mind, a philosophy by intellectuals and for intellectuals.
Marxism is the first philosophy for the working class; and thus the first that can afford to allow the thought that the possibility of scientific knowledge of nature is not a primary capacity of the human mind, but rather an intricately mediated product of certain societal developments and that it emerges from the roots of certain types of class domination. Surely the possibility of theoretical object-knowledge is logically immediate, but this logical immediacy does not justify the conclusion that there is a genetic immediacy. Quite the contrary. The immediate logical possibility of such knowledge exists for a subject that performs intellectual labour as separated from physical labour, and this subject, the famous “knowing subject” of idealist epistemology, may well be itself a product of history. The absoluteness and timelessness that belong to its content can be the result of the self-extinction of society in the consciousness of the participants. In other words, the elimination of society from thought, which is characteristic for the theoretical knowledge of objects and has been hypostasized as the genetic origin of pure understanding, implicitly or explicitly, by all of philosophy up until now, may be satisfyingly explained as an effect caused by society itself.
This is the position taken in the paper at hand. It is the effort of liberating epistemological thought from the shackles and pitfalls of the idealist way of thinking, and bringing it up to level with the preconditions underlying Marxist economics. The key to this lies with the Marxian commodity analysis, which forms the theoretical foundation of these economic theories. The defended notion will be that the birth of the theoretical subject from the self-abstraction of society is an effect of the process of reification that has been overlooked until now. Therefore we shall begin with a consideration of the general significance of the Marxian commodity analysis.

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel on the Weimar Hyperinflation

George Grosz - Widmung an Oskar Panzetti (The Funeral), ca. 1918
George Grosz – Widmung an Oskar Panzetti (The Funeral), ca. 1918

It was a fantastic time, I mean, the things you experienced… a very highly developed society with a precise division of labour – which existed without money! After all, the money that was in circulation back then wasn’t really money anymore. When you got paid, you actually had to walk to the butchery or the bakery or the vegetable vendor in a light run, so the money would still be worth anything there. And such companies like e.g. Osram in Berlin, they wouldn’t pay their workers in Marks at all. They gave them coupons for Osram lightbulbs, paid their wages that way. Then the Osram workers would go the bakers and offer them their Osram lightbulbs, what were the bakers supposed to do with all those lightbulbs? When the common denominator, that through which the society was kept together as a cohesive whole, just didn’t function anymore? The whole world fell apart, the ground opened beneath your feet. All the expressionist art of that time, that was a proper eschatology, because the world actually came to an end.

(Transcribed and translated from the radio broadcast of his recorded memoirs, available for listening here.)

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Translation of Horkheimer’s 1970 interview with DER SPIEGEL

[Disclaimer:the translation is my own, the original text obviously isn’t. Since this is a first attempt, suggestions for improving the texts are very much welcome]

The original can be retrieved here .


DER SPIEGEL interviews the philosopher Max Horkheimer

SPIEGEL: Herr Professor, you and your friend Adorno were the founders of Critical Theory, which for years has been considered to be the philosophy of Germany’s revolutionary youth. Recently you have addressed numerous questions in what has been interpreted as a conservative manner. In the controversy surrounding he birth control pill, you have somewhat defended Pope Paul. You have spoken of Stalin’s fascism. You have criticized the way theology is being liberalized and denounced the decline of conscience formation following the shaking of paternal authority. We’ll talk to you about each of those topics individually…

Horkheimer: Those are very serious questions. They are demanding of highly incisive thought. Surely, we’ll only be able to hint at answers in this talk.

SPIEGEL: It would be nice if it could be made clear how your most recent remarks, e.g. about Pope Paul or the new theology, stand in relation to the Critical Theory developed by you and your friend Adorno. Up to now, many people have considered Critical Theory to be Marxist and revolutionary; an assumption deemed to be confirmed by the fact that numerous leaders of the German student protest movement had some connection to your institute in Frankfurt.

Horkheimer: Critical Theory has always been faced with a dual task: designating that which is to be changed and conserving certain cultural moments. Furthermore it has to describe the process of change to which our world is subjected.

SPIEGEL: What kind of change is that? Might it be similar to the one you saw coming in Germany in the late twenties? Back then, you predicted Hitler. How do you view Germany’s future today?

Horkheimer: I have to admit that today I do not have a determinate prediction for the next years. In all likelihood, the history of Germany will run its course according to the same logic which today is immanent to the development of states everywhere.

SPIEGEL: And what does this logic indicate?

Horkheimer: That the states, including the Federal Republic, will be totally administrated on the inside. I’m not saying they will be administrated in a totalitarian way, i.e. by terror.

SPIEGEL: How does this perspective relate to the utopia of Karl Marx?

Horkheimer: Marx was of the opinion that the right society would come when the means of production are fully developed. Then – i.e. when all products necessary for the satisfaction of needs can be produced – domination would be obsolete, there would no longer be ruling and ruled classes, be it by revolution or by the force of immanent necessity.

SPIEGEL: But you do not believe that this would achieve the true, just society?

Horkheimer: Not anymore.

SPIEGEL: Since when?

Horkheimer: At the end of WWI I began concerning myself with Marx – because I realized, that I should take care of the problems of society. Then I became a follower of Marx. This intensified the closer we got to National Socialism. It increasingly dawned on me that there were only two possibilities, either the rule of the national socialists, or revolution. To me, Marxism seemed to be the answer to the right-wing totalitarian reign of terror. But over the course of WWII, I began drifting away from Marxism.


Horkheimer: Because I realized that National Socialism could also be defeated in another way, definitely so by war. Meanwhile, Stalin’s reign of terror became a symbol for the fact that revolution could also lead to terror.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider Stalin’s terror to be the necessary consequence of Marxism-Leninism?

Horkheimer: At least it is the consequence of the historical situation over there. Russia has largely skipped the important period of liberalism in the 19th century. That may not have caused any economic damage, since Russian society could acquire the achievements of liberalism, namely science and technology, as finished products from Western Europe. But what it didn’t really acquire were the motives which in the west made up the foundation of the achievements of Liberalism. I mean, the urge for liberty, for the development of man and the development of the person.

SPIEGEL: You mean to say that in Russia, science and technology weren’t a product of a spontaneous bottom up movement?

Horkheimer: Yes — and this has had consequences. In my opinion, sociology hasn’t nearly paid enough attention to the fact that the development of man is connected to competition, the most important element of the liberal economy. The mind is one of the beneficiaries of economic competition.

SPIEGEL: In a way, that’s an argument in favour of capitalism.

Horkheimer: It’s true that around the first half of the 19th century, in many countries well into the second one, the situation of the proletariat was dreadful; just think about child labour. Still, despite all historical dialectics it appears to me, the more I think about it, that Liberalism fulfils an extremely important purpose. The thought that the abolition of societal competition would advance the free man seems to me an optimistic misconception.

SPIEGEL: To what extent is it a misconception?

Horkheimer: Marx didn’t address the fact that justice and liberty are dialectical concepts. The more justice, the less liberty; the more liberty, the less justice. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – wonderful! But if you want equality, you have to restrict liberty, and if you want to allow people their liberty, there is no equality.

SPIEGEL: That’s a very pessimistic thing to say.

Horkheimer: Marx projected the universal development of the personality as a goal for the future. But this precise development was largely a consequence of the liberal age, which tends to disappear together with liberalism.


Horkheimer: Quite simple, because everything will be directed and the room for free initiative will constantly decrease. See, I’m thinking of my father. He had the waste product of weaving mills und cloth factories torn up by machines and worked into new materials for spinning mills. How would he have ended up doing this other than by the impulse of being able to become a rich man that way? Competition made him put up practical effort, not quite unlike how I myself developed my original philosophical interest according to the demands of an academic career, in order to nurture my beloved, recently deceased wife.

SPIEGEL: If the development of society itself is subject to an immanent logic, if the adjustment pressures for the individual people are getting constantly growing, what good can a social theory still do?

Horkheimer: I’ll start by saying modestly: We do not yet live in the fully automated society. And: Specifically, we still can do a whole load of things, even if they should eventually become outdated.

SPIEGEL: Are we able to resist what you call the immanent logic of societal development, thus preventing the emergence of totally administered world?

Horkheimer: No – but maybe help to preserve some positive achievements and prevent gruesome incidents.

SPIEGEL: Such as the reign of terror of Hitler and Stalin?

Horkheimer: Yes, even when I also have to be skeptical here. If Hitler had restrained himself to only killing people within Germany, then none of the major countries would have intervened against him. These would then have been considered internal affairs of the Reich. The major powers waged war against Hitler for the sake of power. Today, it’s the same. At present, the West is behaving towards eastern countries in the same manner as it used to towards Hitler. Internally, they can commit horrible things without anyone caring in the least about it. When Western ministers meet and greet the eastern ones: friendly expressions and speeches, even if the other man is a mass murderer. I do not want to discuss here about the apparent exceptions, such as Greece.

SPIEGEL: You demand a moral policy?

Horkheimer: I do not think it is right to behave towards terrorist states in a way that even resembles to how you behave towards others.

SPIEGEL: Cold War?

Horkheimer: No, cold peace!

SPIEGEL: But how are we supposed to determine morality in political circumstances. In the case of Hitler it was relatively simple, at least from the time when the murders Jews became known…

Horkheimer: Exactly.

SPIEGEL: … but where would such a point be today, a point where a moral point of view becomes mandatory? Also, you have to consider that some moral end might be reached by negotiations. A minister just surely be allowed to consider that when he confronts someone in in a friendly way, despite probably considering him a bad person.

Horkheimer: I do not know at all whether he thinks that. I suspect that the moral integrity of the partner hardly matters. The other is just the Minister of a powerful country with which we have to live. Thinking about hundreds of thousands of people there languishing in prison or concentration camps, that doesn’t really occur to him. That’s why I think it is the task of intellectuals, to repeatedly point out that the representatives of states in which horrible injustices are committed every day, should be treated differently than the representatives of reasonably humane states.

SPIEGEL: Should their diplomats not be received?

Horkheimer: Imagine, for example, that fascism or terroristic communism breaks out in a country. Today, the relation of the so-called civilized countries to these countries hardly changes. The thinking people should therefore insist that the countries change their relationships with terrorist states decisively.

SPIEGEL: How do the thinking people know what is good?

Horkheimer: I have written that any policy, which doesn’t retain within itself theology or metaphysics, and therefore also morality, is ultimately nothing but business.

SPIEGEL: You mean that a good, moral policy is not possible without theology?

Horkheimer: At least not without the thought of a transcendent.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by this?

Horkheimer: First, I want to talk about the critics of theology, the positivists namely, and make it clear that from the position of positivism no moral policy can be derived. Scientifically speaking, hatred is not inferior to love, despite all socio-functional difference. There is no scientific reason why I should not hate, as long as there are no disadvantages for me in society. Everything connected with morality logically ultimately goes back to theology, at least not to secular grounds, no matter how cautious your grasp on theology is.

SPIEGEL: So, back to God?

Horkheimer: At least – in this I’m in agreement with Kant and Schopenhauer – I know that the world is appearance. The way we know it, it is not absolute, but the orderly product of our intellectual functions. Anyway, it is not the last.

SPIEGEL: And what is the last?

Horkheimer: Religion teaches that there is an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. A barely credible dogma in the face of terror that reigns on this earth for thousands of years!


Horkheimer: I would say that theology should be renewed. There is no certainty that there is an omnipotent God. Yes, we cannot even believe it in the face of this world and its horror.

SPIEGEL: What remains?

Horkheimer: The longing.

SPIEGEL: For what?

Horkheimer: The longing that the injustice that marks this world is not to remain. That injustice may not be the last word. This longing is part of the real thinking man.

SPIEGEL: So, a new religion?

Horkheimer: No, we cannot start a new religion. Let the old denominations continue to exist and act in the admission that they express a desire, not a dogma.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean liberalization of religion, as it is under way today?

Horkheimer: Not absolutely. Modern liberalization of religion leads, in my view, to the end of religion. Unconsciously or semi-consciously, everyone here becomes convinced that the liberalization of the theology corresponds to the common policy. There are concessions being made, compromises, it will come to an arrangement with the science – as if science could say more about it than that the earth was a micro atom, a little ball with a coating of mold, floating in the infinite universe.

SPIEGEL: And what shall religion say about such wretchedness of life, to the violence that happens to life?

Horkheimer: Give expression to the will that this injustice, that an innocent is tortured to death, the executioner triumphs, is not to be not the last word, but above all act accordingly to the theology that is based in longing.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that such a desire is sufficient to enable moral behavior, especially in a field such as politics? Six years ago, you wrote in an essay for your friend Adorno: “to save an unconditional meaning without God, is vanity.” This leads to the question: If there is no God, and if it consequently would be no unconditional meaning of life – what should the moralist appeal to in politics?

Horkheimer: Appeal to God? We cannot do that. At least that’s my opinion: We cannot say that there is a good and omnipotent God. But you’re quite right, then so one cannot appeal to God. One can only act upon the inner drive, that there shall be…

SPIEGEL: That there shall be a good God?

Horkheimer: Adorno and I – I no longer remember which of us said it first – and in any case we have both not spoken of God but of the “yearning for the other”.

SPIEGEL: This caution when dealing with God’s name is – as often stated – Jewish heritage.

Horkheimer: Yes. And even in such a way that this caution has become part of our social theory, which we called the Critical. “Thou shalt not make an image of God,” it says in the Bible. You cannot represent what is the absolute good. The observant Jew tries to avoid the word “God” as far as possible, so he does write it out, but makes an apostrophe. The same way, Critical Theory cautiously calls the absolute “the other”. What moves me is the theological idea, applied to a rational theory of society.

SPIEGEL: In about the same way, as was the case with Marx or in Ernst Bloch?

Horkheimer: For these two –to my sensibility – messianism has been decisive most of all, for me, the idea that God cannot be represented.

SPIEGEL: But Marx believed that he was predicting the advent, the beginning of the absolute good in the form of a classless society.

Horkheimer: In any case, this is how it has been interpreted. Furthermore, I could remark that the solidarity of the proletariat in the so-called developed countries has long been related to achieving a better lifestyle than the real sense of a radical change of society. Marx was a materialist.

SPIEGEL: Is the result of this the only kind of solidarity?

Horkheimer: No, a new solidarity could emerge beyond it, one which is necessarily a part of humanity. It arises from the fact that we are finite beings, that we have to suffer and die.
SPIEGEL: What effect shall this solidarity of all people in the consciousness of their abandonment have?

Horkheimer: First of all, the common element, the questionable nature of the world in suffering and death. Furthermore, the joint effort towards a better existence.
SPIEGEL: By speaking about the rivalry in the world, about the abandonment of the people, you are talking at the same time about the absolute, i.e. God. Is this not a proof of God?

Horkheimer: No, this is not a proof of God. I would say it is a theological postulate.
SPIEGEL: How do I know that I’m abandoned, if there is no god? How can I criticize the relative world, if I know nothing of the Absolute?

Horkheimer: The abandonment is only possible, you’re right, because of the thought of the Absolute. But the certainty of God is impossible.
SPIEGEL: But then how does the good come into the abandoned world?

Horkheimer: According to Jewish and Christian teaching the good only indirectly comes from God. He is said to have created man in his own image, and man therefore has free will. If he does good, he does so voluntarily and not merely out of fear of God, just as he does the bad, which certainly does not come from God.

SPIEGEL: This free will has – according to the Bible – led to the original sin, the expulsion from Eden, which explains the hope for the Messiah, who is to return mankind to paradise – or as is sometimes said : to Zion.

Horkheimer: We spoke earlier about how the messianic is problematic to me. I said that for me, the Absolute cannot be represented, as Kant teaches. In the creation of Israel arose, unless I am mistaken, the problem that it is said somewhere that the Messiah would lead the righteous of all nations to Zion. I still wonder today about how the State of Israel stands in connection with this prophecy. Is Israel the biblical Zion?

SPIEGEL: Where do you see the solution to the problem?

Horkheimer: The way things are, the solution seems to be in the fact that the persecution of the Jews – which is part of the prophecy – still continues despite Israel. Israel is an embattled country, as the Jews were always harassed. One cannot be opposed to the creation of the state, because too many people otherwise would not know where to turn. This is the key for me. Israel, the asylum for many people. Nevertheless, it does not seem easy for me today to match it with the predictions of the Old Testament.

SPIEGEL: On the one hand, so you think, the State of Israel is necessary as a refuge for millions of Jews, but on the other hand this state is supposed to realize a Jewish utopia, namely Zion, which is scarcely less problematic to describe or represent than the image of the Supreme Being. Here, too, parallels offer themselves to your Critical Theory.

Horkheimer: Certainly. It is true that according to Critical Theory the good as such, the absolute positive cannot be represented. On the other hand, we – I mean Adorno and me – have always said that what is to be changed, what is to be improved can be designated in various fields. Moreover, I have often emphasized that the right activity does not consist merely in the change, but also in the preservation of certain cultural moments, indeed, that the true conservative is a closer relative to the true revolutionary than he is to the fascist, as the true revolutionary is a closer relative to the true conservative than he is to the so-called communists today.

SPIEGEL: Can you give an example of such moments worth preserving?

Horkheimer: We already talked about the fact that theology, albeit in a different form, is worth preserving, that liberalism has produced positive forces that should be preserved preserve – even in an administrated world. Many cultural moments could be mentioned.

SPIEGEL: Why do you think actually that this total administration of man is inevitable?

Horkheimer: With science and technology, man has subjugated the immense forces of nature. If these forces – for example, the nuclear energy – are not to be destructive, they must be taken charge of by a truly rational central administration. Modern Pharmaceuticals has – to mention another example – made it possible to manipulate human reproduction with the pill. Will we not one day need the administration of birth?

SPIEGEL: Where do you see the danger?

Horkheimer: Certainly not merely a threat, but also something useful and necessary, which should not be prevented. I fear, however, that the people, once the administrated world is there, will not exercise their skills freely, but adapt to rationalist rules so much that they finally obey the rules instinctively. The people of the world to come are likely to act automatically: Red light, stand, green light, walk! They obey the signs!

SPIEGEL: And what about free will?

Horkheimer: Maybe it will be where it is with bees and ants and other creatures of this earth.

SPIEGEL: So, in the administrated world there will be no free will?

Horkheimer: An authoritative answer cannot be given. I just mean the immanent logic of the present historical development, unless it is interrupted by disasters, would point to such a sublation.

SPIEGEL: You spoke earlier of the pill and a year ago, when Pope Paul then banned the pill in an encyclical, you have attempted a half-defense of Paul. How did you get involved? Seriously you cannot assume that this means of birth control could ever be eliminated?

Horkheimer: That was, as you will remember, not the idea. I thought I should provide an example of Critical Theory. Therefore, I said to myself: No, now it is important to show what has to be sacrificed for this progress, true love. Of course, I couldn’t say back then and cannot say today what can be done against such a loss. But it is not already something if we raise awareness? The pill allows birth control. Good. But the deep and worrying changes it causes in society have to be addressed.

SPIEGEL: What changes?

Horkheimer: The whole literature of love, with its central motif of unrequited or even unrealizable longing for other people, is today a museum piece, “Romeo and Juliet” a museum piece, no longer of any concern to the advanced!

SPIEGEL: The administrated world, a loveless world?

Horkheimer: We must assume that the pill will change the family, not least based on sexual fidelity, so that elementary ethical structures of our society are questioned.

SPIEGEL: In what way?

Horkheimer: One example: Freud taught that the human conscience arises through the authority of the father. By son and daughter hearing daily from the father: “Be diligent! Tell the truth! Do the right thing!” – the demand enters the psyche. Finally, they hear the father’s voice as their own. During puberty, the son then holds against the father: “Do you always speak the truth? Do you always do what is right?” Until the son will understand that, in this world, you cannot always tell the truth or do as you should. This is a moment of maturity. But today the authority of the father is shaken by the many sociological, psychological and technological changes, one of which is the pill. What are the consequences? Does conscience play a different role, because the authority of the father is no longer the same as before? Or may it no longer even form?

SPIEGEL: And if it were so?

Horkheimer: Definitely it seems clear that the collapse of the father-myth puts the existence of conscience to question as a social phenomenon. The mother that pursues a profession has long since become a different kind of thing than the mother whose life’s work was essentially the education of children.

SPIEGEL: Because a portion of her energy is absorbed by the job?

Horkheimer: Not only that. The profession reified her thoughts, as is the case with the man. Add to that something else. She has equal rights. She no longer radiates love as she used to. The mother used to be the one that retained nature in the positive sense, in her speech and gestures. Her conscious and unconscious reactions played an important role in raising a child. They were perhaps more influential than the instructions.

SPIEGEL: Do you want to retrieve all this?

Horkheimer: Of course you cannot undo such processes. But you can try to preserve some of what has been handed down by making the change also visible in its negativity. This is an important task of Critical Theory.

SPIEGEL: But what benefit shall we get from the insight that the essential elements of previous education, for example, the maternal mode of expression, will lose their function in the future?

Horkheimer: A certain benefit could perhaps result from at least partially offsetting the incurred loss of education by the reorganization of schools. We must provide young people with more than just knowledge.

SPIEGEL: You mean something that opens up a way out of the administrated world?

Horkheimer: You could put it that way.

SPIEGEL: Many today are looking for such a solution in a pharmaceutically produced dream.

Horkheimer: The total management of the world will abolish intoxicants insofar as they can be injurious to health. Maybe they will introduce harmless means, because the world will indeed be boring, and boredom must also be abolished.

SPIEGEL: Why would the future be boring?

Horkheimer: The theological will be abolished. Thus, what we call “meaning” will disappear from the world. There will still be business, but it will be meaningless. One day you will also consider philosophy as a children’s matter of humanity. It will be said with positivism, it is foolish to speculate on the relationship of the relative and the transcendent.

SPIEGEL: But it could also be that the people – if their material needs are fully satisfied, including sexual – turn towards games.

Horkheimer: Even animals have those, yes. I can well imagine that that continues with humans.

SPIEGEL: Professor Horkheimer, thank you for this interview.

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