Adorno and the Frankfurt School

by Jack Lindsay

The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research was set up in 1923. Its aim was to deal more adequately than the existent academic bodies with the changes in national life since round 1880, with what was seen as a crisis in culture. The changes were based in the rapid growth of German capitalism and the new world‑role of Germany. Marxism played an important part in the views of the leading thinkers of the Institute, but they always kept it to some extent at arm's length. By the early 1930s the Institute dropped any direct relation to working‑class movements and concentrated on matters of culture and social authority. Among its leading members were Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and the economist F. Pollock. Others were connected with it for a while, e.g. Erich Fromm. When the Nazis came to power the leaders moved to France, then to the United States. After the war Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Europe and tried to carry on with their critique of German society: Adorno turned more and more to aesthetic issues.

Strong influences on him were Nietzsche, Simmel and Lukacs, and Marx (in some selected points). Nietzsche influenced him far more fundamentally than he did Bloch. Again it was the concept of Becoming, Werden, that had the deep effect. All previous philosophers were seen as falsifying their views of life by refusing to recognise that it was always in a state of continuous and dynamic process or change, and that to make any absolute or definite statements or analyses of it was to arrest it and to impose a judgment or value from outside. Adorno took over from Nietzsche the position that because of the systematic falsification of reality that had been carried on there was need for a Transvaluation of All Values. It was necessary to realise all the while that the apparent fixity of the world and of values was derived from ignoring or distorting the dynamic essence of reality, 'that restlessness, that inward shudder, which Hegel called Becoming.' Philosophic systems must be rejected on the grounds that 'the totality of the world is not appropriate to our forms of consciousness.' The will‑to‑power constituted the world and our modes of thought at all times. [1]

Adorno developed these positions in a thorough‑going attack on the Enlightenment, in which rationality was used with particular force and consistency to impose its domination on the refractory universe of process. In the Enlightenment reason and domination were completely fused. Adorno paid many tributes to Nietzsche for his liberating effect. He was 'the dynamic thinker par excellence'; as 'the irreconcilable adversary of our theological inheritance in metaphysics' he rejected 'the speculative concept, the hypostasis of the mind.' He cites his statement: 'Nothing occurs in reality which strictly corresponds to logic', and declares:

Nietzsche's liberating act, a true turning‑point of Western thought and merely usurped by others, was to put such systems into words. A mind that discards rationalisation—its own spell—ceases by its self‑reflection to be the radical evil that irks it in others.

To the positions drawn from Nietzsche Adorno added others from Simmel and from Lukacs' History and Class‑Consciousness: Simmel's view of the social world as a world of external objects that seem to live a life of their own, alien forces oppressing the individual, who, though he had created them, is less and less able to assimilate them; and Lukacs' thesis of a universal reification afflicting people of all classes in developed capitalism. Finally he added ideas drawn from Marx's thesis of commodity fetishism. [2]

How, then, is Adorno to work out a philosophic system? Behind all past systems he detects the will to dominate, to control the world by steadily identifying it with the concepts of the systems. Nothing must escape, 'There is a will to identity in every synthesis'. Philosophies have worked thus with 'a paranoid zeal', seeking to devour everything different (inferior)—'The system is the belly turned mind.' The kind of thought that functions only by constructing and controlling nature (the world, society) is the 'pragmatic' mode of identifying; its coercive mechanism is seen as formation. 'What men seek to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and men. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them.' To counter such systems Adorno sets himself to develop a method he calls the Critical Theory. It seeks at every moment to put the reader on guard against a use of logic that sees things in fixed categories and introduces a metaphysical rigidity into its judgements, turning the living elements of Becoming into separate things.

His main term for the falsifying thought‑systems is Identity Thinking. Such thinking arrests reality by seeing unlike things as like. It holds that a concept fully and truly covers an object when in fact it does not. It thus incorrectly makes the object the equivalent of its concept, and in fact goes round in circles. Take the idealist dialectic of Hegel: 'By its return to the starting‑point of the motion, the result was fatally annulled; this was supposed to bring about a continuous identity of subject and object.' (The term identity‑thinking comes from Hegel, who used it to define the way that understanding, which includes the conventional modes of scientific thought, unfolds things in their abstract undifferentiated identity. 'Modern philosophy . . . reduces everything to identity. Hence its nickname, the Philosophy of Identity.') [3]

Critical Theory then must at every moment find ways of making the reader aware of the traps and gaps in identity‑thinking, all the ruses of reason. It starts with a view of reality as divided, rent with antagonisms; something too complex and elusive to be represented by any system that sets as its goal or criterion unity, simplicity, clarity. It drops any idea of setting out first principles, which by their nature oversimplify or distort a reality made up of contradictions and unforeseeable changes. It refuses to define its concepts, since to do so is to make them identity‑instruments. 'Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy.' Even to define terms is to fall into a trap. So Adorno uses the same term in many different senses, hoping to stir the reader into actively grappling with the problems raised, into recognising the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the aspect of reality under consideration. No attempt to come to grips with reality, he asserts, can ever be fully satisfactory. We have to use words, and we cannot eliminate the 'mythical remainder', the deep impress left on and in them by the endless past efforts to use them in the struggle to understand and control the world. Any attempt to purify language, as if some sort of pristine meaning can be obtained, is to create a different kind of myth, a worse one. It results, not in an objective scientific style, but in new distortions, lacks of correspondence between the words and the reality they are supposed to reveal and explain. But, whatever the difficulties, we cannot evade the problems of the way that words veil or reveal reality; and so the words used in any systems, philosophical, sociological, artistic, are of primary importance. The problem is to get inside them and strive to clarify what is their relation at any given moment to the reality with which they deal. 'The semblance and the truth of thought entwines'; and so, in philosophy or sociology, 'nothing is meant in a completely literal manner, neither statement of fact nor pure validity.’ [4]

To bring out what is the semblance of thought and what is its truth, Adorno resorts to all sorts of tricks with words, breaking up a formulation or approaching it from several different angles. Irony is a favourite device of his: irony as the use of words to convey the opposite of their customary meaning, or irony as some apparent perversity of fate or circumstances. He takes familiar phrases or ideas, even well‑known book‑titles, and changes a word or two; he then expounds them as if they had to be taken seriously and literally. He thus at times throws new light on the original idea through the new angle of approach; or he gives the effect that social attitudes and ideas have got out of control, gone a bit mad or topsyturvy. But once again the literal interpretation must be rejected. What is aimed at is the effect of a particular discrepancy between words and reality, which hints at what the reality is. Irony advances 'by way of extremes', as does the dialectic. It represents or suggests 'the difference between ideology and reality'—though Adorno proceeds to complicate the situation by remarking that that difference has in fact faded out, with the result that it is impossible to separate ideology and reality. So the trick of using irony without comment, presenting an object as what it claims to be but in fact is not, fails to work. The standard for measuring discrepancies is itself 'a lie'. But even this statement is not to be taken literally; it is meant only as yet another jolt. For if all standards were lies, Adorno's whole work would be pointless. He is in fact still using irony in the way he stigmatises as no longer possible. [5]

Irony with its devious inversions can indeed drop its tricks and give way to a direct form of inversion. The concept of Critical Theory

is formed by the inversion of the concepts which govern the economy into their opposites: fair exchange into widening of social injustice, the free economy into the domination of monopoly, productive labour into the consolidation of relations which restrict production, the maintenance of the life of society into the immiseration of the people.

Not that irony is the only shock‑tactic. Adorno uses fantasy, any kind of exaggeration or provocative formulation. He sets out an idea without enlarging on it, then later re‑states it with different emphases (parallaxes). Though an object cannot be defined, a series of phrases may approximate to it. He calls this method a constellation, and uses the terms paratactic, concentric, 'like a spider's web'. Further he makes much use of chiasmus, a figure of speech in which the order of words in one clause is inverted in another: 'History is nature, nature is history'. At times the whole structure of a piece may be based on this system. [6]

Marcuse in his later days summed up Adorno's position:

It was that ordinary language, ordinary prose, even a sophisticated one, has been so much permeated by the Establishment, expresses so much the control and manipulation of the individual by the power structure, that in order to counteract this process you have to indicate already in the language you use the necessary rupture with conformity. Hence the attempt to convey the rupture in the syntax, the grammar, the vocabulary, even the punctuation. Now whether this is acceptable or not I don't know. The only thing I would say is that there lies an equally great danger in any premature popularisation of the terribly complex problems we face today.

Probably in part through Marcuse, in part through a spontaneous reaction to the situation, ideas close to those of the Frankfurt School appeared among rebellious American Youth‑groups in the later 1960s.

Revolution must break with the past, and derive all its poetry from the future (International Situationists). Our programme is cultural revolution through a total assault on culture, which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on . . . our culture, our art, the music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep—it's all one message—and the message is FREEDOM (White Panthers). The division between left‑right is false . . . the division is between life and death. Hip‑life consciousness must replace political death consciousness and tribal social consciousness must replace left wing party consciousness and revolutionary hope . . . Western civilisation must be destroyed . . . and new life‑forms created . . . the struggle is as total as life itself (Sun Eagle, Summer Solstice, New Mexico). [7]

I myself wrote in the early 1970s: 'One aspect of this new line of thought was the belief that if a work of art itself exposed the system of construction and had "nothing to hide", it was in effect exposing the way in which capitalism needed a respectable or decorative facade behind which to carry on with its dirty work. Art that attempted to depict reality in any integrated way was accused of willy­nilly making a contrived or unconscious apology for the claim that bourgeois society itself was integrated in an harmonious and laudable way.'

Adorno (again influenced by Nietzsche) himself felt driven to prefer short unrelated sections, essays, aphorisms, finally scraps or snatches of thought, Prisms, Minima Moralia, Philosophical Fragments. 'From my theorem that there are no philosophical first principles, it follows that one cannot construct a continuous argument with the usual stages, but one must assemble the whole from a series of partial complexes . . . whose constellation not [logical] sequence produces the idea.' In an essay On the Nature and Form of the Essay he championed the short form: it 'thinks in breaks because reality is brittle and finds its unity through the breaks, not by smoothing things over.' It has the features of an anti‑system.

As an example of his essays we may take that on Society. Any idea we have of society, he says, is inevitably incomplete, partial, inadequate, and full of contradictions. But by analysing the terms we use in describing our understanding of the concept, we gain glimpses of what is indeed the concrete reality of social life at any given moment. Society is not an empirical object that we can select, take up, study directly from our own experience. From this angle we find correctness in the neo‑positivist position which looks on the very idea of society as an abstract construct or a mere methodological hypothesis, but with no other kind of existence. And yet all the while society, precisely in the rejected supra‑personal forms, is present with us, affecting and constraining us at every moment. It is not‑there, invisible, breaking through all definitions, an impossible concept, yet all the while the most concrete of all the realities in our lives.

While the notion of society may not be deduced from any individual facts, nor on the other hand be apprehended as an individual fact itself, there is nonetheless no social fact which is not determined by society as a whole. [8]

In this way, by detecting and laying bare the contradictions in our thinking, we find that they reflect or express the contradictions of their object. Just as the initial contradictions in the concept seem to deny us any possible access to the real objects to which they are supposed to correspond, we gain the denied knowledge, or at least some aspects of it.

However, in seeking to justify and give substance to his negative or critical method as having a fundamental virtue apart from its necessary use against the rationalising intellect, Adorno claims that 'Thought, as such, before all particular contents, is an act of negation, of resistance to that which is forced upon it; this is what thought has inherited from its archetype, the relation between labour and material.' That is, he sees at the heart of labour, the productive process, not the positive aspect of the worker uniting with nature, but the difficulties and resistances encountered in the act. The worker has the act 'forced' on him. Adorno is thus transferring to the productive or creative act, at all times and stages, the element of enslavement that comes to the fore under capitalism. He is admitting that that element so obsesses him he puts it at the core of all his thinking.

What part then does dialectics play in his work? Why does he need a special negative theory if dialectics is doing its proper job? He replies that dialectics has degenerated into a dogma and has worked out as impoverishing experience. He does not elaborate these charges, but we know from the body of his work that he refuses to accept the way that Marx works out his thesis of surplus value, that he considers the proletariat to have lost its revolutionary role (if it ever had one), and sees no force or class capable of transforming the situation of monopoly‑capitalism. From his viewpoint, then, Marxism has shown itself to be full of illusions and to have miscarried as a guide to action.

So it must be full of errors and forms of identity‑thinking that have falsified its systems. He says: 'Dialectical knowledge is taken too literally by its opponents.' He should add, 'and by its advocates'. Since the literal meaning has proved false or insufficient, it must be revised, taken to pieces, then put together again in the light of critical or negative theory: 'The dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them.' The dialectic here is that of critical theory, which realises when a formulation has reached the end of its relevance, and which then drives on to a point of break.

Dialectics is the self‑consciousness of the objective context of delusion; it does not mean to have escaped from that context. The objective goal is the break out of the context from within . . .

It means a double mode of content: an inner one, the immanent process which is the properly dialectical one, and a free unbound one like a stepping out of dialectics. Yet the two are not merely disparate . . . Both attitudes of consciousness are linked by criticising one another, not by compromising . . .

Dialectics is the consistent sense of non‑identity. It does not begin by taking a standpoint. My thought is drawn to it by its own inevitable insufficiency, by my guilt of what I am thinking.

In a sense, dialectical logic is more positivistic than the positivism that outlaws it. As thinking, dialectical logic respects that which is to be thought—the object—even where the object does not heed the rules of thinking. The analysis of the object is tangential to the rules of thinking. Thought need not be content with its own legality; without abandoning it, we can think against our thought, and if it were possible to define dialectics, this would be a definition worth suggesting. [9]

The wielder of negative dialectics insists that he cannot be criticised from either the logical or the factual viewpoint, as he has declared that such criteria are irrelevant to him. Indeed, he says, his intellectual and moral superiority is based on the fact that he disregards such criteria. This disregard is the essential point of negative dialectics. A difficulty however in Adorno's statements lies in the fact that he does not clearly differentiate in his terms between pre‑Adorno dialectics, his own negative dialectics, and the interaction of the two. The reason perhaps is that he wants to shake us up and make us think out the issues for ourselves, so that we will be able to make our own differentiations. We may sum up as follows.

Rationalising or reifying thought is identity‑thinking. It identifies concept and object because the mind seeks to grasp and dominate all things, and so needs systems that arrest reality, take it to pieces and put it together again. Non­identity thinking is the method of the negative dialectic. It exposes wherever possible the attempts of identity‑thinking to arrest and falsify reality. It criticises society. Its criticism is positive and determinate in that it seeks to unveil and set out the truth of society as far as is possible; but it is not positive in that it refuses to confirm or sanction what it criticises. On the contrary it seeks always to bring out the unrealised or hidden contradictions between thought and reality. (It is one of the inevitable gaps in Adorno's system that he cannot explain how non-identity thinking arises. He asserts that theory is possible and necessary, and that we must be guided by reason. Yet his whole position assumes that reason cannot make the first step without at once falling into reification. So there is no starting‑point, and indeed the recognition of this baffling fact is announced as the supreme achievement of non‑identity thinking. Not that even here Adorno makes a perfectly clear formulation. It would be against his principles to do so. [10]

Non‑identity thinking might be called true dialectics, or at least a necessary aspect of its method. Adorno's fear that any definite system will become tyrannical and impose a set pattern on to process makes him averse from clearly elevating dialectics as a method or defining exactly what he means by it. He appears to accept the Hegelian system and its terms in the way they were criticised, reoriented, re‑employed in a materialist world‑view by Marx; but he is never precise in such matters. The stress on non‑identity thinking implies that in some radical way dialectics or Marxism is being revalued, reorganised, made more adequate to deal with all the tricks of the abstracting intellect. But how Marxism goes on, after the exposure of the reifying tendencies, to develop new positive positions for understanding and transforming reality is not clarified, is indeed hardly touched on. For to raise this question would have meant an attempt to reapply and develop the Marxist concept of the unity of theory and action, and that in turn would have led into the field of politics and the struggle to bring about a free (unreified) society. But that was something that Adorno was totally unwilling to do.*

Where he does attempt a positive statement he can only set out his hope in a semi‑mystical form. Thus he comments that 'the overwhelming objectivity of the historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject, without giving rise to a new one.' What can dialectics do in such a situation? He replies, 'Its truth or untruth, therefore, is not inherent in the method itself, but in the intention of the historical process', which must be to integrate freedom and happiness. 'The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters' (Minima Moralia).

Yet he did try to link his positions, which united key elements from Nietzsche and Lukacs, with certain fundamental ideas drawn from Marx. With his rejection of all first principles he could not claim that Marx's attitudes definitely established anything about life; so he called his Theory of Value the Urphänomen (the original phenomenon), the Urgeschichte (the prehistory or early history), the Urmodell (the primary model) of reification; and he identified the mechanism of identity‑thinking with commodity‑exchange under capitalism. [11]

The exchange principle, the reduction of human labour to its abstract universal concept of average labour‑time, has the same origin as the principles of identification. It has its social model in exchange and exchange would be nothing without identification.

The equalisation of commodities to a monetary value in price made unlike things like. Values seem to people to be a natural property of commodities, though in fact only use‑values are their properties. 'As values,' says Marx, 'commodities are social magnitudes, that is to say something absolutely different from their properties as things.' He holds that in commodity‑fetishism 'a definite social relation between men . . . assumed the phantasmagoric form of a relation between things'. Adorno was not much concerned about this point. What mattered to him was the way in which Marx's ideas could be linked with the problem of knowledge in a world of reifications. So he seized on the formulations that value appears to be a property of a commodity and that the object is thought to fulfil its concept when in fact only use‑values are properties. Marx says that exchange value is 'the only form in which the value of a commodity can manifest itself or be expressed'. Adorno carries this ideal over in his theory of reification by holding that a relationship between men appears in the form of a property of a thing. What is truly the property of a thing is non-reified: it is, one may say, its own use‑value. The problem of critical theory is, then, to derive the non‑reified concepts from the reified form in which they necessarily appear in capitalist society. [12]

In thus taking over elements of Marx's theory of value, Adorno quite ignores the distinction of abstract and concrete labour, and the whole question of the extraction of surplus‑value. He wants to unite philosophy and sociology, but along certain narrow lines that keep clear of all political issues. As we saw, he denied that he was without hope, but he provided little theoretical basis in his work for any possibility of revolutionary change. That basis could only have been introduced if he had linked his concepts of non‑identity thinking with the class‑struggle. However there was one aspect of those concepts that did suggest the possibility of a non‑reified society. Non‑identity thinking realises that the object is not really captured by reified or identity‑thinking; it thus looks beyond the limited and arrested situation into a deeper reality. Adorno calls this glimpse‑beyond the seeing of Utopia. Further, identity‑thinking appears when we use a concept paradigmatically to collect the particulars it denotes; but concepts also refer to their objects. That is, in Adorno's terms, they also refer to the conditions of their ideal existence, the conditions that would make them fully and concretely possible. They would then truly cover their objects. Freedom for example would then be truly freedom. Thus the glimpse of Utopia again appears in the reference to the conditions and ideal existence enclosed in concepts. Here is a thin gleam of the complex of forces gathered in Bloch's Hope. But the gleam would only become active and meaningful if Adorno made the step to link non‑identity thinking with political struggle. [13]

So he is left with a society of increasing reification, in which there are no inner forces making for renewal. As usual there is a contradiction in his position. At times he speaks of society as 'completely reified'. The exchange system dominates it so thoroughly that it in effect controls all class‑formations, institutions, organisations, as well as the behaviour and inner life of all persons. There are no interstices or antagonistic groupings that could beget or stimulate a critical consciousness, an outlook independent of the reifying forces that reduce everyone to a common denominator. The victims accept the appearances of society as they have no awareness of the way they are manipulated. The utopian possibilities that we discussed above are in such a situation forever blocked and banished. Yet with his paradoxical method Adorno at times argues that non-identity thinking can be born out of the midst of identity‑thinking, 'No matter to what extent the mind is a product of that (reified) type, it implies at the same time the objective possibility of overcoming it.' This admission is, however, thrown in as a mere logical possibility. The contrary force or intuition is not linked with any social grouping or movement. 'Everything is one . . . Today the forces of production and the relations of production are one . . . Material production, distribution, consumption are ruled together.' There is no class-analysis of the dominating political forces that reflect the situation where 'exchange‑value has deceptively taken over the function of use-value'. They merely carry on in an autonomous way: 'Universal history must be construed and denied.' Construed, or there is no way of grasping the historical processes that have issued in the impasse; denied, because there can be no history if the impasse continues, depriving people of any human goal in a capitalist society that automatically throws up new forms and extensions of dehumanisation, reification. There is a strong tendency to see technological developments, linked with identity‑thinking, as the sufficient motive force of history under monopoly‑capitalism. 'Formalisation of reason is only the intellectual expression of mechanised production.’ [14]

On this basis Adorno, and Horkheimer with him, develop their picture of a society without any inner forces of revolt, any elements making for renewal. Cultural production in such a world becomes the culture industry, linked at all points to the flattening and falsifying forces of social exchange and identity-thinking (The exchange system is not defined as determining the reifications; rather we are presented with two systems owning the same internal structure.) Adorno makes no analysis of the full relations of an art‑product to its historical moment. Rather he works from the viewpoint of its form. What has been realised in the form gives the best key to the content, to the possibilities of the determinate moment from the which work sprang. So we arrive at the historical moment by analysing the nature of the form, its structure, contradictions, and resolutions. We do not work from the social moment, the historical situation, to the art‑product.

Rather, that is Adorno's aim, but the comprehension of the social moment thus arrived at is not in any way historically precise.

The unsolved antagonisms of reality recur in the work of art as the immanent problems of the form. This, not the entry of objective moments, defines the relations of art to society.

All very well, if by this kind of analysis we do in the end arrive at the 'objective moments', the actual social situation in all its specific possibilities and resistances, and understand better the particular way in which they are refracted in the work of art. But Adorno in fact takes a very restricted view of what he calls the antagonisms of reality, because of his limitations of Marxist theory to the matter of exchange. He wrote to Krenek in September 1932:

The commodity character of music is not determined by its being exchanged, but by its being abstractly exchanged, in the way in which Marx explained the commodity form: hence not an immediate but a 'reified' exchange relation occurs. When you explain the way 'art has become autonomous' as the decisive change, that is exactly what I mean by its commodity character. Only it is the same phenomenon described not from the side of the relations of production, but from the side of the forces of production . . . If by capitalism one understands more than mere 'for money', namely, the totality of the social process defined as a unity of exchange by abstract labour time, then, in an exact sense, capitalism has made art into a commodity together with men. The commodity character of art as the objective side, and the destruction of 'human dignity' as the subjective side are equivalent and cannot be torn apart from each other. [15]

What interests him is not the historical moment in all its complexity of struggle, defeat, resolution, possibility, but the system of economic production, exchange, reproduction and consumption that is involved. So he discusses the social or historical situation almost wholly in terms of the forces and relations of production. He distinguishes them so that exchange and reproduction fall on both sides of the distinction instead of being allotted to one side or the other. He sees however a basic conflict or contradiction between forces and relations as far as culture is concerned. So in dealing with modern music he does not consider the social situations in their fulness; he is interested only in the economic abstractions. He starts with the commodity character of the music and the fact that the way in which it is exchanged gives rise to fetishism. The ever‑more extended systems of mechanical reproduction swell the volume of exchange of cultural products and thus beget new forms of art without altering in the least the essential commodity‑character of what is turned out.

The idea of music as a form of production is valuable, but the way in which music is related abstractly only to the forces of production robs the idea of its vital possibilities.

Innovation in [artistic and musical] production is judged in terms of the significance accorded to the dominant relations of production, and the designation 'forces of production' is really reserved for what resists those relations and not for new techniques or for new technology as such. Composition is not, however, a relational term in the way work or 'labour‑power' are for Marx. In the realm of consumption, the 'culture industry' is a force of production in the sense that it constitutes a changed form of social domination and control, while considered under the relations of production, it is responsible for new kinds of social behaviour which Adorno examined by using Freudian categories. (ROSE) [16]

In this kind of way Adorno tries to develop his sociology of music and literature by examining genres or particular works of art in the light of his idea that a contradiction has intruded between the forces and the relations of production. 'The forces of production,' he argues, 'are displaced into high, quasi‑privileged spheres, isolated, and therefore, even when they incorporate true consciousness, are also partly false. The lower spheres obey the predominant relations of production.’ [17]

But when we ask what he really means by the forces of production we find that he merely refers to musical skill in composition (for the market or not) and the techniques and technology that determine the composition and are its tools or means. He does not even refer to the general preconditions of buying and selling labour‑power, or the labour‑process itself. By the relations of production he does not mean the class‑positions or roles of everyone involved in the productive process, but the particular tastes and attitudes, social and personal, which in general determine the reception and consumption of the products. (In any event, for him, the relations of production are created and controlled by the reifications and dominations arising out of the exchange‑system.)

His position that art is at once an autonomous form and a social fact, with no real links apart from the forces and relations of production in his very restricted sense of those terms, explain why there is no movement into political action. Indeed, in such a world political action can have no real significance. What he has done is to supplant the analysis of the historical movement in its fullness, which includes political and social struggles of all kinds and at all levels, with a consideration of the relations of Subject and Object in their various possibilities. So his notion of an effective coming‑together of the subjective and objective worlds—what he calls Reconciliation—remains a mere logical possibility, a form of abstract utopianism.

A Blochian element indeed comes in when he tries to link a dialectical concept of historical change (in which the various moments are integrated in terms of the possible relations of subject and object) and the hypothesis of a moment of plenitude, of total reconciliation. Such viewpoints are liable to be linked with a looking‑back to some paradisiac state or a dream of some utopian future. But in cultural analysis, where the dialectical opposition of form and content takes over from that of subject and object, the position has more virtues and possibilities:

For if we are in no position to judge the concreteness of life at any given moment of the past, at least we can evaluate the adequacy of form to content in its cultural monuments, and are able to measure the reconcilation of intention and medium and the degree to which all visible matter is form, and all meaning or expression concrete embodiment. (JAMESON) [18]

Adorno finds in Beethoven the fullest achievement of this kind of reconciliation, a precarious and yet sustained balance 'between melody and development, between a new and richer thematic expression of subjective feeling and its objective working through in the form itself.'

In such areas his work is full of suggestive virtues. But the method breaks down when he comes to the present, since any idea of reconcilation with a world of total reification can only lead to disaster, to extreme dehumanisation. Here Adorno makes an invalid equation between the aesthetic integration of the possibilities of a situation and the acceptance of the prevailing social powers. Beethoven in a sense accepts the historical epoch in which he finds himself, but only insofar as he enters at the same time into its deepest conflicts and expresses its human potentialities. For Adorno such a relationship is impossible in our world, since any coherent statement, whatever its content, is seen as damned by its form as a reconciliation with evil. Here the weakness of his notion of form, with its severe limitations as to what constitutes content, takes over.

It is argued that in a world of total reification any musician using accepted tonalities or structures is simply a conformist, accepting and aiding the ruling powers with their fetishistic identity‑thinking. Adorno brings out this point by his comparison of Schoenberg with Stravinsky. The former in his early work rejected all accepted tonality, yet had no system of his own: he negated the existing systems. His atonal music is

no longer the mimesis of passions, but rather the undisguised registration through the musical medium of bodily impulses from the unconscious, of shocks and traumas which assault the taboos of form inasmuch as the latter attempt to impose their censorship on such impulses, to rationalise them and to transpose them into images. Thus Schoenberg's formal innovations were innately related to the changes in the things expressed, and helped the new reality of the latter to break through to consciousness. The first atonal works are transcripts, in the sense of the dream transcripts of psychoanalysis.

Adorno thus identifies aesthetic rules with the prevailing forms of social domination, while the impulses or drives coming up from the Freudian unconscious are seen as deep spontaneous revolts against those forms. The repressed impulses or desires are identified with the baffled forces of renewal. The release of the latter, the 'return of the repressed,' can come about only through a 'shattering of the social contract with reality.’ [19]

Stravinsky uses recognisable forms and so is rooted in the acceptance of domination. His work is a demagoguery that can be compared with Fascism. Adorno thus totally rejects any form of realism, any expression that deals directly with social reality. Politically that expression may be revolutionary and opposed to all bourgeois ideas and ideals; but if it is intelligible in any fully worked-out sense, it has succumbed to the systems of rationality which Adorno identifies with capitalist domination. Any discussion on art—'Where is it going to lead?'—is at once 'a mutilated form of social control'. To talk of the necessity of art 'terribly prolongs the exchange principle'. The possibilities of art today cannot be settled in any connection with productive relations; 'the decision depends only on the productive forces.' Adorno thus attacked Benjamin's ideas about the revolutionary potentiality of new cultural forms (genres), such as cinema, radio, and so on, as a capitulation to 'Brechtian motifs'—above all:

the appeal to the immediacy of interconnected aesthetic effects, however fashioned, and to the actual consciousness of actual workers, who have absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except their interest in revolution, but otherwise bear all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois.

Adorno considered that Brecht's continued adherence to Communism was a proof of the 'bad faith' of his work. [20]

Adorno's concept of Form, we saw, was supposed to provide a method of deep analysis which brought out the way in which an artwork reproduced in its own system the structure and contradictions of reality; but he failed to go further and link the new comprehension of form with an enriched vision of the full human reality that had gone to make the form‑content unity. If he had done so, he would have shown the complex relationship between the manifest content (the artist's intentions and conscious perceptions) and the far deeper and more extended content revealed in the form, in its tensions and integrations, its dynamic structure as it operated at different levels of conflict and resolution. [21] But he could not thus realise the dialectical unity of form and content, the way in which in the last degree the form was the resolution of the conflicts comprehended in the content in its totality. He was interested only in the relation of the artwork to the exchange-system, the concept of fetishism, which he has isolated in Marxism and taken over as if it alone concentrated and expressed all the possible conflicts and contradictions in bourgeois society. **

He saw the only hope in a total rupture with existing relationships, though under capitalism attempts at such a rupture lead to various impasses, to an art more and more passively reflecting alienation as a state of being.

It is surprising enough and paradoxical that Adorno is content to oppose to empirical reality a fictive ideal reality into which he moves by 'transcendence,' that he breaks the dialectic of the relations of production and the forces of production, turning to one to condemn the hardness of capitalist society and to the other to imagine a future liberated society. (JIMENEZ) [22]

We are left, then, with the culture‑industry as the overwhelming fact of existence under monopoly‑capitalism. In 1932‑3 Horkheimer had seen the breakdown of the family as leading to the premature socialisation of the ego through a whole system of extra‑familial agents and agencies. The result was a manipulated and controlled consciousness. 'The experts of the mass media transmit the required values; they offer the perfect training in efficiency, toughness, personality, dream and romance.' The modern man finds himself merged with all his fellows by 'the overpowering machine of education and entertainment,' through which all detrimental ideas are eliminated and he himself is in a state of anaesthesia. Only the avant garde in art protest 'against the infamy of existence', for art, 'since it became autonomous, has preserved the utopia that evaporated from religion'.

By the time of The Dialectic of Enlightenment things have grown much worse. Art, with its autonomy renounced, has taken its place among consumption‑goods. With leisure 'a forced activity', culture, the creature of the market, disseminates among everyone 'obedience to the social hierarchy.'

The universal reduction of all specific energies to a single, equal and abstract form of labour, from the battlefield to the film‑studio. But the transition to a more human situation cannot take place, because the same thing happens to the good as to the bad.

Adorno and Horkheimer succumb to elitist values; they feel only contempt for the masses. All popular art is aimed at reconciling and enslaving audiences to the capitalist situation. Conformity replaces consciousness. There is no hope whatever in the working‑class as an independent force, culturally or politically.

Marcuse developed these positions even more strongly in works like One Dimensional Man:

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation, a token of technical progress . . . That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development . . .

The apparatus imposes its economic and political requirements for defence and expansion on labour time and free time, on the material and intellectual culture. By virtue of the way it has organised its technological base, contemporary society tends to be totalitarian. For 'totalitarianism' is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non‑terroristic economic‑technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. [23]

The emphasis here grows more and more on technology and science as the forces producing a mechanised and subservient society (this point will be discussed later on). As with Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse has many things to say of modern society that are both deadly and true; but he, too, in the long run oversimplifies and is unable to see the elements that are positive and capable of transforming the situation. However, he was not so bleakly dogmatic as Adorno about the impossibility of any form of protest in literature. He praised Brecht's dramas with their attempts to create an objectifying sense in the audience (the so‑called estrangement effect). Here as in other avant garde protests he saw 'literature's own answer to the threat of behaviourism, the attempt to rescue the rationality of the negative'. After the youth‑revolts of 1968 he was yet more optimistic about various avant garde developments:

These are not merely new modes of perception reorienting and intensifying the old ones; they rather dissolve the very structure of perception, in order to make room for what? The new object of art is not yet given, but the familiar object has become impossible, false. From illusion, imitation, harmony to reality—but the reality is not yet 'given'.

The idiom is still much the same as that used by Adorno in dealing with Schoenberg, but there is something more hopeful in the tone. Marcuse still looks for the spontaneous breakthrough or rupture. He has no faith in the working‑class and looks for the rebels in off‑beat nonconformities, 'catalyst groups'; but the horizon has somehow widened. [24]

What positive achievement can we then put to the credit of Adorno and his colleagues? In their attack on the culture‑industry they said many true and important things about the tendencies in bourgeois society. But in all their analyses and formulations they saw such tendencies as absolute, without any significant internal conflict. By abandoning the idea of class struggle they left the field hopelessly open to the dehumanising forces, which they variously termed reifying, fetishistic, mechanistic. They were unable to explore the situation for counter‑forces, different potentialities.

Despite all that, Adorno's account of the rationalising and arresting intellect is useful as a reminder that the dialectic has its limitations and weaknesses. Like any system it needs continual reconsiderations: criticism that seeks for its weak points. There is nothing sacred in the Hegelian terms that Marx took over and reoriented. They provided a starting‑point, but are clearly no more than simplified formulas, extremely broad and generalised laws that enable us to take the first steps in grasping how development occurs. So Adorno's systems of identity‑thinking and non‑identity thinking, whatever the limitations of the manner in which he defined and applied them, are important in pointing to ways in which the dialectic can keep on criticising and renewing itself. In the continual intrusion of non‑identity tricks into his discourse he reminds us that the dialectic is not something to be reserved for special occasions; it should become inseparable from all our responses to life.

Adorno's concept of Form in an artwork again opens up valuable new lines of approach, even if once more a one‑sided attitude ends by emptying his method of analysis on any vital social content. The concept needs to be worked out in a fuller and more truly dialectical way.

Finally, though he had no clear idea of the relationship of culture to the socio‑economic or political levels, yet by insisting on its autonomy and by devoting a great deal of his work to the question of culture, its nature and function, he did much to broaden Marxism in necessary ways. ***


* Horkheimer began by trying to link Critical Theory as a mode of cognition with the proletariat (following Lukacs). The theoretician and the oppressed class make up 'a dynamic unity,' his 'representation of the social contradictions appears not just an expression of the concrete historical situation, but rather as a stimulating, transforming factor in it.' He then links the theoretician with 'the advanced parts of the class.'

The conflict between the advanced parts plus theoretician with the rest of the class is to be seen 'as a process of mutual interaction in which consciousness unfolds with its liberating and propulsive, disciplinary and aggressive powers' (5) ii 164. (Shortly before he equates the advanced part with a 'a party or its leadership.' Note that he does not see the theoretician as linked with the proletariat as a whole.) Only once again (ii 166) he refers to organised struggle. 'The overpoliticisation of theory leads logically to the substitute of the theory as a surrogate for politics,' Therborn, 91.

** We may compare Goldmann's positions. He too saw reification as pervasive under advanced capitalism, ending any revolutionary role for the workers. So he turned away from Socialist Realism to works that reflected the ultimate alienations of our world. Thus, he admired Robbe‑Grillet's Les Gommes as reflecting the self‑regulating mechanisms of capitalist society, his La Jalousie as reflecting reification. He wants works that 'correspond' to the dominant social phenomena.

*** Horkheimer's decline. in 1950 came The Authoritarian Personality, with Adorno as senior author, Horkheimer as director of the research project behind it. All stress is put on personal and psychological factors, with the aim of personal re‑education to root out fascism. Horkheimer ended by writing of the 'menace of the yellow race' and the virtues of competition: Therborn 106‑110.

1.  Adorno (11) 159. Rose 55 n2l, also 23 n125 and n114, 22 n15; Adorno(11) 23. In general, Rose 18‑26; Pütz, 175‑91; Jay (1): Habermas (4); A. Schmidt in Horkheimer (2) 115‑32. Adorno (10) 119, the only place where he concentrates on Reason and Domination of Nature.

2.  Therborn, 524. Cf. Weber's thesis of increasing rationality in the organisation of capitalism.

3.  Adorno (19) 6ND, 151, 33, 34, (11) 23 and (10) 4, 9; Rose, 123f. Hegel: Adorno (11) 158; Ruben, 39. Fisk, 142. Hegel, Logic, 194, 219.

Critical Theory sees itself as humanity's self‑knowledge, so cannot and must not have a structure (formally) logical and systematic; that would mean that human beings systematised themselves: Therborn, 98, Formal logic the expression of 'indifference to the individual', Adorno (10) 202.

4.  Adorno uses Hegelian terminology only on basis of Nietzschean inversion, Rose, 21f, nl12. Adorno stresses the 'antinomial character of systems'. (11) 26‑8. Concept: ib. 13; Rose, 24. Adorno (11) 5; Rose 15f.

5.  Adorno (17) 282, (18) 211, Horkheimer (5) ii 195 (the following quotation). Prisms, 27. Adorno says, 'Irony says: such it (Ideology) claims to be, but such it (reality) is'. Irony thus works at doing the 'immanent' procedure that takes the 'objective idea' of a product (philosophical, literary, etc.) and 'confronts it with the norms which it itself has crystallised.' He defines the immanent procedure in the same terms as irony, 'the difference between ideology and reality.' It 'takes seriously the principle that it is not ideology in itself, which is untrue, but rather its pretensions to correspond to reality.' His method is the same whether looked at from the subjective or objective viewpoint.

6.  Jameson, 56; Rose, 13‑5.

7.  J. L. (5) 389‑92.

8.  Adorno (18); Jameson, 57.

9.  Adorno (10) 6f; (19) 8 Posstreit 317f; (17) 107 and (18) 86. Quotations: Adorno (11) 406, 31, 5 and 141. Kolakowski, 364.

At times Critical Theory is taken as the same as philosophy; at times, not—and philosophy is seen as non‑dialectical. Critical Theory is not a theory in the sense of a set of interrelated propositions aimed at exploring observed (observable) facts; it is a method.

10.  Kolakowski, 367.

11.  Adorno(19) 8 Postreit, 347, 302. Also (19) 14.

12.  Adorno (11) 149. Marx: Rose, 46f. Reification is a social category; it refers to the way consciousness is determined. It is not a concept (like society, subject, freedom); to see and understand it is to gain a change in one's whole perspective of reality. It determines consciousness, but like commodity‑production is not in origin a fact of consciousness. Some concepts (e.g. theoretical like value, or non‑theoretical like money) have no non‑reified application. Rose, 47.

13.  Utopia: Rose, 48, 24, 61. A concept would be concrete if it really covered its object (rational identity): this is its utopian sense. Refs., Rose, 48.

14.  Adorno (19) 8 Sol, 369; 14 Diss FUR 25, and 6 ND, 314. Adorno deals with ideological domination without refs. to class‑consciousness, alienation etc. Exchange as fundamental reality: Horkheimer (5) ii 173. Adorno (10) 104. Productive forces are not part of a structural contradiction, but represent a stage of human evolution that now enable the Negating Subject to wipe out poverty and misery from the human condition: Therborn, 117. In this sense they are neutral, a raw material of potentiality. Later this potentiality is denied. But in neither case are the forces seen in their Marxist structural context. The Negating Subject remains a philosophical concept, not a social one.

15.  Again, the natural sciences and their empiricist counterpart in epistemology are more disastrous than the market: Therborn, 103. Form: Jameson, 55. Quotations: Adorno (3) 16; Rose 118f. Detective story: Prisms, 32, 129f, 41.

16.  Rose, 119f.

17.  Adorno (17) 119; (18) 95.

18.  Rose, 120; Jameson, 38‑40.

19.  Laing, 63f; Adorno (7) 43 and (13). Compare ideas of surrealism. There are links of his irony etc. with Dadaist attempts to shock and wake people up. Also Benjamin: 'shock as the key‑notion'. Laing, 5; Jimenez, 168.

Note the changing terms for Fascism: 'the truth of Liberalism,' 'abstract internal community,' Authoritarian Personality, 'the truth of modern society.' Enlightenment becomes mass‑deception and Fascism is the self-destruction of the Enlightenment. Therborn, 99‑103; Marcuse (8) i 63, 93; Horkheimer (6) 116. Not a word of Fascism as a specific form of monopoly-capitalism.

20.  Jimenez, 254, 453.

21.  Laing, 65f; Adorno (14).

22.  Jimenez, 255; Swingewood (1) 14f.

23.  Marcuse (4) 16f. Fromm (Crisis of Psychoanalysis, 1973, 30‑3) sees M., like many avantgarde writers and artists, 'attracted by infantile regression, perversion, and—as I see it—in a more hidden way by destruction and hate'.

24.  Laing, 17; Marcuse, Essay on Liberation. He rejects the term elitist, puts stress on Women's Liberation: Magee, 71 f. Habermas: Therborn, 120ff; Rose, 141f, 146.

SOURCE: Lindsay, Jack. The Crisis in Marxism (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981), Chapter 5, Adorno and the Frankfurt School, pp. 63-80, 164-166.

 A Checklist of Jack Lindsay's Books
by John Arnold [with additions by R. Dumain]
Includes all of the following Lindsay links & more

"The Origins of Jack Lindsay's Contributions to British Marxist Thought" by Joel R. Brouwer

"A Note on My Dialectic" by Jack Lindsay

"Towards a Marxist Aesthetic" by Jack Lindsay

Collected Poems [Section Headnotes] by Jack Lindsay

"Spinoza" by Jack Lindsay

"Giordano Bruno" by Jack Lindsay

Jack Lindsay and British Poetry in the 1930s, by Adrian Caesar

A Garland for Jack Lindsay

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt by Jack Lindsay
Poem To Marie Delcourt-Curvers [HMTL]
To Marie Delcourt-Curvers [pdf file]
The First and Concluding Chapters

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