6th writing assignment: The Modern and the Postmodern {Coursera/ Wesleyan}

“What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.” — Horkheimer and Adorno

Discuss how the idea of domination plays a role in two of the authors we have read this semester (you may write on Horkheimer and Adorno [as one thinker]).


The slave –master dialectic: A critical view in Marx and Engel’s theory of dominant classes versus the Frankfurt School interpretation


In the sphere of political theory it was Marx and Engels who first talked about the domination of other human beings within the context of “class struggle”. [Engels & Marx (2005): Section 1, §1] For Marx and Engels the working class (proletariat) is suppressed by the bourgeoisie in the capitalist society. The means to such domination relationship are purely economic; commodities and accumulation of wealth are what discern the classes from one another. In order to undo the class bondages, the Communist manifesto dictates “All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.” [Engels & Marx (2005): Section 2, §20] The emerging theory of the 19th century political philosophers is summarized accordingly into: “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation”. [Engels & Marx (2005): Section 2, §30] Abolition of domination meant to cease the overexploitation of the working force. Both writers’ interpretation of the post Industrial Revolution era was mainly an effort to enhance class consciousness, a way for the working class to define itself against its oppressors, so that in turn another social Revolution would take place.

The Frankfurt school was a neo-Marxist society of thinkers who chose the path of critical theory in order to support their philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer in particular experienced the rise of National Socialism in Germany and drew at the same time parallel comparisons to Stalin’s regime, witnessing the extremes of totalitarianism in both cases.

In their attempt to define what lures the masses into being under control they placed the roots of modern domination in the Enlightenment tradition, stating that the quest for knowledge was nothing more than a self-fulfilling myth; thus, the Marxist theory of social struggle is reinterpreted within the slave-master dialectic as “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings”. [ Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): p.6] The “subject” [Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): 5ff] is no longer promoting its self-awareness within the modern, knowledgeable society. Instead, “The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and in the scorn poured on the type of society which could make people into individuals” [Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): 9], what makes society even more susceptible to control.

The writers commence their critical claims early on in their work by giving the instrument with which knowledge seeks to enslave us. “Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others,* capital.” [Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): 2] Adorno and Horkheimer point at the link between the progress of technology and the ensnaring of the human society.  Both writers address the issue of mass culture as another distinct instrument of social domination. “The countless agencies of mass production and its culture* impress standardized behavior on the individual as the only natural, decent, and rational one.”[ Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): 21] The standardized products of human labor, blunt to the senses and leaving little room for thought, serve as a tool to manipulate the homogenized society into passivity.

In comparison to Marx it seems that the proletariat did little to free itself from the materialistic ideals of the bourgeoisie in the years following the “The Communist Manifesto”. One could rather argue it embraced the affluence of goods, further becoming absorbed in a homogeneous, consumerist world; the prized Revolution never came in the capitalist societies and the elite classes retained their dominant roles.

Human history has exhibit extreme cases of domination; power and the will to rule over nature and others is seemingly an insatiable human need to become Gods ourselves. Perhaps that is why man will always seek to dominate nature and other people: “In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command.” [ Adorno & Horkheimer (2002): 6]



Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (2002). Dialektik der Aufklärung () (G. Schmitt-Noerr, Trans.). In G. Schmitt-Noerr (Ed.), Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments Cultural Memory in the Present Series (pp. 1-34). N.p.: Stanford University Press. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from http://www.sup.org/html/book_pages/0804736324/Chapter%201.pdf

Engels, F., & Marx, K. (2005, January 25). The Communist Manifesto. In Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 20, 2013


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