Posts Tagged ‘Auschwitz’

“A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin: Totalitarian Propaganda that Fails in Rationalizing his World-Historical Crimes (Part I/III)

November 14, 2018

“Today [in 1958], everyone knows Russian Communism as the greatest barbarism on earth. Stalin is the name which symbolizes this.”

– Raya Dunayevskaya1


Marc (Moishe) Zakharovich Chagall, “Festive Design” (1918-9)

Breht Ó Séaghdha’s much-anticipated, “big,” and supposedly “spicy” interview on “Revolutionary Left Radio” with Justin and Jeremy from the “Proles of the Round Table” about Josef Stalin and the historical record is a sustained, nearly three-hour long fraud that above all insults the memory of Stalin’s millions of victims. Unfortunately for the host Ó Séaghdha, who misleadingly presents his guests Justin and Jeremy as following an “empirical and statistical approach” to the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the reality is that he platformed neo-Stalinist propagandists on this episode, and either could not or would not challenge them on their myriad lies covering for what the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya rightly terms “the greatest counter-revolution in all history.”2 Given the friendly tone between Ó Séaghdha and his guests during this interview, as reflected in his admission at the outset of his “love and respect” for his “comrades and friends” Justin and Jeremy, his identification of the “Proles of the Round Table” as being “one of [his] go-to podcasts” represents a dangerous concession which reveals that he is following his guests’ lead when it comes to historical events.

Before analyzing and correcting the numerous distortions presented by Justin and Jeremy on this particular episode of “Revolutionary Left Radio,” I must express a very fundamental concern for Ó Séaghdha’s profession in the introduction of the need for leftists “always to show solidarity with our Jewish comrades,” given that not once in this three-hour interview does either the host or the guests discuss or even mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact signed on August 23, 1939. Following in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss with Austria, the terms of this non-aggression treaty, agreed initially to ten years, represented a ‘honeymoon’ for the two totalitarian dictators Hitler and Stalin, setting forth the terms by which Poland, Finland, and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were to be divided after the Nazi invasion a week later.

In Tinísima, Elena Poniatowska depicts even so hardened a Stalinist as Tina Modotti, a nurse who worked in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with Red Aid International, affiliated with the Third International (Stalin’s Communist International, or Comintern), as reacting to the news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact by refusing food, desiring death, and considering this “the betrayal of everything for which we’ve fought.” Arguing with her partner Vittorio Vidali, himself a high-ranking Comintern agent responsible for numerous assassinations of non-Stalinist supporters of the Spanish Republic, Modotti asks:

“And the dead? And the relatives of the dead—who will calm them down? You know how much I love and admire the Soviet Union; you know how I revere Stalin. Everything you say is fine, Toio [Vittorio], but an alliance with Hitler—never!”3

Indeed, as historian Catherine Evtuhov relates,

“The agreement stunned leftist intellectuals and workers, who had believed that Moscow was the vital center of international revolution and anti-Nazism. As Arthur Koestler recalled, the sight of the swastika flying at the Moscow Airport [to mark Ribbentrop’s visit] destroyed his allegiance to communism.”4

The Hitler-Stalin Pact not only carved up Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, but also involved the NKVD and Gestapo exchanging political prisoners, including Communists, and Polish prisoners of war; trade in oil, wheat, and weaponry between the two hegemons; and Stalin publicly praising Nazi victories.5 Furthermore, between 1939 and 1941, Stalin’s regime deported a million and a half Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to the Far North, Siberia, and Central Asia; approximately one-fifth of those deported perished. Stalin’s forces were also responsible for executing at least 17,000 captive Polish officers in 1940.6


Cartoon in The Evening Standard (20 September 1939) depicting the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin at the dawn of World War II. Notice the Orientalist depiction of Stalin’s face.

With Stalin thus neutralized, Hitler received the green light with which he infamously launched World War II and, shortly thereafter, the Holocaust, or HaShoah, which accelerated in June 1941 when Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally by invading the Soviet Union. Alongside the estimated 25 million Soviet people who died in the war, at least 1 million Jews in Ukraine and five million other Jews were murdered in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other territories of Eastern Europe which were conquered by the German Wehrmacht for Hitler’s pathological, ultra-nationalist concept of Lebensraum (“living-space”).7 In fact, in January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was executed on Stalin’s orders by the Soviet Belorussian State police before he could bring to light documentation of the Nazi genocide of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews in these same territories conquered by the Wehrmacht “from the retreating Soviets”—territories which previously had been occupied by the Red Army, following Hitler and Stalin’s mutual agreement.8

When it came to actual war with Hitler, Stalin’s myopic incredulousness about the reported 84 intelligence warnings he received about German preparations for invasion led to the immediate destruction of one-fourth of the Soviet air force, effectively granting the Nazi Luftwaffe aerial supremacy during the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa.”9 Whereas the Red Army had “approximately the same number of men on the Soviet western border as the Germans and significantly more tanks, guns, and aircraft,” the USSR’s security was endangered for two important reasons: the Red Army was comprised of peasants who were often demoralized by collectivization and famine, and it was led by inexperienced officers who had effectively been promoted through Stalin’s devastating Purge of an estimated 90 percent of “the highest army commanders, all the admirals, about 90 percent of corps commanders,” and several “divisional and brigadier generals” just a year to two years before the start of World War II.10 That the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered his troops to occupy the new territory gained through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lacked any defensive fortifications, was not helpful, either.11

Moreover, Stalin’s disagreement with and overriding of the “leading Soviet military strategist,” General Georgii Zhukov, led to multiple disasters. To name just a couple: first, in August 1941, when Stalin refused to withdraw Red Army divisions from Kyiv (Kiev), the Wehrmacht proceeded to encircle and imprison more than 3 million Soviet officers and troops by the end of the year;12 and second, when, following the successful December 1941 counter-attack to rescue Moscow, Stalin hubristically enjoined offensives across the entire western front that “exhausted his troops and exposed them to Germany’s new campaign, this time aimed at the Caucasus and its oil fields.” Once Kyiv fell, the Nazis systematically murdered its Jewish population—some thirty-thousand men, women, and children—in the massacre known as Babi Yar.13

Beyond this, Stalin’s refusal to sign the Geneva Conventions (1929) governing the treatment of prisoners of war (POW’s) arguably greatly harmed his officers and troops captured by the Nazis, who, in contrast to Western POW’s, were initially generally refused food and medical treatment, if they were not summarily executed. In point of fact, it was on Soviet POW’s that the Nazis first “tested” Zyklon-B gas in the Auschwitz death-camp (September 1941). An estimated three million Soviet POW’s died in Nazi captivity.14 Hitler’s regime did not think to exploit Soviet POW’s as forced labor until November 1941, alongside the millions of Ukrainian and Polish Ostarbeiter slave laborers, though it had no reservations leaving intact collectivized farms in occupied Ukraine, thus “taking advantage of the Soviet invention for extracting resources from the rural population.”15

In light of these incredible omissions about the nearly two-year period of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, and the General Secretary’s numerous strategic blunders during World War II itself—which Jeremy and Justin outright ignore, mischaracterizing Hitler’s military defeat in May 1945 as Stalin’s “accomplishment”—it becomes clear that no one on this show has any credibility discussing the historical record.

To put it lightly, it is extremely problematic for anyone appealing to history to uncritically champion the genocidal and imperialist state-capitalist monster known as Stalin in 2018. As Rohini Hensman rightly points out, and as we shall explore more in part II of this response, “Stalin […] in his time had rehabilitated tsarist imperialism.”16 In 1927, Alexander Berkman identified Stalin’s rule as being equivalent to “Tsarist Socialism,” perhaps following Nestor Makhno’s lead in denouncing the “Bolshevik tsars” the previous year.17 According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, class struggle and internationalism were absent within the politics of Stalinist totalitarianism, beyond merely opportunistic use as legitimating ideologies.18 Dunayevskaya correctly identified the Stalinist bureaucracy as “the most deadly, the most insidious, [and] the most dangerous enemy because it springs from the proletariat and cloaks itself in Marxist terminology.” So why on Earth would revolutionary leftists want to promote the legacy and supposed continued relevance of such decidedly counter-revolutionary distortions of socialism?

There is clearly something rotten in the heart of the Western left, for both neo-fascism and the red-brown alliance are on the rise. Indeed, “[t]his alliance between neo-Stalinists […] and neo-fascists […] is a twenty-first century version of the Hitler-Stalin pact.”19 It should not be surprising, then, to contemplate that Ó Séaghdha uncritically interviewed the pro-Assad propagandist and Russia Today correspondent Rania Khalek six months ago. Amidst such stark realities, I concur with Hensman that we must pursue and tell the truth as well as seek to bring morality and humanity into politics, among other critical tasks,20 and it is in the spirit of these maxims that I respond critically to Ó Séaghdha’s “Stalin podcast.”


Vladimir Tambi (1906-1955), Tanks

What Did Stalin Do Wrong?

The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized.”

– Hannah Arendt 21

As if the host and his guests could be forgiven for covering up the Hitler-Stalin Pact—which they cannot—Jeremy and Justin’s ‘homage to Stalin’ comes through very clearly in their responses to Ó Séaghdha’s opening question, regarding which criticisms (if any) the “Proles of the Round Table” have of Stalin’s rule over the former Soviet Union. Still, even before responding here, Jeremy and Justin already have denied that Stalin was a dictator, instead suggesting that certain “people” could criticize him without fear of retaliation. Which people do they mean? Surely, they are not referring to M. I. Ryutin, the first Communist to openly denounce Stalin’s personal dictatorship and war on the peasantry in his 1932 appeal to the Central Committee, requesting Stalin’s deposition and an end to forced collectivization. Stalin responded by demanding Ryutin’s execution, yet, due to the objection of members of the Politburo (the highest-ranking body within the Communist Party), this renegade Communist was banished and only murdered five years later in the Purges. In addition, Stalin executed Ryutin’s sons, banished his wife to a prison camp, and temporarily exiled the Jewish Politburo members Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev for their supposed complicity in the affair—thus foreshadowing their ultimate fate in the Purges.22

Evidently, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on a misunderstanding of what dictatorship is—that is, centralized and effectively absolute power over the State and military apparatus. They miss Voline’s point that “dictatorship […] being universal and universally embraced, the way is open for fascist psychology, ideology and action.” With their comment on Stalin’s openness to criticism, they would consciously eliminate from history all the artists, intellectuals, dissidents, workers, and peasants who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in the Stalinist Terror, including the writer Isaac Babel, the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov (imprisoned in the GULAG slave-labor camps) and her husbands Nikolai Gumilyov, who was murdered by the CheKa (precursor to the NKVD, or Soviet Interior Ministry: Stalin’s secret police), and Nikolai Punin (who died in the GULAG), as well as the Russian Makhnovist Peter Arshinov, who was executed in the Terror in 1937 or 1938 on the charge of organizing to resurrect the anarchist movement in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of all the “Old Bolsheviks” killed in the Moscow Show Trials.

Jeremy and Justin therefore reject the historical reality that, following the expulsion in 1927 of his primary rival Lev Trotsky from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “there is little doubt that Stalin and a narrow circle of aides made all the historical decisions of the period.”23 Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had joined with Trotsky (also Jewish) in 1926 to form a “United Opposition” to Stalin, quickly recanted following Trotsky’s forced exile in 1928. Lacking a base among either workers or peasants, these rivals of Stalin were outmaneuvered by the General Secretary’s construction of a vast bureaucracy.24 The “Proles of the Round Table” thus omit Stalin’s internal liquidation of factions, his utter subordination of foreign Communist Parties to his arbitrary rule, and his war on the remnants of intellectual freedom in the USSR.25 Like other authoritarian socialists, Justin and Jeremy misleadingly conflate the Communist Party bureaucracy with the proletariat and peasantry it exploited and dominated—a notion with which Ó Séaghdha concurs, insisting as he does that historical Stalinist bureaucracies have represented “mass-proletarian movements.” This is a classic exposition of “substitutionism,” whereby élites of intellectuals and/or bureaucrats rule over the working classes by proxy and in their supposed interests, though without any democratic participation on the part of workers and peasants. The ill-named concept of “democratic centralism” expresses the same dictatorial idea.

Therefore, rather than reflect thoughtfully on the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Jeremy and Justin vigorously defend Stalin’s technocratic and genocidal legacy of authoritarian high modernism, whereby the centralized power of the totalitarian State is employed “scientifically” and expeditiously to transform society not in the interests of humanity or the working classes, but the Party bureaucracy and state-capitalism.26

According to the “Proles of the Round Table,” these were the three greatest mistakes or crimes for which Stalin is responsible during his three decades as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, from 1922-1952:

  1. Justin argues that Stalin should have supported the Spanish Revolution more, although Jeremy is quick to clarify that he did not “betray” it. The pair detail the extent to which Stalin supplied arms and ammunition to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War—yet Jeremy suggests that, had Stalin provided greater assistance to the Republic, the Soviet Union might not have been able to resist Nazi and Japanese expansionism during World War II. Of course, he fails to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact here; neither does he seem to consider that, had the Nationalist forces been defeated in Spain, Hitler may have been checked before even launching World War II. Jeremy and Justin contend that Stalin’s intervention in Spain was benign, and that it’s “patently false” that his Comintern agents “maliciously murdered anarchists […] in the streets.” Both claims are complete lies. Firstly, Stalin effectively looted the Republic’s gold reserves by vastly overcharging for the arms sold to it, as historian Gerald Howson has shown, and the Soviets would often send dysfunctional weapons that lacked ammunition. In addition, Stalin treated Spain as a colonial possession, dispatching NKVD and GRU (military-intelligence) agents there who reported to and acted under him, not the Republican government.27 Even so pro-Soviet an historian as E. H. Carr recognized that the Republic ultimately had become “the puppet of Moscow.”28 Secondly, the “Proles of the Round Table” appear willfully ignorant of the “Tragic Week” of May 1937, otherwise known as the “May Days,” when Stalinists from the Comintern-affiliated Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) in Barcelona struck out against the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in an effort to uphold “antifascist unity” while crushing the ongoing social revolution. In effect, the May Days “guaranteed the armed victory of the Stalinist-led counter-revolution,” which in turn allowed for the victory of Nationalist forces, following the rationale that “Stalin feared his leftist rivals in Spain more than he did Franco.”29
  2. The deportation to Irkutsk and Siberia of “10,000 Soviet citizens” from the Volga region who were ethnic Germans beginning in 1941, supposedly for fear of their being a “fifth column” vis-à-vis the invading Nazi military. For Jeremy, the error was that Stalin deported these Germans on an ethnic basis, though he definitely implies that the General Secretary would have been justified in deporting or exiling his opponents on a “class” or political basis—because, of course, for Jeremy and Justin, any political opposition to Stalin is “counter-revolutionary,” no matter its actual content, given their absurd view that the General Secretary represented the epitome of the Russian Revolution. In uttering such words, Jeremy unwittingly expresses his support for Stalin’s GULAG system of slave-labor camps on principle. He also underestimates the number of Volga Germans deported by Stalin’s regime by a factor of between 40 and 70.
  3. Stalin’s imposition of Article 121, which criminalized male homosexuality with hard labor, following the Bolsheviks’ earlier suspension of Tsarist-era penal codes against homosexuality after October 1917. Though they criticize Stalin for this reactionary move, Justin and Jeremy try to contextualize the reversal by pointing out the supposedly perceived affinities between homosexuality and fascism at that time, and between homosexuality and pederasty, or pedophilia—thus unironically recalling today’s criminalization of homosexuality under Vladimir Putin. Ó Séaghdha assists by claiming such criminalization to have been standard practice “all over the world” at the time. Yet a fact check shows this not remotely to have been the case.

What’s the problem, then, with these supposed criticisms? For one, they reveal that Jeremy and Justin are not remotely arguing in good faith. To begin with, the guests chuckle when discussing the “shady” actions of NKVD agents “murdering anti-Soviet communists in the background” in Barcelona after Ó Séaghdha questions them about this. They are, moreover, quite dishonest about the overall meaning of Stalin’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Furthermore, regarding deportations, Jeremy completely overlooks Stalin’s far more extensive and systematic ethnic cleansing of over a million ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim, during World War II: Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks (Buddhists), Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. As there is no mention or discussion of these on the podcast, neither is there any discussion of precisely why Stalin and the Communist Party might have feared these minorities’ siding with the advancing Germans: namely, due to their oppression under the Soviet Union. Forcibly transferred by the NKVD to Central Asia, the Far North, and Siberia like the Cherokee people coerced onto the “Trail of Tears,” many of these oppressed peoples died either during the journey or in exile—leading to the logical conclusion that Stalin is guilty of genocide here beyond any reasonable doubt. Of course, these atrocious mass-deportations go unmentioned by Jeremy, who rather banally asserts that the Volga Germans “had it better” in exile in Russia’s Far North and Eastern Siberia than those Germans and German-Americans detained by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in internment camps during World War II. For context, he will later add that he considers Lavrentiy Beria, the successor to the “Purged” Nikolai Yezhov as NKVD chief in 1939—a man responsible for the liquidation of Social Democrats in Georgia and Armenia, Old Bolsheviks in the Terror, and Polish officers captured after the Nazi-Soviet Pact—to have been a “liberal.”30

So beyond proclaiming elitism and substitutionism; arguing in bad faith; and denying atrocities such as the Stalinist dictatorship, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the May Days, Stalin’s mass-deportations of oppressed nationalities, and the GULAG slave-labor camp system (see part II of this response); Jeremy and Justin now present the classic argument of “whataboutism,” which seeks to distract from the issue at hand—Stalin’s totalitarian atrocities—by falsely claiming that that same issue is dwarfed by some similar issue that is ongoing elsewhere. A fact check shows just how dishonest this argument is: 11,000 Germans and German-Americans were interned in the U.S. during WWII, while Stalin’s regime deported at least 400,000 Volga Germans to Siberia and Irkutsk.31 (For reference, the U.S. interned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

In sum, Jeremy is lying to his audience when he claims that Stalin wasn’t “just f*cking with people just to f*ck with them.”


Courtesy Asya Pereltsvaig


1Raya Dunayevskaya, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution, eds. Eugene Gogol and Franklin Dmitryev (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 317 (emphasis in original).


3Elena Poniatowska, Tinísima (México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1992) 595-596 (my translation).

4Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 700.

5Ibid 702.

6Ibid 710.

7Ibid 705; Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 269-274.

8Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (London: Vintage, 2010), 340-345; Plokhy 269.

9Evtuhov 702-703.

10Ibid 673.

11Plokhy 264.

12Ibid 264-265.

13Evtuhov 703.

14Ibid 704-705.

15Plokhy 267-274.

16Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 47.

17Alexander Berkman, “A Decade of Bolshevism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 122; Nestor Makhno, “The Idea of Equality and the Bolsheviks,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 58.

18Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), xv, 362.

19Hensman 52.

20Hensman adds the political goals of struggling for democracy, centering internationalism, and advocating for the promotion of human rights and democracy through global institutions (279-302). Beyond this, reorganizing society toward popular power through self-organization in the labor, educational, and territorial sectors (on the social level) is an equally pressing task.

21Arendt 392.

22Evtuhov 671.

23Plokhy 245.

24Evtuhov 641-644.

25Arendt 379; Evtuhov 663.

26James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

27Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, ed. Ronald Radosh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), xvii-xviii.

28E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (London: Pantheon, 1984), 31.

29Agustín Guillamón, Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933-38 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 189; Evtuhov 698.

30Evtuhov 692.

31Ulrich Merten, Voices from the Gulag (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2015), 168-170.


Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10

This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.