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notes on Adorno

I am writing with some brief notes on Adorno's 1942 essay "Reflections on Class Theory."

Another writing by Adorno we read in the group, "Imaginative Excesses," the final section of the aphorisms orphaned from Minima Moralia (1944-47), published in New Left Review as "Messages in a Bottle," Adorno addresses the division and necessary unity of "workers and intellectuals."

One passage in particular should be emphasized, that

"Those schooled in dialectical theory are reluctant to indulge in positive images of the proper society, of its members, even of those who would accomplish it. Past traces deter them; in retrospect, all social utopias since Plato's merge in a dismal resemblance to what they were devised against. The leap into the future, clean over the conditions of the present, lands in the past. In other words: ends and means cannot be formulated in isolation from each other. Dialectics will have no truck with the maxim that the former justify the latter, no matter how close it seems to come to the doctrine of the ruse of reason or, for that matter, the subordination of individual spontaneity to party discipline. The belief that the blind play of means could be summarily displaced by the sovereignty of rational ends was bourgeois utopianism. It is the antithesis of means and ends itself that should be criticized. Both are reified in bourgeois thinking, the ends as 'ideas' the sterility of which lies in their powerlessness to be externalized, such unrealizability being craftily passed off as implicit in absoluteness; means as 'data' of mere, meaningless existence, to be sorted out, according to their effectiveness or lack of it, into anything whatever, but devoid of reason in themselves. This petrified antithesis holds good for the world that produced it, but not for the effort to change it. Solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight. Conversely, violence, manipulation and devious tactics compromise the end they claim to serve, and thereby dwindle to no more than means. Hence the precariousness of any statement about those on whom the transformation depends. Because means and ends are actually divided, the subjects of the breakthrough cannot be thought of as an unmediated unity of the two. No more, however, can the division be perpetuated in theory by the expectation that they might be either simply bearers of the end or else unmitigated means. The dissident wholly governed by the end is today in any case so thoroughly despised by friend and foe as an 'idealist' and daydreamer, that one is more inclined to impute redemptive powers to his eccentricity than to reaffirm his impotence as impotent. Certainly, however, no more faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism: their actual state disclaims the idea that puts its trust in them."

Click to access adorno_imaginativeexcesses.pdf

In "Reflections on Class Theory," which is in extended dialogue with Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," and related to Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Horkheimer, Adorno uses the categories "old" and "new" vs. the "different" to express the critique of "progress" that is the hallmark of bourgeois thinking about history. But precisely this "bourgeois" character needs to be explicated.

When Adorno states, for example, that the "new is the old in distress or state of need" and that the "new is the same old thing," but contrasts this with the possibility of the "new and different," as opposed to the "new and the same," Adorno is expressing the dialectic of capital.

The era of the modern society of capital or "bourgeois society" can be subdivided into two broad periods, that of its "bourgeois" emergence, and that of its "proletarian" crisis and potential overcoming. So the proletarian is the bourgeois, but in "distress" and in "need" of self-overcoming.

The supplemental reading, Marx and Engels's 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, has 3 key catch-phrases to be borne in mind: "History is the history of class struggle;" "All that is solid melts into air;" and "Workers of the world unite!" How these three tropes are articulated determines (whether and) how one understands the coherence of the Marxian point of departure.

The footnote added later by Engels, that "history is the history of class struggle" is only true in terms of "recorded/[written] history," i.e., the history of civilization, should be taken as the frame in which "history" is understood, i.e., not archaeological history. This casts the question of "pre-history" in a specific light: the ambivalent way in which the entire history of civilization is rendered "pre-historical" by capital. If the bourgeois thinkers are correct that capital is the "end of history," then all of history will have become pre-history in the sense of being proto-bourgeois. As Adorno put it (elsewhere), history may not be the story of progress in freedom, but there is a straight line between the slingshot and the H-bomb.

Marx asks the question of whether capital could be transitional to a higher form of freedom that would render all of history "pre-historical" in the reverse sense, that capital would be the culmination and end of humanity's prehistory, and overcoming capital would initiate humanity's real history. Marx's point -- the project of his politics -- is to render capital pre-historical.

Adorno's question, posed in the darkest hour of the 20th Century, is whether the regression of capitalism has rendered history, not the history of class struggle, but of monopolies, gangs and rackets. This is because he sees the failure of the proletarian socialist revolution as entailing the regression of "bourgeois" subjectivity, or, as he puts it elsewhere, the failure of socialism undermines liberalism as well. The stakes of the proletarian struggle for socialism encompass the historical significance of the entire bourgeois epoch, whether capital represented emancipation at all or not, whether it was something new -- a new potential for humanity -- or turned out to be the "same old thing."

This is where the importance of the Platypus history of the Left finds its purchase, why the entire modern period can only be understood coherently, in what Hegel would call history that can be raised to a philosophical level, can only be told as the history of (potential) emancipation, can only be told as the history of the emergence -- and crisis -- of the Left. The unresolved crisis of the Left, which finds itself expressed in terms of the relation between the proletariat and communism, is the source of humanity's suffering. This is because communism expresses the problematic of the revolt of the Third Estate in its highest (and what Adorno calls "distressed") form. Was the bourgeois revolution an act of usurpation by a new exploiting class, or was it an emancipatory act? This is the question posed in the bourgeois era that Marx seeks to answer in the "proletarian" period of the bourgeois era that follows the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the politics of the workers' movement as the "class struggle" of the proletariat for the simultaneous fulfillment and abolition of bourgeois society.

The question is whether the proletariat can make itself into the last exploited class in history, whether the proletariat can allow the potential of capital to overcome and transcend the history of civilization as one of class exploitation. Marx's conception of class struggle in history is a utopian and not empirical one.

Adorno, following Benjamin, asks the question of what the 20th Century "mass society" simultaneous phenomena of the "bourgeoisification of the proletariat" and "proletarianization of the bourgeoisie" signifies in terms of the Marxian prognosis, which was formulated in the 19th Century "liberal" era of capitalism. Benjamin and Adorno emphasized the continuity in the change from capitalism's 19th-20th Century forms. -- Benjamin, in the Arcades Project, for instance, finds the roots of the 20th Century forms already in the 19th Century, especially after 1848.

Adorno's question relates to whether 20th Century capitalism made obsolete Marx's conception in the sense of being "post-bourgeois." Adorno's response to this problem, posed by anti-Marxist "sociology," is that 20th Century society remained "bourgeois" by virtue of its being "proletarian." Adorno, following Benjamin, recovered Marx's historical understanding of class, that "bourgeois" and "proletarian" referred not to sociological but historical realities. "Proletarian" society (of the late 19th and 20th Centuries) was "bourgeois" society in distress and need of self-overcoming.

In this sense, the "particular" interest that falsely "universalizes" itself in bourgeois thought, refers to the historical problematic of capital, the projection of the self-understanding of bourgeois subjectivity onto all prior history and as a historical limit.

The divided nature of workers' subjectivity, between "bourgeois" and "proletarian" interest, which Lukacs had already noted, following Marx, points to the problem of "bourgeois" subjectivity overcoming itself through the political project of proletarian socialism, which would be mounted on the basis of "bourgeois right," i.e., the rights of labor, posed at both the individual and collective level.

The problem is that the "bourgeois consciousness" within which the workers remain ensnared threaten to always make their class struggles merely reconstitutive and never transcending of capital. The proletarian revolution remains a bourgeois revolution, or revolution within capital, it remains the recurrence of the "old" in the "new," and the foreclosure of the possibility of "different," of transcending capital.

This is the source of the necessity of the Marxian point of departure of historical consciousness -- why Adorno's "Reflections on Class Theory" becomes a rumination on history rather than empirical "sociological" realities. For the possibility of an adequate historical consciousness in critical theory and emancipatory political practice seems to have become divided between intellectuals and workers as divided aspects of bourgeois subjectivity in extremis. As Adorno put it in "Imaginative Excesses,"

"The class division of society is also maintained by those who oppose class society: following the schematic division of physical and mental labour, they split themselves up into workers and intellectuals. This division cripples the practice which is called for. It cannot be arbitrarily set aside. But while those professionally concerned with things of the mind are themselves turned more and more into technicians, the growing opacity of capitalist mass society makes an association between intellectuals who still are such, with workers who still know themselves to be such, more timely than thirty years ago. At that time such unity was compromised by free-wheeling bourgeois of the liberal professions, who were shut out by industry and tried to gain influence by left-wing bustlings. The community of workers of head and hand had a soothing sound, and the proletariat rightly sniffed out, in the spiritual leadership commended . . . a subterfuge to bring the class struggle under control by just such spiritualization. Today, when the concept of the proletariat, unshaken in its economic essence, is so occluded by technology that in the greatest industrial country [the U.S.] there can be no question of proletarian class-consciousness, the role of intellectuals would no longer be to alert the torpid to their most obvious interests, but to strip the veil from the eyes of the wise-guys, the illusion that capitalism, which makes them its temporary beneficiaries, is based on anything other than their exploitation and oppression. The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing commonsense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals. Only if the extremes come together will humanity survive."

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