Between ideals and realism: On the ”political” in Max Horkheimer’s early thought

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This chapter expounds the conception of the “political” in Max Horkheimer’s early thought and argues that Horkheimer offers a view of politics as a struggle to overcome socially produced suffering and redeem the emancipatory promise of bourgeois morality. Furthermore, this conception of the political informs Horkheimer’s method of immanent critique, which seeks to turn the radical promise of bourgeois ideals against the actual reality of bourgeois society and guide its practical transformation. The chapter relates Horkheimer’s conception of the political and method of immanent critique to the methodological debate in contemporary political theory between the proponents of normative political theory as ideal theory and the proponents of political realism. While ideal theory fundamentally lacks a conception of the political and therefore suffers from an inability to account for the conditions under which normative ideals might be realised in practice, political realism offers a truncated conception of the political with limited space for the normative ideals that motivate and drive emancipatory struggles and movements. The chapter argues that Horkheimer’s conception of the political occupies a space between ideal theory and political realism, which sees politics as the site of struggles to overcome socially produced suffering and immanent critique as the theoretical vehicle for directing and guiding these struggles towards a practical transformation of society that is informed by normative ideals – or, in his famous formulation, “as the theoretical side of the struggle to rid the world of existing misery”. Finally, the chapter argues that we can interpret Horkheimer’s method of immanent critique as a kind of theory of justice, albeit one very different from the “traditional” theories of justice that predominate in contemporary normative political theory: namely, as a “critical” theory of justice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Theory and the Political
EditorsAnastasia Marinopoulou
PublisherManchester University Press
Publication statusIn preparation - Dec 2022

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