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Max Horkheimer and The Sociology of Class Relations

In the fall of 1943 Max Horkheimer composed multiple drafts of an essay entitled “On the Sociology of Class Relations.” The essay was intended for inclusion in the collaborative project with Theodor W. Adorno which came to be called The Dialectic of Enlightenment. One indication that the essay was crucial to their project was that Horkheimer solicited several responses to the working drafts including comments from Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse (on the East coast) and Friedrich Pollock and Adorno (in Los Angeles with Horkheimer). Undoubtedly the handwritten notes that annotate several of the type-script pages reflects some of the comments he received from his respondents. More mysterious is the fact that the essay was never published in the form presented here. Paragraphs from it appear in Eclipse of Reason (1947), and long passages comprise a German edition of the text in the Nachlass (volume 12) but that version is a contemporary product of the editors. What appears here for the first time is Horkheimer’s original essay in full and in its original English-language format. To say that Horkheimer’s command of English was far from fluent in 1943 will be clear to readers at once. I have done my best to reconstruct the text from the type-script original which was overlain, probably over many months, if not years, with hand-written notes, alterations and additions.

The value of this text requires some comment. There is of course the intrinsic worth of Horkheimer’s essay, and its relevance to one of the monuments of Western Marxism. What draws this text into the space of’s concerns is the intersection of union organization—what Horkheimer critically elaborates here under a general theory of “rackets”—and Marxism. To say unions and Marxism share a tense history is an understatement. Even a passing glance at Lenin’s What is To Be Done? indicates how centrally trade unions figured as an internal enemy to the Marxist cause. Horkheimer follows in this tradition in some large part. By the time Lenin came to write “Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920, an essay devoted to the strategic art of compromise, he had altered, or substantially inflected, his view of the trade union movement as well as parliamentary politics. At this moment the Supreme Court is poised to offer yet another in a long series of blows against unionization in the United States. To what extent did and do Leftist thinkers contribute to the current assault on unions? To what extent can and should Marxism resist this tendency?

The invited respondents to Horkheimer’s text—James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Chris Cutrone, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann, whose task is respondent to the above—take up various positions in regards to the ongoing debate around unions and Marxism. We hope that the publication of Horkheimer’s key text, and the responses by contemporaries will encourage further discussion around this problem.

—Todd Cronan,


Max Horkheimer

On the Sociology of Class Relations (September-November 1943)

According to Marxian theory the power of the ruling class has been based upon its monopolization of the means of production. Legal ownership was the ideological expression of the fact that a minority of people occupied a position which enabled them to exclude the rest of society from freely using the land or other instruments necessary for the continuation of social life on a given scale. The ruling class has absorbed the gifts of culture, that is to say, the difference between the total product of consumer goods and the bare necessities of life of those who produced them, and, though guided by uncontrolled social forces, has decided which kinds of goods are desirable and by which methods they have to be secured: either by hard labor alone or by the use of arms.

The privileges thus held by the ruling minorities throughout the ages were not altogether irrational. It is true that, in the last instance, they were conquered and maintained by force. But the fact that the groups which enjoyed them were able to make use of that force for the organization and stabilization of some form of society capable of living was an expression of economic superiority. In the later periods of their reigns, when the principles of organization which they represented were made obsolete by the progress of other parts of the population, their power grew, though more convulsive and terroristic, but at the same time became imbecile. They were transformed into a purely repressive factor, the social and cultural forms, wearily maintained by their administrative apparatus against new possibilities of human association, exercise a mutilating effect upon the minds and faculties of mankind.

The notion of class as it underlies this theory of history needs further elucidation. At least during the most typical periods property of the means of production was not identical with their well-planned use, or with the existence of a unified will and determination. The various groups which formed the ruling class understood each other fairly well whenever the necessity occurred to crush the resistance of the exploited masses or of any forces threatening to set up a new social rule. When it came to punitive measures against the progressive burghers in Southern France or even against proletarian elements in Flanders, the worldly and spiritual powers of the Middle Ages, emperors, kings, and popes forgot their traditional conflicts for the time being and united for the defense of the prevailing hierarchical system of society. However, medieval history offers in no way a picture of solidarity among the rulers of the Christian world. On the contrary, there is a never ending fight going on over the booty among the different hierarchical groups. Each one wants to assume authority over large areas in order to be nourished and housed and served by as large a population as possible. The ruling class, held together by the common interest in its specific mode of exploitation, has always been characterized by its internal struggles, by the effort of one of its parts to secure the spoils that others might have appropriated. And since the most efficient way to be sure of the continuous flow of goods and services has always been the command over those who render them, the struggle for security among the elites has been a run for as far-reaching a command as possible, in other words, for the control of production.


For several reasons this nature of the ruling class was obscured during the 19th century. The emancipation of the bourgeois from the restrictions of the guilds and the release of the laborer from serfdom seemed to have abolished the unsurmountable differences between the various sectors of humanity. Economic competition embracing all parts of the population was more peaceful although more involved than the quarrels and discords of the great in times past.  It was one of the achievements of Marx’s writings that he, while stressing the changes and progressive features brought about by the new form of exploitation, unveiled the oppressive character of modern economic relations, the old issue of power behind the apparently rational set-up of liberalism. In Fascism this identity of bourgeois society in its different periods has become so obvious that economists who, in opposition to materialistic interpretation of liberalism clung to a narrow concept of market economy, purged from all political and historical implications, are now throwing the ideas of economy overboard altogether replacing it by a more than simple political or psychological explanation of present-day events.

In fact the idea of competition as it was conceived in liberalistic theory was misleading in many respects, two of them being particularly important for the theory of class relations. First, the nature of competition between the workers and the capitalists was essentially different from the nature of competition among the capitalists themselves. Competition among workers, at least during the heydays of liberalism, meant nothing else but that there were so many of them that the wages could hardly rise above the cost of bare living and, as in many cases, often even dropped below it. Fascism has only revealed what was already inherent in liberalism: the delusive nature of the labor contract as a deal between equally free partners. It would be a grave theoretical mistake to denounce that contract in modern totalitarianism as mere formality, and stress its genuine authenticity under liberalism. In both phases of the economic system the aim of the contract may well be considered as the maintenance of that same basic inequality which is shrouded in its democratic language.

Second, competition among the entrepreneurs themselves was never quite as free as it seemed to be. Here we are not thinking of the interference with industry by the liberalistic state, which economists are used to brand with reproach as long as big business does not take it under its own exclusive management; we rather have in mind the inequality resulting from the different degrees of social power which various industries are able to exercise. Such differences depend largely upon the more or less advanced stage of economic concentration and centralization of the respective industry, upon the mass of machinery which its particular branch of production requires, upon its importance for the regular functioning of the economic life of the nation. Therefore, the groups which by birth or deceit, brutality or smartness, expertness in engineering, management of human relations, marriage or adulation, have come to control a part of the total capital invested in industry, from a hierarchy of economic power by which the free play of competition has been limited at each of its stages. The discovery that national economy in various capitalistic countries depended on 200, 60, or even smaller numbers of families, brought this situation into a clear light which eventually made the veil of free competition transparent.

The development of capitalistic society according to its own inherent tendencies, caused the progressive elements of competition to disappear: it secured the link between the needs of consumers and the profit-interest of the individual entrepreneur, it diminished the possibility, slight as it was, that an independent mind gained access to an independent position, it reduced the number of relatively autonomous economic subjects, who by the very fact of that plurality had an interest in the functioning of general law and its impartial administration. Such elements vanish in the later stages and allow society to revert to more direct forms of domination which in fact never had been quite suspended. This process, however, is not only a reactionary one. While the inequalities among the entrepreneurs are spilling over into monopolistic and eventually totalitarian control of material life the relation between capital and labor undergoes a most typical change. In recent history of capitalism the working class has entered competition {the struggle for power} by adapting itself to the monopolistic structure of society.

Up to the early 20th century the fight of that class had a more or less spontaneous and radically democratic character. Their memberships, composed of workers who in the factory experienced every day their antagonism to the individual entrepreneur, were more or less active. Their executives, whose offices had not yet become quite stabilized expressed at least partially the ideas and hopes of the oppressed individual concerning a better society rather than to impress their own ideology as administrators, struggling for a big share in social domination upon the minds of their followers. (This, by the way, does not mean that the revolutionary functionaries of the past did not try to influence the workers. On the contrary, their efforts to open the eyes of the workers were much more intensive and outspoken. The difference of their psychological structures with those of their followers was perhaps much greater than that between the workers of today and their prominent representatives, yet the latter, once established, rest much heavier upon the souls, their sway over the life of the association much more powerful than the appeal to theoretical reason made by the older type of functionary.) The figure of the individual, trying to defend its qualities as a human being against becoming, in and outside of the factory, a mere accessory to the apparatus of production, had not yet been replaced by the figure of the member defined exclusively by its standardized material interests. Today, the transformation is complete. It [labor] has assumed a form which fits into the monopolistic set-up and, consequently its relations to the different capitalistic groups are no longer so radically different from those prevailing among the latter.

The new situation is expressed in the concept of labor as it is a guiding intellectual principle not only in the minds of workers but also with the general public. Labor like Agriculture or Industry, or even sections of Industry, such as Steel, Rubber, Oil, are collective terms which are not ordinary abstracta or generalia. Their logical structure resembles more a totality like a State, Nation, Church with regard to their components rather than a generality like color or animal with regard to their specimens. They emphasize the concreteness of themselves as universal concepts, not as much one of the elements they comprise. The logical structure indeed mirrors exactly the mold of their objects. The elements of labor, primarily the mass of ordinary members, are not the forces which, by their own ideas and spontaneity, determine the course of the whole; they are not so much, to use a mathematical term, the constant value with regard to the whole as the fluctuating one. On the contrary, the whole, i.e., the organization in which the leaders, with their specific materialistic and power interests, with their philosophy and character structure, have an infinitely greater weight than the ideas of any plain member, determines and even overawes the individual.

There is, however, a most typical difference between the social totalities of our monopolistic society and those of earlier periods. The life of the totemistic tribe, the clan, the church of the Middle Ages, the Nation in the era of the bourgeois revolutions, took their course according to patterns which had assumed their shape in long historical developments. They had become fixed images and models. True, such patterns—magical, religious or philosophical—were intellectual sediments of their present forms of domination, they reflected the hierarchical stratification of society as it were, but while they formed a cultural binding-substance which maintained a social formation even when its role in production had become obsolete, they also preserved the idea of human solidarity. This they did by the very fact that they had become objectivized spiritual structures: any system of ideas as far as it is wrought in meaningful language, be it religious, artistic, or logical, has a general connotation and pretends to be true in a universal sense. Therefore, the older forms of totalities which tried to comply with a spiritual, idealized model, contained an element which is completely lacking in the purely pragmatic totalities of monopolism. The latter also show a hierarchical structure, the wholly integrated and despotic totalities, but the ascent of their functionaries to the upper grades has nothing to do with any quality of theirs regarding an objective spiritual content but almost exclusively with their ability to impose on people, to handle people, to be smart with people. Purely administrative and technical qualities define the human forces toward which the modern totality gravitates. Such traits were in no way lacking in leaders of the different sectors of ancient classes, but by their radical separation from any autonomous idea today they give to the modern totality its particular character.

The concept of labor as a pragmatic totality becomes quite clear when confronted with the proletariat as conceived by Marx. For him the workers were the masses of all exploited people in industrialist society. In spite of all the minor differences in their fate, each of them, on the whole, had the same outlook on life: the periods of employment would become shorter, the pressure of the unemployed on the wages grow stronger, the misery, in the midst of an ever wealthier society, become unbearable. More and more the capitalist would be unable to grant even the bare existence to the majority of the population. This trend would be expressed in the life of the average worker by a decay of his whole situation, by a deepening of its poverty, by growing hopelessness and despair. The economic pressure resulting from this state of affairs together with the enlightenment of the workers achieved by their role in the modern productive process, would lead to the formation of a party which would finally change the world. This party would spring from the similarity of the situation of the workers all over the world, its principles and structure would abstract from the temporary differences in the financial situation in different branches of production as well as in different geographical and national settings. It would not express so much the actual conscience of the individual worker which may be affected by all the mutilating influences of exploitation, but the resistance against the frustrations imposed upon man by social forms which have become purely oppressive. The effort of this party would be inspired by the fulfillment of just those human aspirations, material and spiritual ones, which were suppressed or distorted by making the individual a kind of accessory to machinery as it is achieved in the modern industrial process, the parties aims were connected with the situation of the individual and the masses and did not have a special affinity to a particular category of workers at the expense of other ones. It represented the oppressed masses as such. Since the reason for the laborers frustrations was not considered to be found in any specific defect of capitalism but in the very principle of class-rule the workers parties efforts were to be guided in each stage by the subjective idea of the abolition of that rule and the establishment of a true community.

It was decidedly not concerned with the increase of its members’ income, nor the income or career or social position of its leaders. Working for and even adhering to that party meant the renunciation of all such things. Members, by the very reason that such principles could be understood and assimilated only by relatively advanced elements of the working class, were an avant-garde of the working class. They were supposed to control the leaders very closely and the criterion of that control was not supposed to be the avant-garde’s own wishes and needs but the common interest of the working class in all countries, as the avant-garde was able to understand it. Since the working class, the proletariat, in its tremendous majority was composed of individuals who, in their own psychology, expressed rather the mutilating effect of exploitation than the idea of a free humanity, the party, in spite and even because of its antagonism to the majority of masses for whom it stood, thought of itself as the genuine conscience of that same majority. The true interest of the masses, which they were unable to formulate themselves, guided the party’s decisions as the theory of capitalist society.

Theory, therefore, played an essential role in the proletarian party. It was the heir to these older systems of thought which had been the models for past totalities. These older systems had vanished because the then prevailing forms of solidarity proclaimed by them had proved to be treacherous. Unlike the medieval doctrine of the Church or the liberalistic apology of the market system, proletarian theory of capitalism did not glorify its object. It looked at capitalism under the aspect of its being the last form of domination. In no ways it justified the established ideas and superstitions of those whom it guided. In contrast to the tendencies of mass culture, none of those doctrines undertook to “sell” the people the way of life in which they are fixed and which they unconsciously abhor but overtly acclaim. Social theory offered a critical analysis of reality, including the workers’ own distorted thoughts. Even when the actual masses were hostile to the party it felt itself related to their decisive interests by its theory. The party was not above the masses as the labor-leader of today find themselves above the laborers and the proletariat itself remained somehow amorphous and chaotic composed of individual subjects, deprived as they were of their human qualities by their transformation into mere elements. That amorphism, by which it differed fundamentally from any kind of totality, was the reason why, despite its being split into national groups, skilled and unskilled labor, employed and unemployed, its interests could become crystallized in a body such as the party. The trade union whose role was not to be underestimated had (illegible) to subordinate their actions to the parties strategy. Labor in monopolistic society is itself a kind of monopoly. The amorphism of the masses and its complement, theoretical thinking, both expressed in the parties fight against exploitation as such, formed the contrast to the pragmatistic totalities of today which pay for the rise from the passive role of workers in the capitalistic process with their complete integration. The proletariat as conceived by Marx was no totality.1

Labor in monopolistic society is itself a kind of monopoly. Its leaders control labor supplies as the Presidents of Big Corporations control raw materials, machines, or other elements of production. Labor leaders trade at this kind of merchandise, manipulate it, praise it, try to fix its price as high as possible. Labor, becoming a trade among others, completes the process of the reification of the human mind. With religious and moral ideologies fading and the proletarian theory, which once had expressed the ideals and hopes of the individual for a better society, being abolished by the march of economic and political events, the conscience of the workers becomes identical with the categories of their lenders’ trade. The idea of antagonism between the international proletariat and any system of domination is completely superseded by the concepts tied to the disputes of power between the various monopolies. True, the proletarians of older days did not have any conceptual knowledge of the social mechanisms unveiled by theory and their minds and souls bore the hallmark of oppression. Yet, their misery was still the misery of single human beings and therefore connected them with any exploited mass in any country and in any sector of society. Their undeveloped minds were not kept in movement by the techniques of modern mass culture hammering the behavior patterns under monopolism into their eyes and ears and muscles not only during the leisure time but during the working hours from which the so-called amusement can anyway hardly be differentiated. As it was true that many of them had to lead periodically a vagabond life, their minds were inclined to roam and therefore were susceptible to theory. Workers today like the public in general are intellectually much better trained, they know the details of national affairs, the tricks and crooked means, typical of the most opposite political movements, particularly those which live from propaganda against corruption. Despite of their knowledge of the conditions of wealth and success, the workers will join in any persecution, any attack on a capitalist or politician who has been singled out because he violated the rules, but they don’t question the rules themselves. Since they have learned to take the basic injustice of class society as a powerful fact and powerful facts as the only thing which ought to be respected, their minds are closed to any dreams of a basically different world and to all concepts which instead of being mere classifications of facts are formed under the aspect of real fulfillment. Their childish belief in such things has been so drastically wiped out of their memory that now they stubbornly believe in reality as it is; desperately they repeat the commands which are knocked into their systems when they once tried to open their eyes: there is only one way of living and that is the actual one, the one of hardboiled smartness, all that seems to be opposed to it are idle slogans, lies, metaphysics, he who is unable to adapt himself to this state of affairs, whether it is myself or any other man, the badly adjusted, stupid one, is rightly doomed. The members have become like the leaders and the leaders like the members and in their common positivistic attitude, fostered by modern economic conditions, labor constitutes a new force in social life.

Not that exploitation has decreased. Despite of its accuracy, statistics cannot veil the fact that the gap between the social power of a single worker and of a single Corporation president has deepened and this difference is the real measure as far as social justice is concerned.

And although the unions, dealing in certain categories of labor, have been able to raise their prices, at least during certain more or less exceptional periods, other categories, organized or unorganized, experience the whole weight of class society. There is, furthermore, the cleavage between the ones who are in the unions and those who cannot afford to enter or to remain in them, between the members of privileged nations and those who, in this smaller growing world, are exploited not only by their own traditional elites, but through the medium of these, by the ruling groups of the industrially more developed countries. The principle of exploitation has not changed at all, but on the one hand, the pressure of the masses who, as Marx predicted, cannot be employed any longer as wage earners in private, competitive industry, producing consumer goods for the purpose of profit, on the other hand the association of the masses against universal exploitation has been made even more difficult through the appearance of new antagonisms in the ranks of the oppressed masses themselves, through a number of social and psychological processes which make for the destruction of any memory concerning humanity as a whole and are inseparable from the growth of labor as a well-organized competition in the struggle for a share in domination.

Since it is the trend of capitalistic society that ever greater parts of the middle class lose their economic independence, those processes concern almost the total population. They form the counterpart to the emancipation of large masses from economic stagnation and pauperization. The more the world becomes ripe for the realization of theoretical thought, the more theoretical thought and every human trait which points to it seems to vanish, and, wherever it becomes manifest, is wiped out pitilessly. The conscious measures of expression *that are executed by the agencies of mass culture are only the visible supplement of the subconscious trends necessitated by the economic and social development. The persecution of anything which is suspected to stand for independent social thought, for a philosophy which has no strong ties to any of the groups struggling for a greater share of power, and therefore no direct usefulness for the prevailing interests of any of them, but sticks to truth as it regards a single concrete individual and hence humanity in general, such (illegible) is not only a social but also an anthropological fact; it takes place within each member of society today.

From the day in which the infant opens his eyes to the daylight, he is made to feel that there is only one way to get along in this world: by resigning the unlimited hope which was born with him. This he can only achieve by mimesis, he continuously repeats not only consciously—he acquires judgment and notions much later—but with his whole being, what he perceives around him. Long before he can even speak he echoes the gestures of the persons and things around him and later on he echoes the traits and attitudes of all the collectivities at whose mercy he is: his family, his classmates, his sport’s team and all the other teams which enforces a deeper conformity, a more radical surrender by complete assimilation than any farther or teacher in the 19th century. By echoing, repeating, imitating the surroundings, by adapting himself to all the powerful groups to which one belongs, by transforming oneself from a human being into a pure member of specific organized bodies, by reducing one’s potentialities to the readiness and skill to conform with and gain influence in such bodies, one finally manages to survive. It is survival by forgetting, by practicing the oldest biological means of survival: mimicry. That is the reason why like a child repeats the words of his mother and the youngster the brutal manners of his elders, by whom he has suffered so much, today’s mass culture, the giant loudspeaker voice of *monopolism itself, the (illegible) of the times as (illegible) would call it, in contrast to genuine art , which once confronted reality with truth, copies and doubles reality endlessly end boringly, that is why all ingenious devices of the amusement industry serve nothing else but to reproduce over and over and without betraying the slightest revolt the scenes of life which are dull and automatized already when they happen in reality, that is why the pictures, radio, popular biographies and novels shout incessantly the same rhythm: this is our life, this is the only possible life, this is the life of the great and the little ones, this is reality as it is and should be and will be. Even the words which could express another hope than the one which can be realized by success have become integrated: on the one hand, beatitude and everything which refers to the absolute has been assimilated by confining it to thoroughly religious connotations; it has become part of Sunday School vernacular, happiness on the other hand, means exactly the normal life of which though and even religious thought, at certain times, contained a radical criticism. Language has been thoroughly reduced to the function as which it is described in positivistic theory, i.e. to just another tool in the giant apparatus of production in monopolistic society. Each sentence, which is not equivalent to an operation in that apparatus appears to the layman as meaningless as it is described to be by contemporary epistemology according to which only the purely symbolic, the operational, that is to say the purely senseless sentences makes sense. Under the pressure of the pragmatistic totalities of today, the self-expression of men has become identical with their functions in the prevailing system. Within themselves as well as in others men desperately repress any other impulses. Wherever they perceive it they feel an overwhelming wrath and fury, an utter rage which crashes down on everybody and everything which by stirring up the old and undying longing forces them anew to curb and repress it.

In the earlier periods of bourgeois society as well as in the history of other forms of society the existence of greater multitudes of independent economic subjects who had to care for their own individual property and to maintain it against competitive social forces, necessitated in the culture of relatively independent thought which by its very nature is related to the interests of humanity. Against its own wishes, the society of middle sized proprietors and particularly the professions related to the now vanishing economic sphere of circulation and to promote thinking which whether they liked it or not was antagonistic to class rule and domination. Today the individual in the *course of his economic functions is never directly confronted with society. It is always his group, his association, his union which has to take care of his rights. [See Kirchheimer on compromise]. Therefore the category itself of the individual with its good and bad implications is in the state of liquidation and thought unrelated to the interests of any established groups, unrelated to the business of any industry has lost its significance. The selfsame society which, in normal times, leaves a considerable part of its machinery idle, which suppresses or files important inventions and which, in the rare periods of full employment, devotes a tremendous part of its working hours to idiotic advertisements even what is left of culture boils down to advertisements and propaganda, or to the production of instruments of destruction, the selfsame society, which has made usefulness its device and the most sinister destructive kind of luxury its real business, has stamped thinking as related to truth, i.e. the only ultimate use for which civilization really could be useful, a hateful luxury.

The difference of the situation from other chapters of class society should not be exaggerated. In the earlier periods mentioned above the existence of independent thought in the middle classes was paid for by the miserable material condition of the working class even in the highest developed countries. The revolutionary thinkers had to come to the proletariat from the middle- or upper classes. Since that time, the working class as a whole has made a tremendous progress. Its rationality, at least as far as it is able to express itself, is purely pragmatistic and therefore “particularistic” like that of the rest of society. But the tremendous physical, organizational and cultural pressure which is necessary to keep it in this state, the increased furor with which not only every trace of independent political practice but the expression of any independent thought and even those who don’t express it, but by their mere existence are suspected to harbor it, are hated and eventually persecuted, the strengthening of all reactionary organizations and movements betray the rising fear of the abolishment of fear and repression. With feverish haste one tries to channel the ever greater fury which develops in the masses under the necessity to repress their own original longings, and to prevent that furor from being overcome by the *eventual insight in the ever increasing stupidity of that repression, and on the identity of human interests. Such channeling which has always been the business of the ruling class, of its cultural and terroristic apparatuses, which, has also become the business of the labor organizations which, at the same time, lead labor into the struggle of competition and increase its strength.

The antagonism between the classes is reproduced within the structure of labor and especially within the labor unions themselves and it is perhaps better veiled there than it ever was in society as a whole. Docilely and without a hint of any opposing interests the workers surrender port of their money to the mammoth trusts which trade in their own labor. It is not so much the level of the contributions but the social situation of the labor leaders enabled by it which makes the latter ones a kind of group of the ruling class itself. Certainly a great part of their material interests is opposed to the interests of other competing groups but this holds true for all the groups which (illegible) have formed the ruling class: for the worldly and spiritual powers in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, church and court under absolutism, for the different groups in modern production and commerce. What they have in common is the general source of their income. They all live on what they can grasp from the surplus value originating in the process of production. True, they draw their share not as profit from an advanced amount of capital, but this is not of ultimate importance. Even the profits of the capitalist don’t correspond to what the factory, in which his capital is invested, produces in values and surplus values. His role as an exploiter is, though connected with, but different from his role as a businessman. In the latter quality he has to compete with others in order to get a possibly large amount out of the sum total which expresses the results of each production period. He is in the same position as those capitalists whose business is not directly productive like the bankers, the entrepreneurs in the communication– or amusement industries and even all the professions and activities which are exercised by the so-called “third persons.” The labor leaders have become an acquisitive group among others. The conditions under which they work are more difficult, it is not so easy for them as for the leadership of the big capitalist trusts to keep their doings from public discussion by a public opinion which is controlled by their competition. Each the capitalist professional and labor groups exercise a specific function in the social process on the one hand and on the other uses that function to get as large a share of power over men, goods and services as possible. The methods of this struggle in history have varied. They have been partly competition but partly cheating, robbery, and war. This struggling which, as pointed out in the beginning, characterizes the set-up of each ruling class as definitively as its role in production, has become a trait of the labor groups. Although the leaders cannot achieve any results without obtaining, at least temporarily, any results for the workers, their own social and economic power, their own position and income (all of these factors overwhelmingly superior to power position and income of an individual worker) depend on the maintenance of the class system as such. Their economic fact holds true despite of the great services they may render to their respective memberships. The entrepreneur’s activities too had had very often a positive effect on the income of labor than higher incomes of the labor leaders. But there is now a new kind of solidarity between the old and the new elites. Accordingly social history during the last decades has brought closer cooperation between them. The attitude of the labor unions to the state in the last decades has been similar to that of the great capitalistic organizations. They were mostly concerned with preventing the government from mingling in their affairs. No interference with our private business was the doctrine (cf. [illegible] instances Gompers testimony before the Lockwood Committee). It was the “Master of the House” standpoint. In the meantime the increasing economic power of capitalist monopoly has made an understanding between their leaders, their participation in administrative tasks of the central government more imperative. The development toward the integration of corporative elements into the administration has made even greater progress during the war. Society becomes a *reformed and regulated process not so far much with regard for the great events (they still depend on blind forces resulting from the struggle between the classes and among the various ruling groups), but as far as the life of the individual is concerned; not as much in the sense of self-administration (the decisions are made as compromises among the prominent whose interests do not correspond to those of the rest of society) but with regard to a more streamlined performance of the material and human apparatus of production.

It is possible that once the strongest capitalistic groups will have gained direct control of the state the actual labor bureaucracy will be abolished as well as the governmental one, and replaced by more dependable commissioners of those groups. Although this could be achieved without a formal change of constitutional principles it would characterize a development similar to the German one. It is also possible that labor in its actual structure conquers an even stronger portion in the set-up to come. In both cases the material situation of labor as a whole may improve, unemployment be reduced, but at the same time the gap between the significance of a single member and of the prominent functionaries will deepen, the impotence of the human individual will become more marked, the differences in wages according to sexes, age and industrial groups will increase. This two-fold process will bring about a more thorough integration of the working class into modern society, also a unification of psychology in the sense of the triumph of particularistic rationality behind the thin veil of collectivistic slogans. This means a disillusionment of the masses and an increasing menace to the class system. On the other hand, the concentrated power the ruling groups with their centralized defense techniques will make any change more difficult.

The gradual abolishment of the market as a regulator of production is a symptom of the vanishing influence of anything outside the decisive groups. The needs which, in the market system, made themselves felt in a most distorted anonymous and irrational form, can now be determined by statistics and satisfied or refused in accordance with the policy of the ruling class. But if this new rationality is closer to the idea of reason than the market system, it is also farther from it. Although the dealings between the ruling and the ruled were never really decisively determined by the market but by the unequal distribution of power as it was expressed by the property of the means of production, the transformation of human relations into objective economic mechanisms granted the individual, at least in principle, a certain independence, domination was humanized by dehumanized, that is to say, intermediary spheres. Today the expression is of human needs is no longer distorted by the dubious economic indicators of the market, but by their conscious molding in a giant system of socio-psychological surgery. The misery of undone competitors and backward groups in a country can no longer be ascribed to anonymous processes which permit a distinction between them as economic subjects and as human beings; but the downfall of the vanquished opponents, competitors as well as whole social strata, minorities and nations, is decided or convened upon by the elites. Those who are to suffer are singled out and called by their names. However, the small policies of economic leaders today are as private and particularistic and therefore as blind or even blinder with regard to the real needs of society than the automatic trends which once determined the market. It is still irrationality which shapes the fate of humans. This does not mean that reason is not put forth by any individuals or groups at all. There are more people who have real insight in the economic situation and the potentialities than in any other period. But their chances, which seem to have improved by the progress of the methods of production and planning, by the perspicuity of all social matters and the decomposition of all kinds of superstitious have deteriorated by the progress of the methods of domination, by the extinction of theoretical thought and by the new and strong taboos resulting from the pseudo-enlightened philosophy of pragmatism which expresses the resignation of unsubject [?] thought.

All the trends mentioned in the foregoing pages have to be taken into consideration when a theory of class relations, which is on the level of our actual experience, should be drafted. The concept of the racket serves only to differentiate and concretize the idea of the ruling class, it is not meant at all to replace it. However, it can help to overcome the abstract notion of class as it played a role in older theory. It may also lead to recognize that the pattern of class relation is typical not only for the relations of the big groups of society but from there penetrates all human relations even those within the proletariat. In the present phase of capitalism many earlier structures of class society which have up to now been incompletely described and explained, have become transparent. The similarity of the most respectable historical entities as for instance the hierarchies or the Middle Ages with modern rackets is only one of them. The concept of racket refers to the big as well as to the small units, they all struggle for as great a share as possible of the surplus value. In this respect the highest capitalistic bodies resemble the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. Emphasis is to be laid on the fact that the role of a group in production though determining to a great extend its part in consumption, has been in class society just a good strategic position for grasping as much goods and services in the sphere of distribution. This is particularly the case in periods in which the mode of production to which its leaders stick so tenaciously has become obsolete. They use their productive apparatuses as others hold to their guns. In the contemporary slang-use of racket there might be no conscious thought of all these connections, but objectively it expresses the idea that in present day society each activity, whichever it may be, has as its content and goal that it is (illegible) by no other inferred (illegible) the acquisition of a possible large part of the circulating surplus value. Therefore, one tries to monopolize an economic function not for the sake of production or satisfaction of needs. The slogan used against all sorts of activities and even against whole groups that they are unproductive, furthermore the constant fear that anything oneself does may be unproductive or useless seems to originate from the fact that one realizes in his inner thought that despite of all the tremendous achievements of society, its material and mental pattern is not that of solidarity like for instance the group of mother and child in nature but the racket and that the gulf between reality and all the ideologies which civilization pretends to be its fundaments become wider every day. Industry overcomes society and its own awareness of production as being a mere stronghold in the fight for (illegible) by adopting production as a kind of religious creed, by promoting technocratic ideas and labeling upon other groups which don’t even have an access to the (illegible) industrial bastions as unproductive. It is a similar mechanism as the one which made the terroristic Rackets in the 16th and 17th century Europe which tortured, murdered, robbed hundreds of thousands of unfortunates and wiped out the female population of whole provinces for their alleged intercourse with Satan proclaimed their Christian love all the louder and (illegible) the tortured, murdered, robbed God on the cross more fervently and adored the Virgin for her conception from the holy spirit more devotedly. Today the rackets (illegible) pursue [?] each person or group who refuse to join them, and as destructive [to] each undertaking which tries to put an end to destruction. The ones who accomplish repression by an ocean of spoken and written words watch jealously that not a single inappropriate [?] sentence be heard.

These remarks could serve only as a kind of introduction to a real sociological task {A real sociology of the racket as the cell of the ruling class in history could serve both a political and a scientific purpose. It could help clarify the goal of political practice. In a society whose pattern is different from that of the rackets, a racketless society. It could serve to define the idea of Democracy, as it still leads an underground existence in the minds of the independents [?] {men} desperate distortions by which the rackets have adapted it to their economic and political practice, despite of their sly formulation of political concepts which makes of express political cliques dominating whole groups and states champions of Democracy and of humanist theoreticians trying to promote and practice however inadequately democratic contents (illegible) of (illegible). Despite all that, the meaning of Democracy deeply connected with that of truth is not forgotten and it needs to be expressed against a world which is more repressive and diabolic than ever and against the channels [?] {most hardened} of tactics of stupidity. Scientifically the sociology  of the racket} which could not only yield a more adequate philosophy of history but help to throw more light on many issues in the realm of humanities up to such remote and controversial problems as the initiation rites and rackets of magicians in primitive tribes. It looks as though the breaking of young men at the occasion of their entrance into such tribes was not so much meant as an acceptance into the community as such but into a particularistic social totality in the sense described above. Very similar observations can be made with regard to the relation of adults and children through the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the 19th century. The adults with regard to the children behaved as a totality. The “Racket” was also the pattern of the organization of the males with regard to the females. The modern concept serves to describe the patriarchal relations.{The modern concept serves to describe the past social relations. “The anatomy of man is the key to the anatomy of the monkey.”}


1. The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the {advantages} which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of (illegible) Capital.


James Schmidt

“Racket,” “Monopoly,” and the Dialectic of Enlightenment 

The Preface to Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) concluded with a brief discussion of the collection of “notes and sketches” that closed the book, explaining that—though they formed “part of the ideas” explored in the book—they had not “found a place in them.”2 The 1944 draft of the work, which had been circulated in hectograph under the title Philosophical Fragments among friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research, went on to specify a group of texts that had been excluded in the interest of maintaining a “unity of language.” The list included a variety of works that had been written in English during Horkheimer and Adorno’s California sojourn. The second item on the list was “On the Sociology of Class Relations” (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 254).

One of the consequences of the exclusion of “On the Sociology of Class Relations” was that the so-called “racket theory” of society became a ghost in the machinery of Dialectic of Enlightenment. It had played a role in the initial formulation of the book, but vanished by the time of its publication.  “On the Sociology of Class Relations”, a text that offered one of the more extended discussions of the role of “rackets” in modern society, was banished from the 1944 edition on linguistic grounds. The word “racket” itself was, in turn, eliminated from the version of the book that was published in 1947.  It shared that fate with a few other terms that, while used repeatedly in the 1944 hectograph, were replaced in the 1947 book by somewhat more circumspect formulations.3

Gunzelin Schmid Noerr maintains that these alterations were a consequence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s effort to bring the argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment into line with a revised understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalism.  He argues that, persuaded by a line of argument sketched by their colleague Friedrich Pollock, they concluded that “monopoly capitalism” had been replaced by the new social formation that Pollock dubbed “state capitalism.” In the wake of this shift, they found themselves forced to make adjustments in the text.4 Noerr concludes that “the racket theory held an ambiguous position” in this transformation.

On the one hand, the identification of fascist rule as an unmediated form of power and at the same time the legitimate heir of bourgeois monopoly capitalism prepared the way for a generalized racket theory of domination which went beyond the limited model of the criminal gang. On the other hand, however, such a theory was in danger—as Horkheimer himself was aware—of merely replacing an oversimplified economic concept (“monopoly”) by an oversimplified political one (“racket”). (Noerr, 240-241)

Horkheimer and Adorno found a solution to their theoretical quandry by eliminating both “monopoly” and “racket” from the text that appeared in 1947.

There are, however, a few problems with this account. First, it runs the risk of overstating the degree to which Horkheimer and Adorno accepted Pollock’s discussion of the transition to state capitalism. Second, by focusing on internal discussions within the Institute for Social Research, it overlooks both the role that discussions of rackets and racketeering had played in American legal theory and social thought during this same period and the Institute’s long-standing interest in these discussions. Finally, it fails to address the continued presence of the terms monopoly and (to a lesser extent) racket in one crucial part of the book.

The Reception of Pollock’s “State Capitalism”

Shortly before Horkheimer and Adorno began work in earnest on the manuscript that would eventually be published as Dialectic of Enlightenment, Friedrich Pollock—Horkheimer’s lifelong friend and the book’s dedicatee—published a pair of articles in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung arguing that a new social order had begun to emerge in Europe and America. These articles proposed that the transition from monopoly capitalism to what Pollock called “state capitalism” marked “the transition from a predominantly economic to an essentially political era” (Pollock, “State Capitalism,” 207). The first article sketched a “model” or “ideal type” of this new order.  It focused on the authoritarian form of state capitalism that he saw emerging in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, but entertained the possibility that ways might be found to bring this new social formation “under democratic control” (Pollock, “State Capitalism,” 224). The second article applied this model to Nazi Germany and argued that while the National Socialist State might not be “a fully developed state capitalism or a total command economy,” it nevertheless “comes closer to these economic concepts than to those of laissez faire or of monopoly capitalism.” While Pollock was confident that “Germany will suffer military defeats and that the National Socialist system will disappear from the earth,” he stressed that there was no reason to suppose that “inherent economic forces…would prevent the functioning of the new order.”5

Drawing out the implications of Noerr’s account of the consequences of Pollock’s articles for Horkheimer and Adorno’s book, Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen see the theory of “state capitalism” as having forced a rethinking of the presuppositions on which the critical theory of society rested:

in the mid-1940s Horkheimer and Adorno, in keeping with Pollock’s analyses, had distanced themselves definitively from a form of Marxism which assumed the primacy of economics. Instead, the importance of control though politics and the culture industry moves clearly into the foreground.6

Van Reijen and Bransen argue that evidence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s agreement with Pollock’s argument can be found in revisions made prior to the publication of the 1947 version of the book.  These revisions include the replacement of such terms as “monopoly,” “capital,” and “profit”—terms that had “become charged with specific meanings thought the debate over state capitalism”—with “less charged expressions” (van Reijen and Bransen, 251).

It is, however, not clear that the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment were entirely persuaded by Pollock’s argument. Indeed, Adorno’s reaction Pollock’s initial article was overwhelmingly negative. He found its talk of “models” and “ideal types” too far removed from material reality (its style reminded him of Husserl, a comparison that, coming from Adorno, was no compliment) and warned that its publication would be a blow to the Institute’s reputation. Anticipating the reaction of Franz Neumann (who had emerged as the best-known figure in the New York branch of the Institute) and the economist Alfred Löwe (a major figure at the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research), he cautioned Horkheimer that it would “unleash a malicious cry of triumph from all the lions [Löwen], new men [Neumänner] et tutti quanti.”7

Adorno was unconvinced by Pollock’s vision of a society that, having transformed the crises that plagued earlier form of capitalism into “mere problems of administration,” could hold out “the promise of security and a more abundant life for every subject who submits voluntarily and completely.” Though he conceded that Pollock might be correct in his pessimistic assessment of the ubiquity of political domination throughout history, he rejected what he characterized as Pollock’s “optimistic” belief that the new order would be any more stable than the one it replaced. He saw such a conclusion as resting on the “undialectical assumption that in an antagonistic society a non-antagonistic economy would be possible.” What Pollock had produced struck him as an “inversion of Kafka”: “Kafka presented the hierarchy of bureaucrats as Hell. Here Hell transforms itself into a hierarchy of bureaucrats” (Horkheimer, Briefe, 54).

Adorno’s prediction that Pollock’s article would draw fire from Neumann proved correct. Two weeks later Neumann sent Horkheimer a blistering evaluation (much of which would later reappear in Behemoth, his 1942 study of the Nazi state) arguing that the article “contradicts from the first to the last page” the theory the Institute had been developing since its arrival in the United States and that it represented nothing less than “a farewell to Marxism” that “documents a complete hopelessness.”8 Horkheimer succeeded in placating Neumann and (presumably) Adorno by crafting a Preface to the volume of the Zeitschrift in which Pollock’s essay appeared (an issue that also included contributions from A. R. L. Gurland, Otto Kirchheimer, Horkheimer, and Adorno) that characterized the articles as offering different perspectives on “problems implied in the transition from liberalism to authoritarianism in continental Europe.” In summarizing what was at stake in this transition, Horkheimer emphasized the political implications of the replacement of independent entrepreneurs by monopolies, a development that he saw as leading to a triumph of ruling elites and “cliques” whose cynical shuffling of ideologies translated “into open action what modern political theory from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Pareto has professed.”9 In the course of this discussion, Horkheimer managed to avoid (even when discussing Pollock’s article) the use of the term “state capitalism” at all. Neumann was pleased enough by the result to send Horkheimer a letter that praised him for having rendered Pollock’s contribution “completely harmless” by offering a “reinterpretation” of the article that wound up undermining its central argument.10

In framing his introduction to the issue in this way, it is conceivable that Horkheimer was merely attempting to play down the differences that separated Pollock (and, perhaps, Horkheimer himself) from other members of the Institute. But it is worth noting that the Preface’s emphasis in on the role of “elites” and “cliques” was a faithful reflection of what Horkheimer himself seems to have regarded as the defining characteristic of monopoly capitalism. For the aspects of Pollock’s argument Horkheimer chose to emphasize were precisely the parts that meshed with the account of the transformation of the relationship between the individual and society that he had been elaborating ever since his 1936 article “Egoism and Freedom Movements.”11 He would take up this theme once again in “The End of Reason,” the lead article in what proved to be the journal’s final issue.12 Though published under Horkheimer’s name, it had been edited and revised by Adorno, and was, in effect, the first product of their California collaboration. The “racket theory” played a central role in it.

From Class Struggle to Gang Warfare

Near the close of “The End of Reason,” Horkheimer suggested that the so-called “gangster theory” of National Socialism merited more serious consideration than it had received from those who saw Hitler’s triumph as a momentary deviation from a norm that would be restored “as soon as the fester has been removed” (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 374) He argued that the relations that had defined competitive capitalism, far from constituting the normal state of affairs, might better be understood as an “interlude” in a history defined by the reign of “procurers, condottieri, manorial lords, and guilds” engaged simultaneously in the protection and exploitation of their clients (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 374). The transition to monopoly capitalism had brought with it a regime of “rackets” that, like previous forms of domination, provided a measure of protection, but only at the price of individual autonomy. For this reason, alleged “border phenomena” such as “racketeering” might, in fact, offer “useful parallels for understanding certain developmental tendencies in modern society” (Horkheimer, “End of Reason,” 375).

It was left to Adorno to work out the implications of Horkheimer’s conjecture and, sometime prior to the circulation of “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” he sent Horkheimer a series of “Reflections on Class Theory.” Adorno text appears to have served as a preliminary draft for Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” which was subsequently circulated to Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Herbert Marcuse for comment. While the two texts are similar in substance, their style—as might be expected—diverged markedly.

Adorno’s manuscript opened with what amounted to a striking revision of Marx’s famous formulation from the Communist Manifesto:

In the image of the latest economic phase, history is the history of monopolies. In the image of the manifest act of usurpation that is practiced nowadays by the leaders of capital and labor acting in consort, it is the history of gang wars and rackets.13

Pace Marx, far from functioning as the motor of history class struggles might better be understood as the creature of a particular economic order: the “interlude” of liberal capitalism. With its passing, the struggles between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat took on a markedly different form.

Horkheimer’s manuscript was considerably more guarded in its assessment of the implications of triumph of monopoly capitalism for Marxian theories of class struggle. It stressed that the “concept of racket” was intended “only to differentiate and concretize the idea of the ruling class” and “not meant at all to replace it.” Yet, the very next sentence—which suggested that the racket theory promised “to overcome the abstract notion of class as it played a role in older theory”—betrayed that something more was afoot than an exercise in differentiation and concretization.

Horkheimer went on to argue that the transition from “liberal” to “monopoly” forms of capitalism forced the working class to find ways of “adapting itself to the monopolistic structure of society.” In this process, the “more or less spontaneous and radically democratic” struggles that had defined the labor movement of the nineteenth-century were replaced by struggles between “pragmatic totalities” in which the working class—abandoning its “fight against exploitation as such”—sought to find ways of integrating itself into a society populated by “wholly integrated and despotic totalities.”

Labor in monopolistic society is itself a kind of monopoly. Its leaders control labor supplies as the Presidents of Big Corporations control raw materials, machines, or other elements of production. Labor leaders trade at this kind of merchandise, manipulate it, praise it, try to fix its price as high as possible. Labor, becoming a trade among others, completes the process of the reification of the human mind.

Direct struggles between labor and capital had now been supplanted by a process of mimetic adaptation in which labor sought to beat capital at its own game.  As support for the claim that labor unions mimicked large corporations in both their organizational structure and in their quest to prevent government regulatory agencies from “mingling in their affairs,” Horkheimer offered an oblique reference to the testimony of Samuel Gompers before the Lockwood Committee (i.e., the 1922 New York hearings on union activities in the building trades).

Horkheimer and his colleagues had a long-standing interest in both the history of the American labor movement and in the implications of New Deal legislation. Earlier discussions of Gompers in the Institute’s journal had noted the “dictatorial” control he exercised over the American Federation of Labor.  His testimony before the Lockwood hearings had been presented as evidence that Gompers, like the heads of corporations, was committed to resisting public scrutiny of or interference in his activities.14 For Horkheimer, then, the chief difference between labor leaders and corporate heads was that the leaders of “the big capitalist trusts” were more adept at these tactics than labor leaders like Gompers.  They were capable of exercising a degree of control over public opinion that enabled them to shield their activities from public discussion.

Labor’s weakness in this struggle was reflected in the history of the terms “racket” and “racketeering” themselves. The marked upsurge in the use of both terms in the early 1920s was driven, at least in part, by the efforts of pro-business publicists such as Gordon Hostetter, the long-time head of the Chicago Employers’ Association, a staunch opponent of efforts at union organizing (among the resources his organization provided to its clients was a cadre of strike breakers), and a tireless author of anti-union polemics (among them, his 1929 book It’s a Racket). As a result of his efforts, “racket,” “racketeer,” and “racketeering”—terms that had previously been associated with the activities of Chicago criminal gangs—came to be associated with the activities of union officials. The usage of these terms peaked around 1940, at which point supporters of New Deal legislation aimed at institutionalizing collective bargaining sought to limit the scope of the concept to overt criminal activity.15

When viewed within this context, Horkheimer’s rhetorical strategy becomes somewhat clearer. While Hostetter and others sought to equate labor leaders with gangsters, Horkheimer attempted to extend the scope of the concept still further by maintaining that within the structure of monopoly capitalism, all social relationships had begun to take on an uncanny resemblance to protection rackets. In an August 1942 letter to Paul Tillich, written in response to Tillich’s criticism of the “dictatorial” style of “The End of Reason,” Horkheimer explained that his choice of “linguistic method” was “not made frivolously.” He went on to quote a text he had written during the previous year.

The style of theory is becoming simpler, yet only insofar as it thereby denounces the simplicity that, on the basis of the style, the theory consciously becomes the reflection of the barbaric process. The style approximates rackets with the force of hatred and thereby becomes its opposite. Its logic becomes as arbitrary as their justice, as clumsy as their lies, as lacking in conscience as their agents—and in this opposition to barbarism becomes specific, exact, and scrupulous. The indiscriminate designation of monopolistic society as the embodiment of rackets is infinitely differentiated, since it summarily denounces undifferentiated brutality against powerlessness.16

The closing pages of “On the Sociology of Class Relations” more than matched the already extravagant use of “racket” to which Tillich had objected by projecting the concept backwards into human prehistory. Broaching certain of the concerns of the opening chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer argued that the concept promised to shed additional light on “such remote and controversial problems as the initial rites and rackets of magicians in primitive tribes” and also might clarify the workings of the “terroristic Rackets in the 16th and 17th century Europe which tortured, murdered, robbed hundreds of thousands of unfortunates and wiped out the female population of whole provinces for their alleged intercourse with Satan.”17 The ubiquity of rackets throughout history also provided Horkheimer with a hint of the form that an emancipated society would have to take: it would be “a racketless society.”

Horkheimer’s dedication to the concept was such that, as late the autumn of 1942, he still hoped that first issue of the Institute’s projected “yearbook” (a publication intended to fill the void left with the demise of the Zeitschrift) would explore the concept further. But, plans for the yearbook were eventually abandoned, leading Rolf Wiggershaus to conclude that the “racket theory” remained “an unfinished torso.”

The most important ideas were incorporated into the Dialectic of Enlightenment, without Neumann or Kirchheimer or others having collaborated closely to check the extremely drastic, far-reaching assumptions involved against concrete economic, political and legal material.18

But it is unlikely that Kirchheimer would have been inclined to dampen Horkheimer’s enthusiasm for the term. In an article intended for the yearbook, but eventually published separately, he argued that the more limited legal usage of the term served merely “as a convenient tool for bringing the guilty to account and depriving them of the sympathies of the community at large.” For Kirchheimer, as for Horkheimer, it was the term’s polemical edge that made it worth preserving.

If somebody asks another, “What is your racket?,” he may intend merely to inquire about the other’s professional status, but the very form of the question refers to a societal configuration which constitutes the proper basis for any individual answer. It expresses the idea that within the organizational framework of our society attainment of a given position is out of proportion to abilities and efforts which have gone into that endeavor. It infers that a person’s status in society is conditional upon the presence or absence of a combination of luck, chance, and good connections, a combination systematically exploited and fortified with all available expedients inherent in the notion of private property.19

For Kirchheimer, as for Horkheimer, the one shortcoming of the concept was that it failed to consider the prospect of what would have to be done to create a society without rackets.

Monopoly, Rackets, and the Culture Industry

There is, however, one place in Dialectic of Enlightenment where the concept of racket continued to play a somewhat more circumscribed role and was grounded (albeit not always explicitly) in what would soon become an important set of legal arguments:  the chapter on the culture industry. It may also be significant that this is the one place in Dialectic of Enlightenment where the term “monopoly,” while deleted elsewhere, emerged from the editing process remarkably unscathed.

Though Horkheimer and Adorno’s discussion of the culture industry is sometimes regarded as evidence of its authors’ “mandarian” contempt for “popular culture,” its portrait of Hollywood as a world dominated by rackets, patronage relations, and grotesque forms of self-assertion on the part of those who controlled (however fleetingly) the commanding heights was hardly unique. Much the same picture can be found in the memoirs of those émigrés who found refuge in Hollywood, accounts that Horkheimer and Adorno would likely have heard at first hand.20 It bears remembering that Horkheimer was friends with William (née Wilhelm) Dieterle, the Weimar actor and director who managed to establish himself as one of Warner Brothers’ more reliable directors. Horkheimer’s correspondence suggests that he spent a fair amount of time at Dieterle’s house and he seems to have thought well enough of his to solicit an article from him on the impact of the war in Europe on the American film industry for the Zeitschrift and to enlist him as a member of the Institute’s Advisory Committee.21

The link between “On the Sociology of Class Relations” and the chapter on the culture industry is nowhere clearer than in a passage that took up an argument that Horkheimer had made in his 1941 article “Art and Mass Culture”:

in contrast to genuine art, which once confronted reality with truth, … all ingenious devices of the amusement industry serve nothing else but to reproduce over and over and without betraying the slightest revolt the scenes of life which are dull and automatized already when they happen in reality.22

Adorno had made the same point even more emphatically in his “Reflections on Class Theory” when he observed,

Under the monopoly system the process of dehumanization is perfected on the backs of the civilized as an all-encompassing reification, not as naked coercion; indeed, this dehumanization is what civilization is.… Thus domination becomes an integral part of human beings. They do not need to be “influenced,” as liberals with their ideas of the market are wont to imagine. Mass culture simply makes them again what they are thanks to the coercion of the system (Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory,” 99-100, 109).

On the basis of such formulations, van Reijen and Bransen conclude that “in keeping with Pollock’s analysis,” Horkheimer and Adorno “distanced themselves definitively from a form of Marxism which assumed the primacy of economics. … the importance of control through politics and the culture industry moves clearly into the foreground” (van Reijen and Bransen, 252).

But, paradoxically, it is precisely in the chapter devoted to the culture industry that the term “monopoly”—allegedly eliminated from the text of Dialectic of Enlightenment as a way of bringing the book into line with Pollock’s account of state capitalism—was not deleted. Monopol and its various derivatives appear ten times in the 1947 version of  Dialectic of Enlightenment; six of the ten occur in the chapter on the culture industry.23 The idea that the Hollywood film industry was engaged in monopolistic practices was, however, hardly radical. It had been the central claim in the extended legal battle that would culminate (a year after the book’s publication) in United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., the Supreme Court decision mandating that studios divest themselves of their theater chains and cease other monopolistic arrangements. In this light, it is likely that the revisions of Dialectic of Enlightenment had far more to do with Horkheimer’s habitual concern during his American exile to avoid calling too much attention to the radical implications of the Institute’s work than it did with his alleged embrace of Pollock’s account of state capitalism.

While the culture industry disseminated a “culture” (and, in doing so, bound the oppressed ever closer to their oppressors), it bears remembering that it was very much an industry. As such, it was the site of struggles between labor and management in which the leaders of the former—according to the racket theory—would find itself forced to imitate many of the features of the latter.

Horkheimer was well aware that, in struggles such as these, labor operated under significant disadvantages. Indeed, in “On the Sociology of Class Relations” he speculated that

It is possible that once the strongest capitalist groups … have gained direct control of the state, the actual labor bureaucracy will be abolished as well as the governmental one, and replaced by more dependable commissioners for both groups.

Since the early 1980s, the ascent of “more dependable commissioners” to positions of power has proceeded along lines that would not have surprised the author of “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” bringing with it growing inequalities in wealth and political influence.

One convenient marker for the acceleration of efforts to replace the “labor bureaucracy” with less troublesome commissioners was the 1981 strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which culminated in the firing of the striking workers and the dissolution of their union.  It would probably not have surprised Horkheimer that the chief executive officer who presided over the breaking of that strike had entered public life as the leader of one of the more important unions within the culture industry.  A few months before the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected President of the Screen Actors guild.  During his subsequent career in Hollywood and in Washington he proved a “dependable commissioner.”


2. Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), xix.
3. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, “Editor’s Afterword,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, 239-242.
4. Friedrich Pollock, “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 200-225.
5. Pollock, “Is National Socialism a New Order?,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:3 (1941): 452-454.
6. Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen, “The Disappearance of Class History in ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment,’” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, 252.
7. Adorno, letter to Horkheimer of June 8, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1996), 54.
8. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 23, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 103.
9. Horkheimer, “Preface,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 195-196.
10. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 30, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 110.
11. Horkheimer, “Egoismum und Freiheitsbewegung,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung V (1936): 161-233; “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1993), 49-110.
12. For the English version, see Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, IX:3 (1941): 366-379. For the German, see “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung,” in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1987), 320-350).
13. Theodor W. Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and others (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 100.
14. See Franz Hering’s review of Louis Adamic, Dynamite. The Story of Class Violence in America in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung I (1932) 219-220, Andries Sternheim’s review of Lewis Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung II (1933) 448-450, and T. J. Reynolds, Review of Leo Wolman, Ebb and Flow in Trade Unionism in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung VI (1937) 214-215.
15. For a discussion, see Andrew W. Cohen, “The Racketeer’s Progress: Commerce, Crime, and the Law in Chicago, 1900-1940,” Journal of Urban History 29:5 (2003): 575–596. For examples of uses of the terms during this period, see “Legal Implications of Labor Racketeering,” Columbia Law Review 37:6 (1937): 993–1004; Thomas J. Haggerty, “Spoils and the ‘Racket,’” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 189 (1937): 17–21; J. M. Nolte, “Racket Worship,” The North American Review 234:6 (1932): 510–518, and the overview in Murry I. Gurfein, “Racketeering,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: MacMillan, 1934).
16. Horkheimer, Letter to Paul Tillich of August 12, 1942, in Max Horkheimer, A Life in Letters: Selected Correspondence, ed. and trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 210.
17. For evidence that Horkheimer was not alone in thinking that the modern notion of “racket” might serve as a useful category for analyzing earlier societies, see Constance Saintong and Paul Saintong, “Eighteenth-Century Racketeering,” The Journal of Modern History 10:4 (1938): 528–41.
18. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 319.
19. Otto Kirchheimer, “In Quest of Sovereignty,” The Journal of Politics 6:2 (1944): 139–176, 160. Drawing on Kirchheimer’s article, the point was reiterated in Robert S. Lynd, “Our ‘Racket’ Society,” The Nation (August 25, 1951).
20. On this point, see especially David Jenemann, Adorno in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
21. William Dieterle, “Hollywood and the European Crisis,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:1 (1940): 96–103.
22. Cf. Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 290-291.
23. “Racket” and “Racketeer” turn up fourteen times, only three of them can be found in the chapter on the culture industry (three other uses can be found in the chapter on Anti-Semitism, the bulk of the remainder are in the Notes and Sketches).


John Lysaker

What’s that Racket? “Class” in an Age of Systematic Opportunism

The test of a critical social-theory is its ability to illuminate how social life reproduces itself—in what forms and, given the dynamism of the object, according to what principles or logic. For example, one might argue that the flow of capital underwrites (i.e. is a principal variable in) the emergence, transformation, and disappearance of social phenomena, from voting districts to inflated lips and bushy beards, each a modality of the commodity form. The theory proves “critical” if it can determinately articulate its own (and all theoretical activity’s) relation to those selfsame forms and processes, albeit without losing their active character, that is, their rationally mediated purposiveness. In this sense, the theoretical ventures of critical social theory involve practical reason striving to articulate a world enroute to its—the world and practical reason’s—transformation.

For Horkheimer, critical theory requires this dialectical conception of social phenomena. Social facts must be translated into social action, alienated as the latter may be.24 Without this twofold character (which dramatizes what its object has more or less lost), social theory reverts to positivism, forecloses any methodological self-understanding, and abandons the future to the very fate it set out to diagnose. With it, terms like class, commodity, and capital reflect a critical self-consciousness that interjects itself into what had been, until then, unconscious, quasi-mechanistic occurrences. One must avoid, however, casting these interjections within a bourgeois form, namely, that of self-consciousness confronting data, and irrespective of whether self-consciousness bears the name “Horkheimer,” “The Institute for Social Research,” or “The Party.” If the objectivities of social life remain unmediated objectivities for those who undergo them, reason has not interjected itself into the world. Said otherwise, if social acts remain mere data for inquiry rather than the work of social agents being addressed by inquirers who are fellow social actors, critical theory regresses into bourgeois explanatory science. Said in yet another way, the theoretical analysis of social life is something other than oil applied to the engine of revolt, as if social change were a mechanical process. Instead, critical theory purports to interject intersubjectively operative reason into insufficiently realized sites of social action. For critical theory to succeed, its object therefore must become as critical as its self-conception. Otherwise the critical orientation of the theorist, inseparable from his or her theoretical performance, reduces to a utopian longing even as it reifies its own bourgeois character, as if “critical insights” were not themselves underwritten by nested and capitally invested social relations.

I have hastily sketched the basic Gestalt of critical social theory because it contextualizes Horkheimer’s approach to the phenomenon of class. “Classes” not only purport to name the overlapping locations and fates of populations within the mode of production, but, particularly in the case of the working class, the ultimate addressee of whatever diagnostic and reconstructive power such concepts might engender. In other words, a class names both an object and a subject of history.25 But should the latter dimension splinter or be eclipsed by the former, one will have to generate new concepts to explain how population groups at varying socio-economic locations emerge, operate, and dissipate, and one will have to rethink how one presents such concepts and links them to social action. If one does not, one’s theoretical work will mystify the social scene one aims to interrupt and reconstruct. On a conceptual and performative level, one’s analysis will presume an addressee who neither exists nor can be massaged into existence by the dialogical energies of one’s address.

Horkheimer’s text of 1943 is mired in precisely this problematic. On the side of its social subjectivity, the workers (whose macro form he terms “labor”), have become a “mere accessory to the apparatus of production…defined exclusively by its standardized material interests.…It has assumed a form which fits into the monopolistic set-up, and consequently its relations to the different capitalistic groups are no longer so radically different from those prevailing among the latter.” (¶8) This is not to say that, to a person, narrow, short-term material interests, i.e. a piece of the pie, have fully colonized self-consciousness. Counter interests and insight are operative, but they do not find expression in a social-subject, which is the phenomenon that “class” purports to name.

It is still irrationality which shapes the fate of humans. This does not mean that reason is not put forth by any individuals or groups at all. There are more people who have real insight in the economic situation and the potentialities than in any period. But their chances, which seem to have improved by the progress of methods of production and planning, by the perspicacity of all social matters and the decomposition of all kinds of superstitions have deteriorated … (¶23)

One would expect “labor” to name precisely the social subject striving to realize in coordinated social action these insights and potentialities. But Horkheimer finds something else, and he reads “labor” (presumably unions and their political correlates) like Marx reads Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Instead of a flowing, general will, one finds a troubling form. The “elements of labor, primarily the mass of ordinary members, are not the forces which, by their own ideas and spontaneity, determine the course of the whole; they are not, to use a mathematical term, the constant value with regard to the whole as the fluctuating one.” (¶9)

It is important to note that Horkheimer’s worries concerns labor’s form as well as its interests. In the negotiations of big labor, executives call the shots on either side of the bargaining table, suggesting that both groups are structured in an analogous fashion, one drawn from the hierarchies of monopoly capital. Moreover, considered internally, labor names occasionally aligned (and unaligned) clusters of social agencies that seek relative advances defined primarily in terms of compensation packages, which marks a striking shift away from traditional working class goals, which, according to Horkheimer, were “…decidedly not concerned with the increase of its members’ income, nor the income or career or social position of its leaders.” (¶12) Not only does this shift indicate the colonization of worker interest by the commodity form, it also splinters a subject that, nationally and internationally, had once, at least aspirationally, “…represented the oppressed masses as such.” (¶11) In sum, given labor’s vertical structure and horizontally unorganized, even competitive character: “The antagonism between the classes is reproduced within the structure of labor and especially within the labor unions themselves and it is perhaps better veiled there than it ever was in society as a whole.” (¶21)26

Although Horkheimer believes that labor has taken on the prevailing forms of monopoly capitalism, thus splintering the social subjectivity of laborers (as well as the future of humanity), the objectivity of social labor remains bound to exploitation – workers continue to produce social wealth that, as it increases, correlates proportionately with the diminishment of their social power. (¶15) How then should one analyze this complex social fate? Exploited and bound to predictable fates at an aggregate level, workers form an objective class. But the social subject undergoing that fate has splintered and thus one has to wonder whether a class, to whom the analysis of objective trends is addressed, exists.

“Racket” is a possible response to this situation. It “refers to the big as well as to the small units, they all struggle for as great a share as possible of the surplus value. In this respect the highest capitalistic bodies resemble the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of law among the most miserable strata of the population.” (¶24) Got my mind on my money and my money on my mind. But not only in first-order connivances. Recalling 16th and 17th century witch hunts, and the counter-reformation more generally, Horkheimer finds rackets operative wherever corporate interests translate cultural life into commodified goods on the one hand while banishing counter-discourses and practices on the other. But if this is correct, then at least one class seems to have maintained its twofold character: the ruling class. And Horkheimer says as much. “The concept of the racket serves only to differentiate and concretize the idea of the ruling class, it is not meant at all to replace it.” (¶24) The spread of rackets, therefore, is but the spread of ruling class ideology into the very heart of what initially sought to cast it down.

Was this true? If so, does it remain true? Or was it not true but has become so? Answering these questions requires a long, sustained analysis integrating, among other things, a complex labor history. I have thus focused upon the formal structures of the analysis in order to clarify what is at issue: a splintering working a class threatening to disappear into the formal structures of monopoly capital subjectivity, exceptions to the rule offgassing in niche markets that succeed one another in a bad infinity. I hasten to add, however, that Horkheimer’s worries are more or less classic. One can almost hear the charge of “petty bourgeois opportunism” in his analysis, which Lenin levied against several rivals in the 1890’s. (See, for example, “What the Friends of the People Are.”) And given U.S. labor’s increasing reliance upon electoral politics to pursue (and protect) its interests, I would not have been surprised to find something like the following in Horkheimer’s text. “They not only plead with the government, they not only eulogize it, they positively pray to it.” (Lenin, CW 1, 262) But the heart of the matter is not merely acquiescence before an extant social order, which workers must wrest from ruling interests. The heart of the matter remains the narrow aims that lead to alliances with the state and an abandonment of a national, let alone an international worker’s movement. True social democracy, Lenin argues in 1899, will “…support every revolutionary movement against the existing system, champion the interests of every oppressed nationality or race, of every persecuted religion, of the disenfranchised sex, etc.” (Lenin, CW 4, 177)

But in 1943, Horkheimer no longer believes that revolutionary movements of any appreciable scale exist. Opportunism has become systemic, with competition of all against all defining the state of second nature. And he does not believe that a critical social theory can undo the damage. “Each sentence,” he writes, “which is not equivalent to an operation in that apparatus appears to the layman as meaningless.” (¶18) To use the language of a contemporary racket, unless an analysis can demonstrate the economic value that it adds, it is immediately suspect and subject to scorn on the lips of radio demagogues, “representatives,” and even industry wonks who will assail it as bad prose, folk psychology, utopian naiveté, etc. Surveying the state of collective subjectivity, Horkheimer claims: “Under the pressure of the pragmatic totalities of today, the self-expression of men has become identical with their functions in the prevailing system.” (¶18)

Lenin is not riddled by Horkheimer’s fear, which only avoids hopelessness through the fact of its annunciation. “Apropos of the Profession de Foi,” written at the end of 1899, states:

It is the task of Social-Democracy to develop the political consciousness of the masses and not to drag along at the tail-end of the masses that have no political rights; secondly, and this is most important, it is untrue that the masses will not understand the idea of political struggle. Even the most backward worker will understand the idea, provided, of course, the agitator or propagandist is able to approach him in such a way as to communicate the idea to him, to explain it in understandable language on the basis of facts the worker knows from everyday experience. (Lenin, CW 4, 291)

But what explains this difference? Whether the worker will understand the agitator is in large measure a social fact, as is what a given worker “knows from everyday experience.” And no critical theorist can understand let alone account for his or her praxis without some real feel for what the facts of the matter are. The force of Horkheimer’s text lies in the question it presses. Is there a genuine working class, or can one only ascertain the ongoing objectification of human labor? If the latter, does the pattern of a racket, what is really an alliance across strata of socio-economic status, help explain why opportunism has become the rule, why each social sector strategically seeks a greater share of globally generated surplus value? Even if Horkheimer’s analysis of U.S. labor politics is speculative, I can’t help but feel the force of such questions when I witness the alliances that congeal in each electoral cycle. Concerning Lenin’s Foi, and that is all it is for the present, what collective articulation might a re-emerging critical consciousness find, and where it mumbles or mutes, what forces are to blame? “There are more people who have real insight in the economic situation and the potentialities than in any period,” Horkehimer writes, and yet, “their chances…have deteriorated.” This deterioration requires ongoing analysis, and it precludes any simple return to a time when men were men and the women too wore red. Unless the reason for such alliances can function as a reason, the subjective will never find a foothold in the object, and any seismic change will again take recourse to cultural revolutions.

The questions that Horkheimer forces open do not only concern objects, however. They also recoil upon the practice of theory itself. If the working class has splintered qua class, what currently organizes the production and circulation of critical social theory, and how ought one to engage them? And again, initial answers will have to take the form of social facts that one then aims to interrupt, even if one does not share Horkheimer’s sense that everyone is subject to “conscious molding in a giant system of socio-psychological surgery.” (¶23) What public awaits, considers, and engages public intellectuals? As Universities strive to develop their brands, the current push to share research seems racketish, particularly given the compatible desire to turn research universities into R&D divisions of existing and bourgeoning markets. “Isn’t it all about a transfer of academic goods and services?” Another hope lies with the “organic intellectual,” but “organic” seems a telltale sign that the phenomenon is utopian, just as “sublimation” marks an opaque, speculative moment in The German Ideology. No doubt other models are available, from Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism to Foucault’s non-juridical intellectual labor. But it may be that something more basic is required, something closer to organizing the ‘we’ that any critical social theory must presuppose.

In driving the concept of “class” to something of a breaking point, Horkheimer reopens pertinent questions regarding the subject and object of critical social theory. No one but a metaphysician would seek more from a text written over seventy years ago. But questions require responses. The test of a critical social-theory is its ability to illuminate, transformatively, how social life reproduces. At present, the route toward transformation has been lost, if it ever existed, and the resulting disorientation can give one the sense that the task of illumination was itself mistaken, perhaps even to blame. But such a sense formally reassumes the task. Geist is liberal, even when it says that it no longer is.


24. “The two-sided character of the social totality in its present form becomes for subjects who adopt the critical attitude a conscious opposition. In recognizing present economic tendencies and the whole culture that they establish as the product of human work, as the organization that, in this epoch, humanity was capable of and provided for itself, [critical subjects] identify themselves with this totality and conceptualize it as will and reason; it is their own world. At the same time, they experience that society is comparable to nonhuman natural processes, to mere mechanisms, because cultural forms based upon war and oppression are not indications of a unified, self-conscious will; this world is not theirs but the world of capital.” (Horkheimer, GS 4, 181)
25. Marx writes in the 18th Brumaire: “Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection between these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class.” (Karl Marx: A Reader, 254)
26. This is not to say that the structure of “labor” is the sole or primary cause of this splintering. According to Horkheimer, this has been wrought “…through a number of social and psychological processes which make for the destruction of any memory concerning humanity as a whole.” (¶16)


Chris Cutrone

Without a Socialist Party, There is No Class Struggle, Only Rackets

Horkheimer’s remarkable essay is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942) as well as his own “The Authoritarian State” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.” As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape”: the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution—regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality—Marxism—is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The Authoritarian State,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On…” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent interview (October 23, 2015), Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty”—freedom. Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself”—on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the UK, like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers’ consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers—as well as of intellectuals!—that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions  and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class—in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism—what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century—that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.27

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules in an overt authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism—which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin, the party’s struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature—or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized “racket” capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history.


27. See Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished “socialist” from “trade union consciousness”: “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.” <> Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, “It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things.” (trans. Frederik van Gelder) <> [original letter in German]


Nicholas Brown

Everybody Needs a Union

The core claim of Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations” is that organized labor “is itself a kind of monopoly,” one more exclusionary racket among the rest. It is hard not to be dismissive of the essay as a whole, which rhetorically prefigures right-wing attacks on labor from at least the 1980s to current public-sector pension-gutting schemes, and which theoretically prefigures radical liberalisms that prioritize the ethical or symbolic problem of exclusion over the structural or economic one of exploitation—all of which suggests that, at a level visible to neither party (the level at which history has its ruses) the two positions are in cahoots. But it is worth keeping in mind, at least provisionally, that any position that rejects the problem of exclusion—even in the name of extending the problem of exploitation to include the excluded—will appear, from the standpoint of exclusion, to be a version of the problem itself. Rather than dismissing Horkheimer’s essay then, we should take it as a goad to think exclusion and exploitation together: not to imagine there can be a compromise between an ethical-symbolic and a structural-economic analysis, nor to throw them together into a magic bag called “intersection,” but rather to ask if there is a standpoint from which exclusion and exploitation look the same.

This is the point of Marx’s category of the “industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if it had been battery-raised at capital’s own expense.” (K 661, C 784).28 I would not be the first to suggest in the pages of nonsite that the proletariat in Marx is not opposed to the “precariat” but rather identical with it: the tendency of industry to save labor directly implies that employment, underemployment, irregular employment, and unemployment are not separable phenomena but moments of the same process. “The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of its reserve; conversely, the increased competitive pressure that the reserve thereby exerts on the employed workers forces them into overwork and submission to the dictates of capital” (K 665, C 789). In short, “the relative surplus population is the background against which the law of the supply and demand of labor does its work” (K 668, C 792) — a statement with which mainstream economics, in different terms and with a different spin, does not disagree. This is why Marx conceives of unionization as “systematic cooperation between the employed and the unemployed” (K 669, C 793). Unionization, on Marx’s account, seeks to relieve the mutual pressure of the unemployed and the employed upon each other by countering the “‘sacred’ law of supply and demand” (K 670, C 793) defended “by capital and its sycophant, political economy” (K 669, C 793). From the standpoint of labor, employed or not, the choice between labor “monopolization” and direct exposure to the labor market is pretty clear. From the standpoint of the economy as a whole, moreover, unionization is redistributive rather than accumulationist, and therefore not at all symmetrical with industrial monopolization.

In Marx’s argument, employment and unemployment are not just logical moments of a single process, but temporal moments as well: as we saw above, the life story of an individual worker will include both moments, not in a narrativizable progression from one to the other, but in a form whose logic is, from an individual perspective, chaotic and unpredictable: “The relative surplus population exists in all possible shades, and every worker belongs to it during the time when he or she is partially employed or wholly unemployed” (K 670, C 794). This much in Marx’s account merits revisiting. For while the logical moments have not become dissociated except in appearance, the temporal moments have become spatialized, which is a fancy way of saying that labor turnover has dramatically decreased since Marx’s time. More precisely, over the twentieth century the relative size of the de-casualized portion of the labor force increased dramatically in relation to the casualized portion—a trend which is both clear and uneven, and which is reinforced but not singlehandedly caused by the gains won by the labor movement in the middle third of the century. As we can currently witness in the direct and collateral effects of unionization on previously casualized service-industry labor in the U.S., decasualization of even a segment of a single sector is a small victory for humanity. At the same time, the relative stabilization of the employed part of the working class implies the relative stabilization of the unemployed part as well, and this spatialization of unemployment both gives rise to the plausibility of a concept like the precariat and supports the identitaian fissuring of the working class.

The effects of this spatialization are starkly thematized in the second season of The Wire, which divides its narrative energy between the excluded—mostly poor, mostly black, mostly low-level participants in the drug distribution racket—and would-be labor monopolists—a struggling union, a local of the fictional International Brotherhood of Stevedores.29 Now if The Wire is a murder mystery, there must be a death and responsibility must be assigned by the end. There are plenty of bodies—a spectacular discovery of a shipping container containing thirteen asphyxiated young women gets the plot moving—but as in Borges’s Death and the Compass, the death that motivates the story turns out to be the one that comes at the end, and the deceased has a hand in his own death. The mystery of The Wire is “What happened to the unions?” The answer, as will have escaped no viewer’s attention, revolves around the question of unemployment. At the most obvious level, there is not enough work to go around on the docks: because work is assigned by seniority—a first exclusion—the younger dockworkers are severely underemployed. This is the problem that gets the real plot moving, and it becomes clear that the culprit is just capitalism: to stay competitive, the docks have to further automate their operations. As with the great historical novels from Walter Scott to Chinua Achebe, the attempt to fight this logic with means inadequate to it ends up bringing about the end that had been resisted.

But of course “not enough work to go around” is true not just on the docks but in also Baltimore, in the post-industrial city. The logic of the second exclusion is identitarian; that is, in its everyday application racist. But there is nothing necessarily racist in its logic, which has nothing necessarily to do with color or culture and everything to do with the production of value. The Wire dramatizes this distinction in two ways. The first is the fact that power in the union is amicably shared between Black and Polish leadership. (That power is shared between two ethnic categories suggests an internecine identitarian struggle in the past, but by the show’s present this struggle has become a serious but collegial disagreement between two strategic agendas, a disagreement that is climactically trumped by loyalty to the union). The second is that when a confrontation does take place between a worker and (what he perceives as) a non-working drug dealer, the drug dealer is white.

But if the confrontation between Nick, a young underemployed dockworker, and Frog, a street-level dealer, does not take the form of a racial confrontation, it nonetheless takes place on the plane of the play of identities, as Nick’s diatribe produces two kinds of whiteness: “hang on the corner don’t give a fuck white” versus “Locust Point IBS Local 47 white”: lumpens versus working class. Nick, who understands himself to be within the circuit of capital valorization—“I don’t work without no fuckin’ contract”—understands Frog to stand outside it. (His epithet for Frog is “whigger,” which reminds us that if there is nothing necessarily racial about his logic, it is, as an identitarian logic, ripe for racialization).

What brings the two characters together, however, is a drug deal, which Nick has undertaken because there’s not enough work for him on the docks: that is, what brings the characters together is unemployment. So while Nick understands the difference between them as being one of identity, he is wrong in that nothing separates them—other than a purely ideological and obscurant play of identities, which renders their structural identity invisible, and any “systematic cooperation” between them unthinkable.

The third exclusion is patriarchal. The union is a “brotherhood” in more than name, which is dramatized not only by the current makeup of the union but in the nostalgic and productivist-heroic self-representation glimpsed in the stained-glass window donated to a church by Frank Sobotka, the union’s treasurer. Now, on one level The Wire might seem to be guilty of the same exclusion: the thirteen dead women (and a fourteenth) get the plot moving, but the show is interested in the fate of the man who, it turns out, bears some responsibility for their deaths. But this reading requires us to assume the perspective of Sobotka himself, who is stricken by their deaths and by the thought of his complicity in them, but can imagine no solidarity with them nor any connection with them beyond the purely accidental one of their being part of the contraband that he has agreed to let through the port. Not accidentally, it is Russell, the female port authority officer, who understands that these women were workers too—unemployed workers, desperately seeking sex work in the United States. (This third exclusion is not just patriarchal but also geographic). So the fourteen women are not the excuse for the story of the dockworker’s union, but a third version of the same story: unemployment at the docks, unemployment in Baltimore, and unemployment in Eastern Europe, which is to say unemployment in what we used to call the “global South” but now includes the former East. As Russell puts it, “What they need is a union.”

The standpoint from which exclusion and exploitation look the same—Marx’s standpoint—is not the standpoint of labor exactly, but rather the standpoint of the critique of value. As long as social being, including the right to subsistence, is tied, in however mediated a fashion, to laboring in the service of the production of exchange value—to employment—exclusion will be the backdrop against which exploitation operates. But exclusion cannot be eliminated by good intentions; if anything, good intentions distract us from the fact that exclusion is tied up with the value form.30 The identitarian attachment to the production of value—the division of the world into makers and takers, between breadwinning on one hand, and devalued and gendered affective-reproductive labor on the other—is a mistake to which the labor movement has not always been conspicuously immune. But what is required is not less unionization: lacking a plausible, existent alternative form of organization, the alternative to unionization is direct exposure to the labor market, which is none other than the post-Fordist dream of “flexibility,” which is none other than universal casualization. What is required rather is the “systematic cooperation of the employed and the unemployed”: universal unionization. What this would look like cannot be worked out in advance: this is (part of) what is meant by the “unity of theory and practice.” But it is not, like proposals for a global wealth tax or paeans to spontaneous resistance—indeed, even like calls for a revolutionary party, a formally necessary category for the Left but one whose invocation is in the current conjuncture not opposed to celebrations of spontaneity but strictly identical with them in the empty abstraction of its call to action—a utopian stance in the old derogatory sense: an organized social basis for it actually exists. Hic Rhodus, hic salta: the coordinated unionization of de-casualized labor (for example, tenure-track faculty) and casualized labor (non-TT faculty) is a small but real step in the right direction. Capitalists—the 1% is a new name but not a new class—“no matter how cutthroat their mutual competition, nonetheless construct a real freemasonry against the working class as a whole.”31 What everybody else needs is a union.


28. Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Erster Band, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, vol. 23 (Berlin/DDR: Dietz, 1962) is cited in the text as K. For reference, page numbers in Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: New Left Review, 1976) are cited in the text as C.
29. In what follows, the claim is not that The Wire expresses a truth. Rather, The Wire narrativizes a logic. As we have known since Aristotle, the criterion that applies to a narrative logic is not truth but plausibility — aesthetically a higher, not a lower bar. The consequences of this distinction are drawn out in Antônio Candido’s “Dialectic of Malandroism”: “Dialética da malandragem,” Revista do Instituto de estudos brasileiros 9 (1970) 67-89.
30. The contemporary elaboration of this standpoint is the project of what has come to be called the Wertkritik school. The first systematic collection of this work in English is Marxism and the Critique of Value (Chicago and Alberta: MCM?, 2014), ed. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown, available as a free download at See particularly Roswitha Scholz, “Patriarchy and Commodity Society: Gender without the Body” (123-142); Erst Lohoff, “Off Limits, Out of Control” (151-186); and Norbert Trenkle, “Value and Crisis: Basic Questions” (1-15).
31. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. III, Werke, vol. 25 (Berlin/DDR: Dietz, 1964) 208. The claim that the 1% is not a new class might require some elaboration. In the United States in 2010, the wealthiest 1% of households owned 50.4% of investment assets; the next 9% owned 37.5% — a figure that includes retirement accounts. The bottom 90% — households with a net worth less than $890,000, so a more than capacious definition of a working class — owned 12%. See Edward N. Wolff, “The Asset Price Meltdown and the Wealth of the Middle Class,” Table 9. [link:]. In terms of income from capital, the bottom 75% of the income distribution derives essentially none of its income from investment, and a tiny amount from small business. See Federal Reserve Board, “Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2007 to 2010: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances,” Federal Reserve Bulletin 98.2 (June 2012), Table 2. [link:] So while the capitalist class is no longer simply a set of owners of privately held enterprises, the 1% is the capitalist class. Marx’s words are therefore more true now than they were when he wrote them: the competition among enterprises less than ever threatens the economic, political, and ideological cohesion of the class as a whole.


David Jenemann

Racket and Relevance

In what was to be the last year of his life, Theodor Adorno delivered a lecture somewhat blandly entitled “Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft?” (“Late Capitalism or Industrial Society”) to the 16th German Sociolgical Congress. When the lecture found its way into English in the journal Diogenes in 1969, the events of the previous year in Europe and America precipitated a much more forceful title: “Is Marx Obsolete?”

The issue, Adorno insists, is a basic one: “[I]s the thesis that Marx is obsolete…correct?” He goes on to articulate the issue in terms of class-consciousness in a technologically mediated post-industrial era. “The world is so permeated by the previously undreamed–of development of technology that the social relation which once defined capitalism—the conversion of living work into goods, and the class separation which brought it about—has lost its relevance.”32 The problem, as it was for Marx in the 18th Brumaire, is how class-consciousness can spring from what Marx refers to as discrete “homologous magnitudes,” social, political, and administrative units of greater or lesser size unable to understand their mutually shared aims within the context of the broader social relations–nation state and the overall competition for surplus value. This monadaolgical inability to see outside of one’s own subject position, Marx pithily explains, functions “much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.”33

Marx’s analogy is apt. Individual tubers are inert and incapable of communication. The only thing holding them together is the bag—the overall structure binding their relationship. The fact that the bag in this case says “potatoes” rather than “turnips” is only indicative of the economic interest the structure takes in identifying—and thereby monetizing—its contents. As Adorno sees it, although technological conditions may have changed—particularly insofar as they ostensibly democratize access to communications and means of cultural expression—the problem of structure and of “homologous magnitude” remains unchanged. “Men are still the same as they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the last century: appendages of machinery.”34 Access to technology and enhanced mobility have not ameliorated the need for class consciousness. Instead, the relative comfort afforded by the West has made class distinctions more opaque. What would at first blush appear to be the late capitalist “bourgeoisification” of the working classes instead reveals itself as the opposite—the near-universal “proletarianization” of each individual masked by a reasonably high standard of living and access to consumer and cultural goods in certain parts of the world: “The fact that one cannot speak of a proletarian class-consciousness in the foremost capitalist countries does not itself contradict—contrary to common opinion—the existence of classes,” Adorno claims. “Social being does not necessarily create class consciousness. Precisely because of their social integration, the masses have no more control over their fate than they did 120 years ago; and yet they must do without not only class solidarity but even the full consciousness of the fact that they are objects, not subjects of the social process, though they keep it going as subjects.”35

Whereas Marx, in the 18th Brumaire, is caustic and feisty, Adorno’s tone is melancholy, weary and resigned, and he acknowledges the “crazy contradiction” of post-industrial proletariats: that to maintain the illusion of affluence in the West human beings “are compelled to starve over large parts of the earth.”36

Between Marx’s “homologous magnitude” and Adorno’s “crazy contradiction” lies Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” which attempts to understand why we remain a sack of potatoes on the one hand while on the other consent to be complicit in atrocities around the globe by virtue of our attachment to what in American political discourse is often referred to as “our way of life”—the vision of ourselves as subjective, participatory agents in the Affluent Society. As this special issue of nonsite reveals, Horkheimer’s intervention—a text excised from Dialectic of Enlightenment—is an examination of late capitalist subjectivity conceived in terms of the conundrum over why the proletariat can’t understand themselves as such.

If one of the boons of the Enlightenment is that the individual gets to think of itself as a self—a rational cogito for better or worse in command of its own alterity—in the concomitant development of the bourgeoisie as the subject of the Enlightenment, individuals capitulate their individuality to the identities that best serve their economic interests. “The development of capitalistic society according to its own inherent tendencies, “ Horkheimer insists, “caused the progressive elements of competition [individual subjectivity] to disappear: it secured the link between the needs of consumers and the profit-interest of the individual entrepreneur, it diminished the possibility, slight as it was, that an independent mind gained access to an independent position, it reduced the number of relatively autonomous economic subjects, who by the very fact of that plurality had an interest in the functioning of general law and its impartial administration.”

This tendency to think of oneself as an identity—be it with a team, a municipality, a state, or a corporation—Horkheimer articulates in a tentative theory of the Brechtian idea of the racket, the way late capitalism promotes an ideology of “us” and “them.” “The concept of racket,” Horkeimer explains, in a footnote:

refers to the big as well as to the small units, [as] they all struggle for as great a share as possible of the surplus value. In this respect the highest capitalistic bodies resemble the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. Emphasis is to be laid on the fact that the role of a group in production though determining to a great extend its part in consumption, has been in class society just a good strategic position for grasping as much goods and services in the sphere of distribution.

In the provocative essays that accompany Horkehimer’s in this issue of nonsite, the question of the suitability of the idea of the racket evoked in a number of registers. In James Schmidt’s illuminating account of some of the issues at stake behind the Adorno and Horkheimer’s work while in exile in the States, he traces the discursive history of the concept of “rackets“ and the term’s subsequent near-effacement from Dialectic of Enlightenment at the urging of Friedrich Pollock (“‘Racket,’ ‘Monopoly’ and the Dialectic of Enlightenment). As Schmidt expertly demonstrates, despite its elision, the appeal of “racket” as a conceptual category was that it crystallized the wars of position that characterize competition in the capitalist epoch. At the same time, Schmidt claims, imagining an alternative to the racket offered Horkheimer a potential out to the problem posed by the problem of identity. “The ubiquity of rackets throughout history,” Schmidt explains “also provided Horkheimer with a hint of the form that an emancipated society would have to take: it would be ‘a racketless society.’”

Todd Cronan, in his response to Daniel Zamora, provocatively suggests that the alternative to the racket, despite its problematic position in contemporary theory and economic thought is something like the Weltschmerz of “the Multitude” as yet coopted by identity. “Suffering is the defining trait of a heroic proletariat, the Multitude, that doesn’t know itself yet, but that the Left is helping to discover themselves—by making more of them, or at least providing the theoretical justification for their existence.” The notion of an “unidentified” body of subjects who refuse categorization is clearly implicit in “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” as well as in the late work of Theodor Adorno who equated identity with ideology.

This idea is echoed John Lysaker’s essay, “What’s the Racket?:” Class in an Age of Systematic Opportunism.” Lysaker finds certain pessimism at the heart of Horkheimer’s privileging of the idea of the “racket” as the constitutive mode of late capitalistic subjectivity. Instead of the radical opportunism of “the Multitude” Horkheimer sees the racket as the form of subjectivation most in tune with the go-getter Babbitry of the mid-20th century where opportunism curdles into exploitation. “In 1943,” Lysaker claims “Horkheimer no longer believes that revolutionary movements of any appreciable scale exist. Opportunism has become systemic, with competition of all against all defining the state of second nature. And he does not believe that a critical social theory can undo the damage.”

The challenge of Horkheimer’s analysis of the racket is that he spares no form of identity—especially identification with the unions—in his critique. Indeed, for Horkheimer, the unions are the racket-exemplar par excellence. “The antagonism between the classes is reproduced within the structure of labor and especially within the labor unions themselves and it is perhaps better veiled there than it ever was in society as a whole.” Because the unions purport to be in opposition to the industrial, administrative class, laboring subjects throw themselves into the union sack without consideration of the way that this identification reproduces the relations of production. “Docilely and without a hint of any opposing interests,” Horkheimer continues, “the workers surrender part of their money to the mammoth trusts which trade in their own labor.” This is an unsettling charge, particularly for those who see labor under attack and the unions—dwindling as their power may be—as an alternative to the broader reification of capitalism. Against this charge, in “Everybody Needs a Union,” Nicholas Brown insists that it is precisely in the form of organized identity traditionally offered by the union that one can find the kernel of resistance to the opportunism—or as brown calls it, “flexibility”—of the late capitalist economy. According to Brown, “what is required is not less unionization: lacking a plausible, existent alternative form of organization, the alternative to unionization is direct exposure to the labor market, which is none other than the post-Fordist dream of ‘flexibility,’ which is none other than universal casualization. What is required rather is the ‘systematic cooperation of the employed and the unemployed’: universal unionization.”

In conjunction with these provocative and diverse takes on Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” I would like to provisionally offer my own—one which only crystallized when reading these excellent essays as a piece. In Lysaker’s essay, he suggests that one of the truisms of the contemporary racket is that it is actualized—and volatilized—within an increasingly rapid, ever-echoing network of communications. “To use the language of a contemporary racket,” he points out, “unless an analysis can demonstrate the economic value that it adds, it is immediately suspect and subject to scorn on the lips of radio demagogues, ‘representatives,’ and even industry wonks who will assail it as bad prose, folk psychology, utopian naiveté, etc.”

To put this a slightly different way, while the system of rackets is a fundamental part of the overarching structure of post capitalist society, any given racket is permitted only insofar as it doesn’t challenge that overall structure. In such conditions, one racket can be mobilized to protect and defend its carefully demarcated subject position and in so doing champion an entire “way of life” operating as a front for the ideology of competition and the exploitation of oppressed peoples. Lysaker’s evocation of radio demagogues provides a key clue to the ongoing relevance of Horkheimer’s use of the racket in the “Sociology of Class Relations” and helps provide a provisional answer to the question of relevance Adorno raises at the outset of “Is Marx Obsolete?” As James Schmidt explains, the concept of the racket was deftly excised almost completely from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Nevertheless, it emerges with a vengeance in the critique of fascist demagoguery Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the Institute for Social Research were engaged in during their exile in the United States. Adorno especially, in his analysis of The Psychological Techniques of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses notes the rhetoric of the racket in right wing radio broadcasts. Thomas, like many radio demagogues, was quick to throw the term “racket” at any group who opposed him or whose politics or religion he disagreed with, but while Thomas claimed that Jews, Communists, and liberals are rackets, Adorno turns that assertion back on the radio personality himself to argue that he and his followers were the true racket, indulging in-group paranoia and apocalyptic cultishness. “The ‘if you only knew’ device,” Adorno explains, citing one of Thomas’s common techniques to draw in listeners, “promises to reveal the secret to those who join the racket and pay their tithe. But it also implies the promise that they will some day participate in the night of long knives, the Utopia of the racket.”37

Stephen Crook, in his Introduction to Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth, incisively notes the importance of Adorno’s reversal: “It is the debunking function of the term ‘racket’ which appeals to Adorno: fascism loses its glamour and mystique if it is ‘just another racket.’ Thus, the frequent attacks which Thomas makes on established politics as a racket of the communists and Jews is a transparent defensive trick. ‘Fewer, he reasons, will believe him a racketeer, if he thus violently attacks racketeering.’”38

It is within this context that we can see that both Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the racket take on contemporary relevance. The racket is at once a term used to marginalize and disparage a perceived threat to the in-group. At the same time, it can be used to identify the perpetrators of hateful ideology. It is worth noting, hopefully as a historical footnote that today’s most notorious “racketeer,” presidential candidate Donald Trump, conforms almost exactly to this schema in his proclivity to call out perceived threats to the American way of life by calling out large classes of individuals as threats to American sovereignty. If the notion of the racket is the byproduct of a world in which the competition of groups for surplus capital is the accepted state of affairs, it is no wonder that this self-described master of the “Art of the Deal” would reproduce that spirit of overall competition by criminalizing his bogeys in his description of Mexican Immigrants as rapists and criminals and his insistence that when he’s president, there will be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” That Trump is, as I write these words, leading in national polls suggests to us the appeal of the rackets and the crucial importance of Horkheimer’s insights in understanding the persistence of reactionary consciousness in our contemporary political discourse.

“On the Sociology of Class Relations” comes to us in fragmentary form, and its final paragraphs, full of illegible words and fractured sentences, are at once the most difficult to comprehend and at the same time, the most full of passion. Shining through the mangled draft is Horkheimer’s ringing defense of Democracy against the rhetoric of the rackets. In spite of the “distortions by which the rackets have adapted [Democracy] to their economic and political practice,” Horkheimer insists, “despite of their sly formulation of political concepts which makes of express political cliques dominating whole groups. Despite of all that the meaning of Democracy deeply connected with that of truth is not forgotten and it needs to be expressed against a world which is more repressive and diabolic than ever and against the [?most hardened] tactics of stupidity.” In the face of a near constant reminder of the way the racket is used as a tool of domination and the spectacle of our entire political discourse degenerating into reactionary finger pointing and “diabolical (!)” behavior, it is comforting to hear Horkeimer’s reminder that there is—still—a deeper, decent truth at the heart of Democracy. It’s up to us to bring that decency to light.


32. Theodor W. Adorno, “Is Marx Obsolete,” trans. Nicholas Slater, Diogenes 64 (Winter 1968), 1.
33. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, of Louis Bonaparte (New York, International Publishers: 1963), 124.
34. Adorno, “Is Marx Obsolete?” 7.
35. Adorno, “Is Marx Obsolete?” 5.
36. Adorno, “Is Marx Obsolete?” 11.
37. Theodor W. Adorno, The Psychological Techniques of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 56.
38. Theodor W. Adorno, The Stars down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, ed. Stephen Crook (London: Routledge, 1994), 22.