Twilight – German banknotes

Image: Robert Rauschenberg


Presentation of the book by Max Horkheimer, recently released in Brazil

“Minerva's owl does not begin its flight until the dusk".[I] Having to deal with the word "dusk” (also the original title of this book by Max Horkheimer), Marcos Müller thus translated Hegel's famous sentence on the relationship between philosophy and historical time. To avoid, in that context, misunderstandings that other translations might not avoid, one of our greatest translators of German philosophy renders “dusk” for “evening”.

The idea is that not even the most speculative of philosophies is able to go beyond the horizon of its own time; the thought worthy of its time is the one that is enunciated not exactly when a historical process has completely extinguished itself and what remains is the darkness of the night, but rather in that confused moment of its agony, when it is no longer day, still it is not night, but it is already relentless (especially for the theoretical owl, who understands it). When young Karl Marx's practical Gallic rooster, by contrast, wants to crow, it is to herald revolution, the end of a long night and the dawn of a new day.[ii]

Max Horkheimer is not sure whether his twilight is Hegel's setting or Marx's sunrise over the horizon. More ambiguous, in its everyday usage, than the Portuguese “crepúsculo”, dusk, the original title of the collection of aphorisms that the reader has in his hands, does not simply mean sunset, dusk, the twilight between day and night, nor even the dawn, the new twilight that occurs when it's night that turns to day, but the very color gradient of the transition that manifests itself in both, which is why we speak in German, when we want to avoid ambiguity, of Dawn (dawn, the half light of dawn) or dusk (sunset, half light of dusk).

The unsuspecting reader – who, when in doubt, consult a dictionary! – you must bear in mind that the same happens with our word “twilight”, which, although it immediately sounds to the ears as designating the evening twilight, carries with it clandestinely, for the same reasons as its Germanic counterpart and like those curious Freudian words that mean also its exact opposite, the half-light of dawn. Twilight is that dangerous hour of the poet, which can, however, result in salvation.[iii]

There resounds like a second harmonic a “socialism or barbarism!” in the intentional ambiguity of the title of the young Luxembourger Max Horkheimer.[iv] Between the light of day and the darkness of night (and vice versa), there is always the socialist red of twilight.[v] It is certainly a decline, but the present is always open and can always already be a beginning, as the author already says in the aphorism that opens the book. The epigraph of the Austrian poet Nikolas Lenau leaves no doubt. He dies at twilight, which was in fact a dawn, but death itself is also a twilight, that is, this time, a sunset.

Nikolas Lenau's Twilight is a missed chance. Max Horkheimer's reference is, of course, the failure of the German Revolution, with the fall of the Spartacist League in Berlin and the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but particularly also with the end of the short life of the Munich Republic of Councils, city ​​where Max Horkheimer lived at the time, whose socialist, bohemian and avant-garde artistic circles he frequented and whose repression chance made him live in his own skin.[vi]

The sequence of this story is known. If, according to the thesis that Slavoj Žižek attributes to Walter Benjamin, every rise of fascism witnesses a failed revolution,[vii] this time, the twilight resolved into the night. At the end of January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appoints Hitler Chancellor of the German Reich, and in February of the same year the “Preliminary Observation” of Twilight.

The book then has a status eccentric temporality – when it is enunciated, it is no longer where it believes it to be –, but its self-imputed expiry is precisely what makes it current, as if the hopes it registers were projected renewed in the future precisely because they were then known to be obsolete. When Max Horkheimer publishes the book in 1934 by a publisher in Zurich, already temporarily exiled in Switzerland before emigrating again in the same year, this time to New York, the twilight whose experience is inscribed in the book may seem to have always been the one that brings the night - but it wasn't.

While I was writing, between 1925 and 1931, much was still at stake, despite the heavy defeats suffered just now. Hence the Benjaminian experience of unveiling history that the book must have already provoked and may continue to provoke, if read in the light of its context. It has already been noted how in Max Horkheimer there is a combination (more markedly in some phases of his thought than in others) of a profound fatalism about the course of past history and a stubborn voluntarism about the possibility of exploding the continuum of history.[viii]

“If socialism is improbable, an even more desperate resolution is needed to make it true,” says the author in the aphorism “Skepticism and morals”. In the twilight, we move in the domain of the probable and the improbable, that is, the possible, and the outcome in socialism or barbarism depends on political action. And although barbarism continues to impose itself today, or for that very reason, Rosa Luxemburg's imperative makes the red twilight last forever and does not let night fall once and for all for us.

Regardless of its outcome, hitherto in abeyance, the everyday experience put on paper by Max Horkheimer is the experience of a transition. What comes to an end is the liberal phase of capitalism, victim of the concentration of capital that it engendered. However, if this economic process is largely the content treated in the book, there is an interesting discrepancy between its content and its form. There are no numbers, data, correlations, formulations of laws, confirmation of hypotheses, graphs or anything that would erase what was experienced in the name of objectivity and positive neutrality, but rather the record of subjective experience, the private, almost intimate note , the imaginary narrative, the autobiographical memory, the unsystematic fragment, the witty tirade.

A portrait of his society and his time, Horkheimer's book is also a portrait of himself in the spaces through which he circulates. It is from within the lived experience of the author that the objective processes that transcend it stand out. The monopolization of capital is not a process aseptically diagnosed by economic science, but something experienced in the flesh and in all spheres of life. In this process, something of capitalism changes so that its essence can remain the same: “the structure of capitalist society is continuously transformed without violating the foundations of this society, the capitalist relationship” (“Limits of freedom”).

If “necessary ideologies” become “hollow”, as the first aphorism says, it is because the structuring ideas of the sphere of circulation (freedom, equality, justice, without whose presupposition there is no exchange of equivalents) lose their material force together with the weakening of competition – and hence the need for more cruel, violent forms of domination, so that the sphere of production, in turn, can remain untouched. The same emptying of ideals returns shortly afterwards in “Conceptos dishonored”.

In “Unlimited Possibilities”, the perceived hypertrophied dimensions of all aspects of social life in the early twentieth century (compared to previous centuries), from the skills of a musician to productive forces in general, are parallel to the hypertrophy of concentrated capital. , which on the other hand produces a kind of atrophy of moral sensibility due to technical obsolescence: faced with the monstrous pile of everything that is produced, the individual becomes increasingly insignificant and impotent, and his attention is no longer able to turn to the singular suffering, diluted in the broth of “general suffering”, incapable of generating compassion in the proper sense.

“Every beginning is difficult” registers the increasing difficulty of social ascension in a society stiffened by monopolization (“the beginning becomes more and more difficult than it was before”). Even certain sayings change their meaning in the transition to post-liberal capitalism: in “Time is money”, if Benjamin Franklin's sentence meant, in times of open competition, something like “every minute can be productive for you, therefore it would be foolish to lose a only if it were”, then, in the capitalism of the trusts, “now, it means: if you don't burn yourself with work, you will starve”.

Above all, the structure of classes changes, within the classes themselves and among the classes themselves, and this transformation, palpable in every day-to-day social interaction for those whose sensitivity has been refined by theory, is what most mobilizes Max Horkheimer's pen. The analysis of transformations in social relations (in capitalism, all of them relations of production) as experienced in the “world of life” takes on a surprising Bourdieusian tone of description of the habitus, without decoupling the social capital and cultural capital of class fractions from their economic capital.

On the one hand, it is the end of the enlightened and progressive bourgeoisie that is at stake, with its manners, customs, beliefs; on the other, from the dismemberment of the working class into strata with different job statuses, to chronic unemployment, and the consequent loss of its internal solidarity. Courtesy relations and normative forms of dealing between those who occupy distant places in the hierarchy – and about the whole society as hierarchically structured, see the aphorism “The skyscraper” – are unveiled by Horkheimer as tacit pacts, supported by a diffuse coercion, to avoid the cynical pronouncement of the injustice known by all and the open declaration of social war.

If the lens is that of subjective lived experience, it is natural that the moral question is raised all the time. How to live with integrity in this society that is emerging, less and less mediated by the values ​​of the old Enlightenment bourgeoisie and more and more openly violent? Does morality itself also become obsolete? Horkheimer faces a true dialectic of moral personality, or, as he prefers, character. There is an apparent paradox that needs to be unraveled. Understood in the immediate sense and taken at face value, individual moral character is made possible the higher one is in the social hierarchy. “Morals and character are largely the monopoly of the ruling class” (“Freedom of Moral Decision”).

Acquiring a moral formation, learning to control antisocial impulses, is, in this society, a luxury which, as a rule, can only be enjoyed by those who have had the material conditions to do so (cf., for example, “Education and morals”). But precisely because of this, mediated by the immorality of this very social hierarchy, the moral character of those at the top is also essentially immoral (which does not make those at the bottom any more moral). Individual morality is apparent, as it is mediated by the essential immorality of the system that makes it possible. We are very close to Theodor Adorno's intuition about the impossibility of a true life in a false one, or Walter Benjamin's insight into the identity of culture and barbarism.

In this society, even ressentiment changes its sign: against Nietzsche, it is a rational and even just affect, a sign of an “unclouded judgment” (“The Stranded Ones”). “This order, in which the children of the proletarians are condemned to death by starvation and the administrative councils condemned to feasts, really arouses resentment” (“Socialism and Resentment”). But even if Friedrich Nietzsche is wrong to condemn the resentment of the “weak”, criticism of him teaches the proletariat that morality itself is “just deceit”, and needs to be overthrown in an uprising (“Nietzsche and the proletariat”).

Max Horkheimer, however, is not Theodor Adorno. Something of the idea that morals change meaning in a false world is present, but not quite as it is in its companion. While in Theodor Adorno every moral action is contaminated by the immorality that mediates it, in this writing by Max Horkheimer, morality is kept in at least one positive place. There is, in the immanence of this system, an unequivocally moral action: the one that denies the system itself and wants to destroy it. True morality will then be recognized by dominant values ​​as immoral par excellence.

For the young Horkheimer, in an unjust order, lying is moral when it is necessary to lie to remain an opponent and to tell the truth is to collaborate (“Education for veracity”). Being ungrateful, if one is in the moral situation of a revolutionary, is not immoral, but a condition of struggle (“Gratitude”). For Horkheimer, “in a period like this”, that is, in a historical twilight, “the fight against the existing appears at the same time as a fight against the necessary and the useful, and (...), on the other hand, positive work within the framework of what exists, it is at the same time a positive collaboration with the perpetuation of the unjust order” (“A prize for vileness”). For this reason, “the form assumed by morality in the present is that of the realization of socialism” (“Skepticism and morality”).

Differently from Theodor Adorno, too, and even from the positions that he himself would assume when he was closer to him, Max Horkheimer is here assumed heir of the best intentions of the bourgeois class in the phase in which, in theory, he was an Enlightenment and, in practice, revolutionary. The socialism of Max Horkheimer (an author who calls himself an “individualist in his way of life”) intends to be, in fact, an extraction of the last consequences of a radical bourgeois thought, radical to the point of, in the end, needing betray the particularity of the class itself in the name of its intended universality.

The very pseudonym under which the book is published is an indication of this affiliation. As already mentioned, once the Nazis had taken power, Max Horkheimer published the book abroad, under the pseudonym Heinrich Regius. It is a Germanization of the first name of Henricus Regius (Latin name), or Hendrik de Roy (Dutch), philosopher of the XNUMXth century, professor of Medicine at the University of Utrecht, correspondent and follower of Descartes who later developed a materialist critique of his master, denying his metaphysical theses on the proof of the existence of God and on the configuration of the dualism of res extensive e res cogitans, sustaining, from a more naturalistic position, such a close union of body and mind that it left no room for belief in the substantiality and eternity of the soul.

Regius thus counts, for Max Horkheimer, as an “example of a free spirit”,[ix] and perhaps he can be considered a member of that tradition of “radical enlightenment” of which Jonathan Israel speaks, willing to go to the last consequences to enforce what is indicated to him by reason. For Horkheimer, the intellectuals of the first bourgeois enlightenment are "those who opened the way for the bourgeois order with their struggle against the Middle Ages inside people's heads, and who, even after the victory of that order, indifferent to the new desires of the bourgeoisie that had risen economically to power, they aspired to serve even further spiritual liberation and truth” (“Burial Categories”).

Max Horkheimer wants to assert the “theoretical residues of the revolutionary era of the bourgeoisie” (“The fight against the bourgeoisie”), prior to the moment that Gyögy Lukács would later call the “ideological decadence of the bourgeoisie”,[X] the reactionary and authoritarian turn of the bourgeois class at the moment when the full realization of the values ​​and ideals that had been used as a weapon against the nobility began to serve as a tool for the proletariat, this time against the bourgeoisie itself. There was a time, says Max Horkheimer, when “bourgeois ideology still took liberty and equality seriously and the uninhibited development of all individuals still appeared as the aim of politics” (“Right of asylum”).

This time passed, European fascism was the strongest manifestation of that ideological decay since Louis Napoleon's coup d'état, and now "the morality to which [certain radical writers] appeal has long since been discarded by the bourgeoisie that has become imperialist" ( “Transformations of morals”). Max Horkheimer knows that things are, at this moment, “so complicated, that the scientific work of Bacon and Galileo today benefits the war industry” (“A prize for vileness”), but he does not go so far as to affirm, as he would later affirm, together with to Adorno, who is the enlightenment itself that engenders its opposite.[xi]

The promises of the radical branch of bourgeois enlightenment can and must be resumed, for Max Horkheimer, and their logical consequence – avoided by the bourgeoisie itself – is socialism. Despite its bourgeois origin, Max Horkheimer's socialism is not simply the realization of the normative contents of work, but rather a form of social organization in which work loses its centrality. The idea of ​​a society in which the common good is realized through work is obsolete when there is “a true abundance of all necessary goods” (“Relativity of the theory of classes”) and, at the same time, due to the “tendency of decreasing of the number of workers employed in proportion to the use of machinery”, “an ever smaller percentage of the proletariat is actually employed” (“The impotence of the German working class”): the link between work and pay is broken, and the old biblical saying of Paul, taken up by socialists against the bourgeoisie, “If anyone does not want to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:11), becomes rather a reactionary saying that justifies the existing (“If someone does not want to work...").

However bourgeois Max Horkheimer's life may be, his theoretical sensibility is always focused on certain experiences of his other. It is very remarkable that on several occasions Max Horkheimer mentions colonial territories and the atrocities committed in them as a support for the order and abundance that reigns in the metropolis. The issue of animal suffering, no more than a consequence of the author's Schopenhauerian compassion for all kinds of suffering, also crosses several aphorisms.

Likewise, the prison penal institution, at the margins of society, is another of Max Horkheimer's fixed ideas, and counts, for him, as a metaphor for capitalist society in general. For someone right in the center, it is surprising that Max Horkheimer formulates, even in a merely indicative way, something similar to a principle that would come to characterize a certain Brazilian critical tradition, that of the epistemic privilege of the periphery of capitalism for the critique of ideology.[xii]

In “From the inside out”, Horkheimer talks about the need for an upheaval capable of decentering our experience of ourselves as a prerequisite for us to know our own conditions. In “On the Maxims and Reflections of Goethe”, he thinks about the advantage of the dominated to know himself and the dominant better than he knows himself, and even speaks of a “point of view of the factory floor”, in the which, of course, echoes the “point of view of the proletariat” of György Lukács, but also advances, for our ears, the “point of view of the periphery” of Paulo Arantes. The obfuscation only works completely for those who are in the center, it attenuates the more on the margins we are. In “The social space”, he maintains: “As long as a person remains at the center of a society, that is, as long as he occupies a respected position and does not enter into contradiction with society, he does not have the experience of what is decisive in the essence of society. society". Hence the fixation with the prison and the colony, which Max Horkheimer understands to be bearers of the truth of the most refined salons of the high bourgeoisie.

The year of the last notes contained in Twilight, 1931, is also the year in which Horkheimer assumes the position of director of the Institut für Sozialforschung from Frankfurt and begins to conceive the Zeitschrift for Social Forschung. The book, therefore, contains thoughts by Max Horkheimer prior to the beginning of whatever one might call the “Frankfurt School”, and advances several ideas that, later systematized by Max Horkheimer himself, would compose what would come to be called “ critical theory”.

“Dangers of terminology”, for example, shows how much positive scientific conceptualization (or what Horkheimer would call “traditional theory”) has a quietist character, by normalizing experience and connoting as necessary what was previously disturbing and impelled transformation. , as if what is scientifically explained were immediately transformed into eternal and immutable nature. The criticism of the supposed neutrality and objectivity of the positive sciences is based here, above all, on what Jürgen Ritsert synthetically called “Horkheimer's theorem”,[xiii] so well formulated at the beginning of “Class Theory Relativity”: “Theories originate in people's interests. This does not mean that interests necessarily falsify conscience. It is rather the case that the correct theories are precisely those which are guided by the questions to which they offer an answer”.

In “Stigmatized Affects”, Horkheimer sees precisely the positive role of affects in the production of theoretical truth: “In reality, bourgeois thought only stigmatizes the affects of the dominated against the dominant”. The demand for impartiality, always driven by affections and interests, “means today, therefore, a narrowing of the horizon, conditioned by the dependence of science on capital”. For this reason, the idea of ​​the neutrality of science is partial, it is not above, but plays to one side, while the conscious partiality of those who fight for a universality that does not yet exist is what obtains the true objectivity of knowledge (as if see in “The Partiality of Logic”, “Disinterested Aspiration to Truth”, and “A Fable of Logical Consequence”).

The reader interested in this seminal document of the first Frankfurtian critical theory, then has, in the pages that follow, an experience to do.

*Luiz Philippe de Caux Professor of Philosophy at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). author of The immanence of criticism: a study on the meanings of criticism in the Frankfurtian tradition (Loyola).


Max Horkheimer. Twilight – German banknotes (1926-1931). Translation: Luiz Philippe de Caux. São Paulo, Unesp, 2022, 208 pages.


[I] Hegel, G. W. F. Fundamental lines of the Philosophy of Law: Natural law and science of the State in its fundamental outline. Translation, presentation and notes by Marcos Müller. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2022, p. 148.

[ii] Marx, Carl. Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Trans. Rubens Enderle and Leonardo de Deus. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2010, p. 157.

[iii] Hölderlin, Friedrich. poems. Trans. Jose Paulo Paes. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1991, p. 180-181.

[iv] About the influence of Rosa Luxemburg in Twilight, cf. Michaelis, Loralea. Temporality and Revolution in Horkheimer's Early Critical Theory: A Luxemburgian Reading of Dämmerung. Telos, 185, 2018, 129–148.

[v] “At no other time and in no other writing than in the Twilight he [Horkheimer] adheres so emphatically to socialism and so unconditionally subordinates his theoretical efforts to this aim” (Schmid Noerr, Gunzelin. Nachwort des Herausgebers. In: Horkheimer, Max. Gesammelte Schriften. Band 2: Philosophische Frühschriften 1922-1932. Frankfurt aM: Fischer, 1987, p. 467).

[vi] Abromeit recounts that, while moving through the streets of Munich, Horkheimer was twice mistaken, due to his physical resemblance, to the expressionist writer and revolutionary of the Spartacist League, Ernst Toller, for whose capture a reward was offered. Narrowly escaping the beating, Horkheimer then decides to leave Munich and move to Frankfurt. (Abromeit, 2011, p. 44).

[vii] Žizek, Slavoj. First as tragedy, then as disguise. London: Verso, 2009, p. 73. Writing, therefore, before the denouement, in the aphorism “The impotence of the working class”, Horkheimer notes a split in the working class between those who enjoy some job security and those who in fact have nothing to lose, a split that would constitute the real basis of the existence of two labor parties in Germany, the KPD (Communist) and the NSDAP (Nazi). Demonstrating how this split also materializes the split between two moments necessary for overcoming capitalism, that of clear theoretical awareness and that of immediate material interest, Horkheimer surprisingly concludes that “in each of the two parties there is a part of the forces whose future of humanity depends”. An empirical study carried out by the Institut für Sozialforschung in 1930 (before Horkheimer officially took over as director, but when he was already leading the institute's activities in practice) about the mentality of the workers, he concluded, when he found an ambivalence in most of those questioned regarding authoritarian and anti-authoritarian postures, that the working class would not oppose resistance to a right-wing takeover. These results became the subject of a disagreement between Horkheimer and Erich Fromm, who conducted the research (cf. Jay, Martin. the dialectical imagination: History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923-1950. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2008, p. 166-168.).

[viii] Regarding this tension in the essay “The Authoritarian State”, cf. our interpretation in de Caux, L. Ph. and Mazzocchini, G. Between Pollock and Benjamin: Theory and Praxis in Horkheimer's “Authoritarian State”. Basic, v. 26, no. 50, 2019, pp. 239-262.

[ix] Schmid Noerr, Nachwort des Herausgebers, op. cit., p. 466, no. 32.

[X] Lukacs, Georg. Marx and the problem of ideological decay. In: Marxism and literary theory. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1968, p. 49-112.

[xi] Adorno, Theodor W.; Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1985.

[xii] Cf. Schwarz, Robert. Ideas out of place. In: To the winner the potatoes. 6. ed. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2012, pp. 9-32.

[xiii] Ritsert, Jurgen. Ideologies: Theoreme und Probleme der Wissenssoziologie. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2002, p. 19.

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