Surviving Fascism

Philosophy and Sociology, by Theodor Adorno

Looking back from a distance of more than half a century, 1960 appears almost as a period of calm.

The Frankfurt School: Max Horkheimer [L], Theodor Adorno [C], and Jürgen Habermas [R].

The first serious military clashes of the cold war in Korea (1950-53) and Indochina (1946-54) were over. The grimmest phase of the war in Vietnam, beginning with the arrival of 6500 US marines, was still to come.

Still, the Cold War context was everywhere in evidence. 

On the first of May, Francis Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. A month earlier, a “Ban the Bomb” march in London had drawn 100,000 people. 

Washington doubled its complement of “advisors” in South Vietnam to nearly 700.

In Germany, the Adenauer era was entering its final phase. While Ludwig Erhard’s social market economy kept things ticking over in the context of the postwar boom, 1961 would see the CDU/CSU lose its absolute majority for the first time. 

Though Christian democracy would hold say for another five years, the cracks in its hegemony that would eventually lead to the first postwar SPD government (under Georg Kiesinger in 1965) had begun to appear.

In the summer of 1960, Theodor Adorno lectured on philosophy and sociology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. 

It was not the kind of thing that made the papers. The days when the intersection between politics and academia in Germany would explode into the public consciousness would not arrive until the second half of the decade.

Still, it was a notable occurrence. Adorno, along with his friend and intellectual collaborator Max Horkheimer, had been leading figures in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research during the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic. The Institute was the most prominent left-leaning scholarly institution in Germany and Europe at the time. 

Begun as a Marxist scholarly project attached to Frankfurt University in 1923, with funding provided by Felix Weil, the son of a German Jewish businessman, starting in 1930 the Institute became less doctrinaire and more social scientific under Horkheimer’s leadership. 

The Institute’s primary thrust was the attempt to integrate the critical projects of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, although the work done under its auspices was wide-ranging. Much of what has come to be called social theory, and cultural studies, was pioneered under its roof.

In the final years of the Weimar Republic, the Institute provided support, both directly and through publication in its journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, for some of the most important German leftist scholars of the time, including Karl Korsch, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse, and somewhat more indirectly (and controversially) Walter Benjamin.

Forced into exile by the rise of National Socialism, the Institute survived in various forms, first in Geneva and Paris, and then in the United States. 

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno spent most of the war years in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades, along with other notable German emigres such as the novelists Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin, the composer Hanns Eisler, and Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma.

There they waited out the war, throwing darts at a board adorned with a picture of Adolf Hitler, and living in relatively comfortable, if economically parlous, conditions. 

Perhaps it was the image of critical Marxists basking in the California sun that provided the underlying inspiration for Georg Lukács’ accusation (in an essay published in 1962) that they had taken up residence in, “the Grand Hotel Abyss…a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.

By that time, Lukács had taken up residence in communist Hungary where, after 1957, he had recanted both his support for the 1956 rising and his unorthodox writings of the 1920s. 

In the meantime, Horkheimer and Adorno had returned to (West) Germany and were engaged in the project of trying to rebuild German intellectual and cultural life from the field of rubble in which the Nazis had left it.

Theodor Adorno returned to Europe in 1949, eventually taking up a professorship at Frankfurt University. He left behind the traumas of emigration. 

The war years had been ones of penury, but also of professional degradation, including being forced to enrol as a doctoral student at Merton College, Oxford. This ill-starred episode involved work on a dialectical critique of Edmund Husserl’s epistemology under the direction of the ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Back in Frankfurt in the 1950s, Adorno found himself intellectually as well as linguistically at home. His works of the 1940s, the apocalyptic Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Max Horkheimer at the height of WWII, and the aphoristic Minima Moralia, receded into the past. 

The Dialectic of Enlightenment would be discovered by the student movement in the late 1960s, was passed around in pirated editions and used as a hammer with which to batter Adorno and his later works. 

Minima Moralia took shape in the course of Theodor Adorno’s engagements with European philosophy and sociology, whose traces can be found in his publications of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as in the more recently published transcripts from his lecture courses.

There is a certain irony to be detected in the emergence of the course transcripts which make up Philosophy and Sociology. Adorno had a strong preference for the written over the spoken word and certainly would not have been inclined to have these transcripts published as free-standing texts.

Still, here they are, and they provide fascinating insights into the development of Theodor Adorno’s critical project and the workings of his mind. 

The first to be published was his course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from 1959. The text illustrates Professor Adorno’s highly perceptive and unorthodox critical reading of Kant, both on his own terms and as a precursor to the further development of German idealism.

It also humanises a thinker whose written works can be dense and occasionally quite obscure. 

The Theodor Adorno that comes across is clear, concise, critical, and slightly avuncular. He is at his human best when he concedes in the second lecture that he had made a “crude blunder” in the previous lecture, confusing the concepts of analytic and synthetic, which are the fundamental basis of Kant’s thought.

Further course recordings have subsequently been transcribed, with perhaps the most enlightening being his 1965-6 lecture course on negative dialectics, which served as a precursor to his 1966 masterwork, Negative Dialektik. 

Even in their fragmentary condition (only the first ten lectures survive with the balance of the text comprising Adorno notes for the final fifteen lectures), they constitute a valuable secondary source for a text whose published version is of legendary difficulty.

Adorno’s lectures on philosophy and sociology from 1960 are less a matter of antiquarian interest since they don’t relate directly to his postwar publications. But they do provide an engaging account of what Adorno considered to be the central question of modern thought: that of truth.

Here we find Theodor Adorno at his contrarian best, highlighting similarities of approach between Comte and Hegel, two thinkers of diametrically opposed inclinations. In a larger sense, Adorno seeks to show that neither philosophy’s claim to clarifying abstraction, nor sociology’s reliance on naïve empiricism can function effectively on its own. 

To approach the truth, it is crucial to have both data and a means of construing it, not simply assuming that facts speak for themselves.

Intended as an introductory level course, at least to the degree that Adorno could manage such a project, the lectures don’t present a consistent, cut-and-dried account. 

Rather, Theodor Adorno invites students to think along with him, to look at the strengths of both philosophy and sociology, but also at the lacunae, many of them unperceived or unacknowledged, that have shaped how we understand the social.

Over and above the interesting content, this lecture course provides a practical example of critical scholarship. Adorno resists the temptation to create any sort of school or received interpretation. What he wants is a dynamic engagement with the work that has been done so far as a means of clarifying what tools it may provide for future use.

One also finds in these lectures Theodor Adorno’s joy in finally being allowed to pursue critical scholarship in a European environment. In this respect, one can’t avoid a hint of the tragic. 

By the end of the decade, his earlier works, such as the Dialectic of Enlightenment, would be taken up by student radicals with agendas far different from those of their author.

Adorno would eventually be targeted by the New Left for failing to live up to the critical political standards of his writing from the 1940s. 

For the students of 1968, the proposition that “There is no right life in a wrong one,” was a call to sweep away the hypocrisy and political failings of earlier generations. 

Particularly in West Germany, where the student movement was grappling with the fact that many ex-Nazis remained embedded in their educational and political institutions, and the country’s judiciary, unpunished.

Theodor Adorno would retire from teaching shortly before his death in 1969, forced out of the lecture hall by demands from radicals that his course on Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris be converted into an open forum on revolution. 

In one of his last interviews, Adorno commented bitterly on the student movement’s appropriation of his work, “I … established a theoretical model, I could not have foreseen that people would try to implement it with Molotov cocktails.”

This is, in a sense, the final tragedy of a thinker whose life and work had been interwoven with tragedy. 

Much as many of Theodor Adorno’s formulations are obscure, and some of them are regrettable (for example, his ill-conceived comments on jazz), his project was always to find the ways to find and preserve what was, in the best sense of the word, civilised human culture. 

Adorno’s lectures on philosophy and sociology are, in this sense, of a piece with his larger project. 

From his engagement with atonal music to his attempts to set the works of Marx and Freud in conversation, to his struggle to preserve critical thought through the era of Nazism, Theodor Adorno consistently sought to preserve the human in an inhumane world. 

To read his lectures now is to be invited to collaborate on that project, and to carry it forward.

Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Shapiro/Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.