“Correct revolutionary theory… assumes final shape only in connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” Lenin
“What is the meaning of practice if there is no longer a party? In that case doesn’t practice mean either reformism or quietism?” Horkheimer
1. Western Marxism: A Senile Disorder
In a defense of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1920, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin set out three conditions, which he thought necessary to the successful achievement of its aim “to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society”. These conditions were: first, the class-consciousness of the revolutionary vanguard, and its devotion to the revolution; second, its ability to maintain contact and even merge with the proletariat and “the non-proletarian masses of working people”; and third, the correctness of its leadership and its “political strategy and tactics”. In other words, there is a virtuous circle between correct theory and revolutionary praxis that is mediated by the revolutionary vanguard’s connection with the mass of working people, a unity which Lenin notes, is not a dogmatic and external imposition, but an endogenous development of “correct revolutionary theory…which assumes final shape only in connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement”. Perry Anderson takes this sentence from Lenin as motto and conclusion to his Considerations on Western Marxism, a book which perfectly exemplifies the Marxist left’s assessment of the Frankfurt School’s attitude to praxis, and of Adorno’s in particular.
In Lenin Anderson sees “organic unity of theory and practice”from which lofty summit leads the meandering downward trail to the politically desert plains of Western Marxism. Western Marxism, according to Anderson, is a crippled and impotent descendent of an earlier more vigorous ancestor. In general, he claims that Western Marxists were academics, preoccupied with questions of method, who consoled themselves for their alienation from politics by writing about aesthetics and culture, rather than matters political and economic substance. Their work was the product of “defeat” and “political isolation and despair”. According to Anderson, this was less true of the earlier generation, for example Lukács, who still had experience, of party politics, than it was of the later generation, who did not. It is the later generation, to which Adorno belongs, that marks decline and fall of Marxist theory from praxis. With them Marxism “migrated virtually completely into the universities – precincts at once of refuge and exile from the political struggles in the world outside.”As professional philosophers they had an unhealthy interest in Hegel, and while this was “not necessarily a philosophical recidivism” they inevitably came under the bad influence of idealist and religious theories.Adorno in particular was “saturated with Hegelian influence” and as a result his Marxism “represented, by the sixties, an extreme version of its renunciation of any discourse on classes or politics.”The caricature, which is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of critical theory, is of Adorno performing deathly feats of dialectical abstraction, and writing tortuous sentences about avant-garde music and literature, uninterested in participating in any political activities that might actually be effective in bringing about the transformation of the society he criticized. Not only has the caricature stuck, so has the summary judgment of Adorno’s critical theory as crippled by a relentless pessimism with regard to the prospects for political change, “pessimism as quiescence”. Read more