Chapter 1: The Concept of Enlightenment, Paragraph 1
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment's program was the disenchantment of the world.* It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge. Bacon, "the father of experimental philosophy,"1 brought these motifs together. He despised the exponents of tradition, who substituted belief for knowledge and were as unwilling to doubt as they were reckless in supplying answers. All this, he said, stood in the way of "the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things," with the result that humanity was unable to use its knowledge for the betterment of its condition. Such inventions as had been made-Bacon cites printing, artillery, and the compass-had been arrived at more by chance than by systematic enquiry into nature. Knowledge obtained through such enquiry would not only be exempt from the influence of wealth and power but would establish man as the master of nature:
Therefore, no doubt, the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge; wherein many things are reserved, which kings with their treasure cannot buy, nor with their force command; their spials and intelligencers can give no news of them, their seamen and discoverers cannot sail where they grow: now we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity: but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action.2
In the 1944 preface of this essay, Adorno and Horkheimer explain that this first section is meant to "prepare a positive concept of enlightenment". In their words, "freedom in society is inseperable from enlightenment thinking". I think this quote from Bacon is included to provide an example of the kind of optimism that many enlightenment thinkers had for the potential equalizing effect of reason. The idea Bacon seemed to have was that all people, regardless of social class, could attain mastery of their surroundings if they only studied nature closely enough. Horkheimer and Adorno introduce the motivation of the early enlightenment thinkers as a liberation from fear specifically at first, but I think including the quote that they did paved the way for an examination of the relatoinship between social status and enlightenment ideals.
That being said, the authors already begin to stress the importance of systemization to early enlightenment thinkers. As we will see in later paragraphs, the dispelling of myths, according to those with values predicated on enlightenment thinking, can only be accomplished though a kind of observation of nature that's been repeated, time tested, and regimented. The claim the authors seem to be making before they introduce the above quote is that the systemization itself is a key element in the construction of a relationship between man and nature in which man is dominant and nature is subordinate.
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“What the rescuers would be like cannot be prophesied without obscuring their image with falsehood. What can be perceived, however, is what they will not be like: neither personalities nor bundles of reflexes, but least of all a synthesis of the two, hardboiled realists with a sense of higher things. When the constitution of human beings has grown adapted to social antagonisms heightened to the extreme, the humane constitution sufficient to hold antagonism in check will be mediated by the extremes, not an average mingling of the two.
The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.
At the same time, however, the producers are more than ever thrown back on theory, to which the idea of a just condition evolves in their own medium, self-consistent thought, by virtue of insistent self-criticism. The class division of society is also maintained by those who oppose class society: following the schematic division of physical and mental labour, they split themselves up into workers and intellectuals. This division cripples the practice which is called for. It cannot be arbitrarily set aside.
But while those professionally concerned with things of the mind are themselves turned more and more into technicians, the growing opacity of capitalist mass society makes an association between intellectuals who still are such, with workers who still know themselves to be such, more timely than thirty years ago.
At that time such unity was compromised by free-wheeling bourgeois of the liberal professions, who were shut out by industry and tried to gain influence by left-wing bustlings.The community of workers of head and hand had a soothing sound, and the proletariat rightly sniffed out, in the spiritual leadership commended to them by figures such as Kurt Hiller, a subterfuge to bring the class struggle under control by just such spiritualization.
Today, when the concept of the proletariat, unshaken in its economic essence, is so occluded by technology that in the greatest industrial country there can be no question of proletarian class-consciousness, the role of intellectuals would no longer be to alert the torpid to their most obvious interests, but to strip the veil from the eyes of the wise-guys, the illusion that capitalism, which makes them its temporary beneficiaries, is based on anything other than their exploitation and oppression.
The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing common sense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals. Only if the extremes come together will humanity survive.”
- Theodor Adorno, “Imaginative excesses,” Messages in a Bottle
This excerpt is interesting, because although it has important ideas, its clearly marked by certain biases that would lead Adorno and Horkheimer toward extreme doomerism. The main bias on display here is a view of the Western working class as totally tamed, but it’s not the only one present in Theodor Adorno, and for that matter his partner Max Horkheimer.
Their key biases were:
1.) Anti-Sovietism, Adorno and Horkheimer saw the Soviet Union as comparable to fascism, so they ignored it and everything associated with it entirely.
2.) Eurocentrism, they ignored non-Western peoples almost entirely in their analyses and evaluations.
3.) Elitism, they had a very condescending view of the proletariat and exaggerated the role of intellectuals.
Adorno and Horkheimer were correct that absolute deference to the Soviet Communist Party was very harmful to the global Communist movement and that more independent political action was necessary, but they were wrong to characterize the Soviets as “totalitarian” and dismiss it. The USSR was far less repressive than they believed. I think this inaccuracy was based on their one-sided view of Soviet society, namely that those they saw it with the “eyes of intellectuals” and believed the Great Purges were comparable to fascism.
In reality, as Robert W. Thurston showed pretty well, the Purges were popular among the working class, who were far more often perpetrators of the violence than its victims. Most victims of the Purges were bureaucrats or intellectuals, thus why Adorno and Horkheimer had an outsized impression of its repressiveness. The Soviet leadership wasn’t fascist nor “autocratic,” the only similarity they had with the fascists was populism. Even then, the Soviets were populist toward workers, the fascists were populist primarily to the petit-bourgeoisie.
As a final note on this point, Adorno’s anti-Sovietism was not harmless. In fact, he unknowingly published an anti-Soviet article in the CIA-sponsored journal Der Monat in West Germany. Although he was critiquing them from the perspective of Marxism, the idea that Soviet socialism was “worthless” was an idea the CIA very much wanted to promote among left-wing intellectuals. In fact they explicitly created the Congress for Cultural Freedom to divide the Western left from pro-Soviet politics.
As a result of their Eurocentrism, Adorno and Horkheimer ignored anti-colonial movements almost entirely. Adorno actually even characterizes them as more of a threat than a benefit to a global revolutionary movement in “Savages are not more noble,” where he argues that anti-colonial intellectuals would be hyper-modern and passive worshippers of Western culture. Pairing this Eurocentrism with their anti-Sovietism, they dismissed pro-Soviet Communist and nationalist movements in the Global South entirely.
On a brief final note regarding their Eurocentrism, their model of historical development definitely suffered from this. In texts like Dialectic of Enlightenment, they take the Western mythology of a direct lineage from ancient Greece to European capitalist empires entirely at its word. This is something Marxists like Samir Amin have corrected for very well, while being just as good at crafting intellectual critiques of the Western liberal project.
Adorno and Horkheimer’s elitism is the biggest thing on display in the segment I have attached above. Both of them seem to have taken Nietzsche as a model, which isn’t exactly helpful for a Communist to do. Although they constantly attacked the proletariat as conservative, co-opted, and stupid, and argued that intellectuals needed to force their eyes open, neither of them had any significant contact with the working class. Instead, they isolated themselves in academia.
Their view of the working class as conservative and defanged was also based on a very historically limited situation, namely the rise of social democracy in post-WWII Europe and the United States. They believed this model was permanent, and thus saw no more potential in the working class, which they saw as having been duped.
Because neither studied economic developments to any notable degree, they failed to see that this affluence was very temporary. It was purely ephemeral. By the 1970s, the decay into neoliberalism began. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, with no more pressure on the bourgeoisie to part with some of their capital to subsidize the consumption of the workers, it accelerated.
Today, social democracy is a corpse and the labor aristocracy is shrinking rapidly. This class decay has been pushed quite catastrophically by the COVID-19 crisis. Now is a great opportunity to show that whatever superficial benefits capitalists may offer to Western workers, they never last. Only socialism is sustainable. But if we follow the example of Adorno and Horkheimer, we simply hole ourselves away and grumble about how stupid the workers are.
Their Eurocentrism extended to a very limited conception of who constituted the working class in the West, which contributed to this view of the working class as conservative. They ignored those in the United States who were excluded from the New Deal, the racialized proletarians key among them. They seemed to consider Black Americans, for example as a separate category from the proletariat. This is very strange and inaccurate, since as W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrated many times, Black Americans have been at the forefront of labor radicalism in US history.
Adorno and Horkheimer’s disdain for the New Left is pretty infamous, but their reasoning wasn’t entirely awful. They were focused on the ultra-individualistic, “do what I want” style student politics popular among the petit-bourgeoisie in the 1960s. They ignored working class movements like the Black Panthers, Young Lords, American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, and the New Communist Movement.
Had they paid attention to these, they would have seen actual potential in the working class instead of seeing it as an idiotic deluded mass. Instead, they simply stuck to condescension. A major factor in this pessimistic approach is a characteristic typical of Western Marxism. Namely, turning their failures into theory. Taking the failure of the Western Communist movement, they blamed the proletariat and dismissed socialist revolutions abroad entirety. Obsessed with purity, they failed to get their hands dirty and actually serve the proletariat. By contrast, they wished for a world where intellectuals could command workers.
They were part of a symptom of Western Marxism becoming more and more disconnected and confined only to academia whereas Marxism in the non-Western world has seized concrete victories. This is not to say they produced nothing of worth. Instead, it’s to say their pessimism came more from a lack of perspective than anything.
If we take Adorno and Horkheimer’s very important critiques of Western consumer culture and supersede these three biases, we have a very powerful form of analysis that can offer a path forward in a time where the culture industry is more powerful than ever. What needs to be done in the West is to reclaim Marxism for mass movements instead of allowing it to continue to be bent and squished into a career for academics.
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