On Horkheimer and Adorno’s Marxism in 1956 (first version)

Marxism became a “message in a bottle” — can we yet receive it?

Response to Todd Cronan’s review of Towards a New Manifesto

Chris Cutrone

Adorno and Horkheimer’s conversation in 1956 and its potential relevance today were written about recently by Micha Brumlik in the German daily taz (see “Adorno, Lenin und das Schnabeltier,” July 3, 2012, available online at <http://taz.de/Kolumne-Gott-und-die-Welt/!96574/>). An occasion for Brumlik’s article was the meeting of a study circle in Hamburg on the question of Adorno’s relation to Lenin. Was this “absurd?” Brumlik thought not.

Brumlik asked: Are Adorno’s writings consistent and coherent? (Or, is Adorno’s stated affinity for Lenin, for example, as incidental and inessential as Brumlik considers Adorno’s condemnation of jazz?) Does Frankfurt School Critical Theory offer a meaningful political perspective? Can “going back” to Marxism be a way of moving forward? Can a last exponent of the old such as Adorno be a precursor for the new? While Brumlik remained skeptical, equivocal and even ironical in his approach to Adorno, especially regarding Adorno’s “Leninism,” still, he recognized the issue well enough.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1956 conversation took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin and how this signaled a possible political opening, not so much in the Soviet Union but for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno noted the potential in particular of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses” (translated by Horkheimer scholar John Abromeit and published in Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. 1: Technology, War, Fascism [Routledge, 1998], 215–227), which concluded that,

The development [of history since Marx’s time] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

In this sense, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation was part of the moment that gave rise to the subsequent New Left in the 1960s. Their 1956 conversation did not demonstrate their abandonment but rather their — especially Adorno’s — continued adherence to Marxism. Otherwise, why would the occasion for their conversation in 1956 have been, as it was, the prospect of re-writing Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto for the 20th century? Verso’s title is not misleading. Their conversation took place in the same historical circumstances as those of the founding of, for example, New Left Review.

As Adorno put it in his conversation with Horkheimer, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” (103). It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

I have made my argument regarding Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation at a forum of the Platypus Affiliated Society last year, on a panel with Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman and Nicholas Brown on “The politics of Critical Theory” (available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/07/09/the-politics-of-critical-theory/#cutrone>). The obscurity of Adorno’s avowed “Leninism” points not to problems of Adorno’s thought, but rather to how Marxism became esoteric — obscured by history. The question is the potential basis in Frankfurt School Critical Theory for the recovery of Marxism. But then it is necessary to recognize the actual stakes of their politics.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination — the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic (see Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx in Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 2003) — is mistaken. Marxists of the early–mid 20th century such as those of the Frankfurt School had a term for such a misapprehension: “vulgar Marxism.”

Such misunderstanding distorts not only the basis for judging Horkheimer and Adorno’s concerns in 1956, but also those of Marx and of subsequent Marxists such as Lenin. The issue is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. Lukács took this perspective not only from Marx but also from Lenin — as did Adorno and Horkheimer and their colleagues such as Marcuse as well. Lukács’s term for “vulgar Marxism” was the “reification” of “immediacy.” The answer for this was in recognizing the effect of “historical mediation.” The workers’ movement for socialism emerging in the 19th century itself required critical recognition of its actual historical stakes. This was Marx and Marxism’s point of departure.

At issue is the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the workers misrecognized the reasons for their condition, blaming it on their exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. For Marx the capitalists were the mere “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it pithily, in his 1940 essay (written in honor of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), “The Authoritarian State,” the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous,” impacting their social and political consciousness. How had history changed, with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s dispute of Marx and his praising of Lenin on subjectivity need to be understood, not as some perverse Leninist anti-Marx-ism, but rather as a recognition of the deepening of the problem of capitalism in the 20th century. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” (also written in honor of Benjamin), and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” — to which his answer was “no.” The issue of capitalism does not stop at the exploitation of the workers. This is what makes Marxist approaches potentially relevant, even today.

As Horkheimer phrased this, in his aphorism “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” from Dämmerung, popularizing themes from Lukács, “Of course the present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” As Lukács quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845),

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

But the feeling of oppression is not the antidote to such universal “self-alienation.” Rather, what was necessary was the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!”

To put it in Lenin’s “orthodox Marxist” terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.

Rather, as Marx and Engels put it in their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, the actual goal was a society “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” How had history made this possible?

To put it in Hegelian terms, for Marx and subsequent Marxists “class consciousness” is the historical self-consciousness and recognition of the “actuality” or historical potential and possibility of the workers’ “class struggle” against the capitalists, and how this points beyond capitalism, but is otherwise part of the dynamic of capitalism, perpetuating it. Capital’s alienated and destructive historical dynamic is reproduced by the social activity of the exchange of labor as a commodity, the form of solidarity in bourgeois society, which, after the Industrial Revolution, undermines itself in self-contradiction. The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it in their 1956 conversation, work became an “ideology,” but one which, ensnared in “antinomy,” needed to be worked through “dialectically.”

This was the self-understanding common to Marx and Lenin, as well as to Horkheimer and Adorno. While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them, precisely at the level of political consciousness: the “ontologization” of labor that Stalinized “Marxism” had in common with Heidegger and fascism more generally: “Arbeit macht frei.” See Adorno’s aphorism “Imaginative Excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia, written 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Dialectic of Enlightenment — where Adorno argued that the workers “no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”

This bears on how it is possible to read Adorno and Horkheimer — and Marx and Lenin — today, regarding the potential continued relevance of Marxism. But Marxism would have needed to be made relevant again, for otherwise it was not so: what Marcuse had called the need for a “praxis appropriate to it.” Hence, the need Horkheimer and Adorno felt for a “new manifesto:” Marxism didn’t exist ready-made.

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t. | §

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