I am writing with some very brief notes on Adorno’s last writings from 1968-69, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” “Resignation,” “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? (AKA “Is Marx Obsolete?”),” and the Adorno-Marcuse correspondence of 1969.
The center of Adorno’s critique of the 1960s New Left was their romantic opposition to capitalism, found, for example, in their desideratum of the unity of theory and practice. Rather, Adorno asserted the progressive-emancipatory aspect of the separation of theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, in the “Marginalia,”
“If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake — except for the mature Marx.”
As Korsch put it in our earlier reading, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923),
“As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken.”
What is important to note in the above passage from Korsch is that the unity of theory and practice is not being asserted as the norm, but rather their interrelation/interconnection, something quite different. The “umbilical cord” becoming “broken” means not that theory and practice have become separated, merely, but that they are no longer being interrelated properly. Theory and practice remain different things.
The following passage from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966), from a section titled “Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism,” describes well Adorno’s conception of the theory-practice problem as a historical one, in which past moments (in modern history/the history of the Left) have a non-linear relation to the present:
“The objection has been raised that, because of its immanently critical and theoretical character, the turn to [the] nonidentity [of social being and consciousness] is an insignificant nuance of Neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left — as if Marxian criticism of philosophy were a dispensation from it. . . . Yet whereas theory succumbed . . . practice became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of; it became the prey of power. . . . The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. They thus endorse the course of the world — defying which is the idea of theory alone. . . . If [one] resists oblivion — if he resists the universally demanded sacrifice of a once-gained freedom of consciousness — he will not preach a Restoration in the field of intellectual history. The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”
Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” also poses this complex, non-linear historical temporality of the problem of theory and practice:
“‘[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence’ [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.”
Adorno’s point, following Korsch, is that earlier formulations of the problem of emancipatory theory and practice could and indeed did “supersede present relations,” or, as Adorno put it elsewhere (in “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today,” 1962),
“The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.”
Adorno is, in his late writings, continuing the ruminations of Korsch and Lukacs on what Korsch called the “crisis of Marxism” in which the crisis of capital necessarily expressed itself by the time of world war and revolution 1914-19. Precisely what Lukacs and Korsch subsequently forgot, after their seminal writings of 1923 we read, Adorno remembered, that the Marxian project was characterized fundamentally by awareness of the problem of theory and practice. Instead, Korsch and Lukacs later fell victim to what Adorno calls “identity [or "reconciliation"] thinking;” like other “vulgar Marxists” they assumed the coincidence of social being and consciousness, rather than the dialectic of the two.
Adorno’s problem is somewhat different from what Korsch and Lukacs sought to address. Whereas they had to contemplate the self-contradictory character of both social being and consciousness under capital, expressed precisely in the attempt to overcome capital in theory and practice, Adorno had to try to address the degradation — the regression — of both critical theory and social-political practice.
The dual, simultaneously linear and recursive temporality of capital means that, as Korsch had put it, the development and transformation of the Marxian point of departure necessarily takes the form of a “return to Marx,” the attempt to get back to an “original, pure Marxism” (of Marx and Engels themselves). Such “return” is both actual and illusory.
Adorno seeks to address his own return to Marx in ways that are self-conscious of this paradox. Hence, in “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” also known as “Is Marx Obsolete?” (1968), Adorno answers that Marx is both permanently relevant this side of emancipation from capital, and obsolete in the sense that the problem of capital necessarily appears differently than it did to Marx. Adorno’s point is that it is only via Marx that one can overcome the obsolescence of Marx.
Lukacs had already broached this paradox when he offered that one could potentially disagree with all of Marx’s conclusions and still return Marx’s “method.” But this is a dialectical conception in Lukacs and Adorno because of course method and conclusion cannot really be separated. But they can appear to be separated and opposed, and necessarily so. Means and ends can appear to be at odds. The point is to work through this separation — not only this, but worked through on the very basis of this separation.
The paradox is that, as Lukacs put it, a “radical change in perspective is not possible on the soil of bourgeois society,” or, that, with Marxism, “it would appear that nothing has changed.”
All that can be done is to advance the dialectic — and crisis — of capital, the degree to which this has been critically recognized. And this must necessarily take the form of advancing the dialectical crisis of Marxism, in both theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, in a 1935 letter to Benjamin,
“The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. . . . [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”
It was precisely this advancement through crisis, through bringing forms of necessary misrecognition to critical self-awareness while advancing their practical problems, that had been taken up by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky (in the revisionist dispute and the subsequent crisis of war and revolution 1914-19, i.e., in that Luxemburg et al. recognized the revisionist reformism of Bernstein et al. as a necessary outcome of the growth of Marxism as a political movement), that was abdicated and abandoned in the early 20th Century, with social democratic reformism (i.e., the succumbing to the essence of reformist Marxist revisionism even by the stalwarts of “orthodoxy” such as Kautsky), Stalinism (the degeneration of “Leninism” into a variety of the same) and the disintegration of “Trotskyism” in the wake of Trotsky. (Trotsky’s “Leninism” amounts to his recognition of the necessity of a split in Marxism as the result of — as bound up with — the advancement of Marxism in practical politics and theoretical consciousness.)
Adorno recognized this degradation and disintegration, aborting and avoiding the crisis and potential advancement of Marxism in theory and practice, as a problem of regression.
The crisis of capital has been expressed as the crisis in Marxism. The problem is that the significance of the crisis of Marxism has not been recognized as the necessary form of appearance of the crisis of capital. Instead, Marxism has been either abandoned/rejected — or “upheld” and banalized — as if Marxism itself had not become (had not always been) self-contradictory. Marxism, whether as critical theory or practical politics, necessarily becomes “vulgarized” (ceases to be itself) if it is experienced as naïve consciousness rather than being recognized with at least some reflexive self-awareness as a dialectical problem of consciousness.
Adorno ends his final essay, on “Resignation” (1969), with rumination on “thinking.” On the one hand, Adorno recognizes that what is thought can be forgotten and lost, and, on the other hand, Adorno recognizes that what was once thought can be thought again, that thought has as its medium the universal, but only in a critical sense. The universal — capital — remains to be critically recognized. Hence the thought of its critical recognition remains possible. We can recognize the thought that was once thought. We can read Adorno — and Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx — and still recognize the problems of our own thinking about the issue of capital. The question is how we explain this continued recognition to ourselves. This prompts the further thought of theory and practice.
But this thought of the relation of theory and practice threatens to fall short if it does not take the form of how Adorno closes his “Marginalia,” that “[practice] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows.”
Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity of its being both.
Platypus seeks both to refound and continue and to transform Marxian critical theory and political practice through the self-consciousness of the limits and necessity of Marxism as the limits and necessity of capital. We seek, theoretically, to make out the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of capital, in consciousness of capital’s emancipatory possibilities, as it was recognized once before, in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, and, conversely, practically, to make the crisis of capital take the form of the crisis of proletarian socialism, in the social-political practice of capital’s emancipatory possibilities, as it had been, however abortively, once or twice before, what Adorno, following Benjamin, Lukacs and Korsch, contemplated about the limits and failure of the revolution of 1917-19, following what Marx had spent the rest of his life — in theory and practice — contemplating about 1848.