TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Contradictions of Power

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lewis West
looks at Max Horkheimer’s “The Authoritarian State” from Telos 15 (Spring 1973).

In November 1939, gangs of German civilians and Nazi operatives stormed Jewish stores, synagogues, and homes, killing or arresting those who could not escape. The Nazi leadership had carefully planned the assault—Kristallnacht would become only one among many instances of unimaginable horror. In the coming years, the Nazis proceeded to murder thousands of disabled Germans; when Germany invaded Russia, groups of special units—known as Einsatzgruppen—followed closely behind the German army, liquidating Jews, Communists, and Roma.[1] By 1942, the Nazi death camps had initiated yet another gruesome and terrifying phase of the Reich’s program of anti-Semitism and racial purity.[2]

Max Horkheimer wrote “The Authoritarian State” in 1940, and it first circulated two years later. It is a tremor, a knowing protest against a type of power Horkheimer understood as both a fulfillment of and departure from the predilections of bourgeois society. Historians have noted the deep, ingrained violence of the Holocaust, the “primitive, ancient methods and murder weapons” that typified the Polish massacres.[3] But the camps also embodied a new form of subjection and power: inside one becomes unrecognizable, both living and dead.[4] Horkheimer rightly sees the Reich as a cruel crossroads of control: here we find the anarchy that comprises the market economy alongside dictatorship.

Horkheimer’s ability to grasp this strange contradiction makes his writing prophetic. Of course, we might challenge the depths to which the Third Reich truly fit his understanding of “state capitalism.” The labor of the camps was not creation but punishment and suffering. It produced only Nazi ideology and corpses. As Hannah Arendt observed, the ideology of fascism was not strictly rational but an attempt at “transforming reality into fiction” through total domination.[5]

But Horkheimer here writes as both a scholar and a witness. However we read the historical archive, his commentary at once illuminates the tragedy of oppression and the power that enables it: “Integral statism is not a retreat but an advance of power. It can exist without racism. However, the producers, to whom the capital legally belongs, ‘remain wage workers, proletarians,’ no matter how much is done for them. Factory regimentation is extended to the entire society” (8). Later, Horkheimer puts this new form of control more bluntly: “The principle of control manifests itself as a permanent mobilization” (9). We now live in perpetual crisis, in which domination extends beyond the confines of the prison and factory.

Such a power does not inhere only in the state. Horkheimer writes:

The proposition widespread in the market economy, which held that the anarchy of the society corresponds to stringent factory regimentation, today has come to mean that the international state of nature, the battle for the world market, and the fascist discipline of the people are mutual conditions for one another. (8)

Horkheimer pinpoints the crux of the paradox. Fascist Germany does not represent the state in its most perfect, dominating form. Instead we find a type of power that flows beyond the state. It presupposes a freedom—that of the market economy—that assumes individual agency yet enforces a discipline that allows for little movement on the part of the citizen. Horkheimer continues:

The crime that leads to the camps is committed every day in everyone’s thoughts. Under fascism everyone dreams of assassinating the Führer, and marches in rank and file. They follow out sober calculation: the Führer would be succeeded only by his deputy. If the people once refuse to march anymore, they will realize their dreams. (9)

Revolt preoccupies every mind—but no one acts. They move between work and daily life, in the former regulated by the supervisor and in the latter by themselves. Authoritarianism merges capitalism and the state with a cruel efficacy. One need not study the prison to see power at work. Moving to America in 1934, Horkheimer watched as the machine of German state control transcended its previous incarnations.

In revolution, Horkheimer reads another frightening paradox. All desire freedom; we even possess the power to create it. He writes:

These attempts [to establish freedom], which by their very nature tolerate no bureaucracies, can come only from the isolated. Everyone is isolated. The sullen yearnings of the atomized masses and the conscious will of the underground resistance point in the same direction. (15)

The will is there. Every individual dreams of freedom and thereby shares with every other person a subtle and explosive bond that contains the tools necessary for the construction of a new society. And yet: “Everyone agrees today that the word ‘freedom’ should only be used as a phrase; to take it seriously is utopian. . . . Today utopia is maligned because no one really wants to see its realization” (18). With the solidarity of the lonely masses comes a strange paralysis. Each of us longs for a new freedom, yet we reject that very concept, or see ourselves as incapable of realizing anything more than our present subjection. Horkheimer sees in the state a radical mixture of power and anarchy; in the individual he recognizes a limitless will and potential restrained by an inner despair.

How do we escape this bind? What hope do we have of achieving freedom? Our only weapon “is the word” (16). Dissent, communication, the power of language—each renders state capitalism helpless. Through language and thought we transcend our isolation and realize our subversive desires. We achieve “the active intervention of men” necessary to break the historical trajectory of capitalism (20). Only then can we free ourselves from the paradox of power that constitutes the authoritarian state.

Though today we do not face a threat the same as this terrifying state, Horkheimer’s observations still hold. Factory regimentation may no longer control society, but economic logic pervades nearly all modes of social interaction. Those engaged in social justice, intellectual discourse, or art all share, to some extent, the logic of the neoliberal economy. As in Horkheimer’s time, the logic of the state exceeds the state and moves beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Dissent, however, still remains the best form of resistance and activism. Yet given the resilience of the powers that Horkheimer attacks—evidenced by the continued relevance of his essay—we must act deliberately and ensure that dissent itself does not become yet another function of an ever-shifting capitalist state and society.


1. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), pp. 9–26.

2. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (New York: Vintage, 1983),pp. 99–100.

3. Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New York: Penguin, 2001), pp. 80–81.

4. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 171–74.

5. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 392.

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