HMNY Paper

I believe a recording of the panel on Adorno’s Marxism was made, which I will circulate when it is available. In the meantime, here is the text of my speech, typos and all:

The phenomenology of the anti-Spirit”: Adorno’s Marxism as Critical Theory

What is Marxism?

For those outside the Marxian tradition, we might assume the answer is relatively straightforward: Marxism was a movement predicated on the ideas of Marx, which was eclipsed when the march of history proved them to be faulty. For in the end it was capitalism that was communism’s gravedigger, not the other way around.

For those within the Marxian tradition, however, the answer is not so straightforward, particularly these days. Is Marxism inextricably linked to the worker’s movement? Or is that traditional Marxism? Is non-traditional marxism something that is solely the province of academics with tenure-track jobs who would rather bicker over Marx’s jottings than engage in class struggle? Or is it symptomatic of a renewed interest in Marx that has emerged in cycles of struggles played out in the aftermath of the global financial crisis?

The matter becomes even more complicated when you consider that the only comments that Marx left on this issue were that he was not a Marxist. Doubly so when the Marxism of Theodor W. Adorno is considered; because, as I’m sure most of us were taught, Adorno traded in his Marxism for a plush suite in the grand abyss hotel which provided ample support for his critique of instrumental reason, which instead of holding that class exploitation should be abolished by praxis and class struggle, held that everything (or at least reason from the Greeks till now) was shit.

Yet if there is not a Marxism as such, what does this hold for Adorno’s Marxism and for representations and receptions of it in the Anglophone world? And how are these representations and receptions shaped by the reception of Adorno in the Anglophone as incumbent on notions of Marxism as such?

The answers to the questions are not so easy. Whilst a definitive account of the reception of critical theory in the Anglophone world has yet to be written, it is important to note that this reception was formulated beginning in the mid-late 1960s by a number of figures, such as Martin Jay, who can be said to have treated the critical theory of society — as formulated by primarily by Adorno and Horkheimer — as an element of larger topic of investigation. One such approach can be said to be ‘institutional,’ which, as reflected in the term Frankfurt School Critical Theory, associated those who were employed or affiliated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt with critical theory. Another is based on a broad category, often politically inflicted, that was meant to capture important theoretical and historical differences between Soviet and Western Marxism.[1]

Although there were doubtless compelling reasons to use these analytic lenses at the time, they can also be said to have had unintended consequences. By virtue of his association with the Institute for Social Research, Jurgen Habermas and his interlocutors took up the institutional mantle of Critical Theory. From this it followed that Habermas and Habermasian criticisism’s of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical theory soon gained hegemony, particularly within the burgeoning scholarship in critical theory in England and America in the 1970s. At the same time, the category of Western Marxism, came to treat the contributions of Horkheimer and Adorno as the logical terminus of an academic Marxism, which preferred ruminating on aesthetics in the Grand Hotel Abyss to revolutionary praxis.

In so doing, both of these strands relied on assumptions on what Marxism consisted in as a criterion to disassociate Adorno’s critical theory from Marxism. This gave birth to a number of shibboleths that misrepresent Adorno’s interpretation of Marx and its central role in his critical theory of society. For contra accounts of Western Marxism, Adorno’s Marxism did not consist in ‘precisely the same Hegelian-Marxist position which Lukács had developed in History and Class Consciousness – but he supported it independent of class considerations and as unashamed speculation’[2], nor, contra the Habermasian reception, was it abandoned in favour of a totalising critique of instrumental reason in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Instead, the years that Adorno spent in Frankfurt also mark the period of his most sophisticated engagement with Marx, which also coincided with his criticisms of Lukacs’s notion of reification. Moroever, as I and Patrick touch upon, his interaction with a number of students that would take up this aspect of Adorno’s critical theory in their subsequent work, which doubtlessly due to the institutional reception and hegemonic status of Habermasian critical theory, has been mostly ignored in the Anglosphere.

In what follows I sketch the contours of Adorno’s late engagement with Marx, by focusing on how Adorno utilized Marx in conjunction with his theory of social objectivity in his theory of natural history and his theory of contemporary society. I then outline the reading of Marx that set up the latter by focusing on the most detailed comments Adorno made in Marx in a 1962 seminar that appears as the appendix to Backhaus’ Dialectic of the Value-Form. In so doing, I outline the role of Marx in these central elements of Adorno’s critical theory whilst differentiating it from the misrepresentations I outlined above




The collection of philosophical fragments entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment has an interesting history that can only be cursorily dealt with here. Written by Adorno and Horkheimer in the dark days of their American exile, the book was first published by a small Dutch press in 1944 . Yet it is interesting to note that the book was not available for the majority of the time after Adorno had returned to Germany. In his preparatory lectures in 1964-65 for Negative Dialectics he states that the little known book will soon be republished.

Moreover, the comments Adorno makes in these lectures on Dialectic of Enlightenment hardly characterize it as what it would become in the course of its eventual reception; not as one of the formulations Adorno makes of his concept of natural history written in a particular context with Horkheimer, but the definitive statement of Adorno’s formulation of it, which Habermasian critics have charged provides a totalizing account of the inexorable march of instrumental reason and a transhistorical account of simple commodity production as evidenced in Odysseus as the first bourgeois.

However, as Werner Bonefeld points out such an interpretation ignores how Adorno conceives of history. For Adorno, history is not trans-historical, nor is it teleological. Oddyseus is not the first bourgeoisie because he was a member of the capitalist class or because he acted in a way that inexorably led to contemporary society. Rather, history can only be comprehended from the standpoint of the present alone, Thus as Bonefeld notes, ‘In Adorno’s view, Marx’s critique of political economy amounts to a critique of history because his critique of capitalism reveals the whole of history in the present conditions of domination’. Consequently, in a manner akin to Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, Adorno is not making the factual statement that Oddyseus was bourgeois, instead he is characterizing him as such in order to identify the salient aspects of contemporary society that can be seen to be presupposed in a similar yet different sense in Oddyseus because it is realized in our society.

This can be seen in an important footnote to Dialectic of Enlightenment, which indicates that the negative philosophy of history adumbrated in Dialectic of Enlightenment sketches the genesis of the domination of external and internal nature from the perspective of the present by adumbrating the subsequent development of different forms of second nature encapsulated in the pre-capitalist practices of ‘animism’ and ‘myth’ and the contemporary one of commodity fetishism. As Adorno notes in a gloss of this schema ‘In the enlightened world, mythology has entered into the profane […] It is not merely that domination is paid for by the alienation of men from the objects dominated: with the objectification of spirit, the very relations of men – even those of the individual himself – were bewitched. […] Animism spiritualises the object, whereas industrialism objectifies the spirits of men.’

These salient aspects described in Dialectic of Enlightenment – the domination of nature leading to historically differentiated instances of the external and internal domination of individuals by second nature – were revisited and reformulated by Adorno in the 1960s. A key interlocutor in this formulation of natural history was Adorno’s student, Alfred Schmidt, who wrote his thesis on Marx’s Concept of Nature under Adorno, which seems to have provided the impetus for Adorno to articulate these themes by drawing on Marx, not only explicitly, but also extensively.

Space and time limit an in depth account of this influence, But let me quickly note how these aspects of Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx’s concept of nature are echoed, and indeed, serve as the basis of Adorno’s account of natural history in Negative Dialectics.

Schmidt argues that Marx’s idea of the metabolism with nature held that “the whole of nature is socially mediated and, inversely, society is mediated through nature as a component of total reality.” This is because “by acting on the external world and changing it” humanity “at the same time changes his own nature.” Consequently, “In a wrongly organized society, the control of nature, however highly developed, remains at the same time an utter subjection to nature.” This means “that men are still not in control of their own productive forces vis-i-vis nature, that these forces confront them as the organized, rigid form of an opaque society, as a “second nature” which sets its own essence against its creators.”

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno uses passages from Marx often sourced from Schmidt, and more specifically Schmidt’s work on Marx, to articulate his account of society as the domination of external and internal nature and of capitalist society as a negative totality that is a historically-specific variant of such a society. This is most evident in a statement of Adorno’s that is essentially a paraphrase of Schmidt’s analysis of Marx’s account of the relationship between domination of nature and of society as a dominating second nature: “Marx recognized that against Hegel”, ‘the objectivity of historical life is that of natural history.”[3]

Thus, while


            Hegel described the first nature, a world of things existing outside men,as a blind conceptless occurrence. The world of men as it takes shape in the state, law, society, and the economy, is for him ‘second nature’, manifested    reason, objective Spirit. Marxist analysis opposes to this the view that Hegel’s             ‘second nature’ should rather be described in the terms he applied to the first:   namely, as the area of conceptlessness, where blind necessity and blind chance             coincide. The ‘second nature’ is still the ‘first’. Mankind has still not stepped             beyond natural history[4]

The centrality of Marx to this conception of natural history can also be seen in the following point from History and Freedom in which Adorno discusses the historical nature of social objectivity as negative, aligning and basing his account of second nature qua natural history with Marx:

Marx makes a point of confronting Hegel on this issue, even though he agrees with him in claiming that objectivity asserts itself over heads of individuals and through their actions: ‘And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement . . .’ or ‘My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them’ (Capital, vol. 1, Preface to the first German edition, p. 10). The idea of natural laws governing history, the idea that social entanglements are the natural outgrowth of history, goes together with the unfreedom of the individual. There is this to be said about the interpretation of Marx: in contrast to the prevailing belief that Marx had a positive view of the natural laws of society and that one needs only to obey them to obtain the possibility of the right kind of society – in contrast to this belief, Marx wishes to get beyond them into the kingdom of freedom, i.e., to escape from the notion of history as natural history. 117

Consequently, following Schmidt, Adorno draws on Marx to characterize the history of society as “that of the control of nature, progressing into domination over human beings and ultimately over internalized nature.” Contra the Habermasian notion of totalizing instrumental reason in then seems fair to say that Adorno did not abandon Marxism in Dialectic of Englightenment for a historical and totalizing account of the development of instrumental reason. Rather, the Marxian elements in Dialectic of Enlightenement were later taken up and elaborated in his later work in order to conceive of historically-specific supraindividual domination of capitalist society in a Marxian vein insofar as its “Natural lawfulness is real … as a law of motion of unconscious society.”[5]




This brings us to Adorno’s account of negative social objectivity in contemporary society, which in his late work turned to Marx’s theory of value, or what Adorno often characterizes simply as exchange or fetishism. Adorno’s students, HG Backahuas and Helmut Reichelt, argue that despite Adorno’s perceptive comments on Marx’s theory of value, he never got to the heart of it, which lead them to formulate a new interpretation of Marx’s theory of value, that Patrick will provide some comments on. As Christian will also show, it is nevertheless the case that this notion of exchange is central to Adorno’s critical social theory. In what remains, I will focus on discussing how Adorno interpreted these aspects of Marx’s work and signal how Adorno drew on them in order to set their contributions.

Before that a quick note on Lukacs. Although as I noted above this element of Adorno’s theory is often simply treated as his theory of reification, which he is said to have taken from Lukacs whilst relinquishing praxis, Adorno’s late interpretation of Marx’s theory of value is significantly different from Lukács in several respects. Firstly, on a methodological level, he moves away from using the concept of the commodity in favour of using exchange as the basis for the critique of capitalism as a negative socio-cultural totality that has to be abolished rather than as a totality that has to be grasped and then seized by the class that constitutes it. Secondly, on a theoretical level, this is reflected in his move away from his use of Lukács’ early conception of second nature to his conception of the exchange abstraction, and in a further move, away from describing the objective and autonomous aspect of social domination through alienation towards addressing it via abstraction, autonomisation, inversion and personification. This is coupled to his criticism of the ‘tireless charge of reification’ for its ‘idealist’, ‘subjectivist’ and un- dialectical focus, which conflates domination with objectification, bases itself on the ‘isolated category’ of ‘thingly’ appearance and ‘blocks’ a properly dialectical diagnosis of social domination. These deficiencies of Lukács’s theory of reification are contrasted with Marx’s properly dialectical and objective theory of the fetish character of commodities in which ‘The fetish-character of commodities is not chalked up to subjective-mistaken consciousness, but objectively deduced out of the social a priori, the process of exchange.’ Thus, contra Lukacs, for Adorno value is a socially objective phenomenology of the non-mind

But why and how is this the case?

On a general level, Adorno sees ‘the highly obscure and difficult theory of the so-called law of value’ as ‘the summation of all the social acts taking place through exchange. It is through this process that society maintains itself and, according to Marx, continues to reproduce itself and expand despite all the catastrophes that may eventuate.’ P 50

Although how sees this dynamic as playing out is littered through out his work, I now turn to Backhaus’s notes from the 1962 seminar which provide Adorno’s most in depth account in terms of his interpretation of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. On the interpretation that he presents there, it is abstract labour which makes commodities exchangeable. Abstract labour thus ‘abstracts from living opponents’ making commodities ‘a kind of sum of something solid, objective [Dinglichem].’ By virtue of these attributes of abstract labour, the commodity also possesses its fetish form which Adorno characterises in autonomous and personified terms:

On the face of it, these abstractions make what is exchanged a thing in itself. What is a social relation appears as if it was the sum of objective qualities of an object. The concept of commodity fetishism is nothing but this necessary process of abstraction. By performing the operation of abstraction, the commodity no longer appears as a social relation but it seems as if value was a thing in itself.

As Adorno contends, these autonomous and personified properties are constituted in social production for exchange:


It is characteristic of commodity economy (Warenwirtschaft) that what characterizes exchange – i.e. that it is a relation between human beings – disappears and presents itself as if it was a quality of the things themselves that are to be exchanged. It is not the exchange that is fetishized but the commodity. That which is a congealed social relation within commodities is regarded as if it was a natural quality, a being-in-itself of things. It is not exchange which is illusory, because exchange really takes place. The illusion (Schein) in the process of exchange lies in the concept of surplus value.


Adorno thus interprets fetishism as the autonomous, abstract and socially objective properties possessed by commodities which are constituted by social labour and realised in exchange.

For Adorno, the fetish-form of the exchange abstraction is objective, not subjective or psychological. This is because ‘[i]n a society in which exchange value is the dominant principle, this fetishizing is realised necessarily.’

Moreover, because exchange-value is the dominant principle, fetishism realises itself necessarily in an autonomous form of compulsion. Both sides of the class relation are forced to take on the function of ‘character masks,’ which are ‘derived from objective conditions’ wherein ‘the role […] [is] imposed on the subject by the structure.’ Workers are compelled to sell their labour power in order to survive. Capitalists are compelled to valorise value to ‘prevent themselves from going broke.’

Thus, Adorno sees Marx’s theory of value as a supraindividual account of social domination; a theory of the social constitution of an autonomous society that inverts to compel and dominate the individuals on both sides of the class relations that constitute and reproduce it. This the reason why Marx’s theory of value is so important to Adorno, for it is ‘still is the key to society’ and is what ‘distinguishes’ the Frankfurt School from ‘all other traditions of sociology.’

This can be seen in Adorno’s discussions of the exchange abstraction’s place in his social theory as a theory of social domination.

Adorno describes the exchange abstraction as having emerged historically from the ‘dissolution of all products and activities into exchange-values.’ This dissolution was ‘presupposed’ by the social form of production, which consisted of ‘the dissolution of all solidified personal (historical) relationships of dependency in production, as much as the all-round dependency of the producers on each other.’

Due to this development, a contradictory form of atomised dependence arose in which ‘the production of every individual is dependent on the production of all others; as much as (also) the transformation of one’s products into food has become dependent on the consumption of all others.’ What Adorno refers to as ‘this reciprocal dependency’ is ‘expressed in the constant necessity of exchange and in exchange-value as an all-round mediator.’

As a result, this constant necessity constitutes the exchange abstraction, which lies in ‘society itself’ and ‘becomes constitutive of society’. 415 This is because a necessary process of abstraction occurs in exchange: ‘in terms of average social labour time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded; instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the abstracting mode of thought of the sociologist, but in society itself.’

The development of this exchange abstraction also means that it comes to constitute society and is constitutive of society as such; ‘society is a system in the sense of a synthesis of an atomized plurality, in the sense of a real yet abstract assemblage of what is in no way immediately or ‘organically’ united. The exchange relationship largely endows the system with a mechanical character.’ This means that ‘something like a ‘concept is implicit in society in its objective form’’

Adorno’s description of how this concept functions as an ‘all around mediator’ reflects his description of Marx’s theory of fetishism as an alien, autonomous, inverted form of domination. This can be seen in Adorno’s characterisation of this ‘mediating conceptuality’ as an alien form of conceptuality that is ‘independent both of the consciousness of the human beings subjected to it and of the consciousness of the scientists.’ It is also reflected in his characterisation of its autonomous and dominating properties as a ‘conceptuality which holds sway in reality’, and which is ‘the objectively valid model for all essential social events’, so that ‘society obeys this conceptuality tel quel.’ Finally, it is evident in his statement on the inverted status of society in which ‘the fetish character of commodities […] historically has become the prius of what according to its concept would have to be posterius.’

This reading of Marx and its centrality to Adorno’s critical theory as a theory of social domination is cashed out in the following, which to me is the essence of Adorno’s Marxism:


[T]he economic process, which reduces individual interests to the common denominator of a totality, which remains negative, because it distances itself by means of its constitutive abstraction from the individual interests, out of which it is nevertheless simultaneously composed. The universality, which reproduces the preservation of life, simultaneously endangers it, on constantly more threatening levels. The violence of the self-realizing universal is not, as Hegel thought, identical to the essence of individuals, but always also contrary. They are not merely character-masks, agents of value, in some presumed special sphere of the economy. Even where they think they have escaped the primacy of the economy, all the way down to their psychology, the maison tolère, [French: universal home] of what is unknowably individual, they react under the compulsion of the generality; the more identical they are with it, the more unidentical they are with it in turn as defenceless followers. What is expressed in the individuals themselves, is that the whole preserves itself along with them only by and through the antagonism.













About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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