Messages in a bottle instead of pseudo-revolution: an interview with Detlev Claussen
Platypus Review 107 | June 2018
Detlev Claussen is Professor Emeritus at Leibniz University in Germany and author of Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius. He defends Critical Theory’s political relevance against both academic co-optation and the charge of retreat into the academic ivory tower. His writings investigate, among other things, Lenin’s influence on Adorno’s thought. Jan Schroeder is a member of Platypus. The following interview was conducted in German on March 21, 2017. What follows is Clara Picker’s translation of the transcript of that interview.
Jan Schroeder: In 1966 you were Theodor Adorno’s student in Frankfurt and a member of the German Socialist Student Union (SDS). What did you think about Adorno at the time? Did he influence your political activism?
Detlev Claussen: Adorno was the main reason why I wanted to pursue my studies in Frankfurt. Today one has to add that politically conscious members of the SDS regarded it as natural to study at the Institute for Social Research. This was not seen as contradictory, but as complementary. I was fully aware that Critical Theory had political implications, but my engagement in the SDS had its own motivation. I started mingling with SDS circles in 1966. Prior to that, I had only heard rumors about this political organization called "SDS." My main reason for joining it was their campaign around an exhibition called "Unatoned Nazi Justice." The SDS was more or less the only organization that talked about those sort of issues. Of course, the other issue was the war in Vietnam. The SDS's anti-colonial engagement spoke to me.
JS: There were numerous conflicts between Adorno and the student movement. How did you receive and deal with Adorno's criticisms?
DC: Back then we just kept trying to get Adorno on our side and did not really comprehend why he would put himself in our way. In retrospective, I have to say that the occupation of the Institute was the dumbest thing we could have done. It put Adorno in an impossible position, one that he could not maneuver out of. We failed to see the degree to which Adorno was under pressure from the university administration and the regional government. In fact we provoked the eviction of the protesters by the police.
JS: Many of Adorno's later texts (such as “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” or “Resignation”) approach the New Left and the student movement critically. What kind of role did Adorno's intervention play?
DC: Both of these texts also take up conflicts that existed within the student movement. There is a passage that describes an action (eine Aktion) in an apartment, during which a student was attacked for engaging with theory. This action was conducted by one of the most theory-hostile groups within the student movement. In fact, I also resided in said apartment, and that was not a coincidence! It was the so-called "leather jacket faction" of the SDS that came into our apartment and ravaged my best friends' room. The critique of "actionism" was completely justified, and we regarded it as such at the time.
Adorno was well aware of what was happening within the protest movement. But the texts you mention are not reflective of Adorno's entire body of work. Take, for instance, his drafts for a new edition of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here Adorno suggests that the student movement might in fact have halted the movement towards the administered world. Adorno adopted a double perspective. On the one hand, he thought that the protest movement was indeed justified, that the protest movement existed for good reason. On the other hand, however, he thought that the activism within the student movement had acquired a fatal character.
JS: Adorno also worried that the student movement itself might become a vehicle for the administered world. How would you weigh the political legacy of 1968 against Adorno's premonition?
DC: By the early 1970s, a different set of tendencies started to gain importance, tendencies that Adorno did not live to see but, in a certain sense, nonetheless anticipated. The emergence of numerous Marxist-Leninist sects was conditioned by the protest movement's hostility towards theory. Let me make a bold proposition: Anybody that seriously studied Critical Theory under Adorno was incapable of participating in a Marxist-Leninist cadre party. To have done so would have been a complete contradiction. Adorno kept asking, What is the revolution without a revolutionary proletariat? Doesn’t attempting to make a revolution under such circumstances lead straight back to the sorts of dilemmas that the protest movement was confronted with at the outset and that necessarily followed its disintegration? It was important to find a path that would lead to neither terrorism nor sectarianism à la the “K-Gruppen.” Navigating this was facilitated by the engagement with Adorno. One had to try to take up concrete social conflicts.
JS: After Adorno's death in 1969, you moved to Hannover where you wrote your dissertation on the “cunning of violence” and worked for the Socialist Bureau. To what extent did your experience with the student movement inform your later engagements?
DC: Based on the experience of the 1960s I would say that theory can only with great effort remain adequate to its own moment. This is also how I view my activities since the 1970s. Even nowadays, overcoming the hostility towards theory remains a central task. However, this cannot mean simply returning to the theories from a hundred years ago, for theory always has to be a critique of the present. At the same time, it needs to be conducted in a way that is theoretically adequate.
JS: If the hostility towards theory on the left has not been overcome, is your book, The Cunning of Violence, still timely?
DC: I finished my studies in Frankfurt because Oskar Negt offered me a position as assistant in Hannover in 1971. I wrote my dissertation on revolutionary violence and its theories at the time of the culmination of the Red Army Faction’s activity. I wanted to arrive at a concrete concept of social-revolutionary violence that does not, like the generic concept of violence, account for violence exclusively in terms of the intention of the perpetrator of violence but rather with reference to practice. I tried to discern (the) particular type(s) of violence, which are indeed distinguishable, by examining their/its patterns of movement. The politically decisive feature of the book is that it constitutes a fierce criticism of terroristic violence (not only of the RAF but on a global scale) which fetishizes violence in its meaning. In this sense, it also constitutes a critique of Palestinian practice, which has lost itself in terroristic violence and consequently put into question the legitimacy of the Palestinian national movement. But it was also an attempt to show that anti-colonial violence was not simply terrorism, and that it gains legitimacy through a social-revolutionary movement.
JS: Many activists in the 1970s thought that the political rhetoric and ambitions of the New Left were finally being realized. Did you agree with this assessment or do you see the 1970s as a time of regression compared to the 1960s?
DC: The 1960s have left us with a dilemma that I have criticized over and over again: namely, the gap between revolutionary rhetoric and political practice. Many people tried to close this gap violently. This was a devastating move, and it manifested itself particularly in terroristic activities. I would say that political rhetoric must refer to and express political content in a way that is adequate to reality. Of course, it needs to do so with a moment that points beyond what is: It must not simply reflect reality “realistically.” It also needs to formulate the potential inherent in reality: Where and how can society be transformed? But some of the transformations that have been achieved during the 1970s have now become the bogeymen of populist rhetoric.
JS: What part did the people you call “critical intellectuals” play in all this? Has the vanishing of the protest movement of the 1960s and 1970s changed their role in contemporary society?
DC: It is very important that critical intellectuals analyze society and its tendencies. The development and reconstitution of theory constitutes a primary task. But I would no longer call this theory “revolutionary” but rather “critical social theory.”
JS: What is the difference?
DC: I assume global contemporary conditions to be such that revolutions are neither possible nor desirable.
JS: Did Critical Theory have a closer connection to Marx and Lenin in the past than they do now?
DC: Already in the SDS we were fully aware of the close connection between Critical Theory and Marxism. But in Adorno’s writings, one could also see that Adorno viewed Lenin, or the October Revolution, as a historical moment that would not return. This is in fact the very starting point of Negative Dialectics, but only those who recognized Critical Theory’s reference to Marx and the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness could understand this. We would know very little about the relation between Adorno and thinking about a Leninist cadre party if this engagement within Critical Theory had never happened.
JS: These sorts of considerations are explicitly taken up in the notorious “discussion on theory and practice” (Towards a New Manifesto). In this conversation from 1956, Horkheimer and Adorno ponder creating “a strictly Leninist manifesto.” They assume the necessity of a Socialist Party but also regard such an appeal as futile in the context of their own historical situation. They thought that such a party could not, in the given historical moment, become more than another SPD or British Labour Party. Does this mean that Adorno followed Lukács in being a Leninist?
DC: Adorno realized quite early that the existing communist parties could not live up to the demands of a revolutionary organization. This was also the attraction of Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness: It justified a revolutionary organization in the absence of the existence of an empirical revolutionary organization, what in Lukács became an idealist construction. The Lukacsian critique pointed Adorno to the existence of a dilemma: the necessity of revolutionary theory, on the one hand, and the impossibility, at least at that time, of a revolutionary cadre organization, on the other. You cannot create a revolutionary cadre organization out of nothing. To imagine that you could would be the worst sort of idealism. Critical Theory emerged out of this very contradiction. One cannot simply turn back developments and begin with the allegedly good old times. This is what constitutes the legacy of Critical Theory: It emerged as an attempt to reflect on the failed, not on the successful, revolution. The literature on Critical Theory has often completely failed to perceive this. At some point, the story goes, revolutionary optimism just faded, then you had Critical Theory. But this is not right. Critical Theory started from the experience that the Russian October Revolution had remained completely isolated and that there had been reasons for this. One of those reasons was that all Western countries lacked a comparable or adequate revolutionary organization.
JS: Would the existence of a Bolshevik-type party in western countries have been necessary and desirable?
DC: A social-revolutionary transformation was apparently impossible without such a party.
JS: In Towards a New Manifesto, Adorno refers to the period after World War Two as a historical respite. Many conclude from this that Adorno regarded political practice as impossible and retreated into the ivory tower to devote himself to pure theory. But if this were true, isn’t it curious that Adorno still spoke of the necessity of a socialist party in 1956? Given this, how should we understand Adorno’s characterization of his own project as a “message in a bottle”?
DC: In Negative Dialectics, Adorno formulated something that he became aware of in his engagement with Horkheimer. This is why I included the famous letter from 1958 about Habermas in the appendix of my biography of Adorno. In it Horkheimer reiterates that one cannot simply take up Marx’s early writings as though there would be another pre-1848 situation, i.e., a situation in which the revolution again was imminent. In my opinion, the conclusion of Towards a New Manifesto is that that specific situation is irrecoverable, and this is why the Communist Manifesto has not been reformulated. After all, the conversation was about whether one could do this and that it had not happened.
JS: For Adorno and Horkheimer, the absence of the party concerns theory itself. The obstruction of practice also damages the possibility of doing theory. How do you deal with this problem?
DC: Critical Theory attracts people like me because it held on to the revolutionary demand for a fundamental societal transformation. At the same time, it concludes that all previous attempts at establishing this fundamental transformation of society have been unsuitable. My own biography and the experiences of the past forty years have strengthened my belief that these fundamental transformations would have been necessary. The society we live in harbors a monstrous potential for destruction, one that it constantly reproduces. Humanity does not simply progress, and the collapse of actually existing socialism in 1989 neither led to the end of history nor to a liberal actuality, but to the reproduction of very archaic and dangerous phenomena like anti-Semitism and racism, not to mention the enormous expansion of the surveillance state. One has to start with this indeed correct aspect of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. But one also has to find new intellectual and theoretical ways of discovering the possibilities for change. In this sense, we critical intellectuals need to find our audience.
JS: Adorno had an audience among the student movement. What problems and potentials did he identify and point out?
DC: This becomes apparent in his engagement with Marcuse. Marcuse was much closer to the protest movement. Moreover, unlike Adorno, he did not overwhelm it under the aspect of revolutionary practice. Adorno held the concept of revolutionary practice in high esteem and he measured the protest movement against it. Marcuse did not do this and, consequently, related differently to the movement. One problem of the protest movement consisted in its tendency to overburden its practice, which was indeed legitimate, with a misguided revolutionary self-understanding.
JS: What were the reasons for Adorno and Marcuse’s different attitudes towards the student movement?
DC: The US civil rights movement was particularly decisive. Marcuse was in direct contact with activists who went to the South in the early 1960s. He saw that the protest movement had developed out of the Civil Rights Movement, in which, at the beginning, there was no claim to revolutionary practice. The Civil Rights Movement sought to challenge the racist structure of the United States. This is why Marcuse related much more organically to the protest movement, while circumstances in Europe were, after all, very different. For Marcuse, the practice of the protest movement had a sort of catalyzing function. I am thinking here of his famous theory of non-integrated forces, which he develops towards the end of One-Dimensional Man. He suspends or excludes these forces from the high demand of revolutionary practice. This made it significantly easier for him to get a realistic sense of the protest movement. Its goals – ending the war in Vietnam and, later on, feminism – ultimately had a catalyzing effect on society.
JS: What does “catalyzing function” mean?
DC: These movements mobilized society without being a revolutionary subject. They sensitized society to certain questions that society had previously not been open towards. In this sense, the Civil Rights Movement constitutes a certain background experience which indeed can – and, according to Marcuse, should – prompt people to continue and not bet everything on a power-political transformation of society. Marcuse wanted to take up, clarify, and advance the emancipatory tendencies within society. This was what was right about Marcuse’s view of the social protest movements of the 1960s and 70s.
One must not forget something that has become a bit sidelined by your discussion of Leninism: The decisiveness of the experience of the mass extermination of the European Jewry for Critical Theory and particularly for Adorno’s thought. Thus, one also has to contend with the dilemma that there is no revolutionary answer to this, especially not within Marx’s or Lenin’s theory. For they still move in the universe of a reasonable world. In extreme terms one could say that the perpetuation of the capitalist order constitutes an irrational act that has its reasons in the preservation of power. This whole rational world was, at the very latest, put into question by the experience of the mass extermination of European Jewry. The failure of the revolution in Western countries had constituted Critical Theory’s initial vantage point. This is why Critical Theory concerned itself with the relation between capitalist society, proletariat, and societal development. The beginnings of the mass extermination of European Jewry led to a change in thinking somewhere between 1939 and 1941. Before then, a rationalist construction had prevailed: It would be possible to re-align reason and society through a revolutionary change. It was the abandonment of this rationalism that later led to Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics.
JS: Adorno and Horkheimer always speak of a dialectic in relation to Enlightenment and Reason. How do you understand this?
DC: In Adorno and Horkheimer, this signifies a turning-away-from or renunciation of the rationalistic construction of theory and reality that, inherited from the Enlightenment, still governed the thinking of Hegel, Marx, Engels, and Lenin. You cannot find a thought about the Dialectic of Enlightenment in Lenin. The idea that the progress of the productive forces could actually reduce the revolutionary potential is what is new in Dialectic of Enlightenment.
JS: On the one hand, you suggest that Critical Theory cannot conceive of a revolutionary answer to the problems of modernity after the Shoah. On the other hand, you say that at least Adorno held on to the revolutionary demand and, in fact, overburdened the protest movement with it. How does this fit together?
DC: Well, I said this applies under contemporary conditions. The emancipatory force of revolutions has come to an end during the short twentieth century. This is applies to the experiences of the social revolutions in Russia and China in an exemplary manner. In both of these countries, revolution has led to a drastic strengthening of the repressive apparatus. In both societies, the cadre organizations constituted the driving force of this development. The extent of repression is only comparable to that of fascism, perhaps it even exceeds the latter. I am not saying that these revolutions were illegitimate from the very beginning, but they had devastating consequences. Even the anti-colonial liberation movements ended in a tremendous disaster. This does not mean that they were illegitimate from the outset either. But it is hard to imagine that any revolution could overcome the sort of domination these movements ultimately led to. For instance, the Algerian revolution engendered a type of repressive domination whose practices hardly differed from those of the counter-revolutionary Islamistic terrorists. Nearly 200 000 people died during the black years (1990 until the early 2000s). At the most, revolution here leads to a dissociation of the centers of power. This challenges the idea of a revolution as simple transfer of social power from one hand to another. Similarly, all that was left after the collapse of the Soviet Union was its old power apparatus. In today’s Russia, only those vilified as foreign agents still harbor emancipatory ideas. There, what one can do is support those who are being persecuted - what, for instance, Amnesty International does. This might sound very unspectacular. But it is absolutely necessary to support the victims of state repression as long as we are still able to do this without endangering ourselves.
JS: What sort of role does this leave for critical intellectuals?
DC: We can support democratization processes all over the world, in Turkey for instance. A revolution would be incapable of solving the core problems of Turkish society, especially those related to the Kurdish Question. This is another example of the political dead ends towards which Marxist-Leninist organizations lead oppositional forces. It is of crucial importance that people recognize each other as democratic, social-transformative forces. This is the only way in which rational change could happen in Turkey.
JS: In 2015, Axel Honneth (the current director of the Institute for Social Research) published The Idea of Socialism. His thesis is that socialism initially sought to realize the ideals of the French Revolution. Honneth situates his interpretation in the tradition of Critical Theory. Do you agree?
DC: Honneth seeks to revive socialism at the level of ideas. But socialism’s social-transformative claim isn’t as much an idea as a practical movement. Critical Theory is characterized by its contradictory relation towards this movement. For Honneth, change in theory constitutes a reflex on movements in thought, rather than on societal realities. He advocates a theorem of [intersubjective] understanding.
By contrast, I would insist that there is a non-academic impulse in Critical Theory. Critical Theory was started by the simultaneity of the October Revolution’s success and the German Revolution’s failure. Social change is what gets theoretical thinking going. The same is true for fascism in Germany, which changed Adorno and Horkheimer’s thinking. Changing thought processes are always triggered by societal experiences. For Honneth, it is the opposite: If only one could think correctly, one could have known all these things already a hundred years ago! Mistakes are here located in thinking itself. But transformed thinking is only made possible on the basis of transformed social relations.
JS: Hegel assumed that social changes could only be recognized retrospectively. Marx, by contrast, argued that theory itself needed to become a force of social transformation. How does this impulse register in Critical Theory?
DC: One essential aspect of Critical Theory is the critique of science, i.e. a critical relation towards science as traditional theory. In Honneth, following Habermas, this relation changes. They wanted to anchor Critical Theory in the world of academia. By establishing Critical Theory, they destroyed its raison d‘être. This is because Critical Theory had always acquired its essential impulses from what was outside of the academic establishment. However, the decision to continue the Institute for Social Research in this way, and to turn Critical Theory into traditional theory had a political character. This way, anyone who wants to inherit it can do so.
But I would like to qualify my criticism of Honneth and Habermas: In Hanover, we also tried to integrate Critical Theory into the university and to simultaneously preserve non-academic influences and activities. This proved impossible in the long run. In this sense, we are not simply dealing with a problem of bad intentions on Honneth’s or Habermas’s part, but with a contradiction as such, a contradiction that Horkheimer and Adorno were able to endure. This is where Critical Theory’s appeal lies.
JS: What’s your perspective on the future of Critical Theory?
DC: I’m afraid there is no future for the Institute for Social Research as an Institute for Critical Theory. There are no longer successors who could found an institute that assumes a critical position towards the development of sociology. An institute for social research would need to provide a critique of traditional sociology, a renewal of a social theory grounded in the critique of the economy. This is the actual legacy of the kind of Critical Theory Adorno and Horkheimer pursued. They presupposed the critique of political economy that Marx taught. Critical Theory’s initial impulses have vanished. This makes it difficult to demand its revival, because there are no corresponding agents. Today, Critical Theory can no longer refer to a potentially revolutionary subject (like a socialist workers' movement), but only to groups within society. | P
 This exhibition sought to educate the German public about crimes perpetrated by the judicial system during National Socialism. It included information about the record of the Nazi criminal justice system and documented the careers of Nazi lawyers and justices after the fall of the regime. Amongst other things, the SDS helped publicize the exhibition and advocated the criminal prosecution of former Nazi jurists.
 "Today once again the antithesis between theory and praxis is being misused to denounce theory. When a student's room was smashed because he preferred to work rather than join in actions, on the wall was scrawled: 'Whoever occupies himself with theory, without acting practically, is a traitor to socialism.' It is not only against him that praxis serves as an ideological pretext for exercising moral constraint. The thinking denigrated by actionists apparently demands of them too much undue effort: it requires too much work, is too practical." Adorno, Marginalia to Theory and Praxis, in: Critical Models, 263.
 The Socialist Bureau was a New Left organization that sought to organize social groups in accordance with their emancipatory interests. It was most active during the 1970s and 1980s.