The Woman with the Corpse in Her Carriage: Whittaker Chambers, Life Magazine, and the Enlightenment (Part 2)

Back in August, prior to what turned out to be an unexpectedly long hiatus (let’s just say that my day job — which included teaching a new course on the history of the notion of “publicity” — wound up consuming more time than I bargained on), I posted a discussion of Whittaker Chambers’ role in the production of Life magazine’s series on the “History of Western Culture.” In what follows, I’d like to tie up some lose ends by saying a few things about the article Chambers wrote for the series on “The Age of Enlightenment.”

This was article that drew me to Life’s peculiar venture in the first place. The unlikeliness of a mass-market magazine devoting this much attention (and the hours of work that it took to produce the article) to a topic that, at first glance, might seem somewhat arcane appealed to my taste for the bizarre. But, then again, the presence of an article on the Enlightenment in the most successful of Henry Luce’s ventures was not quite as strange as it might initially seem. For the Enlightenment has long been a topic of interest outside the academy: it has been condemned and celebrated, but it has not been ignored. Those of us who work on the period periodically wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

Chambers was among those inclined to see the Enlightenment as responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. As he explained in a much-quoted letter dating from 1954,

it is the duty of the intellectuals of the West to preach reaction, and to keep pointing out why the Enlightenment and its faults were a wrong turning in man’s history.

Yet the same letter went on to concede that, whatever the failings of this particular turning point, “it was a turning, and within its terms, we must maneuver at the point where to maneuver is to live.”1

In his book on the relationship between Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, Michael Kimmage suggests that something similar can be found in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.2 But this, I think, overstates the extent to which Horkheimer and Adorno saw themselves as attempting to come to terms with the historical period that we (like Chambers) have come to know as “the Enlightenment.” At the risk of repeating a point that I’ve made several times before: German does not always go easily into English and there is no reason to view every invocation of die Aufklärung in Dialektik der Aufklärung as a discussion of what we call “the Enlightenment.” While Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the dialectic of enlightenment stretches back into human prehistory, Chambers’ account was unambiguously a discussion of a particular historical period.  And the account that Chambers offered of this historical period turns out to be more peculiar than we might expect.

Authors and Collaborators

For me, the most perplexing aspect of Chambers’ article involves a question that does not appear to have much concerned Kimmage: the extent to which Chambers’ article can be seen as reflecting his broader views on the trajectory of modern history. Kimmage tends to see the work that Chambers produced while employed by Henry Luce as anticipating positions that he would late elaborate in the wake of the Hiss hearings. But reading these texts in this way runs the risk of assuming that Chambers had more control over what appeared in the pages of Life than might be warranted.  It is obvious that Chambers was the author of Witness.  It is less clear how we go about assigning authorship to the texts that appeared in Life.

Discussing the conclusion of the discussion of the Protestant Reformation that appeared in the June 14, 1948 issue of Life, Kimmage argues,

The final paragraph of the series completes the general argument, the story of religion formalized in the Middle Ages, of religion challenged in the Enlightenment and successively diminished in the nineteenth century, ending with the story of religious awakening in the sixteenth century, revived in Europe with Luther and Calvin, and then again in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The rise of the middle class and of capitalism, which was also Chambers’s story, was thus modified to deny that secular modernity, the product of science and technology, is the endpoint of history. Civilizations thrive only when people believe in them — religious faith might wax and wane, dark ages might put a temporary end to civilization, but faith could also be regained and civilization restored. A Protestant revolution could supplant a Russian revolution. If so, America might continue to stand at the center of modern history.3

This narrative does seem to echo positions that Chambers would go on to elaborate in Witness.  But there are a few problems with Kimmage’s approach to the text.

First, though the article on the Protestant Revolution appears to have been Chambers’ final contribution, two further articles appeared before the series finally concluded: a discussion of “Eighteenth Century England” on September 13 and a final article on the 1848 revolutions on November 22, 1948.  Hence, while Chambers wrapped up his involvement in the series with an account of how the “the new spirit” unleashed by the Reformation had “leaped the Atlantic Ocean”, cleared the forests of North America and — after purging the continent of “the remnants of stone-age man” — created “an appropriate space where the new dignity of the individual, safeguarded by his new freedom of faith could, under God, build a citadel, an arsenal and an altar,” two additional articles were either already planned or waiting in the queue.4

The series itself ended with a discussion of the 1848 revolutions that featured a closing paragraph that would seem to offer a much better summary of the general message of the series:

In 1848 freedom was still a great and simple matter. It was the trumpet which proclaimed to the world and to the heavens the rights and worth of man. It meant the individual’s protection against tyranny. But Marxism has set in motion a gigantic revolution against individualism, that view of man as a free being on which Western civilization rests. Of all the lessons of 1848 the most important is one concerning freedom. It is that freedom cannot be won, once and for all, on the barricades. Like man’s other possessions, it must be defended. 5

Those with a finer sense of Chambers’ style are in a better position than I am to judge whether this conclusion offers a markedly different account of the basic lessons of the Life series than the (premature) climax Chambers wrote for the article on the “Protestant Reformation” (much turns, I suppose, on Chambers’ sense of the alleged virtues of “individualism”).  But it does serve as a reminder that Luce’s publications were defined by a certain house style. Lionel Trilling’s later characterization of Chambers as having achieved a measure of “economic security and even a professional reputation of sorts with the apocalyptic pieties of his news-stories for Time and the sodden profundities of his cultural essays for Life” — while snide — was on the mark in at least one respect: Chambers’ success at Time and Life had at least something to do with his managing to find ways of producing work that conformed to the general dictates of the house style.

The series on the history of Western culture provided regular opportunities to produce new examples of the style. After all, the mission of the series was to take stock of the civilization that Americans had inherited. Reminding Americans of their past successes in exterminating those “stone-age” natives that got in the way of their deforestation project, stocking up the arsenal with the latest weapons of mass destruction, and settling down to a protracted defense of a “freedom” that could never be fully secured — all this was consistent with the early Cold War rhetoric at Time and Life. That the house style was a good fit with Chambers’ own helps to account for his success: when the need arose, he could turn out “apocalyptic pieties” and “sodden profundities.” But he had other resources and, as we shall see, wound up striking a rather different tone at the close of the Enlightenment article.

I am inclined to wonder whether it makes much sense to try to apply the notion of individual authorship to productions of this sort. Life’s “History of Western Culture” was, above all else, a collaborative project in which Chambers was responsible for producing a text that would accompany the parade of images that were Life’s stock in trade. The seemingly haphazard ordering of the various installments may be a further testimony to the collaborative nature of the undertaking.  Even if the texts that Chambers produced were able to escape the subsequent editing that seems to have been the norm at Life, they were still only one part of the Gesamtkitschwerk that this particular branch of the culture industry churned out.  With an efficiency that rivaled that of the Hollywood studio system in its glory days, various departments labored to produce a product that, issue after issue, was defined by a unified style.  When the requisite parts of a product were ready to be assembled, a new installment appeared: hence the indifference to chronology that marked a series that started with the Renaissance, moved back to the Middle Ages, returned for a look at Renaissance Venice, stopped off at the Enlightenment, jumped forward to the Edwardians, turned back to consider the “Age of Explorations,” paid a visit to the Reformation, took a look at Eighteenth Century England, and finally ended with an account of the revolutions of 1848. It may not have mattered that the initial presentation of the series appears to us as a chronological train-wreck: everything would be straightened out when the pieces were polished up and reassembled in the deluxe coffee-table book that would follow.

Terrifying Women

The word “enlightenment” (as readers of this blog are well aware) can refer either to something that individuals do (namely, enlighten one another) or the particular historical Header for Enlightenment Articleperiod that we see as exemplifying this activity: the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” The article in Life was supposed to be concerned with the latter and Chambers began his article by repeating the already old (and mistaken) notion that Kant was responsible for the “name given the era.” But, though Chambers may have been interested in writing an article that traced the evolution of “the human spirit” during this brief “interlude between the stake and fagots and the guillotine, Life‘s art department was (of necessity) less interested in ideas than in images.  Hence, the cover of the September 15, 1947 featured, not a philosophe, but instead a royal mistress: the Madame du Barry. That choice was in keeping with the divided focus of the subheading that followed the words “The Age of Enlightenment” at the start of the article: “In the reign of France’s Louis XV, the passion for reason became a religion and the rule of women reached up to the king’s throne.”6

Screenshot 2016-02-13 18.41.56While the idea that cult of “reason” was not as different from the religious beliefs that it sought to banish had, thanks to Carl Becker, become a standard trope in mid-twentieth century American critiques of the Enlightenment (and would shortly become the bête noire of a young Columbia university professor named Peter Gay), the idea that women were turning men into eunuchs must have seemed considerably more promising for a magazine devoted to images (especially images of women). The center of the opening page was dominated by an image of a “grand lady of France’s Age of Enlightenment” — wearing “a wig 3 feet high, adorned with feathers, ribbons, jewels.” The art department’s choice echoed the paragraph Chambers crafted to launch his account:

Mademoiselle de Coigny kept a corpse in her coach. The Age of Reason was dawning in France — it was the 18th Century — and there were otherwise just not enough minutes in those days of wonderful Enlightenment for mademoiselle to pursue, like other dedicated bluestockings, the fascinating study of anatomy. But with the corpse handy and her scalpel as keen as M. de Voltaire’s wickedly witty mind, she could. While rattling over the Paris cobbles, slice and eviscerate in daily officiation at the new faith whose deity was reason, whose ritual was science and whose high priests were the philosophes, the new order of literary skeptics.

Pace Trilling, passages like this might serve as a reminder that Chambers knew how to hook a reader.

Of course readers (as opposed to subscribers) were not the primary interest at Life. The relative importance of words and images was driven home by the note that occupies the lower right hand corner of the opening page:


At this point Chambers’ text drops out of sight and the art department takes over.  We see reproductions of  prints of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at Versailles, a Masonic initiation ceremony, and a tennis match.  They are followed by luscious color images of Screenshot 2016-02-14 11.10.34works by Fragonard, Watteau, and Boucher and photographs of the royal palace at Versailles.  What any of this might have to do “the Enlightenment” (as opposed to “the eighteenth century”) is not entirely clear, but  over the course of those fourteen pages the would-be reader encounters quite a few women. The captions inform us that opera singers were the “chorus girls of the day” and that they “paraded on the streets in morning dress” (77). There is a full page devoted to salons and the “grand ladies” who “presided over the centers of wit and learning” (78). A full page is devoted to Fragonard’s The Swing, a painting that, we are told, illustrates the “pseudo-pastoral pleasures of the French nobles.” There are two pages juxtaposing Louis XV and the Madame de Pompadour (“the virtual ruler of France”).7

When the flood of images ends and Chambers’ narrative resumes we are finally presented with a brief sketch of the Enlightenment and its implications.

Before the Enlightenment culture have been essentially religious. Carrying further the work of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment made culture essentially secular. Before the Enlightenment the proper study of mankind had been the will of God. The proper study of mankind, said the Enlightenment with the voice of Alexander Pope, is man. Revelation had been held to be the highest form of truth. Looking back to Descartes … and to Newton … the Enlightenment sought system and reason in all things. There is no truth, said the Enlightenment, which cannot stand the test of reason. Slowly and surely the Enlightenment began the process whereby philosophy, the search for truth, was supplanted by science, the search for facts. Theology, the effort to know God’s will, was replaced by history, the record of man’s follies. (90)

A reader familiar with Chambers’ writings from the 1950s might see this passage as foreshadowing Chambers’ own later characterization of the Enlightenment. But it bears remembering that it also echoes accounts of the “Age of Enlightenment” that had become a commonplaces in the orthodox Marxist accounts of the period with which Chambers would have been familiar from his days as a Communist. And, with the possible exception of the replacement of the “search for truth” by the “search for facts,” the passage offers little indication that there is anything lamentable about this transformation.  Indeed, on the opening page of the article (immediately before fourteen pages of images), Chambers had emphasized the significance of the Enlightenment for the one thing that would likely have been of greatest importance for  Life‘s subscribers in 1947:  America.

The great divide of cultures is the moment when men feel within themselves a force equal to the vicissitudes of new vision. The vision of the Enlightenment was freedom — freedom from superstition, freedom from intolerance, freedom to know (for knowledge was held to be the ultimate power), freedom from the arbitrary authority of church or state, freedom in trade or work without vestigial feudal restrictions. This vision was embodied in the American Bill of Rights (for 18th Century America was also a part of the Enlightenment) and in the French Revolution’s Rights of Man (75).

We find a similar assessment of the Enlightenment fourteen pages later:

Enlightenment is one great source of modern culture. In a brief 100 years, it provides the fundamental ideas of man’s destiny and purpose which civilization had developed over more than 1,000 years. The Enlightenment was the intellectual chemistry whose gradual precipitate was the modern mind – secular, practical and utilitarian.

Once again, there is little here that is inherently critical. Everything depends on the reader’s stance towards “the modern mind.”

It is not until the final paragraph of the sketch of the Enlightenment that Chambers offers once the art department has finished with its task that something approximating a critique begins to surface;

The function of the Middle Ages had been to reconstruct human civilization from the debris of the fallen Roman. The function of the Renaissance had been to liberate the creative energies of the individual man and to reunite the culture of the ancient world with the culture that man had developed since. These movements had been spontaneous and organic. Their ideas were evolved, not superimposed. The Enlightenment in France began with ideas, and its immediate purpose was to reform or revolutionize French life.

But Chambers immediately closes off the contrast between “organic” and “superimposed” ideas by noting that the attempt to reform France “was a rather discouraging prospect” since the French tended to assume that their civilization had already “reached a perfection unmatched in human history.” And with that, he ends his reflections on the overall meaning of the period and begins a discussion of Mozart, a discussion that rather rapidly turns into a series of reflections on the “terrifying hold on power” that women exercised over the course of the eighteenth century.  It is as if, somewhat improbably, Whittaker Chambers had begun to channel Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The article eventually tracks back to a brief discussion of the Enlightenment’s more significant thinkers.  There is a brief mention Montesquieu (who, we are told was “least influential in France” and important today chiefly because of his influence on the framers of the American Constitution) and Diderot (who gets two paragraphs devoted, chiefly, to the Encyclopédie) and a somewhat more protracted treatment of Voltaire and a passing mention of Rousseau (there had been a longer discussion of Rousseau and Voltaire several pages earlier in two text blocks separate from the main essay).  The “involuntarily witty and organically skeptical” Voltaire (it would appear that “organic” is a positive attribute in Chambers’ lexicon) comes off surprisingly well in this account, perhaps because Chambers employs him as the Enlightenment’s most effective critic.

His famous work … is Candide, which savagely satirized the complacent belief, falsely derived from Orthodox philosophers, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Unlike other philosophers, Voltaire had cut deep into a more enduring subject than doctrinaire controversy or the battle of ideas – the eternal subject of human folly.

Rousseau is left to play in the role of the “great prophet of the democratic revolution.” It is because of his writings that  “the Enlightenment leads directly to the Revolution.”

We arrive at the Revolution in the middle of the closing paragraph, at which point Chambers executes a rather surprising pivot that manages to tie everything together. He notes that Rousseau was dead when the revolution he had inspired would come to pass and goes on to observe,

So was Voltaire. This was a pity, for a very minor confrontation of values during The Terror might have tickled the old philosopher’s ironic sense. Mme. de Gramont possibly never had an idea in her unenlightened head when she was called before the Revolutionary Tribunal to stand trial for her life. “Had she ever aided the aristocrats who had escaped abroad?” The court asked her.  Mme. de Gramont knew that if she answered yes she would be guillotined at once. For some seconds she looked at her judges in silence, then, “I was going to answer no,” she said, “but life is not worth the lie.”

Chambers ends this article with neither “apocalyptic pieties” nor “sodden profundities” but instead with the unexpected return of the scalpel-wielding noblewoman from the opening paragraph.  If Chambers would seem to view her efforts at enlightenment with disdain, his last sentence at least leaves her with a certain nobility.  There is perhaps a message that can be extracted here about the possible disjuncture between the acquisition of knowledge and the possession of a good will.  But Chambers was not setting the stage for a discussion of Kant’s Groundwork.  He was trying to come up way of explaining the Enlightenment to readers who —  as he must have known —  would have likely moved on to other parts of the magazine by the time his article had reached its conclusion.

It is hard to know what readers who stuck with Chambers until the bitter end might have thought about how Mme. de Gramont dealt with the question that had been posed to her.  It is even harder to know what Chambers himself, aware that he was about to appear before a Congressional committee and face other questions, might have thought about her fate.  What is clear is that when his readers finished his article and turned the page they would be greeted by the picture of a leggy “show girl” perched on the railing of a wooden fence, lariat in hand, and an article that begins

Women’s clothes reached a non-utilitarian high in Hollywood recently with the development of riding habits which look just wonderful but unfortunately do not protect the rider from the horse. For a movie musical called Two Guys from Texas masterminds at the Warner Bros. studio posed showgirls in corrals and on cactuses in what looked like buckskin bathing suits. Even if their bare thighs got a trifle chafed, what was that where art is concerned?

And, having spent more time than I should have on this peculiar account of the Enlightenment, the only thing that I am reasonably confident in saying is that any attempt to  compare the account of the Enlightenment that Chambers offered in Life and the account that Horkheimer and Adorno provided in Dialectic of Enlightenment might begin by recognizing that Horkheimer and Adorno had it easier than Whittaker Chambers.  They didn’t have a deadline to meet, they weren’t working for Henry Luce, and Querido Verlag didn’t have an art department eager to provide them with illustrations for a deluxe illustrated edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Screenshot 2016-02-12 17.06.49


  1. Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, ed. Duncan Norton-Taylor (New York: Random House, 1964). 227. ↩︎
  2. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  3. Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 156. ↩︎
  4. “The Protestant Revolution,” LIFE June 14, 1948, 94.  Since neither Kimmage nor I (nor, it would appear, any other historian) has been able to examine the Chambers’ manuscripts, we are both relying on the selection of texts assembled by Terry Teachout in Whittaker Chambers, Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, (Washington, D.C. : Lanham, MD: Regnery Gateway, 1989).  As I noted in my previous post on this topic, a definitive judgment on what Chambers might have contributed to the series (e.g.,  was he also responsible for the supplemental material that appeared outside the main text)  and how his drafts might have been edited.↩︎
  5. “1848”, LIFE 111.  ↩︎
  6. Several studies of the role of women during the eighteenth century appear in the bibliography appended to version of the series later published in book form, including E. L. and J. A. de Goncourt’s, The Women of the Eighteenth Century (1927), Halina Sokolnikoza’s Nine Women (1932), and H. N. Williams’ studies of the Madame de Pompadour (1902) and Madame du Barry (1934).  Roger Picard’s Les Ssalons Littéraires et la Société Française (1943) is also cited.  Surprisingly, there is no mention of Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.  Less surprisingly, neither Cassirer nor Hazard appear.  It should be stressed that it is not clear what role, if any, Chambers would have had in suggesting items for the bibliography.   ↩︎
  7. It might be noted that whoever wrote the captions seems to have reversed the Mme. D’Epinay and the Mme.du Chatelet. ↩︎
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Images of Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun

This is the time of year when — at least in the northern hemisphere — the days grow sadlight-1shorter and nights grow longer. Since I am prone to a mild case of seasonal affective disorder, I respond to the change by dragging a high intensity light out of the closet and zapping myself with it in the morning. This year the encroaching darkness and attendant sense of gloom has been enhanced by the decision of my fellow citizens to see what would happen if the highest political office in nation was bestowed upon a racist sexual predator with a limited attention span, a casual relationship with the truth, and what would appear to be a rather well-developed narcissistic personality disorder. I doubt this experiment will turn out well.

So, I thought I’d supplement my daily inoculation with high-intensity light with a few thoughts on a more pleasant topic: eighteenth century allegorical frontispieces (feeling happier yet? Stay with me). Back in the summer of 2014, inspired in part by spending some time working through Hans Blumenberg’s discussion of the metaphor of light as truth, I posted a discussion of a few examples of the genre and followed it with a closer look at two of the great James Gillray’s works: “A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism” (an engraving he executed for the Anti-Jacobin Review) and “Smelling Out a Rat”, his contribution to the flurry of prints that greeted the publication of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I later pulled some of this material together for an article for the journal Diametros.

In hopes of dispelling at least some of the darkness, I thought I’d devote this post to a couple of other engravings that, while nowhere near as engaging as Gillray’s work (an impossibly high standard to match) are not without some interest: Egid Verhelst’s engravings for Friedrich Carl von Moser’s Neues Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland. While Gillray portrayed the struggle between Jacobins and their opponents as a contest between darkness and light in which the ultimate victory of what he (or, at least his employers) took to be the forces of light would appear to have been a foregone conclusion (Magna est veritas et prævalebit and all that), Verhelst’s are considerably more restrained and engimatic and, for that reason, perhaps more appropriate for the unsettled times into which we seem to be sailing.

Moser and Verhelst

While Friedrich Carl von Moser (1723-1798) was fairly well-known in his own day, he is not a figure who looms large in current discussions of the Enlightenment. I included two of his friedrich_karl_von_moser_1723-1798pieces in my What is Enlightenment? collection, though searches on the web suggest that Anglophone scholars have had little interest in him. He had a lengthy career as a civil servant who (aside from a stint at the court of Joseph II Vienna) spent most of his time in the smaller German courts (including service at the beginning and end of his life at Darmstadt). At the same time he managed to make a name for himself as a writer with a series of works on statecraft and politics (e.g., his 1759 Lord and Servant and a Montesquieu-inspired contribution to exchanges on the nature of the “German national spirit” dating from 1765).1 His admirers included Hamann and Herder and it is possible that Goethe drew on some of his works during the writing of Götz von Berlichingen.2

Moser was the editor of the Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland (1784-1792) and its successor, the Neues Patriotisches Archiv (1792-94). In the preface to the latter, Moser characterized the journal as focusing on issues in “political morality” and history and as aiming to combine the “good old with the good new”, with the criteria for the “good” defined by Christian belief and a commitment to a hierarchically ordered corporative social order.3  Verhelst (1742-1818) was responsible for the images that appeared in both journals. Those in the Patriotisches Archiv tended (with a few exceptions) to be portraits (including a few of Moser), while the two that appeared in the Neues Patriotisches Archiv were allegorical. I’ve found very little information about Verheist. The laconic entry him in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (which dates from 1895) tells us that he was born in Ausburg, held an academic position at Mannheim, died in Munich and was best known for his portraits, quite a few of which can be found online.4

The two engravings for the Neues Patriotisches Archiv do not turn up in perfunctory searches, but since both volumes of the Neues Patriotisches Archiv are available on the Haithi Trust site, it is easy enough to track them down. The engraving for the first volume — an image of an oil lamp, resting on a small hill and illuminating the surrounding darkness — took its inspiration from Moser’s Preface to the volume, which likened his launching of the new journal to a replenishing of the oil in his lamp and proclaimed the motto which appears beneath the lamp: “To Illuminate, Not Ignite”.

The engraving for the second volume is much stranger. In the foreground a night watchman with a lantern at his side turns surveys the empty street of a town. On the horizon, at an indeterminate distance beyond the orderly row of houses, a massive conflagration rages.

The beneath the engraving motto reads: “I do my part.”

In the confident frontispiece that Gillray executed for the inaugural issue of the Anti-Jacobin Review, the torch that the allegorical figure of Truth holds aloft both enlightens and ignites: the rays of light that stream into the cave cause the seditious pamphlets to burst into flames.   But in Verhelst’s engravings , fire is something that must be carefully contained, lest it inflame rather than enlighten. The consequences of a flame that escapes the confines of the lantern is apparent from the inferno raging on the horizon. And while the starry sky above still offers (as it had in Plato’s allegory) a means of orientation, the stars are already being obscured by the clouds that pour from a conflagration that — begun in Paris — now threatens to consume the world.

The Fire and the Sun

The contrast between Gillray and Velhelst serves as a reminder that images of light and fire work in different ways: while fire appears as both scourge (for the wicked) and menace (even for the righteous), representations of light have tended to be unproblematically affirmative. To pick one of the many possible examples, the image entitled “Enlightenment” executed by the famous Berlin engraver Daniel Chodowiecki in the Göttinger Tachenkalender for 1792 depicts the morning sun rising over the hills behind a small village.

Chodowiecki went on to explain that, since “enlightenment” was a relatively recent achievement, there was no generally accepted allegorical representation for this “highest work of reason.” Making the case for his use of the image of the rising sun, he noted that — though it might occasionally be concealed by the fog arising from “swamps, censers, and burnt offerings” — as it makes it steady ascent it inevitably drive away the morning fog that obscures it.5

In a brief article in the Teutsche Merkur written shortly before the storming of the Bastille, Christoph Martin Wieland quipped that — with the exception of “a single laudable and communally useful activity” — there was nothing that honest people could do in the darkness except sleep. Only those who had an interest in concealing their schemes had anything to fear “when it becomes brighter in the minds of men …” and there was, he insisted, every reason to be suspicious of their calls for limits on the spread of enlightenment. The enemies of enlightenment could be counted on to “do everything they can to obstruct, to nail shut, and to stop up all openings, windows, and crevices through which light can come into the world” were biding their time, waiting for the chance to “smash the lanterns which provide us and others with some light to see.”6

But while light — at least outside the bedroom — was an unmixed blessing, eighteenth-century city dwellers would have been well aware of the potential dangers of oil-lamps and fires. And if the natural ascent of the sun into the heavens was always a blessing (and I’m looking forward to the days when it rises higher and lingers longer), Verhelst’s engravings served as a reminder that the fires that had been brought into cities to illuminate the darkness need to be used with care — which was precisely the message that Moser wished to convey.Sun

  1. For a discussion of the latter, see Nicholas Vazsonyi, “Montesquieu, Friedrich Carl von Moser, and the ‘National Spirit Debate’ in Germany, 1765-1767,” German Studies Review 22:2 (1999): 225.
  2. Detlev W. Schumann, “Goethe and Friedrich Carl von Moser: A Contribution to the Study of ‘Götz von Berlichingen,’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53:1 (1954): 1–22. I should caution that I am not a Goethe scholar and I have no idea whether the arguments of this old article have held up. 
  3. Friedrich Carl von Moser, “Vorrede,” Neues Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland, Vol 1 (1792), iii. 
  4. Fourteen are available via the Wikipedia
  5. Quoted in Ulrich Im Hof, “Enlightenment – Lumieres – Illuminismo – Aufklaerung:  Die ’Ausbreitung Eines Besseren Lichts Im Zeitalter Der Vernunft,” in “Und Es Ward Licht”: Zur Kulturgeschichte Des Lichts, ed. Maja Svilar, Universität Bern: Kulturhistorische Vorlesungen 1981/82 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1983), 115–35, 115-6. 
  6. Christoph Marin Wieland, “A Couple Gold Nuggets, from the … Wastepaper, or Six Answers to Six Questions,” in  James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 80-81.  I suppose this is as good a place as any to explain that the ellipsis in the title appears in German original.  From the context, it is clear that the German word that Wieland has removed might best be translated as “shitty.”   
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Robert Wokler, J. G. A. Pocock, and the Hunt for an Eighteenth-Century Usage of “Counter-Enlightenment”

In 1999, I proposed a panel on the topic “The ‘Enlightenment Project’: What is It?” to the organizers of the upcoming conference of the Northeastern division of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Judging from the correspondence saved on my computer, the call for papers seemed to have generated a fair amount of interest, which resulted in the setting up of a couple of panels on the topic. And, looking at my subsequent email exchanges with those responsible for pulling the whole event off, there were more than the usual number of cancellations and reshuffling of speakers.

A few months before the conference, I got a message on my answering machine, a fax, and a series of emails from Robby Wokler, who had been scheduled to present a paper at one of the sessions, but who now appeared to be confused as to where, exactly, the event was being held and, more generally, seemed to be having second thoughts about the venture. In an effort to keep him on board, I sent him a response that employed both the carrot and the stick. I opened with the stick:

The NEASECS session that you agreed to do (note the wording — designed to induce guilt) will be held at 10 AM on Friday, Dec. 10 in “Great Bay I” of the New England Conference Center and Hotel in Durham, New Hampshire.

The carrot followed:

As a “sweetener” (as we Americans say), after your talk in New Hampshire, I will show you a little discovery of mine: a use of the term “Gegenaufklärung” from the 1780’s.

My efforts were, alas, in vain, though there was enough uncertainty as to whether Robby might be able to attend to warrant keeping his name on the program, which allowed those of us on the panel to harbor the hope that, at the last minute, he might burst into the room, bringing with him that peculiar mixture of erudition, wit, and chaos that made him such a welcome companion.

I’d first come into contact with him in the Spring of 1996, when we exchanged various drafts and offprints. We remained in touch over the next decade, chiefly via email (though his relationship to his internet service providers tended to be somewhat dodgy), but also during his all-too-infrequent visits to Boston. Our paths crossed at conferences in Fiesole, Dublin, New Orleans and (for me, most memorably) at the 1998 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was held at Notre Dame, a conference that will loom rather large in what follows.

I can still recall his arriving at Notre Dame with an aging Windows laptop and finding himself unable to print out his talk (which he had continued to refine after his arrival). The reason, as he explained it, was that the university would only support Macintoshes (I wondered whether, perhaps, he’d been misled by Umberto Eco’s “Macs are like Catholics, Windows like Protestants” meme). Sometime after arriving he managed to lose his power cord, which meant that he was forced to attempt to read his talk (a contribution to a panel on Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment that also featured a paper from Bruce Mazlish) from his computer before its battery died.1 Somehow he pulled it off.

We stayed in touch, united by a common interest in the Enlightenment and its critics, until shortly before his death in 2006.2 In the decade since, I’ve thought about him quite a bit. For reasons that will become clearer in a moment, I’ve thought about him even more over the last couple of weeks.

A Revelation at Notre Dame

Though Robby never made it to the NEASECS sessions in Durham, he was quite intrigued by my suggestion that the term that his teacher Isaiah Berlin had made famous might have been in use during the eighteenth century. So was I. We were both members of that branch of the great Freemasonry of Useless Erudition that is distinguished by its obsessive concern with words and their history. In one of his earliest emails to me he noted (somewhat pretentiously — I suspect that, at the time, we were still trying to impress one another … it’s a thing guys tend to do):

Words and expressions are the things themselves, it seems to me. Modernity takes shape around their transfigurations.

But, as chance would have it, I somehow managed to lose (or, more likely, never properly recorded in the first place) the reference to the use of Gegenaufklärung that I had dangled before him in my attempt to lure him to the wilds of New Hampshire.

I subsequently tried to track it down by searching through the University of Bielefeld’s collection of German eighteenth-century journals, but all I could come up with was the word Gegenerklärung, which turns up quite a few times. Upon examining the articles in question, I found that what they were offering was, as the titles suggested, a Gegenerklärung: a rebuttal, a disclaimer, or, more literally, “a contrary explanation.” And this (or so I thought at the time) was something rather different from a Gegenaufklärung.

As late as 2002 Robby was still wondering whether I had managed to figure out where I had seen the word Gegenaufklärung. But, by then, I was convinced that what I thought I’d seen must have been the result of my mistaking Gegenerklärung for Gegenaufklärung (after a few hours of reading eighteenth-century German journals it’s a wonder that I’m capable of making sense of anything). What eventually persuaded me that I was mistaken had much to do with my working out the implications of J. G. A. Pock’s plenary address at the Notre Dame ASECS conference. I was there to give a talk on Horkheimer and Adorno at a panel on “Modern and Post-Modern Interpretations of the Enlightenment,” Robby was there to talk on Cassirer’s defense of “the Enlightenment,” and Pocock was there to explain why we should all be very suspicious about invoking something called “the Enlightenment.”

Pocock’s talk was entitled “The Tell-tale Article: Reconstructing . . . Enlightenment.” It opened with an explanation of the three dots in the title:

The significance of the dots is that I am trying to eliminate three letters from the study and discourse of Enlightenment; yet the same three letters stand at the head of my own title. It is “the” tell-tale article I propose that we eliminate: the practice of prefacing the word “the” to the noun Enlightenment; yet the structure of my own sentence shows that the definite article is not easy to do without ….

Looking back over the photocopy of the handwritten talk that — years later — he was kind enough to send me, I am chastened (but not entirely surprised) to realize how much of what I’ve been doing over the last two decades appears, in one way or another, to have been prompted by what he said.3

What I learned that night (or, more precisely, what I began to work out at about 5 AM the next morning when my brain decided that it had spent enough time mulling over what Pocock had said and concluded that it was time to wake me up so that I could sketch out the implications of his argument for the work I’d been doing) was that “the Enlightenment” was (as J. C. D. Clark put it in a review that appeared around the same time) one of those “nineteenth-century terms of historical art” that “fall noiselessly away” as we draw closer to the material we are trying to understand.4

A year later Pocock elegantly summed up the ambiguity that plagues any discussion of a “counter-enlightenment”: it’s unclear whether the term is supposed to refer to “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another, or a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term.”5 The latter would appear to have been what Isaiah Berlin had in mind in his uses of concept and, I suppose, may have been what Robbie was hoping to find lurking in the pages of an eighteenth-century German journal. By the time of the Notre Dame ASECS meeting I’d published my collection of translations of answers to the question “What is Enlightenment?” (in which I’d sought to enforce a distinction between “enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment”), but it was not until hearing Pocock’s lecture that I first began to understand what the texts I’d collected were telling us.

Once it became clear that the dispute that had been launched in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift was not a discussion of how to define “the Enlightenment,” but instead was an argument about the nature of an activity known as “enlightenment”, the only “counter-enlightenment” that eighteenth-century thinkers could have been talking about would be the first of Pocock’s two varieties: i.e., “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another” (I think, however, that it would be a good idea to get rid of capital E as well as the definite article). And, as I became more familiar with the vocabulary that was used in the eighteenth century, it became clearer to me that there were other ways of marking the distinction between the different “brands” of “enlightenment” (e. g., “true enlightenment” vs “false enlightenment”). So, while Robby still hoped that the word Gegenaufklärung might still be lurking in one eighteenth-century text or another, by the closing years of the last millennium I was reasonably confident that it wasn’t.

Imagine my surprise then when, about two weeks ago, I came across the following passage while browsing through the Hathi Trust’s scans of the Deutsche Monatsschrift for November 1790 (emphasis mine):

Was kann das Gegengift der Aufklärung, welches Zimmermann dem lesenden Publikum dispensirt, anders seyn, als eine Gegenaufklärung gegen Mirabeau’s Aufklärung, womit dieser letztere (mit Zimmermann zu reden) die Preussische Monarchie bedroht? — d. i. eine Bekanntmachung der Zimmermannischen Meiningen, gegen die Meinungen, welche der Graf von Mirabeau bekannt machen wollte.6

A Different Sort of Gegenaufklärung

The text that I was looking at on the Hathi Trust website was the very article that I’d seen two decades earlier in Zwi Batscha’s Enlightenment and Freedom of Thought, an anthology that was one of the inspirations for my own collection.7 I’d cited the article — an anonymous survey of the various answers that had been given to the question “what is enlightenment?” — a few times in my own work but had never discussed it at any length. The explanation for my perfunctory handling of it is simple enough: its approach to the question that Kant made famous diverged so markedly from what I expected to find that I couldn’t understand it. When I first read it two decades ago, I’d assumed that it would be concerned with the diverging accounts of Aufklärung that appeared in the essays by Mendelssohn, Kant, and the others that I had read. But the texts that it discussed (which were not listed until the start of the second part of the article) were rather different from the ones I’d been reading and its way of carving up the different meanings of the term (which was laid out in an outline that turns up some thirty pages into the article) struck me as something that might as well have been concocted by Jorge Luis Borges.

My problem, in brief, was that I was coming to the text expecting it to have something to do with my questions. And I suspect that my lack of understanding of the text may have something to do with why I soon forgot that this was the place where I’d seen the word that Robby was hoping to find (that I’d yet to begin to become more systematic in my note-taking only made it easier to lose track of something that I didn’t understand in the first place). It is only in the last few weeks that I’ve managed to make any headway in beginning to figure out what its author’s concerns appear to have been.

I hope to say more about this peculiar text (which somebody really ought to translate) in future posts. For now, it may be enough to explain what “Gegenaufklärung” is doing here. The word appears in section XVII of the text, which is devoted to the use of Aufklärung as a way of denoting an attempt to clarify one’s views to those who are either ignorant of them or have misunderstood them. 8 One important context in which this process takes place provides the chief focus of the discussion: the efforts of writers to lay out their views to readers. The article observes that, when engaged in efforts of this sort, these authors tend to draw a distinction between “true” and “false” enlightenment.9

The article goes on to note that, in the case of what it describes as the “passive” sense of the word Aufklärung (i.e. Augeklärtheit— a word that designates “the state of being enlightened”), the idea that there could be such a thing as “false enlightenment” might seem a contradiction in terms (the author likens it to an expression like “bright darkness”). But the article suggests that the distinction does make sense when applied to the “active” sense of the term (i.e., when it is used to refer to the various activities, practices, and institutions that allegedly advance the prospects for enlightenment). The point would appear to be that the distinction between true and false enlightenment ultimately stems from disagreements about the effectiveness of various efforts (which are collectively designated by the word  Aufklärung) that seek to bring about a state of affairs known as “enlightenment” (i.e., Augeklärtheit).

As an example of how arguments of this sort unfold, the review considers the attack that Johann Georg Zimmermann (Frederick the Great’s physician and a well-known critic of the alleged influence of French philosophes on the Berlin enlightenment) mounted against the Comte de Mirabeau’s account of the Prussian court.10 The discussion concluded with the passage (quoted above) that contained the word that Robbie and I had been seeking. It might be translated as follows:

What can the antidote [Gegengift] of enlightenment which Zimmermann dispenses to the reading public be other than a counter-enlightenment [Gegenaufklärung] against Mirabeau’s enlightenment, with which the latter (as Zimmerman would put it) threatens the Prussian monarchy? In other words, an exposition of Zimmermanian views, against the views which Count Mirabeau wishes to make known?11

What’s interesting (at least for me) about this passage is the role played by the prefix “gegen”. It opens with a discussion of the Gegengift [literally, an “anti-poison”] that Zimmermann is offering in hopes of countering the poison pen letter that Mirabeau had written about the Prussian monarchy. The passage turns out to be a paraphrase of the conclusion of the Preface to Zimmermann’s Vertheidigung Friedrichs des Grossen gegen den Grafen von Mirabeau, which describes the text as “the antidote to the enlightenment, with which Mirabeau … threatens the Prussian monarchy.”13 The author of the article in the Deutsche Monatsschrift transforms Doctor Zimmermann’s metaphor into a somewhat more prosaic formulation: Zimmermann’s Gegengift becomes a Gegenaufklärung, an effort at enlightenment that counters the enlightenment that Mirabeau sought to provide.

But if we are going to translate the reviewer’s Gegenaufklärung as “counter-enlightenment”, we need to be clear that this counter-enlightenment is not the second of the two variants that Pocock noted: i.e., “a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term.” For there was no “final sense” of enlightenment available to Zimmermann or to Mirabeau and the absence of this final sense helps to explain why they cannot agree. So, we are left with a play of arguments and counter-arguments, explanations and counter-explanations. Nor am I entirely confident about characterizing this contest of interpretations as “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another.” For, while the review’s discussion of the role played by the distinction between “true” and “false” enlightenment captures something about the way in which rival “brands” of enlightenment (e.g., radical vs moderate, religious vs. secular, etc.) faced off against each other, there is a simpler way of dealing with the term Gegenaufklärung. We are not always obliged to translate Aufklärung as “enlightenment.” After all, Aufklärungsunterricht is conventionally rendered as “sex education”, rather than “sexual enlightenment” and the uses of Gegenaufklärung in military treatises refer to what we are used to calling “counter-intelligence.”

The Gegenaufklärung that the reviewer for the Deutsche Monatsschrift invoked was a “contrary account” or “contrary explanation.” And the latter phrase could easily serve as a translation for the German word that I thought I’d mistaken for Gegenaufklärung: Gegenerklärung. So, while I was wrong when I suggested to Robby that the word I’d glimpsed, a couple of decades ago, must have been Gegenerklärung rather than Gegenaufklärung, it turns out that it didn’t matter: the Gegenaufklärung that I’d seen amounted to the same thing as a Gegenerklärung.


  1. Both papers subsequently appeared in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 29 (2000).
  2. Those unfamiliar with Robbie might want to read Joshua Cherniss’s tribute in the Guardian of August 22, 2006. 
  3. There was also an echo of Pocock’s talk in the email Robbie sent me later in the year, pointing me to P. N. Furbank’s reservations about routinely attaching the definite article to the word “enlightenment.” See Philip Nicholas Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) 450-1.
  4. J. C. D. Clark, “Review of Haakonssen, Enlightenment and Religion,” The American Historical Review 103:1 (1998): 176–77. I believe that Clark was also present for Pocock’s talk, as were Peg Jacob (who was either beginning or ending her term as ASECS President) and Roy Porter.  Such a gathering of remarkable scholars in one place should serve as a reminder that some conferences turn out to be considerably better than others.
  5. J.G.A. Pocock, “Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, revolution and counter-revolution; a eurosceptical enquiry,” History of Political Thought XX:1 (1999): 132.
  6. Anonymous, “Kritischer Versuch Über Das Wort Aufklärung (Beschluss),” Deutsche Monatschrift III (November 1790): 233. I will attempt to translate this later on in this post.
  7. Zwi Batscha, ed., Aufklärung und Gedankenfreiheit : Fünfzehn Anregungen, aus der Geschichte zu Lernen, Edition Suhrkamp 890 (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, n.d.).
  8. Anonymous, “Kritischer Versuch über Das Wort Aufklärung (Beschluss),” Deutsche Monatschrift III (November 1790), 230-233. The title of the section is Darlegung seiner Meinungen. The term Darlegung literally means a “laying out” of a position, but is used more generally to refer to an exposition, demonstration, explanation, or statement.
  9. “Kritischer Versuch” 231.
  10. I’ve discussed Zimmermann’s critique of Berlin enlighteners in “What Enlightenment Was, What It Still Might Be, and Why Kant May Have Been Right After All,” American Behavioral Scientist 49:5 (2006): 649-651.
  11. Kritischer Versuch 233.
  12. Zimmermann, Vertheidigung Friedrichs des Grossen gegen den Grafen von Mirabeau (Helmingischen Hofbuchhandlung, 1788) 4. I am greatly indebted to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München for providing me with a scan of this text, which is catalogued as Bor. 207e. The complete passage reads, “Sie sind also das Gegengift der Aufklärung, womit Mirabeau anizt die preüssische Monarchie durch ein grosses noch nicht bekanntes Werk bedrohet.”
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The ”Dialectic of Enlightenment” before Horkheimer and Adorno

About a month ago I finished teaching classes and began a year-long sabbatical. A few weeks later I headed off to Marburg for a conference organized by Sonja Lavaert and Winfried Schröder that sought to place Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in a “philosophical-historical perspective.” My contribution to the affair was a revised and expanded discussion of a question that I’d discussed in an earlier post on this blog: “What, if anything, does Dialectic of Enlightenment have to do with ‘the Enlightenment’?”

While working on my talk, it occurred to me that I’d never bothered to see whether anyone used the phrase “Dialektik der Aufklärung” before Horkheimer and Adorno. A glance at the Ngram viewer suggested that the term had little currency prior to 1947 (no surprises here!) and that it only comes into a broader usage in the 1960s — and almost always with reference to Horkheimer and Adorno’s book. But, along with the usual false hits produced by bad metadata, there were three earlier usages of the term by other authors. Two of the three were interesting, but neither of them had much relevance for my talk.

Screenshot 2016-06-03 06.14.15

But, since I’ve been woefully negligent in posting (there are reasons for this, but none of them are worth discussing), I thought I might as well discuss them here.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s Use of the Phrase

Let’s start with Horkheimer and Adorno’s use of the phrase. As readers of this blog no doubt know, the 1944 hectograph of the book that would be published in 1947 as Dialektik der Aufklärung carried the title Philosophische Fragmente, which would go on to serve as the subtitle of the 1947 book. The opening chapter of the 1944 Philosophische Fragmente was titled “Dialektik der Aufklärung” and the phrase itself appears twice in the 194 7 version: once in the opening chapter, where Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens is described as an “allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment”, and again in the last section of the chapter on anti-semitism (which first appeared in the 1947 edition), which states that, with the “progress of industrial society,” the “dialectic of enlightenment” collapses into “madness” ( “Die Dialektik der Aufklärung schlägt objektiv in den Wahnsinn um”).

When the title of the opening chapter of the 1944 hectograph was adopted as the title for the 1947 book, the opening chapter was retitled “Begriff der Aufklärung.” The earliest drafts of the opening chapter, however, carried the title “Mythos und Aufklärung.” It would not be too far-fetched to see these changes a capturing something of the evolution of Horkheimer and Adorno’s understanding of the book that they were writing. By 1944 chapter that had initially begun as a juxtaposition of mythical and enlightened forms of thought — a juxtaposition that, as Theodore Ziolkowski has discussed, was hardly unusual during the 1920s and 1930s — turned into a dialectic in which myth was already enlightenment and enlightenment collapsed back into myth.1 And in 1947, what had been a collection of fragments circulated among friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research would be presented to a broader public as a discussion of the “dialectic of enlightenment.”

Uses of the phrase by Horkheimer and Adorno prior to the beginning of their collaboration on the book are surprisingly scarce. Indeed, the only one I have been able to track down comes in the letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer shortly before leaving New York to join him in Los Angeles. In it Adorno reports that he has finally been able to track down a copy of Geoffrey Gorer’s The Marquis De Sade: a Short Account of His Life and Work, which Adorno explains “deals essentially with the dialectic of enlightenment or the dialectic of culture and barbarism.”2 At one point I thought I’d spotted an earlier use of the phrase in one of Adorno’s reviews in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, but searches of Adorno’s collected works have turned up nothing, nor does the phrase appear in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. I have not been able to do a complete search of the Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften since I do not own an electronic text version (is there one?), but the comprehensive index that appears as Volume 19 indicates no usage prior to the actual writing of the book. So, while I tend to doubt that the appearance of the phrase in Adorno’s 1941 letter to Horkheimer marks their first use of it, I have found no evidence of one. I trust that better informed readers will correct me if I am mistaken.

Earlier Uses: Willmann, Keins, and Schalk

Searches on Google turn up three earlier uses of the phrase (which, once again, is not to suggest that there may not be others hiding out there somewhere). They are:

  1. Otto Willmann, Didaktik als Bildungslehre nach Beziehungen zur Socialforschung und zur Geschichte der Bildung (Braunschweig: Friedrich Bieweg und Sohn, 1882) 390: “In gewissem Betracht störte schon die Dialektik der scholastischen Periode das Gleichmass, mehr noch die Philologie der ersten Renaissancezeit, die nicht ohne Gewaltsamkeit den Primat under den Bildungselementen an sich riss, um nachmals wieder Anfeindungen seitens der Dialektik der Aufklärung zu erfahren.”
  2. Paul Keins, “Rutebeufs Weltanschauung im Spiegel seiner Zeit,” Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 53 (1933): 569–75: “Mann hat ja sogar Pascal vor allem wegen seiner scharfen Dialektik der Aufklärung nahe gebracht.”
  3. Fritz Schalk, “Formen und Disharmonien der französischen Aufklärung,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 15 (1937): 254: “Solche Lehren lessen sich aus ihr belegen, aber meist sind sie in ihren grossen Denkern verknüpft mit ihrer Widerlegung, und erst in einem sprunghaften Hin und Wider in einer verwirrenden Spannung gegensätzlicher Ideen vermag man die stete Dialektik der Aufklärung zu verstehen als das wahre Spiegelbild ihrer tiefen Disharmonie.”

While the text by Willmann used the phrase that Horkheimer and Adorno would later employ, his use of it can serve as a reminder that not all appearances of the German term Aufklärung have much to do with “the Enlightenment” or even with “enlightenment.” Willmann was an educational theroism and his 1882 book (which was translated into English in 1930) was described in a 1929 article as a “well-known” work that stressed “the need of considering education from its historical aspects and social functions.”3 In short, his concern was with the “dialectic of education” rather than the “dialectic of enlightenment.” In contrast, the texts by Keins and Schalk are dealing with what might be described as a dialectic of enlightenment, though they approach it in somewhat different ways.

Paul Keins turns out to be a rather interesting figure. Born in Berlin in 1909, he pursued studies in Romanistics at Munich with Karl Vossler, a leading German Romanist (and Croce disciple). Keins was the grandson of Leo Olschki — the founder of a Florentine publishing house that is still alive and well (their site includes a family tree for those interested in tracing Keins’ genealogy) — and the cousin of the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Rosenthal.  After completing his academic studies, Keins went on to pursue the family trade in Lugano, Zurich, and Madrid.

Olschki Familyh Tree

(Here is the place to confess that everything I know about Olschki, Rosenthal, and Keins has been derived from a reading of the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, which includes a page on “Booksellers in Exile”).4  After moving to Madrid, Paul Keins became Pablo Keins (his full name was Erwin Rosenthal Pablo Keins) and, thanks to his acquisition of a large library of rare Spanish works, the Libreria Pablo Keins became a center for older Spanish literary works. He fled Madrid during the civil war, eventually winding up in Buenos Aires, where he re-established the Libreria Pablo Keins and became friends with Jorge Luis Borges (who, not surprisingly, enjoyed prowling around antiquarian bookstores). At some point prior to leaving Madrid, Keins translated Bruno Frank’s novel Cervantes into Spanish (WorldCat lists the publication date as 1941).5

While the focus of Keins’ article — the thirteenth century trouvère Rutebeuf — would appear to be rather far removed from the concerns of Horkheimer and Adorno, his invocation of a “Dialektik der Aufklärung” comes at the close of the article when — having drawn a broader contrast between activist and quietist tendencies, which he sees as exemplified by the contrast between Bosseut and Fénélon and between Jansenists and Jesuits — he attempts to capture the tension between tradition and innovation in a single phrase, a tension that he finds at the heart of Pascal. For Keins, as for Horkheimer and Adorno, the arc of the dialectic of enlightenment stretches rather far back into history.

Finally, with Fritz Schalk’s article we are clearly confronted with a text that is concerned with “the Enlightenment” (in this case, the French branch). For Schalk, the French Enlightenment was essentially “dialectical” — it could be understood only by examining the various contradictions that defined it. Like Keins, Schalk was trained as a Romanist. He studied in Vienna with Karl Bühler and Nikolai Trobetzkoy and, on the advice of his classmate Ludwig Landgrebe pursued studies with Husserl in Freiburg and with Heidegger in Marburg. Returning to Vienna, he wrote his dissertation on Pascal’s Style and eventually gained a position at Hamburg with a 1932 Habilitationschrift on the influence of the Encyclopédie on the French Enlightenment.6 Protests from Nazi students, who denounced him as a “liberal”, led to his being transferred to Köln, where he spent the rest of his career.

He continued to publish articles throughout the war (including his piece on “Formen und Disharmonien der französischen Aufklärung”). His approach was grounded in the work of Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, and Bruno Snell (who spent the war teaching a Hamburg) and Hausmann’s entry in the NDB argues that, by concentrating on eighteenth-century French moralists, he was able to avoid having to make concession to Nazi ideology.

It is perhaps significant that, in 1947, he published an article on the history of the concepts “fanatique” and “fanatisme” that, taking its departure from an article in which Dorf Sternberger argued that it was not until the triumph of National Socialism that the word fanatisch was used in a positive sense, traced the history of the term back to the eighteenth century, explored the traffic between political and religious usages of the term, noted instances of its use in a positive sense during the French Revolution, and concluded that the “political abuse of language is not limited to the boundaries of a national culture” but was, instead, “an indicator of the universal spirit, or better, the general anti-spirit of our time.”7 But, while this conclusion may echo the verdict of another, more familiar work, that appeared in 1947, there is no evidence that its authors knew anything about Schalk’s work.

  1. See Theodore Ziolkowski, Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), Chapter 7. ↩︎
  2. Theodor Adorno, letter to Max Horkheimer, November 10, 1941, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften 17:210-212. ↩︎
  3. Otto Willmann, The Science of Education in Its Sociological and Historical Aspects, 2d ed... (Latrobe, Pa: Archabbey Press, 1930); L. H. Ad. Geck, “Some Recent German Publications Concerning Problems of Educational Sociology,” Journal of Educational Sociology 2:10 (June 1929): 585. ↩︎
  4. For a discussion of the family, see Bernard M. Rosenthal, “Clartel, Clan, or Dynasty?  The Olschkis and the Rosenthals, 1859-1976,” Harvard Library Bulletin XXV, no. 4 (October 1977): 381–98. ↩︎
  5. The book would be translated into English by Thomas Mann’s translator H. T. Lowe-Porter in 1935. ↩︎
  6. I am leaning very heavily here on Frank-Rutger Hausmann’s entry on Schalk in the Neue Deutsche Biographie 22 (2005): 551. ↩︎
  7. Fritz Schalk, “Über ’fanatique’ und ’fanatisme’,” Romanische Forschungen 60:1 (1947): 206–14. ↩︎
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“Racket,” “Monopoly,” and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

What follows is my contribution (with a few minor corrections and additions) to a discussion organized by Todd Cronan on of Max Horkheimer’s 1943 manuscript “On the Sociology of Class Relations.”  I am much indebted to Todd for transcribing the original English version of a text that was previously available only in an edited German version in volume 12 of Horkheimer’s Gesammelte Schriften and for his invitation to join John Lysaker, Chris Cutrone, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann in a discussion of it.

Like the other discussants, my contribution focused on the so-called “racket theory” of society. My particular interest was in trying to understand the relationship of the manuscript to Horkheimer and Adorno’s work on the Philosophische Fragmente —  the 1944 version of what would become Dialectic of Enlightenment —  and to the subsequent deletions of much (but as I stress, not all) of the language associated with the racket theory in the 1947 version of the book.  There is a lot more to be said about the editing process that produced the final version and what follows doesn’t deal with certain interesting material that I’ve come across in Horkheimer’s unpublished correspondence with Lowenthal that suggests that the chief motivation for the decision to eliminate many of the occurrences of “monopoly” from the final version of the work were political, rather than theoretical (I hope to say more about that soon).



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.” 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.1

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.2 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.3 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.”4

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.5

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.”6

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.”7 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) by characterizing 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.”8 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.9

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 nothing 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.”10 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.11 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.12

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.13 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.

HosletterLabor’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.14


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 relationship 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.15

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.”16 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.17

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, Kirchheimer would argue 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.” Like Horkheimer, he saw the term’s polemical edge as something 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.18

And (again like Horkheimer) the one shortcoming he found in the concept was that it failed to clarify what would have to be done to create a society without rackets.

Monopoly, Rackets, and the Culture Industry

There was, 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.19 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.20

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.21

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,” 99100, 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.22 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 culminating 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 was a “dependable commissioner.”


  1. Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), xix ↩︎
  2. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, “Editor’s Afterword,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, 239-242. ↩︎
  3. Friedrich Pollock, “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 200-225. ↩︎
  4. Pollock, “Is National Socialism a New Order?,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:3 (1941): 452-454. ↩︎
  5. Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen, “The Disappearance of Class History in ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment,’” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, 252. ↩︎
  6. Adorno, letter to Horkheimer of June 8, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1996), 54. ↩︎
  7. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 23, 1941, in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 103. ↩︎
  8. Horkheimer, “Preface,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 195-196 ↩︎
  9. Neumann, letter to Horkheimer of July 30, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, 110. ↩︎
  10. 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. ↩︎
  11. 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). ↩︎
  12. 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. ↩︎
  13. See Franz Hering’s review of Louis Adamic, Dynamite. The Story of Class Violence in Americian 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. ↩︎
  14. 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). ↩︎
  15. 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 ↩︎
  16. 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 ↩︎
  17. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 319. ↩︎
  18. 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). ↩︎
  19. On this point, see especially David Jenemann, Adorno in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) ↩︎
  20. William Dieterle, “Hollywood and the European Crisis,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:1 (1940): 96–103 ↩︎
  21. Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:2 (1941): 290-291. ↩︎
  22. “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). ↩︎


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Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment (an OpenBook project from Oxford)

Tolerance:  The Beacon of the Enlightenment, a translation of a collection of eighteenth-century texts originally produced by the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle in the wake of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, is currently available as a free .pdf from OpenBook Publishers.  The translation is a joint undertaking by students and tutors of French at Oxford under the direction of Caroline Warman.



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A Memo from Walt Whitman to the Donald

With the current semester winding down, I will soon resume posting on a more regular basis.

Until then, here is a poem by Walt Whitman that I stumbled across while getting ready for a class I’ve been teaching this term on the topic of catastrophe and memory.  It struck me as having applicability beyond his intended audience of boys and girls (yes, I’m thinking of you, Donald).

Walt Whitman:  Poem of Remembrance for a Girl or a Boy

YOU just maturing youth! You male or female!
Remember the organic compact of These States,
Remember the pledge of the Old Thirteen thenceforward to the rights,
life, liberty, equality of man,
Remember what was promulged by the founders, ratified by The States,
signed in black and white by the Commissioners, and read by
Washington at the head of the army,
Remember the purposes of the founders,– Remember Washington;
Remember the copious humanity streaming from every direction toward
Remember the hospitality that belongs to nations and men; (Cursed be
nation, woman, man, without hospitality!)
Remember, government is to subserve individuals,
Not any, not the President, is to have one jot more than you or me,
Not any habitan of America is to have one jot less than you or me.

Anticipate when the thirty or fifty millions, are to become the
hundred, or two hundred millions, of equal freemen and
freewomen, amicably joined.

Recall ages–One age is but a part–ages are but a part;

The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal overthrow
of things is great,
And there is another paradox.

Recall the angers, bickerings, delusions, superstitions, of the idea
of caste,
Recall the bloody cruelties and crimes.

Anticipate the best women;
I say an unnumbered new race of hardy and well-defined women are to
spread through all These States,
I say a girl fit for These States must be free, capable, dauntless,
just the same as a boy.

Anticipate your own life — retract with merciless power,
Shirk nothing —  retract in time —  Do you see those errors, diseases,
weaknesses, lies, thefts?
Do you see that lost character? —  Do you see decay, consumption, rum-
drinking, dropsy, fever, mortal cancer or inflammation?
Do you see death, and the approach of death?

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