In a novella Horkheimer imagined a rebellion against injustice: For a moment she saw into the heart of the world- she saw the insatiable cruel greed of everything that lives- the obsession with desire which burns and tortures forever, which is the source of all evils and will never be put out. A chastening passage that reads as though it were borrowed from Schopenhauer, whose philosophy captivated many German artists and intellectuals before Horkheimer.
It is as though behind the courageous struggle against an inhumane social order that Horkheimer is imagining here there lies a hideous spectre: the indestructible, insatiable will that governs all creatures and which necessarily expresses itself through greed and cruelty. It is that will to which we are all, Marxists or otherwise, in thrall: we are bound, thought Schopenhauer, 0n the Wheel of Ixion, enduring the penal servitude of willing from which we can escape only by artistic appreciation or through the Buddhist project of renouncing the Will. But then Schopenhauer was a political reactionary, a German idealist philosopher who didn’t share his contemporary Marx’s belief that the purpose of philosophy was not to interpret the world but to change it, to eliminate the injustice and inequality upon which capitalism is founded.
This novella, which was only published along with others from the time in a volume called Aus der Pubertc‘it (From Puberty) a year after Horkheimer’s death in 1973, is intriguing since it involves the shotgun marriage of a temperamentally unsuited couple proto-Marxist social critique and Schopenhauerian despair. Leonhard represents a critique of the capitalist values of an industrialist father and his privileged, complicit son (whose real-world analogues are Moritz and Max Horkheimer). Joanna stands for a pessimistic sense that the struggle against injustice is undone by the irredeemableness of evil and the inescapable human fate of being both possessed and demeaned by desire. It’s not, you’d think, a marriage that’s going to last.
But does Schopenhauerian pessimism undermine the raison d’étfe of Marxist struggle? Writing of these early novellas, Alfred Schmidt in "Max Horkheimer’s Intellectual Physiognomy" argues that:
The ensnarement of humanity in eternal nature and an unswerving struggle against temporal injustice are already central in his thinking. As essential as he finds it that the unjust distribution of gods be abolished, he nevertheless wonders if the fulfillment of the bolodest utopias would not leave the great torment untouched because the core of life is torment and dying
For all his Hegelianised Marxism, Horkheimer never did divorce himself from his dismal Schopenhauerian bride. The first philosophy he read was Schopenhauer’s Aphorisms 0n the Wisdom of Life, after he picked up a copy in Brussels in 1911. In 1968, near the end of his life, he published an essay entitled ‘Schopenhauer Today’ in which he wrote: ‘my relationship to Hegel and Marx and my desire to understand and change social reality have not extinguished my experience of his [Schopenhauer’s] philosophy, despite the contradictions involved.’ Schmidt argues that all critical theory is infected, or perhaps that should be'enhanced, by this contradiction: ‘Conceptual motifs from Marx and Schopenhauer, the latter standing for the malum metaphysicum, metaphysical evil, the former the malum physicum, physical evil are played out against each other on all levels of critical theory because the “just society” is also “a goal that is always implicated with guilt”, not only with a scientifically controllable total process.’ Just as civilisation, for Benjamin, necessarily has its barbarous side, so even the utopia of a just society, for Horkheimer, is necessarily tainted with guilt.
That said, Schopenhauer’s eschatology, which Horkheimer shared, is not Marx’s. For Schopenhauer, there is no ultimate redemption, no punishment, no heaven, be it on or beyond Earth. There is, rather, pointlessness on a cosmic scale: ‘every living thing works with the utmost exertion of its strength for something that has no value. But on closer consideration, we shall find here also that it is rather a blind urge, an impulse wholly without ground and motive. There is also though in his philosophy the notion of human compassion as motivating action that ameliorates suffering- a notion that Horkheimer found appealing.