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The Question of Praxis in Adorno’s Critical Theory

“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

University Lectures are Over, says Donald Clarke. But he would say that wouldn’t he?

Just read an article in the Guardian Education called “Ten reasons we should ditch university lectures” by Donald Clark, the Chief Exec of an e-learning company. Here are some of his claims, followed by my responses.

DC Here are 10 reasons why face-to-face lectures just don’t work:

GF Here are 10 reasons why the ‘arguments’ put forward by Clarke, in this article, which is really just an advert for his elearning company, which should not be appearing in the Guardian Education) are rubbish.

1. Babylonian hour
We only have hours because of the Babylonian base-60 number system, which first appeared around 3100 BC. But it has nothing to do with the psychology of learning.

1* This applies to clock time in general. It is no argument against lectures which can be as long or short, or staccato or continuous as the lecturer makes them.

2. Passive observers
Lectures without engagement with the audience turn students into passive observers. Research shows that participation increases learning, yet few lecturers do this.

2* Paying attention to what is being said is not ‘passive’ and is an important skill in itself. That said, audiences in a real time lecture don’t have to be passive at all. Lecturers can respond to their audiences. One colleague of mine canvasses tweets and texts from students during the lecture. This kind of spontaneous interaction is not possible in a Video. So online lectures will be worse than real time live lectures in these respects. Read more

Review of Adorno, by Brian O’Connor

Brian O’Connor, Adorno, Routledge, 2013, 219pp., $29.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780415367363.

Hegel, a writer of brilliant introductions, knew that they posed peculiar difficulties. Some of these were due to the absolute pretensions of systematic philosophy, but not all. Introductions, like beginnings, as the German saying goes, are difficult. A good book may not be a good introduction. Anyone who has read Gillian Rose’s brilliant The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (or, for that matter, Adorno’s own Introduction to the Sociology of Music) will know this.

Introductions such as Brian O’Connor’s Adorno (the latest in The Routledge Philosophers series) are a genre in their own right with their proper demands. One task is to initiate non-expert readers into the world of Adorno, and to make it accessible to the non-specialist without oversimplifying. Another is to give readers an overview of Adorno’s entire work situating each aspect of it in relation to the others. O’Connor meets these demands deftly.

Writing an introduction to a thinker such as Adorno, whose writing is dense and difficult, and whose thought is set out unsystematically and diffused across a number of different texts that do not form a whole, is challenging in particular ways. Just consider the range of subjects his writing embraces: music, philosophy, sociology, literature, psychoanalysis, German politics and society. Though not the grandest polymath of his era, Adorno is nonetheless one of several European public intellectuals of the 20th Century with wide cultural horizons.

Read the full review at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

The Persistence of Normative Questions in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action

My latest article. Forthcoming in Constellations.

From the beginning The Theory of Communicative Action labored over the difficulty of answering the criticism that it fails in its aim of “justifying the normative premises of his projected social theory.” What makes that criticism potentially so devastating is that this is one of the avowed central aims of TCA, which, Habermas states on the first page, is “not a metatheory but the beginning of a social theory that is concerned to validate its own critical standards.”


Here, I re-examine TCA in the light of this criticism. In my view neither Habermas, nor his commentators, have managed satisfactorily to answer it, in spite of numerous different attempts so to do. That said, I do not believe it is unanswerable. On the contrary I believe that the criticism, as it has been widely construed, rests on a mistaken assumption about the kind of critical social theory TCA purports to be. That said, I argue that a modified version of the criticism, shorn of this mistaken assumption, and more in tune with the complex of analyses, arguments, and conjectures TCA actually puts forward, still applies. I end by suggesting the shape that a satisfactory response to it would have to take.

1. Theory of Communicative Action and Frankfurt School Critical Theory

Habermas’s remarks on the first page suggest strongly that the first volume of TCA should be read backwards. It suggests that the theory of modernity and the account of rationalization (section II) together with the Intermediate Reflections (section III) are best understood in the light of the diagnosis and criticism Habermas makes of Frankfurt School critical theory – particularly of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic – in section IV. Recall the following passage:

From the beginning, critical theory labored over the difficulty of giving an account of its own normative foundations.

Habermas confronts the Critical Theory of his former mentors and teachers with a serious problem, and is not content to find fault with it while offering nothing in its place. Rather, he offers in its place a critical social theory that does not suffer from that same problem, since, he claims, it contains within it an ‘account of its own normative foundations.’ So on the backwards reading of TCA, sections II and III of Volume 1 are to be understood as providing an “an account of the normative foundations” of the social theory which is set out in Volume 2, and as validating its critical standards.

No doubt one of the aims of TCA among others was to settle accounts with first generation Frankfurt School critical social theory by making salient the main advantages of Habermas’s new approach. For example, according to Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer construe reason in an undifferentiated manner, because they are captivated by the limitations of the philosophy of consciousness that recognized only two perspectives, that of “an objective reason that had fallen irreparably into ruin” and a subjective reason that had been “absolutized in the service of self-preservation”. Thus, he argues, they can only understand the process of social rationalization as the reifying force of an “instrumental reason that has gone wild” in the pursuit of the ever more efficient mastery of external nature, and as the hidden hand behind social domination. By contrast his theory, which is based on a paradigm of intersubjective communication, distinguishes between instrumental reason and communicative reason, which latter “cannot be subsumed without resistance under a blind self-preservation.” TCA thus construes reason and social rationalization in a more differentiated way. In Habermas’s theory the reifying effects of social rationalization are understood not in the wholesale and undifferentiated manner of his predecessors, but as a more localized phenomenon arising from the circumstance “that an unleashed functionalist reason of systems maintenance disregards and overrides the claim to reason ingrained in communicative sociation”. Furthermore, Habermas rests his social theory on a substantial premise (reminiscent of Hegel) that Horkheimer and Adorno both disavow: namely that we “already have before us –in fragmentary and existing form, to be sure – the existing forms off a reason that has to rely on being symbolically embodied and historically situated.” This affords Habermas the possibility of mounting an immanent social criticism which, in the Marxian manner, “is critical both of contemporary social sciences and of the social reality that they are supposed to grasp” and which criticizes “ the reality of developed societies inasmuch as they do not make full use of the learning potential culturally available to them.”

Download the first version of the full article here.

New Book: Dialogue, Politics and Gender

Here is my contribution to  this new book edited by Jude Browne for  Cambridge University Press.

Ch. 1: Women and the standpoint of concrete others:

from the criticism of discourse ethics to feminist social criticism.


A still influential strand of feminist criticisms of Rawls arose from a confluence of Gilligan’s moral psychology and the communitarian critique of Rawls. Later this criticism was turned against a certain kind of moral theory including Habermas’s discourse ethics. Benhabib’s distinction between the standpoint of the generalized other and the standpoint of the concrete other was a key part of this critique of moral theory.

In my view, however, this distinction is much more confusing and less straightforward than is generally acknowledged. It does not help to establish the criticism that moral theory of Rawls and Habermas are in some way exclusionary, as is commonly thought. At best it leads Benhabib to develop some criticisms of discourse ethics which are valid. However, these criticisms are not obviously germane to feminism. It remains unclear how these criticisms of Habermas’s moral theory advance the aims of feminist social criticism, such as the overcoming of ongoing injustice and the emancipation from patriarchal oppression.

Download earlier version of this article here.

SPT Support the Occupation

We, the undersigned faculty, researchers and students of the Centre for Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex, would like to express our support and admiration for the Occupy Sussex campaign, which has been evicted from Bramber House by the university management. The occupiers’ solidarity with the 235 staff members who are facing the prospect of reductions in pension entitlements and working conditions because of the decisions of management is an inspiration to us all. These changes were presented to staff as a fait accompli, with no exploration of possible in-house solutions, and Occupy Sussex rightly opposed management’s plans; in doing so, and in occupying the conference centre in Bramber House, they also enacted an alternative vision of the university, one guided by principles of democratic self-management, inclusiveness and community. We therefore stand by the protesters and the 235 affected workers as they continue to oppose management’s plans.We would further like to condemn the management’s actions in seeking and being granted a court injunction which bans all protest on campus, by any persons, until 25th September. It is lamentable that, whilst maintaining all its pretenses about open discussion and dialogue, the management should have simply stifled dissent in this manner. The management’s protestation that it will tolerate “peaceful” protest is an insult to the students and workers whose right to assemble and demonstrate as they see fit has just been suppressed. A right is not a right if it waits on the decision of another. This university is not the property of the management. Without students, lecturers and support staff there is no university. We therefore also hope that today is the beginning of a sustained campaign by students and workers to undermine and repeal this authoritarian measure.

Dr Gordon Finlayson (Director)

Dr Andrew Chitty
Dr Kenneth Veitch
Dr Alison Phipps
Dr Tarik Kochi
Tim Carter
Chris O’Kane
Elliot Rose
Dimitri Kladiskakis
Brad Tuck
Phillip Homburg
Alastair Gray
Alex Elliott
Alastair Kemp
David Martinez Rojas
Nima Barazandeh
Melis Menent
Richard Weir
Huw Rees
Edward Harvey
Osama Omar Muttawa
Former students and others:

Dr Simon Mussell
Dr Verena Erlenbusch
Dr Tom Bunyard
Dr Georgios Daremas

Arthur Willemse
Carla Ibled
Sangeetha Thanapal

Birgit Hofstaetter

Ian Sinclair

Katja Hus

Council for the Defence of British Universities

I note that a very august Council for the Defence of British Universities has been founded and held its inaugural meeting at the British Academy. It has had worldwide press coverage, which can only be good. It has also heavyweight support from outwith the academic community. This is the statement of its Values and Aims.

CDBU exists to advance university education for the public benefit. Its aims are:

  • To defend and enhance the character of British universities as places where students can develop their capacities to the full, where research and scholarship are pursued at the highest level, and where intellectual activity can be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit
  • To urge that university education, both undergraduate and graduate, be accessible to all students who can benefit from it
  • To maintain the principle that teaching and research are indispensable activities for a university and that one is not pursued at the expense of the other
  • To ensure that universities, while responding to the needs of students and of society in general, should retain ultimate control of the content of the courses taught and the methods of instruction employed. As well as often providing vocational training, university education should equip graduates with the mental skills and intellectual flexibility necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy. It should develop the powers of the mind, enlarge knowledge and understanding, and enable graduates to lead fuller and more rewarding lives
  • To emphasise that, as well as often having vital social and economic applications and being subject to accountability, academic research seeks to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the physical world, of human nature and of all forms of human activity
  • To ensure that methods employed to assess the quality of university research do not encourage premature or unnecessary publication or inhibit the production of major works of research that require a long period of gestation
  • To safeguard the freedom of academics to teach and to pursue research and inquiry in the directions appropriate to the needs of their subject
  • To maintain the principle of institutional autonomy, to encourage academic self-government and to ensure that the function of managerial and administrative staff is that of facilitating teaching and research
  • To ensure that British universities continue to transmit and reinterpret the world’s cultural and intellectual inheritance, to encourage international exchange and to engage in the independent thought and criticism necessary for the flourishing of any democratic society

I very much hope that it succeeds. To do so it will have to reach out to academics working in all disciplines, and in all kinds of Universities, not just Oxford, Cambridge and London. It will be interesting to see what kind of stance the Council will have towards the Research Councils and

Government Higher Education reforms cost 1 billion more than forecast

A new report by the respected Higher Education Policy Institute claims that the Government reforms in Higher Education funding will cost more than 1 billion more than forecast. The huge oversight is due to over optimistic assumptions, unforeseen consequences, and neglect of potential risk factors. That the Government is sticking to this policy bears out the widespread view that the changes had nothing to do with deficit reduction. Even had the Government not been so way out in their forecast, the policy was always going to cost more in the short term. Only later, it was hoped, would the initial increased expenditure begin to be recouped, as students payed back their loans. Ironically, it now turns out that the new funding ‘system’ could easily end up costing more than the original arrangement it replaced. Supposing that the Government is still in power in the medium term, and that it is unlikely to abandon the policy, which was drawn up by the last Labour regime, this leaves only four viable options.

  1. The shortfall can be met from general taxation, so that the Government and taxpayers contribute more.
  2. Student numbers can be held down or brought down further.
  3. Loan subsidies provided by the Government can be reduced, so that students contribute more.
  4. The remaining HEFCE grant can be reduced, which would impact adversely on Research funding or support for STEM subjects.

In my view option 1. is the only viable one. It is probable that the current Government will opt for 2. and or 3. is almost certain to happen because the government have already given themselves the powers to change the loan terms by means of secondary legislation, which would not require the change to be voted on by parliament.