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You are here: Platypus /Utopia and reality: An interview with Stephen Eric Bronner

Utopia and reality: An interview with Stephen Eric Bronner

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review 52 | December 2012–January 2013


On September 21, 2012, Chris Mansour interviewed Ste­phen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times (1980), Socialism Unbound (1990), Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (1994), and Reclaiming the En­lightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004), among many others. His most recent book is Mod­ernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, and Uto­pia. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Chris Mansour: In Modernism at the Barricades, you mention that your first publication was on the relationship of art and politics, so that this book represents a return to your earliest intellectual preoccupations. What motivated you to write a book on modernist art reconsidering its history today?

Stephen Eric Bronner: “Art and Utopia: The Marcusean Perspective” appeared in Politics and Society in the Winter of 1973. It was probably the first article in English on Marcuse’s aesthetics. More specifically, it dealt with the interplay between culture and politics, highlighting the importance of the modernist avant-garde for critical theory. At the time, the Frankfurt School was still exotic and outside the academic mainstream. In large part because of Marcuse’s popularity that situation changed. Its most important thinkers have become part of the discourse, and subject to the usual esoteric textual pedantry and academic domestication. Though my views on critical theory have shifted over the last four decades, I am still inspired by it. The same is true of modernism. Learning about modernist painting, in fact, became a kind of hobby. The bohemian, cosmopolitan, and interdisciplinary character of modernism fits with my basic view of critical theory that integrates different forms of radicalism.

Whatever one may think about Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Marcuse, they were thoroughly modern. Culturally elitist though they might have been, they never sought a return to the past or the “good old days.” They embraced the new—new forms of aesthetics and cultural resistance—and that element of their legacy is worth preserving. The style of young radicals today is far too imitative of the 1960s. It’s time to move on. In their cultural outlook, radicals today should critically confront the 1960s in the same way that the 1960s confronted the cultural styles of the 1930s. Perhaps the young radicals of today can learn from the mistakes of the past. Modernism helped create the cultural preconditions in which political radicalism could thrive. But what Lukács termed its “romantic anti-capitalism,” its attack on the system without knowing how it operates, produced an uneasy relationship with all mass movements. Modernists understood politics primarily as cultural opposition to what they considered the (bourgeois) philistine, rather than understanding it as the economic conflict between classes or the political competition for institutional power. My new book explores the tensions between utopian developments in art, principally concerned with transforming what Benjamin termed the “poverty of the interior,” and the need to effectively challenge the existing imbalance of power and reactionary institutions.

: You have written much about the connection between modernism and modernity. If there was a period of time where the new was actually being yielded and people had to confront these new experiences, what was it that made this time propitious? Could you elaborate on this a bit more?

SB: Modernism, for me, is the culturally liberating response to the alienating and reifying aspects of modernity. There is much philosophical debate about how to define modernity but, ultimately, it is less a philosophical category than a complex of standardizing practices associated with the second industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capital during the last quarter of the 19th century. This period witnessed the emergence of the labor movement committed to republican democracy and the rise of imperialism. This affected the formation of modernism in different ways. Modernism contested Victorianism and highlighted the experience of individual freedom rather than the liberal rule of law. It was more concerned with what Else Laske-Schüler termed “poor little humanity” than the proletariat. And it was far less interested in the rising social democratic movement than the existential impact of mass society and mass culture. Modernism also responded to imperialism by purposefully learning from non-Western forms of art. This is true almost across the board.

Enough major artists like Ezra Pound, the brilliant colorist Emil Nolde, and the founder of Futurism F. T. Marinetti were seduced by fascism. Ultimately, however, the exploration of individuality was the primary concern of modernists, along with the way in which people should treat one another. Oscar Wilde talked about “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” for instance, asking in effect: What are the new interpersonal values that accompany a genuinely radical transformation of society? That question has not lost its resonance amid the preoccupation with commercial life and the rise of what has been termed “non-conformist conformity.”

CM: You call upon my contemporaries to seek out or express the new, but this is much easier said than done. How does one even recognize the new anymore?

SB:  By highlighting genuinely experimental attempts to deal with new developments and new problems in new ways. Modernism has something to offer here. Think of the famous Radical Light Exhibition: Paul Klee and August Macke went to Tunisia to paint in the stark sunlight of the region. They painted mostly in watercolors. When they came back to Munich and put on the exhibition it caused a sensation. What they had produced was neither African nor European, but something new. It integrated elements of different traditions and reconfigured them. So, the new is not something ex nihilo. It transforms traditions inherited from the past. This is true in politics and philosophy as well as in art, albeit each in their own fashion.


Paul Klee, Southern (Tunisian) Gardens, 1919; Watercolor, 9.5 x 7.5 in; Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris

CM: Adorno—or perhaps a better example is Peter Bürger—said that since around 1930 culture has just been repeating the styles and discoveries made in the high modernist period. Why is it that our time fails to express or seek out the new?

SB: That view reflects critical theory at its worst. Radical art did not come to an end in 1930 any more than radical politics. The integrative dangers associated with the culture industry may have grown, but it’s ridiculous to make this kind of claim. The Frankfurt School never grasped the radical contributions of either the post-war era or the 1960s, whether in terms of literature, film, music, or style. None of them mention the great developments in film by Fellini, Godard, or other great directors. It is the same with the music of the time. There was a way in which the Frankfurt School almost purposefully insulated themselves from new experiments and developments. Adorno’s embarrassing essay on jazz is reflective not merely of a certain elitist dogmatism. It also evinces nostalgia for the new provided by modernism without reference to the new as it emerged in a very different context. Who can seriously doubt that writers like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Pynchon contributed to a new critical understanding of our country—its past, present and even its future ambitions? You are right in suggesting that criteria are necessary to talk about the new—and here the “radical” philosophers of our time have been remiss in providing them. Postmodern preoccupations with subjectivity are holdovers from the past, and fashionable forms of cynical relativism obscure more than they illuminate. It’s as if the abdication of judgment has been elevated to a principle of judgment. Engaging in an immanent critique of this outlook might begin to provide criteria for illuminating the new, but that is up to a new generation of intellectuals.

CM: There is an essay simply titled “Critique” by Adorno where he is extremely skeptical of what is dubbed as “constructive criticism,” as if the act of critique must always serve a constructive purpose.[1] Must critique always contain this positive function, or can purely negative critique be valuable in some other way, even if indirectly?

SB: Critique is different from simple criticism precisely insofar as it elicits a transformative and constructive purpose. The rejection of this stance is not unique to Adorno, although his view of the matter is probably the most sophisticated. The issue for him, of course, is the transformation of the totality. Either that is transformed or nothing is transformed. Like many modernists, Adorno felt that the proletariat is not up to the task. The transformative agent is lacking. Insofar as that is the case, so far as he is concerned, the primary purpose of critique is to affirm the fleeting experience of subjectivity in the face of a totality that is more and more defined by instrumental rationality and various integrative mechanisms. This may have been a legitimate position to take in the aftermath of Auschwitz and the Gulag. It’s now 50 years later. The problem today is not that subjectivity is being extinguished, but that it has become the over-riding preoccupation of radical thought. Radicals have to put something positive on the table rather than indulge in what Thomas Mann called a “power-protected inwardness.” Instead of obsessing about subjectivity and the cultivation of authenticity, we should be talking about the conditions in which people can exercise their freedom. Radical art has a role to play in that process.

CM: You note that it has been over 50 years since Adorno and Horkheimer published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and that, while their take on the task of philosophy might have been right for their time, that time has passed. Things are no longer the same. What changed? Surely it is not simply a matter of time passing.

SB: The world has actually become a world, not simply a conglomeration of Western states. Consider the Civil Rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the popular recognition of the Orient. Pluralism, multiculturalism, and a kind of hybridity have flourished. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are on the defensive—at least in the Western democracies. New groups have entered the public realm. You can see things today that would have been almost unimaginable in the 1950s: two men walking together holding hands, gay marriage, and women enjoying sports and participating in public life. Interracial dating is evident in a way that it certainly was not when I was in high school and college. These are real points of progress. Even as cultural possibilities have expanded, however, the greatest upward shift of wealth in American history has taken place along with the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people of color through a privatized prison system and constraints on voting. Dialectic of Enlightenment has nothing to say about any of this, nor does it have anything to say about the dialectical interplay between progress and regress.

CM: How do you understand this tension between progress and regress?

SB: My former teacher, Ernst Bloch, argued that history does not move in linear fashion, and that progress in one realm of society can occur while regression takes place in another. Extraordinary scientific breakthroughs are complementing the rise of religious fundamentalism. Cultural liberation is taking place while economic inequality is increasing. It is not as if some uniform and prefabricated teleological process is leading humanity to a happy end. Bloch had little use for the idea that the contradictions of one historical period are resolved before another historical period is introduced. Instead he noted the existence of “non-synchronous contradictions” that are carried over from one period to another while changing their form and function, thereby situating regression within progress. Clearly, for example, racism and sexism and religious prejudices are pre-capitalist in character, but they play an important role in capitalist society. New forms of solidarity are generated both to protect the inheritance of the past as well as and overcome it.


 The German Marxist and Hegelian philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), also an early influential member in the Frankfurt School. Bloch wrote widely on the concept of Utopia, compiled in such books as The Spirit of Utopia (1918) and The Principle of Hope (1954).

CM: Tell me more about your education under Ernst Bloch. Who were your other teachers, and how did they influence your intellectual development? How do you reflect back on that period today?

SB:  My first mentor was Henry Pachter who taught at City College in New York where I did my bachelor’s. A communist in the 1920s, then a radical socialist, he fought in Spain with the POUM, served in the anti-fascist resistance, as well as in the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote much about socialist history, the Weimar Republic, and foreign policy. He also taught courses in critical theory. He was an extraordinarily erudite political realist who enjoyed debating politics and provoking 1960s radicals like me. After CCNY, I attended the University of California, Berkeley where I received my doctorate in 1975. In 1973, I was awarded a Fulbright to study in Tübingen. I was very excited because I knew this would allow me to attend lectures by the literary historian Hans Mayer and, above all, Ernst Bloch, the author of The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope. Bloch was a major figure of European radical thought. Himself a communist until his departure from East Germany just before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bloch was nonetheless a staunch defender of the modernist avant-garde with its utopian outlook. He saw kernels of atheism in Christianity and inspired liberation theology, integrated the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition with Arabic thought, and articulated a cosmological materialism that anticipated the ecological appreciation of nature. Bloch’s cosmopolitan knowledge blended nicely with his over-riding commitment to the utopian novum.

Bloch was an extraordinary philosopher. When he talked about politics, however, it was a disaster. He had a critical perspective on all fixed and finished philosophical systems, and yet, as he put it, he "swallowed" Stalin and the propaganda of Stalinism. Not unlike many other European intellectuals of his generation, he believed that Stalin's society was pointing towards the communist future. If it was not utopian now, it was still heading in a utopian direction. Bloch’s idea of communism was ultimately metaphysical. It was thus never really a question of turning theory into practice. The closest he ever came to discussing institutional politics involved a romantic view of the workers’ council. Bloch basically approached politics from the cultural-aesthetic standpoint of an “anticipatory consciousness” that projects “the best life” even while burdened with various forms of repression that make its full realization impossible.

The 1960s and 1970s were the most intellectually exciting years of my life. It’s still the case that, paraphrasing Goethe, "two souls dwell in my breast." My thinking is inspired by both political realism and critical utopian idealism. But I recognize the need to distinguish between them and what each provides for the radical, intellectual project.

CM: Are these two approaches towards politics mutually exclusive?

SB: I don’t think so. Every radical movement worthy of its name has had a utopian component. This was noted long ago by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in his classic Ideology and Utopia. The danger lies in failing to recognize the tension between utopia and reality, the power of the imagination and the demands of power. Radical politics is always infused with the religious or teleological longing for utopia. Socialism itself is a regulative ideal that provides an ethical way of keeping our compromises in check. No system ever fulfills the always untapped possibilities of freedom—and no movement does either. It is a mistake to think that the utopian ideals of a movement can be simply and operationally translated into reality. There is an inherent tension between the ideals associated with humanity that great works of art project and the political works in which humanity is engaged.

CM: So not even socialism could realize an authentic form of freedom?

SB: No. Henry Pachter once wrote that, “one cannot have socialism; one is a socialist.” I always believed that. Freedom always outstrips the real. There will always be new possibilities for expanding the enjoyment of life as well as still unexplored and unrecognized forms of oppression that new movements will need to confront. It is a question of remaining open to the prospect of previously unacknowledged forms of repression, and the liberating responses to them. Modernism anticipated later concerns with generational conflict, sexual liberation, abortion, incest, spousal abuse, date rape, and a host of other such issues. But this anticipatory consciousness ultimately required (among others) a women’s movement to turn what were considered private concerns into public matters that men would have to acknowledge and deal with. No one would have expected that these were issues of such importance in 1930, when you actually had socialist movements around. It was, again, a matter of being open to the always unfinished character of freedom.

No less than modernism, critical theory was fundamentally concerned with the authoritarian personality. It exists on both the left and the right. Erich Fromm noted in his study of German workers during the 1920s that most were imbued with a patriarchal and traditionally conservative character structure. Such studies need to be taken seriously. They confirm Bloch’s position insofar as they militate against the idea that solving the problem of class conflict will necessarily solve the problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The liberal rule of law and its attendant notions of tolerance are irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with disenfranchised subaltern groups in a meaningful way. Changing society for the better does not simply involve a break with the past: there are compromises with history that need to be made.

CM: I want to talk more about compromises, about making compromises for the sake of making gradual progress. I am wondering how much that kind of ideology has a stranglehold on today’s Left. Many leftists today support the Democrats or try to focus on certain issue campaigns without any greater concern to transform the social totality. They simply devote themselves to reformist goals without revolutionary ends. How do reformist movements figure in and help provoke large changes in the social totality today?

SB: Every election in a capitalist democracy involves a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is much talk about the evils of capitalism but less about how it generates a structural imbalance of power that disadvantages working people. In a capitalist democracy, the interests of capital are served prior to meeting all other interests. That is because the employment of workers depends upon the private investment decisions of capitalists. It is just that simple. Those who consider it possible to engage meaningfully in electoral politics without making compromises with capital are utopian in the worst sense. At the same time, just because wealth is becoming centralized in fewer and fewer hands, capital is not homogenous and its various factions require allies in order to push their agendas in a democratic society. This creates the possibility for political interventions by subaltern groups and the working class. Social movements thus have a role to play. The apocryphal story of Roosevelt saying to radical communists, socialists, and trade unionists, “make me do it” (with respect to the New Deal) is a case in point. Social movements can pressure the establishment to move in more or less radical directions. We have all seen that recently with the Tea Party. Its impact on the Republican Party has been remarkable. The situation is different with Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Its core activists talked about abolishing politics as we know it through a new “horizontalism” predicated on participatory democracy. But the real contributions of OWS involved pushing the Tea Party off the front pages, introducing a new discourse of economic equality, and bringing class struggle into the streets. OWS pushed President Obama to the left with regard to his job bills and his willingness to challenge more directly the Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party. OWS did not build revolutionary consciousness but it did reinvigorate the Democratic Party. These are important contributions. Ironically (or dialectically), however, these realistic results could not have been achieved without the original utopian impulse.


An image of Occupy Amsterdam located at the central square in front of the stock exchange, 2011. In the background hangs a sign that declares "Occupy Utopia!"

CM: Many Left commentators have claimed that Occupy Wall Street brought the whole picture into view. The movement saw that the problems of capital are systemic, and it looked at a broader framework instead of just focusing on single issues. On the other hand, when reflecting on Occupy a year after its “occupations” disbanded, it is clear that the movement’s understanding of how to get from here to there, their strategic orientation, was inadequate. Does this express the tension between their utopianism and their realism you spoke of before? This might speak to why their “hibernation” ended up being a burial.

SB: Yes. In a way I agree with you, though I do not think any serious form of radical theory emerged. But we have to be clear about something: movements do not have the same function that parties do. Movements are there to mobilize the immobilized, inspire them, and maybe even raise hopes that cannot even be met. That is what movements do. Parties translate these hopes and ideals imperfectly into some kind of legislation. In order to do that, again, compromises are required. A basic strategic mistake was for organizers of OWS to assume forms of discipline that simply did not exist. Their inability to recognize that OWS was never a revolutionary mass movement contributed to its inability to sustain and organize itself. Their plan for massive civil disobedience and putting OWS (which began in the fall of 2011) into hibernation for the winter, so to speak, and reconstituting it again in the summer, was questionable from the beginning.

CM: In this case, what about the relation between reform and revolution?

SB: One can make the argument that what is required today is revolution: I think revolution is still necessary in certain nations and under certain conditions. But it is impossible to justify a revolutionary politics without being clear about whether mass support for such an enterprise actually exists or is on the agenda. Unless that support is imaginable in a meaningful way the ideal of revolution becomes a substitute for the practice of reform, and radicals thereby abdicate their responsibility with regard to the poor, the exploited, and the disenfranchised. The ultra-left simply asks people to wait for the revolution. But they cannot wait. New goals can be raised, new constituencies can be mobilized, and new utopian ideals can be articulated—but not at the expense of supporting what might help working people today—or, if you like, the lesser of the two evils.

CM: It might not be that certain political figures are asking masses to wait necessarily. It could be convincingly argued—and many Marxists have—that we are at a moment in history where it is totally confusing who that mass base, or agent, might be.

SB: But that lack of clarity with regard to agency clouds the substance of what the revolution should achieve. At the turn of the 20th century every socialist and Marxist knew what a revolution implied: a growing proletariat would substitute republican democracy for the monarchical regimes in which it operated; a new accumulation process would privilege the interests of workers through various social programs and nationalization of the major industries; and, finally, an enlightenment ideology would highlight how liberal norms and scientific experimentation would liberate them from religion and pre-modern superstitions. Without some clarity regarding the revolutionary agent, however, the idea of revolution becomes a mish-mash of apocalyptic hopes. Here is the connection with modernism, which so often confused cultural rebellion with political revolution. If you are right on the question of agency then, I think, radicals should be a bit more modest in their political ambitions and highlight the need for a new cultural discourse that might clarify the preconditions for future forms of radical politics. The inability to draw distinctions is debilitating for the left when it comes to both art and politics. It undermines the possibility of distinguishing between what is possible and what is not. Contradictions and distinctions continue to exist: they project both danger and opportunity. That is why radicals need to emerge from what Hegel termed “the night in which all cows are black.” |P

[1]. See Theodor Adorno, “Critique,”  in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):

One continually finds the word critique, if it is tolerated at all, accompanied by the word constructive. The insinuation is that only someone can practice critique who can propose something better than what is criticized...By making the positive a condition for it, critique is tamed from the very beginning and loses vehemence. (287)

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