Posts Tagged ‘Nazism’

Review: Critical Marxism in Mexico

November 25, 2016


Published on Marx and Philosophy25 November 2016

Stefan Gandler’s volume Critical Marxism in Mexico investigates the radical political philosophy of two twentieth-century exiles who became naturalized citizens of Mexico: the Spanish Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915-2011) and the Ecuadorean leftist Bolívar Echeverría (1914-2010). Focusing on Latin America, this text places at its center the philosophical and practical critique of Eurocentrism. Indeed, the German Gandler envisions the book as being an initial step toward “overcoming Eurocentric bigotry,” and he declares that he is “profoundly convinced that Eurocentrism in its ‘philosophical’ and general forms […] is one of the principal reasons for the current disaster that humanity is living through at the global level,” considering its responsibility for vast material suffering and for repressing alternative forms of social organization. Given that Eurocentrism underpins capitalism, the critique of Eurocentrism in turn forms a central pillar of the “critical Marxism” developed by Sánchez Vázquez and Echeverría, in terms of their repudiation of the racism and positivism evinced at times by Marx, Engels, and many who have claimed Marxism. This alternative Marxism is critical also in that it is anti-Stalinist, non-Marxist-Leninist, relatively libertarian, and non-dogmatic.

Sánchez Vázquez is more practical, more revolutionary, and more based in Marx’s philosophical-humanist early writings than Echeverría, his fellow radical exile who took up residence in Mexico City in 1968, nearly three decades after Sánchez Vázquez arrived there as a refugee fleeing Franco’s victory in Spain. According to Gandler, the trajectory of Sánchez Vázquez’s life demonstrates that of the self-emancipation of a formerly orthodox socialist from intellectual error without his becoming a reformist or apologist or “forgetting the radical critique of everything existing which would be unthinkable without Marx.” For Sánchez Vázquez, theoretical knowledge depends on social transformation through praxis, defined by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach” as “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” Theory, in Sánchez Vázquez’s view, “cannot exist […] without reference to praxis.” The Spanish thinker considers Marx’s very emphasis on praxis the German communist’s philosophical revolution, as summarized in the well-known final thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Such immersion in Marx’s early writings strengthened Sánchez Vázquez’s resolve to resist the Soviet Union’s corruption of Marxism, as seen in the philosopher’s critique of Diamat in his 1955 masters thesis, and his resignation from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956). The Cuban Revolution, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Mexican student movement of 1968 greatly moved Sánchez Vázquez. His doctoral dissertation and book Philosophy of Praxis (1967) provide a libertarian presentation of Marxism that is critical of Marx, Lenin, and their followers. Such an unorthodox interpretation led Sánchez Vázquez to be criticized precisely by Marxist-Leninists such as the Cuban Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez, who condemned the thinker in 1988 for denying the “importance of Lenin’s political & philosophical legacy” and advancing “practical and spontaneous conceptions of the revolution.” Yet Sánchez Vázquez’s very stress on praxis—echoing Marx—led him to become one of the foremost intellectuals of emancipation of his time. He engaged with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and focused his late efforts on Marxism and aesthetics, identifying the need for “a new sensibility, a new audience, a new aesthetic attitude” to be cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba and more broadly. Sánchez Vázquez summarizes his philosophy in his 1985 autobiography, declaring that “socialism […] continues to be a necessary, desirable, and possible alternative.”

In contrast, Echeverría tells Gandler that, while he “agreed fully” with Sánchez Vázquez’s “critical vision of Marxism,” he was not his contemporary’s follower or disciple. Whereas Sánchez Vázquez privileges emancipatory consciousness and praxis, Echeverría focuses more on ordinary consciousness and is skeptical about the possibilities of praxis. For this reason, for him, it is more a “question of discovering political possibilities within alienation.” Influenced by Heidegger, Echeverría traveled to West Germany in 1961 to study with him, for he considered the phenomenologist to be “the true revolutionary” philosopher. Gandler rightly takes issue with Echeverría’s failure to recognize Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany, in parallel to the thinker’s questionable reflections on the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, Gandler discusses Echeverría’s questionably uncritical stance on the USSR, situating it as being typical of the Latin American left at the time, which considered the Soviet Union a necessary counterbalance to US imperialism. Nonetheless, despite these problematic aspects, Echeverría developed a revolutionary concept of the intellect, which he believed must “abandon the European-bourgeois principles and ideology to complete philosophically the definitive process of decolonization, which is demanded practically by the dominated classes.” In this sense, the Ecuadorean philosopher considered Marxism “the “philosophy of workers’ struggle, the culmination and overcoming of all metaphysical European traditions.”

Yet to the matter of the fall—or, rather, destruction—of the Berlin Wall that took place on November 9, 1989, Gandler criticizes Echeverría for his perceived celebration in the Cuadernos Políticos he edited of the smashing of the “anti-fascist protective barrier,” as it was known in East Germany, on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the dominant narrative of that historical event as being liberatory or anti-authoritarian, Gandler frames it as the action of a hysterically reactionary, State-sanctioned mob that sought to tear down an “unwanted monument to the millions” murdered in impunity by the Nazis. This lucid and challenging assessment yields at times in the text to questionable endorsements of the claims made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) regarding the putatively enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans in the genocide of the European Jews (Ha’Shoah), as based in the idea of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” supposedly deeply-rooted in German civilization and Christianity. These historical distortions about German participation in the Holocaust have been refuted adroitly by Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in their Nation on Trial (1997), and it is unfortunate to see Gandler resurrect them within a revolutionary analysis of genocide. Nevertheless, continuing in this sense, he shares Echeverría’s moving commentary on the Shoah as being, rather than merely “an accidental holocaust provoked by a madman,” the “result of a failure of the Left itself: the excessive sacrifice to be paid by the social body for the triumph of the anti-communist counter-revolution in the Europe of bourgeois civilization.”

In light of the genocides for which capitalism bears responsibility, the notion of praxis takes on a special urgency. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx defines praxis as revolutionary because it “transforms reality.” The stress that Sánchez Vázquez places on this category echoes that previously made by Gramsci, who referred to Marxism in his Prison Notebooks as the “philosophy of praxis” in order precisely to recognize the centrality of revolutionary activity to this philosophy. Praxis poses a great threat to authority, capital, and the State precisely because it represents the ever-present risk of the “spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed and exploited” beyond the strictures of the Iron Cage. As Gandler declares, “[t]he concept of praxis […] contains an element of rebellion against all those who, from their desk, from the Party headquarters, or from the workers’ fatherland, aspire to lead the activities of the rebels of all countries.”

In parallel to Sánchez Vázquez’s emphasis on praxis, Echeverría contributes to the deepening of a non-dogmatic Marxism by criticizing Marx, Engels, and many of their followers for their ethnocentrism, naïve progressivism, and determinism—this, while dialectically acknowledging the clearly emancipatory and revolutionary analyses pervading Marxian analysis. After all, as Gandler stresses, it was Marx’s horror at “the destruction of human existences, of children, of the populations of entire regions” that led him to “pic[k] up his pen and wr[i]te Capital” (1867). Yet Marx and Engels, particularly early on, held racist views that are not totally inseparable from their overall method: in 1849, after the U.S. defeated Mexico and appropriated the Southwest, Engels hailed the result, which he considered to have been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization,” as California had been “taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it.” Moreover, Marx and Engels employed anti-Slavic prejudice during their struggle against Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International—doubtless in part in response to Bakunin’s own Germanophobia—while both Marx and Bakunin are known for their anti-Semitic comments, however much worse the latter’s were.

For his part, Echeverría uses Marxist analysis to theorize that the oppressed countries of the Global South are not in a “pre-capitalist phase,” but rather that they have been fully subjected to capitalism since its birth. In this sense, all the world’s countries are capitalist, but the system of accumulation requires differing levels of industrialization and political power for different regions. Moreover, the philosopher takes issues with the deterministic, mechanical interpretation of history that Marx and Engels bequeathed to the world, and he outright claims Revolution to be a modern myth and a mirror-image of bourgeois delusion. Thus, whereas he clearly identifies the twentieth century as the “era of unprecedented genocides and ecocides” and wishes for an egalitarian universalism of all peoples, Echeverría is left with only conceptually envisioning the chance for a non- or post-capitalist modernity.

Echeverría identifies four ethe, or cultural spirits, as upholding Eurocentrism and capitalist modernity.

  • The currently dominant realist ethos, which is associated with Nordic-Protestant Europe, defined as principally engaging in denial regarding the destructiveness of capitalism precisely while it pretends that production and consumption are more important than anything else. It also denies the possibility of an alternative world.
  • The classic ethos, associated with Western Europe, which differs from realism only in terms of its recognition of the tragedy but necessity of capital.
  • The romantic ethos, associated with Central Europe, which supposedly transforms all of life under capitalism into a great adventure wherein entrepreneurs become heroes.
  • The baroque ethos, associated with the Mediterranean region, Catholicism, and the Iberian conquest of the New World, which is said to identify some of the contradictions in capitalist society but not be able to conceive of the possibility of abolishing it.

Perhaps a combination in the surge of realistic-romantic sentiments can help explain the recent election of Trump, bolstered by white nationalism—while Clinton and Obama’s concession speeches could be considered expressions of the classic ethos. Yet Echeverría can justly be critiqued for reducing Romanticism to an approach that naturalizes capitalism and oppression, for it certainly has served to propagate liberatory impulses. Writing in the text’s prologue, Michael Löwy is right to declare that the Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Morris, Ernst Bloch, and others is hostile to capitalism, not integral to it.

In sum, Gandler has provided his readers an illuminating investigation into critical Marxism, the necessity of praxis, and the critique of Eurocentrism. Yet the question must be raised, as the author does, of just how anti-Eurocentric it is to explore the thought of two intellectuals—one of them Spanish—who focused above all on European writers. This doubt notwithstanding, in a world in which the Western core-imperial societies are lurching evermore to right-wing reaction, fascism, and “open-self destruction,” it may well be the case, as Gandler asserts, that only movements from the periphery will be able to stop the capitalist death-train. It is to be hoped, then, that resistance elements in imperialist countries can join with their international comrades to advance the cause of critical Marxism or libertarian socialism, which “continues to be the most fertile theory for those of us who are convinced of the need to transform the world in which today there exists not only the exploitation and oppression of [humanity] and peoples, but also a mortal risk for the survival of humanity [and nature].”

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

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.