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Critical Theory, Marxism, social evolution: An interview with Martin Jay

Jamie Keesling and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review #83 | February 2016

On October 31, 2015, Jamie Keesling and Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted an interview with Martin Jay, author of The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Marxism and Totality (1984), Essays from the Edge: Parerga & Paralipomena (2011), and Reason after Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory (2016) among others. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jamie Keesling: Your book The Dialectical Imagination has had immense influence on the reception of Frankfurt School theory. What was the intellectual milieu toward which you were oriented in the 1960s and 70s? What were your motivations for undertaking the project?

Martin Jay: There were two basic milieux. One was the new interest in the intellectual migration emerging in the 60s, which really came into its own only in the 70s. There were a number of emigres who were still around and still very active in American intellectual life, but who were at the end of their careers and interested in sharing their experiences with a historian. My dissertation advisor, H. Stuart Hughes, had known quite a number of these people in the OSS. Hughes later wrote a book, The Sea Change, that dealt with the migration. It was the third part of a trilogy that began with Consciousness and Society. So the migration itself was a burgeoning field.

The second context was the rise of Marcuse as a figure whose work was to a great extent mysterious to Americans, myself included. Marcuse’s mixture of Marx and Freud, his interest in the Hegelian dimension of Marxism, and his attempt to bring it up to date and make it relevant to the culture of the 60s, as well as his defiant utopianism—these were very novel for Americans in the 60s. I contributed to a collection edited by Karl Klare and Dick Howard called The Unknown Dimension, whose very title captures the lack of knowledge of Western Marxism among Anglo-Americans at that time. I did the chapter on Horkheimer, but there were also chapters on Korsch, Lukács, Gramsci, Sartre, and even Althusser. This was a collective project of retrieval in which a number of us were trying to recall what had been forgotten, identify what had not yet been translated, and promote what was still potentially useful in a tradition that departed from orthodox Marxism, and yet was more radical than social democracy or other kinds of revisionist Marxism. There were a number of other people at the time, centered around the journal Telos in particular, who were also trying to make sense of the Critical Theory tradition. I was friendly with many of them, but was never a core member of the Telos group, which had its own theoretical investments. The editor, Paul Piccone, was particularly interested in phenomenological Marxism, which I never found persuasive. Still, I was in dialogue with the people around Telos from very early on and contributed to some of the early issues of that journal.

Martin Jay with Herbert Marcuse and Leo Lowenthal in 1978.

JK: During the time you were conducting the research for DI, did you see the Frankfurt School as an ongoing intellectual endeavor?

MJ: At that time, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Lowenthal were still alive, and Habermas was just beginning to make a name for himself in English. In Germany he was already quite well-known. The recovery of the earlier texts was still very much in process. For example, Dialectic of Enlightenment was not yet republished even in German when I first started. It wasn’t translated into English until 1972, around the time my book came out. So, there was a real sense of a treasure to be discovered. And, of course, some people were anxious to apply these ideas to current problems. These were not dead ideas to be preserved in a museum, but ones that still had enormous potential. Sometimes, to be sure, the surviving members of the School were not happy with the interpretations they were given and the impact they had. I was myself sometimes accused of expressing an elegiac attitude to the School’s legacy rather than using it to inspire contemporary theory and perhaps even practice. However, I never thought you had to choose between historical retrieval and contemporary application. Obviously, you have to make sense of the ideas historically before you can use them in new circumstances. You had to see what their historical limitations were, rather than simply applying them wholesale to present problems.

In the United States at that time, the complicated and often mixed legacy of Critical Theory was scarcely known. Marcuse was the only major figure representing the School on these shores, which meant his differences with other members were not yet fully appreciated. Nor is it clear how seriously he was read by people who invoked his name. But in Europe, and in Germany in particular, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas were major players in the 1960s. Even if they were often chastised for not living up to the more intransigent radicalism of the Frankfurt School’s earlier years by impatient students, they at least remained in tense dialogue with many of the most thoughtful of them. At times, of course, the conversation broke down, much to the delight of the mainstream public who enjoyed the spectacle of the revolution’s children devouring its fathers.

JK: Quite famously, as in the case of Adorno! Today, of course, there are many scholars writing about Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas, etc., but does the project of Critical Theory initiated by the Frankfurt School remain ongoing? If so, how has it changed? If not, what has caused this departure, especially given that society itself can hardly be said to have evolved? 

MJ: I think it is always necessary to reconsider the project as the times change. There is, to be sure, always the reality of capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself, so I would concede that the basic issue of the 19th and 20th centuries hasn’t been resolved. But there are many other changes that need to be addressed. Just yesterday I was in a meeting of an international consortium of Critical Theory programs that is now in the process of being constructed. Judith Butler, Axel Honneth, Jay Bernstein, Hent de Vries, and Ann Stoler were among those there. The consortium will attempt to bring together programs from all around the world. Judith was just in Buenos Aires talking to leaders of programs in Latin America, and we have meetings scheduled for Cape Town and Istanbul. So, what has occurred is a globalization of Critical Theory, which inevitably means a broadening of its scope and an influx of new ideas. The consortium is anxious to avoid canonizing any orthodoxy, if indeed there ever was an orthodox Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Its energy is derived from certain Frankfurt School traditions, but it is also open to issues generated by postcolonial theory, responses to neoliberal globalization, gender theory, the crisis of secularization, and so on. A lot of the intellectual and political energy comes from the so-called Global South, so the application of a Eurocentric theory or European-American theory to what’s happening in other parts of the world will inevitably have to be refracted through the historical circumstances in those countries, perhaps even in the idioms of their different traditions. We are very interested to see how that will evolve, but it’s impossible for me or any other European or American to determine what will happen in advance. What amazes me, given that I started my dissertation almost 50 years ago now, is that Critical Theory in the broadest sense still remains a viable and stimulating program. It has now had several generations: Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer, Axel Honneth, Christoph Menke, Claus Offe, Hauke Brunkhorst, Rainer Forst, and Martin Seel, only to mention prominent German inheritors of the tradition, and then of course, many people in the Anglo- American world too numerous to name, as well as others scattered throughout the world. A couple of years ago I spoke at East China Normal University in Shanghai and discovered that my host, who was the main official of the university and a Party member, was a Habermas expert. So it’s an evolving tradition that continues to ramify. Of course, there are debates within it and contests among those who claim to carry the torch. But what makes Critical Theory interesting is precisely its ability to grow creatively in different directions rather than simply following an original insight, or relying on the repetition of early texts as if they were somehow sacred.

Right now, the consortium is still embryonic. We hope to foster a loose international network to facilitate the exchange of both ideas and people. Each participating program will be able to feel that it isn’t isolated, but situated in a global public sphere or at least a broad community of people who take seriously these traditions. Yesterday we had a long discussion about Chinese participation in particular. Although there is interest in Western Marxism and Critical Theory in China, some participants were nervous about the control still exerted by the Party over dissident intellectuals and activists and were concerned to avoid involvement with what might be called, to use an older terminology, front organizations. Most of us felt, however, that the nascent interest in Critical Theory was worth nurturing in the hope that an international conversation would enhance Chinese familiarity with the tradition, as well as contribute to our own understanding of what is happening in an extraordinarily important part of the world. Rather than vetting groups that want to get involved, most of us think it is unwise to exercise a gatekeeper function whereby we award an ideological Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The consortium is a far cry from Communist Internationals, which expelled and excommunicated heretics from a party line.

JK: About there not being any room for conservative politics on campus and also a desire to keep the project of Critical Theory open to those who would identify as working through the legacy of the project—Is it inappropriate to identify conservative or reactionary tendencies and to exclude them?

MJ: The unrepentant civil libertarian in me thinks it’s unwise and counterproductive ever to exclude different political positions in a university setting, where there should be a willingness to consider all sides of a question. What we consider objectionable ideas may also contain kernels of truth which may be lost if we suppress them. I’m willing to argue against people I disagree with. I’m willing to present what I think are better arguments to the other side and listen to their rejoinders. But I’m not willing a priori to say that there are ideas that are inappropriate on the campus. I was always very unhappy with Marcuse’s repressive tolerance thesis, and not only because it seemed to me self-evident that that it would backfire on the Left. Once you begin to say there shouldn’t be an argument that, say, supports the Vietnam War or is pro-Zionist or whatever, then people on the other side have every right to respond, “Well, I don’t want somebody supporting, say, Hugo Chavez’s version of socialism in Venezuela” or “I have no interest in having a Hamas representative come to my campus.” Repressive intolerance is, after all, a two-way street. I’ve always thought that one can challenge an idea without having to shout it down. One can refuse to go to hear somebody but not stop other people from hearing them. I can’t shake a simple ACLU libertarian faith in the value of free speech. The only limitations I would put on the absolute exercise of free speech is when it becomes hate speech or when it is performatively problematic. For example, a speaker who, say, denies the Holocaust or demonizes Muslims, or who spews racial epithets does not deserve a platform. This is not simply expressing an opinion, but rather is an act that has consequences. It humiliates, demeans, and injures in some deeply meaningful sense. But apart from hate speech of this kind we have to be steadfast in our willingness to allow obnoxious ideas to be heard. I remain enough of an old-fashioned liberal to believe that I always may have something to learn from an intelligent conservative or an intelligent radical of whatever stripe, even if dialogue ultimately proves futile in moving towards a consensus.

Spencer Leonard: You spoke of Dick Howard and Karl Klare’s book and of the Telos group in the 1970s. Practically all the major works of Lukács, Korsch, Adorno, and Horkheimer were translated into English in this period. Indeed, Marx’s Capital was even retranslated, so that on the whole the reception of this work in English seems to have been driven by an underlying impulse to find some way to reconstitute Marxism (or something that could genuinely take over from it) as, so to speak, the culminating act of the New Left. By contrast, the reception since the 1980s seems less purposeful or simply academic. Marcuse’s work has been positively obscure, while Adorno and Horkheimer have almost been transformed into mandarin types, conservative cultural critics. Was an opportunity missed there? What lessons are to be learned from that “failed” reception in the 1970s? 

MJ: I hesitate to make grand generalizations about the reasons why the hopes of the 60s were ultimately unrealized. All the glib expectations about a terminal crisis of “late capitalism” proved wrong as capitalism turned out to be far more resilient than many on the Left expected. The disastrous Vietnam War meant that the leftward movement of domestic politics during the years immediately after the Kennedy assassination was blunted, especially after the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. And of course, many members of the working class, such as it was, were easily turned away from any progressive agenda by appeals to their patriotism, their cultural anxieties, and, alas, their often latent racism. Sometimes the Left deluded itself by believing in, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China as a genuine expression of revolutionary effervescence or putting too much faith in socialist countries like Cuba or Vietnam, which turned out to be more authoritarian than democratic. What also has to be remembered is the “missed opportunity” was global, as comparable movements in Europe and elsewhere also fizzled in one way or another, often producing as a result conservative reactions and leaders like Thatcher and Kohl. This is not to say that nothing progressive was accomplished, just that the system-changing hopes of Marxism were yet again thwarted.

JK: What about the Frankfurt School’s Marxism, especially that of Adorno? How has the reception in academia illuminated or obscured this?

MJ: Well, it depends how we define Marxism, which is always the key issue. These were people who clearly took a lot from the Marxist tradition. They understood the importance of class analysis and the commodity form; they understood capital as a totalizing force in contemporary culture. They understood that to make radical changes they would need to think beyond capitalism. Having said that, they were also aware of the fact that Marxism had certain theoretical and historical limitations. Like every theory, it was a product of its time. Marx in many explicit ways was limited by what could be experienced in the 19th century in the “advanced” countries of Europe and North America. The capitalism of his day was, of course, not the capitalism of the Frankfurt School, let alone ours. They were struggling to rethink a Marxism that had to meet the challenge of fascism, which Marx had not really anticipated, and make sense of the failure or inability of the working class to be the “subject of history.” They began in fact to rethink the entire concept of history having a subject, which comes largely from Hegelian Marxism and started to move in the direction that leads to Habermas’s explicit disarticulation of labor and symbolically mediated interaction. His critique of consciousness philosophy and the importance of intersubjectivity were anticipated in some of their work, even if they were less optimistic about the possibility of communicative rationality in a largely irrational totality. By the time they returned to Germany after their exile, they began valuing radical democracy, even pluralism, rather than holding on to the hope for a single, universal maker of history. In fact, well before their return, they understood the need to combine insights from Marxism with those derived from other thinkers, such as Freud, Nietzsche, even Weber, however much they may have resisted certain aspects of their thought. From the beginning, theirs was an experimental Marxism rather than an orthodox one. However much they may have disdained liberalism, they were never attracted to organized parties on the Left, whether Communist, Trotskyist, or Social Democratic. They didn’t even join the New Beginning, which was an alternative attempt to renew Marxism by finding a middle ground between communism and social democracy. They always kept their distance from practical movements, a reticence which, of course, continued when Horkheimer and Adorno rejected Marcuse’s embrace of the New Left. Whether this was a deficit, as Lukács always argued when he mocked them as living in the Grand Hotel Abyss, or rather a source of their creativity, is still a point of some dispute. My own feeling is that it was ultimately a benefit, even if they were troubled about the costs of the increasing gap between theory and practice.

JK: The prevailing critique of the Frankfurt School’s Marxism says something like “Marxism is a closed philosophical system, an orthodoxy.” I wonder how you engage with this sort of criticism. Must we not turn this criticism around and insist that the Frankfurt School project comes out of Marxism as the root of negative criticism?

MJ: Negativity in the broadest sense has been around ever since philosophy saw itself as a rational alternative to an existing reality that was not very rational. Whether or not this was in more idealist forms—Platonic, Kantian, or Hegelian—or whether it was translated into a more materialist idiom, depended on circumstances. I think negativity itself exists in many different philosophical systems, and the Frankfurt School certainly took seriously the ways in which Marx and the tradition that came out of his work had embodied something more than just philosophical negativity. Marx’s evident desire was that philosophy should become active in the world through practical realization, which meant locating the most potent sources of embodied negativity existing outside the theoretical sphere. When the proletariat failed or was unable to play the role he had hoped it would play, it seemed necessary to search for alternative embodiments of negativity. The Frankfurt School began by being cautiously hopeful that other candidates could be found. Marcuse, as I mentioned earlier, still remained interested during the sixties in student movements or other marginalized groups as possible concrete embodiments of the “power of negative thinking.” But, by and large, the core of the Frankfurt School grew more skeptical and cautious about the existence of coherent, self-conscious movements, understood in class terms or otherwise, that could serve as the vanguard of emancipation. They understood that diffuse, and indeterminate negativity remains in the world, in the sense that many groups insist on radical change and decry the status quo, but, alas, not necessarily in a progressive direction. Whatever one may say about fascism, it drew on a “negative criticism” of liberal democracy and bourgeois society. And one could say that the Tea Party today and the Republicans in Congress are as negative as you can get, far more interested in stopping things from happening than building anything new. So in a way we can say they express a malign, rather than benign, negativity. In other words, negativity by itself, without rational critique, without plausible goals and laudable values, is insufficient. Critical Theory was always aware of the fact that there were both problematic and potentially emancipatory embodiments of indeterminate negativity and knew from bitter experience how the former could gain the upper hand.

Horkheimer reading a copy of The Dialectical Imagination, just after it came out and shortly before his death.

Horkheimer reading a copy of The Dialectical Imagination, just after it came out and shortly before his death.

SL: In many respects, perhaps in every respect, the very designation “Critical Theory” in the writings of the 1930s and 1940s seems synonymous with Marxism, however critical, non-traditional, or simply in-distress. And, certainly, while Horkheimer may have succumbed to depoliticization and Habermas felt the need to in some sense break with them, Adorno’s fidelity to both Marx and Marxism seems unwavering throughout his corpus, as a work like “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society” seems only to reinforce. Given this, what do you make of the now notorious statement you reported from your interviews with Adorno to the effect that Marx wanted to turn the world into a workhouse?

MJ: To be honest, I have great trouble accepting the premise of this question. The notion of “unwavering fidelity” is appropriate to a religious believer, not to a critical theorist. It implies that there is a body of doctrine, a catechism, which every true believer upholds without any deviation. It implies that those who fail this test deserve to be banished as heretics or apostates. To the extent that the Marxist tradition could lend itself to this sort of orthodox definition, it fell prey to the very reification it ostensibly sought to criticize. There can be no question that Adorno, broadly speaking, learned an enormous amount from Marx. He understood the centrality of exchange and commodification. He recognized the dogged persistence of class differences even when class struggle was muted. He abhorred the injustices of capitalism and never lost a certain utopian hope that it might one day be replaced by a better alternative.

And yet in too many respects to detail now, he felt unconstrained by adherence to the letter of Marx’s texts or the interpretations of those who claimed to be his faithful exegetes. Not only, as I said earlier, did he seek inspiration from alternative theorists like Freud and Nietzsche, as well as artists like Beckett and Schoenberg, he also felt little attraction to either the scientistic or humanist alternatives that vied for supremacy in 20th century Marxist debates. By situating the exploitation of capitalism in the longer narrative of man’s domination of nature and the rise of instrumental rationality, he recognized a more fundamental source of our current dilemma. Although you can always find texts such as the one you cite that show he preferred calling the current totality “late capitalism” to “industrial society,” it is important to remember that the former term was also used by Habermas in his Legitimation Crisis, whose German title is Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus. Would you want to say he was also “unwaveringly faithful” to Marx? The irony, of course, is that both of them were wrong insofar as capitalism was by no means “late” enough when those texts were written. Indeed, for all of its instabilities and dysfunctions, it shows no signs of being replaced by anything meaningfully better in the foreseeable future.

As for Adorno’s remark that Marx wanted to turn the world into a workhouse, which is only notorious to those who think it is inconsistent with his “unwavering fidelity,” it accords perfectly with Adorno’s critique of the fetish of productivism and the reduction of human emancipation to unalienated labor. Horkheimer had already said something similar in his early aphorisms, and Marcuse argued against the repressive “performance principle” allied with technological reason in Eros and Civilization. And of course, Benjamin, who was so influential on Adorno, had as many positive things to say about Fourier as about Marx.

One could, of course, get into a debate over whether or not Adorno’s charge was an accurate understanding of Marx’s own position, citing on either side the different texts—which are not in fact very numerous—where Marx hinted at what he wanted to turn the world into after the Revolution. I need not remind you of the work Moishe Postone has done in challenging the idea that Marx adopted a trans-historical labor theory of value. Frankly, the issue of what Marx “really said” seems to me a thoroughly unimportant question, except for true believers in the sacredness of his texts or for intellectual historians who seek the holy grail of subjective intentionality that ostensibly lies behind texts. What is important is that Adorno was right in questioning the fetish of production and labor and insisting that any meaningful notion of liberation had to go beyond it.

JK: For a time, the university seemed to promise refuge to a generation of disappointed 60s and 70s-era radicals. Are we now seeing a return to the sort of conservatism historically associated with university campuses? How do you imagine the future of the university as a place for Leftist intellectualism?

MJ: Let me speak to my experience at Berkeley, as it is very hard to generalize. As it happens, I was interviewed by NPR earlier this week for a program on students at Berkeley, then and now, for which they also interviewed a number of current students. I was struck by the extent to which the Berkeley students on the program remain committed. They don’t present themselves as forming anything as grandiose as a Movement, and they’re certainly not self-designated Marxists joining one or another Trotskyist splinter group, as might have been the case 40 years ago. They’re rarely people who have intransigently utopian aspirations, but they are often politically active and idealistic about change. They are concerned about lots of real issues in the world and want to do more than simply talk about them. Two or three years ago when the #Occupy movement emerged, many Berkeley students took part. Though #Occupy was ephemeral, it placed on the table the issue of inequality that has finally become a national concern. Of course, there were different issues in the 1960s, such as the draft. that presented an immediate existential threat to people of a certain age, which meant a lot of students were motivated by the fear that they would have to fight and perhaps die in a war that they did not support. Today we have professional armies and fight wars with drone technology, so that kind of fear plays no role in motivating rebellion. What has, of course, remained constant is the persistence of racial inequality and discrimination in ways that many students find deeply objectionable. But we have to acknowledge that students today are by and large less financially secure than in the 1960s, which means that they are understandably less quick to sacrifice their careers for living the counter-cultural or politically extremist lives that Marcuse celebrated as “The Great Refusal.”

As for campus attitudes toward politics, the right will tell you, and there’s a column about this in today’s New York Times, that most universities and colleges are in fact totally intolerant of conservative thought. They argue that faculties are overwhelmingly liberal or radical and that among students the prevailing wisdom is a knee-jerk soft Leftism, exemplified by obsessions with identity politics, hate speech, and Palestinian rights. The buzzword “political correctness” is their way of stigmatizing anything they can’t criticize using persuasive arguments. The prevailing consensus on campus is, to be sure, more or less on the Left, at least in terms of the spectrum of American politics in general. Now whether this is an overly moderate leftism resistant to any attempt to move the conversation further to the Left depends on which campus and which versions of the Left we’re talking about. At Berkeley, we still have a variety of different positions. Some militant students challenge conventional norms of civility to voice a more intransigent radicalism that seeks change “by any means necessary.” But the majority seem to me less dogmatic in their search for answers to questions that no one can really claim are definitively resolved by any one tradition of thought. In this sense, many are closer to the spirit of Critical Theory than those who would police its borders and insist that it remain faithful to a putative Marxist orthodoxy. |P

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