introduction to adorno & horkheimer
A life-long intellectual partnership between two major thinkers, so close that their most celebrated single texts were co-authored and their names are difficult to dissociate, is rare enough to rank as virtually a sport of history. There seem to be only two cases: in the 19th century, Marx and Engels, and in the 20th Horkheimer and Adorno. Might they be regarded as prefigurations of what in a post-bourgeois world would become less uncommon? Their patterns differed. Marx and Engels, born two years apart, were contemporaries; once their friendship was formed, collaboration between them never ceased. Adorno was eight years Horkheimer’s junior, and a close working relationship came much later, with many more vicissitudes: initial meeting in 1921, intermittent friction and exchange up to the mid-1930s, concord only in American exile from 1938 onwards, more pointedly distinct identities throughout. The general trajectory of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research is well known, as over time ‘critical theory’—originally Horkheimer’s code-word for Marxism—confined itself to the realms of philosophy, sociology and aesthetics; to all appearances completely detached from politics. Privately it was otherwise, as the exchange below makes clear.
This unique document is the record, taken down by Gretel Adorno, of discussions over three weeks in the spring of 1956, with a view to the production of—as Adorno puts it—a contemporary version of The Communist Manifesto. In form it might be described, were jazz not anathema to Adorno, as a philosophical jam-session, in which the two thinkers improvise freely, often wildly, on central themes of their work—theory and practice, labour and leisure, domination and freedom—in a political register found nowhere else in their writing. Amid a careening flux of arguments, aphorisms and asides, in which the trenchant alternates with the reckless, the playful with the ingenuous, positions are swapped and contradictions unheeded, without any compulsion for consistency. In substance, each thinker reveals a different profile. Horkheimer, historically more politicized, was by now the more conservative, imbibing Time on China, if not yet to the point where he would commend the Kaiser for warning of the Yellow Peril. Though still blaming the West for what went wrong with the Russian Revolution, and rejecting any kind of reformism, his general outlook was now close to Kojève’s a decade later: ‘We can expect nothing more from mankind than a more or less worn-out version of the American system’. Adorno, more aesthetically minded, emerges paradoxically as the more radical: reminding Horkheimer of the need to oppose Adenauer, and envisaging their project as a ‘strictly Leninist manifesto’, even in a period when ‘the horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one’.
Horkheimer: Labour is what mediates between human beings. The ‘process of civilization’ has been fetishized.footnote1
Adorno: In Marx’s chapter on fetishism, the social relation appears in the form of the exchange principle, as if it were the thing in itself.
Horkheimer: The instrument becomes the main thing.
Adorno: But our task is to explain this by speculating on labour’s ultimate origins, to infer it from the principle of society, so that it goes beyond Marx. Because exchange value seems to be absolute, the labour that has created it seems to be absolute too, and not the thing for whose sake it basically exists. In actuality the subjective aspect of use value conceals the objective utopia, while the objectivity of exchange value conceals subjectivism.
Horkheimer: Work is the key to making sure that ‘all will be well’. But by elevating it to godlike status, it is emptied of meaning.