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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Freedom beyond democracy: Lenin’s legacy and Adorno’s anguish

Freedom beyond democracy: Lenin’s legacy and Adorno’s anguish

M. Sanchez

Platypus Review 166 | May 2024

LENIN’S LEGACY TODAY is an accursed share. Lenin is a specter haunting us after a century which has failed to fundamentally transcend the terms he set for revolutionary politics. The philosopher Theodor Adorno described this historical situation as one wherein “Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed.”[1] The work of Adorno can be understood as reflecting on that missed moment for the realization of philosophy, which had been heralded by Karl Marx in 1844 as the proletarian revolution, and which the communist militant Karl Korsch had announced Lenin as symbolizing in 1923.[2] Modern critical theory emerged among Marxist intellectuals grappling with the failure of the international communist revolution to emerge out of the thunderclap of 1917. It was Bolshevism reflecting on its own disappointment.

The debate of what, if anything, constituted “Leninism” stretched worldwide in the 1920s. This was to distill the essence of Bolshevism, by then identified with Lenin’s leadership. Lenin himself commented on this, criticizing his fellow Bolsheviks for promoting the Lenin Cult.[3] Immediately following his death in 1924, his canonization became an object of heightened controversy.[4] What would Lenin’s significance be to a world which he was absent from? In the Soviet Union, his preserved corpse became a ventriloquist dummy for the state long before the Stalin faction consolidated administrative power. Others painted Lenin as a phoenix-like figure reviving revolutionary struggle from out of the suffocation of the Second International’s corruption, including the theorists Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. With time, Lenin the specter was pitted against the embalmed Lenin.

The spectral Lenin contains seeds for a critical reflection on the world which he left behind. His life ended burdened with disappointment, skepticism, and caution. These became the predominant affects of Adorno’s critical theory. To work through Lenin’s legacy, one cannot simply affirm him positively as an icon. This risks the reification of Lenin into his puppet-form. Truth, including his truth, is historical. The constellations of the world shift, so that projects can express something different in different historical situations in their principled intransigence itself.

Unity of opposites

With the failure of the international revolution, what Lenin described as the “decaying” bourgeois states consolidated themselves ferociously.[5] The counterrevolution against the Russian Revolution united autocratic monarchists and liberal democrats alike against class strugglers — announcing a new era of repression. The same Social Democrats and Freikorps who drowned the Spartacist Revolt in blood in 1919 would pave the way for the rise of Nazism. Fascism was never an imposition on bourgeois democracy from outside, nor the Holocaust an aberration from this world’s logic. They realized potentials already present within a democracy subordinated to the needs of monopoly capitalism.

Adorno spoke of the homology of liberalism, fascism, and “state socialism,” united by the character of the commodity.[6] He noted that “one might refer to the fascist movements as the wounds, the scars of a democracy that, to this day, has not yet lived up to its own concept.”[7] Through the force of imperialism, bourgeois democracy negates itself. Thus, Adorno stated, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”[8]

Imperialism is not a conspiracy, but a fundamental need of accumulation on a global scale. Imperialism both transcends individual states, constituting global capital, and operates through bloody national competition.[9] Marxism is not immune to it, as it critiques bourgeois society from within. Lenin prominently critiqued the subordination of Marxism to capital. He denounced its corruption by imperialism, characterizing chauvinism within the Social Democratic movement as their becoming mouthpieces for capital.[10] Social chauvinism, he argued, “is the utter betrayal of Socialism.”[11]

Adorno extended this critique of the unity of opposites, drawing from Oswald Spengler’s “most characteristic predictions [which] pertain to questions of mass domination such as propaganda, mass culture, and forms of political manipulation, in particular, certain tendencies inherent in democracy which threaten to turn it into dictatorship.”[12] He did not express a similarly conservative outlook to Spengler, but deepened Lenin’s critique of capitalist overripeness. Adorno engaged with Lenin’s core themes in a highly critical and skeptical register, but this was necessary in an age where Marxism had become further entrenched as an apologetic for the present.

As Chris Cutrone stressed in his “Adorno’s Leninism” (2010), Marxism is a philosophy of freedom, not a social-justice worldview.[13] We do not take up the proletariat as a martyr to be affirmed, which demands restitution for society’s debt to it. Extending from this, Marxism does not advocate constituent power (the power of “the people”). It looks towards freedom by critiquing the present unfree world in its own terms. Both Lenin and Adorno analyzed how revolutionary democratic movements must transcend bourgeois democracy even while wielding its own terms.

The subject of democracy is “the people” — typically citizens of a polity. Citizens in bourgeois society are commensurable — this enables an equality, or the interchangeability, of rights, as well as internal political competition (i.e., elections). Competition is its mode of expression as a unity (i.e., majority rule). “The people” as a subject implies legal recognition as “the people” of a polity, implying a state. “The people” aspires towards totality, yet it cannot encompass all humans. It excludes aspects of the included as well.

Lenin described this as “freedom for the slave-owners.”[14] In class society, there cannot be universal democracy. Any claims to universality tend to dehumanize those on the underside. Therefore, Herrenvolk (chosen-people) democracy, wherein the “citizenry” cannot encompass all political subjects, and “humanity” cannot encompass all human beings. The citizenry’s identity is constituted through the expulsion of the non-identical, even within the citizens themselves (for example, the demand for productivity against “anti-social” desires). In Minima Moralia (1951), Adorno critiqued exchange-principle democracy:

If the equality of all who have human shape were demanded as an ideal instead of being assumed as a fact, it would not greatly help. Abstract utopia is all too compatible with the most insidious tendencies of society. That all men are alike is exactly what society would like to hear. It considers actual or imagined differences as stigmas indicating that not enough has yet been done; that something has still been left outside its machinery, not quite determined by its totality. The technique of the concentration camp is to make the prisoners like guards, the murdered, murderers. The racial difference is raised to an absolute so that it can be abolished absolutely, if only in the sense that nothing that is different survives.[15]

Massified society, the society of abstract human labor, of the exchange principle, amounts to “no shepherd and one herd” (Nietzsche).[16] Adorno detected a tension between democratic principles of commensurability and difference, defending rights tending to the latter. One must refuse the multifaceted nature of humanity and of nature as a whole to affirm the identity principle of political unity. Sociality appears as a contract. Yet real humans are unequal in their relations. They can neither have genuinely equal rights amidst a hierarchy of polities, nor exercise rights equally.

Lenin identified a mass base for Herrenvolk rights in what he called the labor aristocracy:

Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are bribing them; they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert. . . . In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the “Versaillese” against the “Communards.”[17]

These are the protagonists of social chauvinism. They promote Herrenvolk liberty, fraternity, equality, to be built on the backs of the global exploited. The explanatory power of Lenin’s theory has been challenged, e.g., by historian Eric Hobsbawm.[18] However, what is essential to us today is not its posited chain of causes, but its analysis of the recuperation of proletarians. Adorno noted that this is “a proletariat which is itself a product of bourgeois society.”[19]

If the proletariat is to transcend capitalism, it cannot do so by building a “classless” (read: class collaborationist) Volksgemeinschaft — people’s community. The proletariat can only be a revolutionary subjectivity by refusing to be an estate of society. It must embrace itself as the negativity of bourgeois society, a problem it cannot solve. It must split “the people,” which Lenin noted in 1894: “None but a bourgeois could see only the solidarity of the interests of the whole ‘people’ against medieval, feudal institutions and forget the profound and irreconcilable antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat within this ‘people.’”[20]

A working constituency is bourgeois self-concealment by democratic means. Classes are interests that must be coordinated and reconciled (by the state) for “the people” to be coherent. Adorno analyzed the emergence of a “classless class society” in the 20th century:

The omnipotence of repression and its invisibility are the same thing. The classless society of car drivers, cinema goers, and comrades makes a mockery not only of those who do not belong but even of those who do, the objects of domination who dare not admit as much to others or even to themselves because simply knowing one is such an object is punished by gnawing fear for one’s job and one’s life. So great has the tension become between the poles that never meet that it has ceased to exist. The immeasurable pressure of domination has so fragmented the masses that it has even dissipated the negative unity of being oppressed that forged them into a class in the nineteenth century. In exchange, they find they have been directly absorbed into the unity of the system that is oppressing them. Class rule is set to survive the anonymous, objective form of the class. . . . Later, with the strengthening of the monopolistic centers, the position of the working classes was improved further by the prospect of benefits beyond their own firmly defined economic systems—rather than directly through colonial profits. The final consolidation of power is included in all elements of the calculation.[21]

Adorno borrows from Lenin without assuming the immediate causal link of superprofits and recuperation. He speaks in the vein of Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s “imperial mode of living,” wherein metropolitan bourgeoisie and proletariat appear to be differentiated quantitatively, by income and possessions, otherwise living in the same unsustainable bourgeois fashion.[22]

Even in apparent harmony, “civilized society is as inhuman as ever against those which it shamelessly brands as uncivilized.”[23] By granting a broader mediation, the immanent permeation of society by capital reveals its profundity. Adorno commented that “[Marx] would have dismissed as a milieu theory the idea that people are products of society down to the innermost fibre of their being. Lenin was the first to articulate such a theory.”[24]

Democracy and dictatorship

The force of imperialist recuperation motivated Lenin’s defense of the self-determination of nations. His critique of Herrenvolk democratism reveals an understanding of communist revolution as both democratic and transcending democracy. Lenin’s right of self-determination was to be “a consistently proletarian policy, which really educated the masses in a spirit of democracy and socialism.”[25] But democracy cannot be an absolute. It is the culminating field for the class struggle which can transcend bourgeois society, the penultimate struggle of (pre-)history.

Self-determination cannot be realized as an end in itself — this would lead into its transformation into its opposite, nationalist-imperialist competition and colonization. It must be realized via revolutionary cosmopolitanism. Just as global, general capital can only articulate itself through blood-soaked competition, communist internationalism can only be articulated through attention to the differentiation of proletarians along imperial lines. Internationalism demands self-determination, but self-determination remains for communists an expression of internationalism. Otherwise we risk making negative identity, the scars of oppression, into a positive identity — something Adorno paid close attention to in the cases of the proletariat, European Jews, and black Americans.[26] Frantz Fanon described this as part of the “pitfalls of national consciousness,” calling for a revolutionary universalism which would express itself through the needs of decolonization.[27] Significantly, Fanon formulated this in direct dialogue with Lenin’s work on self-determination and revolution.[28]

This risk of negative identity does not demand a flat approach to revolutionary cosmopolitanism — the kind that many Marxists, like Cutrone, currently advocate in the slogan “neither Israel nor Palestine.”[29] Instead, “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.”[30] Internationalism need not try to force its way beyond Palestinian liberation to be internationalist. On the contrary. We cannot revive internationalism without supporting Palestinians as Palestinians, who are branded with negative identity by the genocidal settler-state.

The precedence of dispossession to revolution is not one-dimensional, but dynamic as the negative other of the dispossessing administered world’s own movements. The self-conscious negativity of the proletariat as the negativity (propertyless) of bourgeois society (property society) is what holds promise for the totally other world. The proletariat is the culmination of historical dispossession, the embodiment ofdispossessed labor — both the universally wronged, the very heart of the vampiric system, and the promise of an-other world to be constructed. In Lenin’s vision of world revolution, the proletariat embodies dispossession as the figure which threatens to turn bourgeois society against itself through democratic power. This figure is the ally of all oppressed peoples, as the herald of a world which no longer knows oppression.

In order for us to be consistent democrats, it is necessary to aim for the transcendence of democracy in communism. The realization of revolutionary democracy is necessary for the rule of the propertyless majority over the propertied minority. Yet democracy is to become the basis for a free association higher than it. The philosophy of freedom aims to “win the battle of democracy,” but in the name of freedom.[31] Distinguishing between the two is incredibly important. To try to realize democracy within its present horizons means to be caught in the spell of the exchange principle. Only something beyond democracy, which does not recognize democratic norms as ends in themselves, can break with undemocratic constraints and build a new society. Otherwise, we become mired in majoritarian opportunism and economistic spontaneism which, as Lenin taught, are simply two sides of the same coin.[32]

Communism is not a majoritarian principle, but a social revolutionary one. Majoritarianism merely affirms the major tendencies of a society which reduces people to personifications of its functions. The proletariat is significant because in its mass it is the embryo of a new society, not simply in being a numerical majority. Mass democratic struggles therefore contain the promise of something beyond democracy. In the case of self-determination, Lenin posited that “Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.”[33]

Like Marx and Engels, Lenin considered the political struggle to be the proper field for confronting the social totality owing to the role of the state in mediating the irreconcilable interests of classes and preserving the cohesion of the existing society. In a revolutionary struggle, Lenin held to no illusions of higher ethics belonging on the field of battle. He bluntly laid out the primacy of sovereignty, as a revolution is after all a forcible destruction of the old society. This destruction extends to all of the relationships and bonds which make up its nervous system. Yet, revolutionary sovereignty contains something which transcends sovereignty, thus making it revolutionary.

Beyond constituency and “destituency,” revolution must wield sovereignty as a weapon via the revolutionary-democratic semi-state. Lenin called for the genuine abolition of the state by the new society, where sovereignty can no longer appear as an end in itself. Rather than a mere political revolution, this is the emergent embryo of freedom struggling to reduce the state into a lever for transition. For “so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means.”[34] It reduces the state machinery into a weapon, which begins to suffocate capitalism for the sake of new forms of cooperative production. It seeks to abolish sovereignty in its own exercise of sovereignty. This reduction, turning a machine into a tool, is also the process of abolition.

This state no longer represents society to itself. It is not a proper state. The bourgeois distinction of state and civil society is smashed, in favor of a sovereignty which does not pretend to transcend everyday social relations of production — thus the significance of soviet power for Lenin.[35] By bringing the masses of working people (as workers, rather than as classless citizens) into the tasks of self-governance, this democratic dictatorship aims towards a stateless communist society. But this revolution still struggles within democracy in the bourgeois sense, or democracy premised on the commensurable body of “the people.” It cannot be otherwise with mass politics. Under communism standing on its own basis, “the so-called people’s will vanishes, to make way for the real will of the cooperative.”[36] Lenin described this relationship in The State and Revolution (1917), wherein after the abolition of classes there would

become possible and be realized a truly complete democracy, democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copybook maxims; they will become accustomed to observing them without force, without compulsion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state.[37]

There can be no “purely” proletarian state.[38] The proletariat is a capitalist class, necessarily proletarian in relation to the bourgeoisie. To emancipate itself, to abolish itself, or to no longer be the propertyless class of capitalist society, the proletariat cannot perfect the state machinery (bourgeois society’s task) but abolish it. The primacy of sovereignty in struggle remains a challenge to universalism: “Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people—this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to Communism.”[39]

But there are impediments to self-transcendence in the struggle itself. The state does not amount to basic politics, the friend-enemy distinction (Carl Schmitt), but also represents society to itself.[40] It represents itself as what is transcendental in society. Even above sovereignty, this lends the state its stubbornness amidst revolutionary transformation. It is not sovereignty that ensures its own existence (a tautological myth), but society’s need for the state in order to be a society.

The abolition of the state means the liberation of sociality, rendering the state superfluous as a representation of society in general. This is beyond both democracy and dictatorship in transcending the need for “the people” as a mediating category for political life, and simultaneously the need for the non-“people,” those excluded from a state-defined political order (in a proletarian revolution, the disenfranchised exploiting classes and counterrevolutionaries). Yet this trace of modern mass politics also threatens to become the basis for the self-negation of revolution. This happened in the Russian Revolution, wherein the representation of society by the state became entrenched into a massive administrative-bureaucratic apparatus in the midst of siege. After the Great Purge (1937) the majority of this apparatus was staffed by professionalized workers and peasants, but political power remained centered around the state as a sovereign body rather than the revolutionary forms of power Lenin identified with the soviets.

Adorno noted that “[society’s] control over the relationship of basic social forces, which has long since been extended to all the countries of the globe . . . necessarily reinforces the totalitarian tendencies of the social order, and is a political equivalent for and adaptation to the total penetration by the market economy.”[41] Thus the threefold conflation of sovereignty, democracy, and revolution by Joseph Stalin — his common trait with liberalism and fascism.

Though Lenin had headed the same state, he resisted integration as a figurehead. He expressed the need for the Communist Party to remain independent from the bureaucracy, an independence which completely died soon after him.[42] Lenin considered the state apparatus to be a machine, not a simple tool, and thus a thing which carries on its momentum and drags the human beings who have constructed it into the fold.[43] Where society is still riven within itself, there will be a state.

Lenin’s consciousness of this is clear in the 1920–21 Soviet trade-union debates. These sought to clarify the relationship of the new state with independent unions, and thus the general character of the Soviet state. Lenin warned that “We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state.”[44] This caution is evident in his final articles as well, of which historian Moshe Lewin said “the intention, either implicit or explicit, of all his projects was to counteract the tendencies that were appearing in the regime and would triumph after his death.”[45] Lenin was a prisoner of the state he himself administered — exasperated, he admitted that “[Communists] are not directing, they are being directed.”[46] The state is a “cold monster” (Nietzsche) which takes on a life of its own through our needs themselves.[47] This potential is the transformation of the revolution into its opposite — counterrevolution.

The principle which Lenin sought to preserve amidst the terrible, bloody problem of revolutionary struggle was the oppressed learning to be free, and thus no longer oppressed. Means and ends are directly linked in struggle, though means cannot already embody ends. Lenin opposed conflating military defense as such with revolutionary defense, though he oversaw the organization of the former. He understood that defense of the revolution had to be by revolutionary means. The desperate situation which compelled the Soviets to harden the state machinery also sowed seeds of counterrevolution.

Lenin thus sought new paths for revolution to remain supreme above questions of sovereignty. But as he recognized, this prospect was highly improbable amidst the failure of the revolution to spread abroad. If they were to build an isolated nation-state, new forms of association would be suffocated under demands of defense and the constitution of a sovereign nation among sovereign nations. The 1936 Soviet Constitution came to identify socialism as “the form of state property (the possession of the whole people).”[48] This optimism reveals symptoms of counterrevolution, whereas Lenin’s cautious pessimism preceded Adorno’s principle that “The decay of the workers’ movement is corroborated by the official optimism of its adherents.”[49]

Only in communism can there be an openly associative life wherein “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[50] The question therefore remains: how to step from class struggle to classless society. This is far less clear when class society veils itself as classless, even amidst the most dramatic class distinctions in history. These distinctions appear to the majority as merely quantitative, differences in the amount which each owns, instead of as the radical distinction of the propertyless and propertied. Though bourgeois ideologues heralded the end of the 20th century as the victory of democracy, it appears more clearly than ever as a function of domination and exploitation. Democracy’s failure cannot be overcome in its own terms when the majority has been rendered a passive citizenry.

Untimely meditations

Communist revolution is a revolt against the hitherto existing relationship of freedom and history. We have been at the mercy of both the circumstances we have inherited and the circumstances we have made. Unfreedom overcame the glimmer of freedom expressed by the Russian Revolution. Bolshevik “voluntarism,” denounced by Western Social Democrats, was “a theory become practical, a theory of practice.”[51] But the demands of practice overtook the demands of revolutionary transformation in a dire situation. Lenin himself contained both this unfreedom and freedom, though he remained certain that “There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation.”[52]

Thought and being cannot be separated. Their appearance as separate is historically symptomatic. Across his career, Lenin struggled to work through this apparent separation and clarify a materialism which did not deny the realization of freedom in history (communism). He committed himself to both radical bourgeois materialism (e.g., Denis Diderot) and to the power of human beings to self-consciously make history, to no longer be victims of given circumstances.

At times he emphasized the former at the expense of the latter, as in his infamous Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), wherein he asserted the “the laws of thought reflect the forms of actual existence of objects, fully resemble, and do not differ from, these forms.”[53] In 1922, Lenin went as far as to state that “to shun an alliance with the representatives of the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, i.e., the period when it was revolutionary, would be to betray Marxism and materialism.”[54] Yet this affinity with the old materialism missed his own insights about the potential of revolutionary truth even amidst the vast immanence of an untrue society. Bourgeois materialism already implied the subordination of human beings to their circumstances, which Stalin would assert as a law of nature, a symptom of counterrevolution.

Being, “nature,” is always already riven with contradictions within itself. Even in asserting the primacy of objects, one need not assert a simple dichotomy of being and thought as Lenin often did. The question of being is already “that of the meaning of being, the meaningfulness of the existing (Seiendes) or of the meaning of being as, simply, possibility.”[55] “Nature” already implies history; history implies the subject; and the subject implies the potential to realize freedom even against unfreedom. For “What in thought goes beyond that to which it is bound in its resistance is its freedom.”[56]

The resistance of freedom against circumstances is necessarily mediated by the exterior world. There can be no subject-object identity as in classical idealism, but one need not assert the primacy of objects against subjectivity. Thought is not an artifice, but an expression of our relationship with the world as thinking beings. Thought always expresses something about this world, more or less explicitly, more or less consciously. Even the abstract in thought begins with some “raw material” in the world: “To think is, already in itself and above all particular content, negation, resistance against what is imposed on it; this is what thinking inherited from the relationship of labor to its raw material, its Ur-image.”[57]

By transcending the utilitarian demands which are the means for manual labor’s thorough integration into the present world and its needs, thought holds a negative image of the new world. Rather than being idle fancy, thought,

does violence upon that which it exerts its syntheses, it follows at the same time a potential which waits in what it faces, and unconsciously obeys the idea of restituting to the pieces what it itself has done; in philosophy this unconsciousness becomes conscious. The hope of reconciliation is conjoined to irreconcilable thinking, because the resistance of thinking against the merely existent, the domineering freedom of the subject, also intends in the object what, through its preparation to the object, was lost to this latter.[58]

This is not a quality apart from labor, but a character which is clearer in thought as a distinct form of labor. Thought’s potential freedom is clearer today than in manual labor, though it lives in both. Labor is “the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time,”[59] and “Time is the room of human development.”[60] But not all time is free time. As of yet, we remain in a non-revolutionary historical situation. This demands a distinct approach to theory from that of Lenin in the midst of revolution. Adorno suggests “that theory should win back its independence is the interest of praxis itself.”[61] This is necessary for any inquiry into the makings of a revolutionary situation.

Lenin declared that “Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”[62] There is a moment in thought which reveals non-identity in one’s objective conditions, and which is a glimmer of freedom. This current is the means to redeem what began in Lenin as a mantra inherited from Kautsky, that revolutionary consciousness must be brought to workers from outside (in a merger of the socialist intelligentsia with the workers’ movement).[63] Lenin’s critique of the trade-union consciousness of workers need not depend on a simple outside caste but on the transcendent in thought — something which Adorno reflected on as only present among intellectuals because the workers have been integrated as “mechanized mechanics.”[64] Freedom in theory is not merely freedom of contemplation. Theoretical thought presents the seeds of free subjectivity in a world where we experience objectivity as bondage.

As Adorno said in “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), the separation of intellectual and manual labor represents a progressive development: “The fact that some live without material labor and, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, take pleasure in their spirit—that unjust privilege—also indicates that this possibility exists for everyone.”[65]

Mere pragmatism, or opportunism, means subordination to a situation. Theory perceives contradiction, promises of otherness in a situation, being reflexive like all forms of labor (especially cooperative labor; cooperative with other humans and others). But in its transcendence, the elements of the non-instrumental or non-utilitarian in it (as in imagination, dreams, etc.), it can reveal the potential within labor as a whole for its self-abolition as a mere means — instrumental reason — becoming “the foremost need in life.”[66] Leninism today cannot be simple political pragmatism, especially not where the proletariat as a conscious class has been subsumed into “democratic” citizen-consumers through the techniques of economism. Leninism must pick up the old project of “a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.”[67]

The glimmer of freedom

In a world where society permeates immanently, where we cannot contentedly distinguish between “true” nature and the artifice of “second nature,” it must be understood that “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”[68]

Adorno critiqued his associate Erich Fromm for missing this immanence and appealing instead to a “true humanity” beneath the social artifice, inveighing, “He is both sentimental and false, a combination of social democracy and anarchism; above all, there is a painful absence of dialectical thinking. He takes far too simple a view of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s vanguard nor his dictatorship is conceivable.”[69] However, the struggle to live otherwise remains significant for its traces of otherness, which threatens the self-sameness of the present state of things. These efforts to realize ethics against and beyond the present are necessarily doomed to disappointment, but “the quest for the good life is the quest for the right form of politics, if indeed such a right form of politics lay within the realm of what can be achieved today.”[70] This is not the logic of prefiguration, which Cutrone has shown is absent in Lenin and Adorno, but the glimmer of freedom amidst unfreedom.[71]

Experimentation in realizing another world is thus important even where it collapses in on itself, as the Soviet experiment did. Even amidst the disappointments of his later life, Lenin refused to consign the Russian Revolution to historical irrelevance. Revolutionary struggles, even doomed revolutionary struggles like those of 1905, offer “a really democratic and really revolutionary education.”[72] Today’s classless class society cannot hold. It cannot escape its own incoherence. Adorno’s turn to aesthetics was not idle, but was with the intent of demonstrating that this society continues to express its very own incoherence and thus the potential for something otherwise:

The relation to the new is modeled on a child at the piano searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from. What takes itself to be utopia remains the negation of what exists and is obedient to it.[73]

Thus, the importance in continuing to critique bourgeois society in its totality, in the spirit of Lenin, and to continue struggling to birth cooperative forms of association as means of revolutionary struggle against the old society rather than as pure prefigurations of the new.

Communism is not a principle to be opposed dichotomously to capitalism. Freedom can only be realized by opposing the unfree society to itself. Capital cultivates the greatest wealth (use-values) in history, yet wastes these incredible potentials on the demands for its own accumulation. This wealth of bourgeois society, its truth, cannot be realized by merely opposing the “pure principles” of bourgeois democracy (liberty, fraternity, equality) to its actuality. What is true can only be realized in consistent critique of the untrue. To become universal — without being complacent — is to work through mutilation, disappointment, and dispossession. This demands partisanship, though partisanship can only be relevant if one has a sense of what one fights for.

Communists must constitute themselves as a coherent political presence within and against bourgeois democracy, and encourage the split of “the people” into a field of class warfare. This struggle will appear as a struggle for democratic power and a defense of democratic rights, but its horizons stretch further into a communist society where “accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.”[74] This is a new civilization, totally other from our own. We cannot illustrate it in its total otherness, necessarily embedded in the language of the present as we are. We can reveal the non-identity of our world with itself. This non-identity is the negative image of utopia.

Lenin, like Adorno, considered this ban on images as a refusal “to conjure up a utopia, to make idle guesses about what cannot be known.”[75] Adorno described freedom as “the critique and transformation of situations, not their confirmation by a decision reached within their compulsory apparatus.”[76] Adorno was certainly a philosopher of disappointment after Lenin and anguish after Auschwitz. But disappointment is not indifference — it can be the first step towards a revival. The non-identity of this world with itself reveals a glimmer of the “absolute working­ out of [humanity’s] creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick.”[77] |P

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Introduction,” in Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis Redmond (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001), 13.

[2] See Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Marx: Early Political Writings, ed. and trans. Joseph O’Malley with Richard A. Davis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 70: “Philosophy cannot be actualised without the abolition of the proletariat; the proletariat cannot be abolished without the actualisation of philosophy.” See Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 68: “Events themselves placed the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the agenda as a practical problem. When Lenin placed the same question theoretically on the agenda at a decisive moment, this was an early indication that the internal connection of theory and practice within revolutionary Marxism had been consciously re-established.”

[3] Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (London: Routledge, 2005), 259–61.

[4] Ibid., 283–84.

[5] See V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2020), 128–29.

[6] See Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 128–30; and Theodor W. Adorno, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” (1968), available online at <>.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020), 14.

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 90.

[9] Lenin, Imperialism, 123–25.

[10] V. I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 23, trans. M. S. Levin, et al. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 105–20, available online at <>.

[11] Lenin, Imperialism, 1.

[12] Theodor W. Adorno, “Spengler after the Decline,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), 55.

[13] Chris Cutrone, “Adorno’s Leninism: Adorno’s political relevance” (2010), presented at Loyola University, Chicago (April 21, 2010), Woodlawn Collaborative, Chicago (May 8, 2010), and the Platypus Affiliated Society’s Second Annual International Convention, Chicago (May 29, 2010), available online at <>.

[14] V. I. Lenin, “The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State,” in The State and Revolution (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2020), 86.

[15] Theodor W. Adorno, “Mélange,” in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 102–03.

[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, eds. Adrian del Caro and Robert B. Pippin, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 10.

[17] Lenin, “Preface to the French and German Editions,” in Imperialism, 8.

[18] Eric Hobsbawm, “Lenin and the ‘Aristocracy of Labor,’” Monthly Review 64, no. 7 (December 2012), available online at <>.

[19] Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin (March 18, 1936), in Theodor Adorno, “Letters to Walter Benjamin,” in Aesthetics and Politics, eds. Ronald Taylor, et al. (London: Verso, 1980), 123.

[20] V. I. Lenin, “Let us now pass to the political programme of ...,” in What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (A Reply to Articles in Russkoye Bogatstvo Opposing the Marxists) (1894), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960), 129–332, available online at <>.

[21] Theodor W. Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory,” in Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 97, 105.

[22] Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Barbara Jungwirth, trans. Zachary Murphy King (London: Verso, 2021), 39–44.

[23] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 310.

[24] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 2011), 112.

[25] V. I. Lenin, “The Utopian Karl Marx and the Practical Rosa Luxemburg,” in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 20 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 393–454, available online at <>.

[26] Eric Oberle, Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), 3–5.

[27] See Frantz Fanon, “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness,” in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 145–69.

[28] Jean Khalfa, “Frantz Fanon’s Library,” in Franz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, eds. Jean Khalfa and Robert Young, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 761–62.

[29] Chris Cutrone, “Israel-Palestine and the ‘Left,’” Platypus Review 163 (February 2024), available online at <>.

[30] Adorno, “Dwarf fruit,” in Minima Moralia, 50.

[31] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Proletarians and Communists,” in The Communist Manifesto (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 243.

[32] V. I. Lenin, “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social Democrats,” in What Is to Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2021), 49–50.

[33] V. I. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (Theses)” (1916), available online at <>.

[34] Karl Marx, “Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy” (1875), available online at <>.

[35] See V. I. Lenin, “Theses On The Constituent Assembly” (1917), available online at <>.

[36] Marx, “Conspectus.”

[37] Lenin, “The Economic Basis,” 88–89.

[38] See Karl Korsch, “Revolutionary Commune” (1929), available online at <>.

[39] Lenin, “The Economic Basis,” 88.

[40] Carl Schmitt, “The Concept of the Political,” in The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwabb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 29–30.

[41] T. W. Adorno, “Society” (1965), trans. F. R. Jameson, Salmagundi 10/11 (Fall 1969–Winter 1970): 151, available online at <>.

[42] See V. I. Lenin, “How We Should Reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, (1923), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 481–86, available online at <>.

[43] Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 66–67.

[44] V. I. Lenin, “The Trade Unions, The Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes” (1920), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 19–42, available online at <>.

[45] Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, 126.

[46] V. I. Lenin, “Eleventh Congress Of The R.C.P.(B.)” (1922), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 33, 237–242, available online at <>.

[47] Nietzsche, “On the New Idol,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 34.

[48] “Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (1936), in J. V. Stalin, Works, vol. 14 (London: Red Star Press, 1978), available online at <>.

[49] Adorno, “Deviation,” in Minima Moralia, 113.

[50] Marx and Engels, “Proletarians and Communists,” 244.

[51] Georg Lukács, “Revolutionary Realpolitik,” in Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (London: Verso, 2009), 72.

[52] V. I. Lenin, “The Second Congress Of The Communist International” (1920), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 213–63, available online at <>.

[53] V. I. Lenin, “Supplement to Chapter Four, Section I,” in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2022), 391. Here, Lenin is also speaking of N. G. Chernyshevsky.

[54] V. I. Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 33, 227–36. Marxists Internet Archive, available online at <>.

[55] Theodor W. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History,” trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor, Telos 60 (1984): 112, available online at <>.

[56] Adorno, “Speculative Moment,” in Negative Dialectics, 29.

[57] Adorno, “Portrayal,” in Negative Dialectics, 30.

[58] Ibid., 31.

[59] Karl Marx, “The Chapter on Capital,” in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 361.

[60] Karl Marx, “Main Cases of Attempts at Raising Wages or Resisting Their Fall,” in Value, Price and Profit, in Wage-Labour and Capital & Value, Price and Profit (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 54.

[61] Adorno, “Relationship to Left Hegelianism,” in Negative Dialectics, 161.

[62] Lenin, “Dogmatism and ‘Freedom of Criticism,’” in What is to be Done?, 24.

[63]See Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

[64] Theodor Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses,” in “Messages in a Bottle,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, New Left Review 1, no. 200 (August 1993): 13.

[65] Theodor W. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice,” in Critical Models, 267.

[66] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Marx: Later Political Writings, ed. Terrell Carver (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 214.

[67] Lenin, “Trade Unionist Politics and Social Democratic Politics,” in What Is to Be Done?, 82.

[68] Adorno, “Refuge for the homeless,” in Minima Moralia, 39.

[69] Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2008), 234.

[70] Theodor W. Adorno, “Lecture Seventeen,” in Problems of Moral Philosophy, ed. Thomas Schröder, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 176.

[71] Cutrone, “Adorno’s Leninism.”

[72] V. I. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” (1917), in Lenin Collected Works, vol 23., 236–53, available online at <>.

[73] Theodor W. Adorno, “The New, Utopia and Negativity,” in Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno, et al., trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 32.

[74] Marx and Engels, “Proletarians and Communists,” 236.

[75] Lenin, “The Economic Basis,” 84.

[76] Adorno, “Experimenta Crucis,” in Negative Dialectics, 247–48n.

[77] Marx, “The Chapter on Capital,” 488.