Adorno’s Leninism

Lenin and Adorno are not often placed side by side, conceptually or historically. More often than not they are counterposed — the former was a revolutionary man of action, while the latter ruminated most of his life on a revolution that never came to pass. It therefore came as a surprise to many when it came to light that Adorno insisted on “a strictly Leninist manifesto” in 1956, during his recorded conversation with Horkheimer. Even Martin Jay, who long sought to distance Frankfurt School critical theory from Leninism, was forced to acknowledge this passing remark, though it was immediately downplayed as an uncharacteristic bit of exuberance (“a brief paroxysm of enthusiasm”). Other critics, such as Todd Cronan, held that Adorno regressed behind Marx in following Lenin, since being determines consciousness and not the other way around. Chris Cutrone, my old mentor/nemesis of Platypus fame, has already criticized this view, so I won’t reprise his comments here.

The majority of Adorno’s public pronouncements regarding Lenin were deprecatory, if appreciative, playing coy with his authority on questions of materialist epistemology. Brecht had wondered why Adorno would bother reexamining philosophers like Mach or Husserl, especially since Lenin had dealt with them so roughly in Materialism and Empiricriticism (1908). Adorno objected that Lenin’s critique of empiriocriticism remained purely transcendental — i.e. rejecting it on the basis of false premises rather than provisionally accepting these false premises and immanently working through them. “When Lenin, rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it in compulsively reiterated avowals of the noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to demonstrate that subjective positivism is conspiring with the powers that be,” wrote Adorno. “His political requirements turned him against the goal of theoretical cognition. A transcendent argumentation disposes of things on the basis of its claim to power, and with disastrous results: the unpenetrated target of criticism remains undisturbed as it is, and not being hit at all, it can be resurrected at will in changed constellations of power.”

“[D]ialectics as critique implies the criticism of any hypostasization of the mind as the primary thing, the thing that underpins everything else,” he recalled in his 1966 Lectures on Negative Dialectics. “I remember how I once explained all this to Brecht when we were together in exile. Brecht reacted by saying that these matters had all been settled long since — and what he had in mind was the materialist dialectic — and that there was no point in harking back to a controversy that had been superseded by the unreal course of history. I am unable to agree with this. On the one hand, it seems to me that the book whose authority he relied on, Lenin’s book on empiriocriticism, in no way succeeds in delivering what it undertakes to perform, namely a philosophical critique of the hypostasization of the mind or of idealism. It remains a thoroughly dogmatic work which simply presents a specific thesis with a torrent of abuse and in endless variations, without at all attempting a fundamental explanation.”

Just going on these statements, Adorno would seem to be lukewarm toward Lenin at best. Yet Adorno’s references to Lenin made in private, repeatedly in his letters from the 1930s and then again in his taped conversation two decades later, paint a different picture. There are several likely reasons for this. Lars Quadfasel speculates that public mention of Lenin during the 1930s, particularly after the Nazi seizure of power, would have been extremely unwise unless one was heaping scorn upon the Bolshevik leader’s memory. Similarly, after World War II, it was illegal for anyone living in West Germany to belong to the communist party. Moreover, since Lenin’s successors had transformed his teachings, along with those of Marx, into an unmoving set of dogmas collectively referred to as “DiaMat,” it is understandable that Adorno would hesitate to invoke the great revolutionary.

Detlev Claussen’s 2003 biography of Adorno, One Last Genius, perhaps provides the richest picture of Lenin’s enduring influence on Adorno. Claussen writes:

It was [Adorno’s] collaboration with Horkheimer [during the 1930s] that enabled him to shed these intellectual infantile disorders. His letters are full of bizarre references to Lenin, as if he wanted to outdo the “orthodox Marxism” advocated in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Adorno’s original politicization took place when he was still very young, evidently in the course of his readings with Kracauer. This supplied him with key terms that expanded his horizon beyond his artistic and aesthetic concerns. This habit of thinking in keywords recurs in the taped records of the 1950s, when he would refer to Lenin, in the middle of the cold war, at a time when the Communist Party was banned and even party members scarcely dared to mention his name. It was at this time that he proposed to Horkheimer that they should produce a reworked Communist Manifesto that would be “strictly Leninist.” Behind the closed doors of the Institute, Adorno’s aim in 1956 was not to go back to Marx, but to go beyond him. He told Horkheimer that “I always wanted to try to produce a theory that would be faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while not lagging behind the achievements of the most advanced culture.” Paradoxically, summing up the course of his life to that point in 1956, Adorno mentions his road toward politicization. He had arrived at Lenin, he claimed, via music. Using one of his key ideas, the idea that all knowledge is socially mediated, Adorno once again confirmed the importance of Lenin: “Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as a milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.”

In reality it was only Lenin’s contemporary Freud who noticed people’s subjectivity. Horkheimer and Adorno’s original idea of writing something jointly, the original seed of Dialectic of Enlightenment, was concerned with a critique of the individual. It was the attitude toward psychoanalysis that revealed the split in the material which produced critical theory, on the one hand, and revisionist psychoanalysis, as pioneered by Erich Fromm, on the other. The directness of the political vocabulary that was retained until well into the fifties becomes clear from a letter of Adorno’s to Horkheimer dated 21 March 1936. Adorno complains that Fromm has placed him in the “paradoxical situation of having to defend Freud. He is both sentimental and false, a combination of social democracy and anarchism; above all, there is a painful absence of dialectical thinking. He takes far too simple a view of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s vanguard nor his dictatorship is conceivable. I would urgently advise him to read Lenin.”

Below are two long articles, each titled “Adorno’s Leninism.” The first, by Cutrone, presents a number of parallels between Lenin, Trotsky, and Adorno, some passages being virtual paraphrases. It’s a bit quote-heavy, in that almost Benjaminian style that presents long blocks of quoted texts followed by brief commentary, but it’s quite good. After that, there’s an article by Quadfasel in German (“Adornos Leninismus”) where he touches on several of the matters discussed in this introduction, as well as ongoing textual controversies about the compatibility or incompatibility of Adornian theory with Leninist practice — again, mostly in German. Quadfasel’s article includes a rather long fragment by Adorno from 1935 titled “The Fulcrum,” which I’ve attempted to translate below. Claudia Dallek assisted in the translation:

To learn from Lenin: Shouldn’t that really mean more than taking over methods of illegal work that were appropriate for the police state of Prussia? Such methods are not appropriate for a dictatorship whose power to rule [Herrschgewalt] strikes with even greater precision (insofar as it is able to con people, not based on democracy, but on a population of willing servants, informants, and pimps). Instead of sacrificing our best workers in the distribution of flyers — which publish about revolutionary developments that are simultaneously hindered by the arrest of these very same agitators — it is preferable to study Lenin’s attitude toward the revolution of Kerensky [in February 1917]: his ability to discover and use the fulcrum [Hebelpunkt, leverage point] of society to lift the measureless weight of the state with minimal energy. The proletariat was too weak to take on tsarist state authority; only the bourgeoisie could do that, by hastily bringing in the harvest of its revolutionary century. But this late bourgeoisie was like the bourgeoisie of other countries, sworn to war and therefore unable to keep its mass basis [Massenbasis] in a subordinate state. It was numerically spread too thin to fill the sphere of power and too ideologically divided to shape it, so it had to yield to the push that was made in the name of peace. To deliberately intervene in the concatenation of all these was necessary on Lenin’s part. He could have never defeated the autocracy, but certainly [could defeat] the democracy of the Brusilov offensive [the government that took over following the disastrous “June advance” of 1916]. He was able to recognize this beforehand and managed to master this blind violence by planning for it, the way cunning defeats the monster in fairy tales. That’s what made the immortal dialectical moment of his act the starting point and the prototype of every genuine communist state and revolution. The fate of the German working class, maybe that of humankind, depends on finding such a point, if it’s still indeed possible to find. There is no other hope to avoid war than this. Those who prophesy communism as the certain end of war, and therefore let things take their course, should remember that nobody knows (let alone the generals) what productive forces and means of production will be left to begin establishing the world.

Another friend, Sebastian Vetter, tells me that Adorno’s student Helmut Dahmer is preparing an essay on the influence of Leon Trotsky on Walter Benjamin. Dahmer is a specialist in psychoanalysis and critical theory, who hasn’t had much of his work translated into English since the 1970s, so I’m hoping it comes out soon and is good enough to merit a wider, Anglophone readership.

Adorno in 1935

Adorno’s Leninism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
April 21, 2010

Adorno’s political relevance

Theodor W. Adorno, who was born in 1903 and lived until 1969, has a continuing purchase on problems of politics on the Left by virtue of his critical engagement with two crucial periods in the history of the Left: the 1930s “Old” Left and the 1960s “New Left.” Adorno’s critical theory, spanning this historical interval of the mid-20th century, can help make sense of the problems of the combined and ramified legacy of both periods.

Adorno is the key thinker for understanding 20th century Marxism and its discontents. As T.J. Clark has put it (in “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” 2003), Adorno “[spent a lifetime] building ever more elaborate conceptual trenches to outflank the Third International.” The period of Adorno’s life, coming of age in the 1920s, in the wake of the failed international anticapitalist revolution that had opened in Russia in 1917 and continued but was defeated in Germany, Hungary and Italy in 1919, and living through the darkest periods of fascism and war in the mid-20th century to the end of the 1960s, profoundly informed his critical theory. As he put it in the introduction to the last collection of his essays he edited for publication before he died, he sought to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience.” Adorno reflected on his “drastic” historical experience through the immanent critique, the critique from within, of Marxism. Adorno thought Marxism had failed as an emancipatory politics but still demanded redemption, and that this could be achieved only on the basis of Marxism itself. Adorno’s critical theory was a Marxist critique of Marxism, and as such reveals key aspects of Marxism that had otherwise become buried, as a function of the degenerations Marxism suffered from the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of Adorno’s writings, from the 1930s-1940s and the 1960s, illustrate the abiding concerns of his critical theory throughout this period. Continue reading