Fragment from last night’s dream

We met again in the street where we last met. Neither of us could remember how long it had been. It was night again. You had aged a lot and I was a little younger than I had been. In one hand you had so many poppy seeds, the other hand was coated in honey. I tasted both. I told you I thought it was like the famous Celan poem: Mein Aug steigt hinab zum Geschlecht der Geliebten: wir sehen uns an, wir sagen uns Dunkles, wir lieben einander wie Mohn und Gedächtnis [My eye goes down to the loins of my lover, we stare at each other, we say dark things, we love each other like poppy and memory.] Maybe I had been dragged to this thought by the eating from your hand. The poem starts with that, not that you knew. You berated me. You told me I had it all wrong, that you had brought me everything sensuous: the night and the poppy and the honey. And all I could think of was this stupid poem. I was sorry that it had lodged there. It had lodged there with the memory of hamantaschen, purim sweets with poppy seeds and honey about which I had nothing to say. And anyway, you said, honey was memory made myth. Honey was a preservative, it stopped memory being explosive by forcing things to unnaturally endure. Honey was the enemy of transience. I asked about your age. Honey you said was a force of light. I told you that the poem wasn’t without sensuousness, that Celan wasn’t all deserted landscapes of death, without even flowers. I told you to listen to its rhythm, to its persistent trisyllables. You were having none of it. We sat for a while in silence, your one hand full of poppy seeds and the other covered in honey.

"Keep your mind in Hull and despair not."

Prolapsarian, 2014

Preparing myself for a weekend in London.

Eulogy for Ulrike Meinhof by Klaus Wagenbach - New Translation

This is a rough and ready, and perhaps too literal, translation of Wagenbach’s eulogy for Meinhof, which I don’t think has appeared before in English. It’s not particularly pretty, nor such an important text, but I thought I’d put it out there. The German was published in Peter Brückner, Ulrike Marie Meinhof und die deutschen Verhältnisse, (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1995), pp. 197-199. I include the German below for anyone who wants to offer corrections to the translation. 

Eulogy for Ulrike Meinhof


The present political situation in Germany ought to concern itself – so the official assertion goes – with the “threat to democracy from terrorist groups.” Ulrike Meinhof was a symbol for these groups. It is therefore completely absurd that now the authorities act as though the death of Ulrike Meinhof has nothing to do with our situation.

Those in official positions want to try to prove that the death of Ulrike Meinhof was a ‘suicide’. They will therefore not do away with our german situation: a servere ‘emergency law’ created in 1968, long before any ‘terrorist groups’ existed; an even longer standing prohibition on the Communist Party, and the prosecutions related to this ban; the recent act of protection of civil servants from leftists of any sort; and finally the first few weeks of the law against “the endorsement of violence.”

What Ulrike Meinhof had slain were the german conditions. The extremism of whose who describe everything as extremist, which could only be brought into question by the transformation of these conditions.

Ulrike Meinhof, born in the middle of the thirties, was old enough to still perceive the sensuous forms of appearance of Nazism. In the fifties she grew up with Renate Riemeck, an antifascist, who worked for the ‘peace moment’, an organisation that sought to prevent the rearmament. At that time the Social Democrats were also against rearmament. Today – with a  Social Democratic Minister of Defence in place – they may be equally unwilling to remember this as they are to remember their first post-war programme. As the German armed forces became widely accepted, the campaign against rearmament was replaced with the “campaign against nuclear weapons”,  in which the social democrats were also involved from the outset. Only in the second half of the fifties did the practical split within the left take place: the Social Democrats left the “campaign” and took a course towards NATO and the Godesberger Programme

These were the first political experiences of Ulrike Meinhof. In the following decade – from the middle of the fifties through to the middle of the sixties – Ulrike Meinhof would become, within a few years, the most eminent left journalist in the Bundesrepublik. She was the one who most clearly formulated the disappointments of the reactionary development of social democracy. She struggled against the war in Algeria, against the emergency laws, and against the ‘grand coalition.’ She agitated for the end of the in Vietnam War and for a different ‘eastern politics’ [Ostpolitik]. She dedicated herself finally to two fundamental questions of Marxism: the analysis of class, and the question of revolutionary violence:

Who belongs to the exploited and oppressed class? And consequently, how is the emancipation of this class to take place? Her consideration of these questions eminated from those affected, from real misery, not from theoretical distance.  They came from the marginalised groups who with these questions came into view: the encarcerated, those in care, runaways, and crazies. Ulrike Meinhof perceived something very early on, which today we are only beginning to conceive: the psychical costs of capitalism, inner immiseration.

Ulrike Meinhof reported for many years on prisons and care homes, she worked in neighbourhoods, and she was an observer of trials. In 1970 she joined the underground and propagated the armed struggle for the transformation of conditions.

This decision also had everything to do with our conditions: the police had by this point – 1970 – shot the first protestors; the struggle against the emergency laws was futile; the terror bombing in Vietnam was at its peak; and political critique in the media had become ever more stringently censored.

We have all experienced the furious rage of the state authorities against the “Red Army Faction”. The “Baader-Meinhof Gang” were described as ‘public enemy number 1.’ Many boroughs were cordoned off, thousands of people were surveilled day and night by the ‘state security forces,’ hundreds of homes were searched – in the end the police would not even make the effort to ring the bell or to show a search warrant: they would simply enter and take all the occupants and their papers with them. And finally: during the two-year manhunt, the police killed more people than the five who were assassinated by the “Red Army Faction.”

We have experienced how the political intention of the assassinations was denied, and further how the ‘criminals’ were hunted, although already the magnitude of these manhunts disproved this justification. We have experienced how the manifestos of the group were suppressed. We have finally experienced how the trial against Ulrike Meinhof was prosecuted.

Ulrike Meinhof was one of the clearest critics of capitalism in the Bundesrepublik. Those who criticise her deeds as ‘anarchist’ are almost invariably those who in the previous years she, as a critic, had opposed and ridiculed.

We do not want to forget that. They are our conditions, that we do not want to forget. Ulrike Meinhof died on May 8. On this day, 31 years earlier, the war was over. On this day, the Christian Democrats opened their Bundestag election campaign with the slogan “Freedom or socialism”! We say, with Rosa Luxemburg and Ulrike Meinhof: “Freedom and socialism!” And for those of us, to whom the decisiveness and severity of Ulrike Meinhof are perhaps too remote, we remember the two lines by Bert Brecht: “Oh we / who wanted to ready the ground for kindness / could not ourselves be kind.”


Grabrede für Ulrike Meinhof


Der jetzige politische Zustand in Deutschland soll zu tun haben – so die offizielle These – mit der »Bedrohung der Demokratie durch terroristische Gruppen«. Für diese Gruppen war Ulrike Meinhof das Symbol. Es ist deswegen vollkommen absurd, wenn jetzt die Staatsgewalt so tut, als habe der Tod von Ulrike Meinhof nichts mit unsern Zuständen zu tun.

Die Offiziellen Stellen mögen nachzuweisen versuchen, daß der Tod Ulrike Meinhofs ein ›Selbstmord‹ gewesen sei. Sie werden damit nicht unsere deutschen Zustände aus der Welt schaffen: Ein massives, lange vor irgendwelchen ›terroristischen Gruppen‹ - 1968 – geschaffenes ›Notstandsgesetz‹. Ein noch viel länger zurückliegendes Verbot der kommunistischen Partei und die mit ihm verbundenen Verfolgungen. Neuerdings die Verordnung zum Schutz der Beamten vor Linken jeder Art. Und schließlich da erst wenige Wochen alte Gesetz gegen »die Berfürwortung von Gewalt«.

Was Ulrike Meinhof umgebracht hat, waren die deutschen Verhältnisse. Der Extremismus derjenigen, die alles für extrimistisch erklären, was eine Veränderung der Verhälnisse auch nur zur Diskussion stellt.

Ulrike Meinhof, geboren in der Mitte der dreißiger Jahre, war alt genug, um die sinnlichen Erscheinungsformen des Nazismus noch wahrzunehmen. In den fünfziger Jahren wuchs sie bei Renate Riemeck auf, einer Antifaschistin, die für die ›Friedensbewegung‹ arbeitete, eine Organisation, die die Wiederwbewaffnung zu verhindert suchte. Auch die Sozialdemokraten waren damals gegen die Wiederbewaffnung – heute, angesichts eines sozialdemokratischen Verteidigungsministers, mögen sie ebenso ungern daran erinnert werden wie an ihre ersten Nachkriegsprogramme. Als die Bundeswehr durchgesetzt worden war, wurde die Kampagne gegen die Wiederbewaffnung abgelöst von der »Kampagne gegen den Atomtod«, an der in der ersten Zeit die Sozialdemokratie ebenfalls beteiligt war. Erst in der zweiten Hälfte der fünfziger Jahre fand praktisch der Bruch innerhalb der Linken statt: Die Sozialdemokratie schied aus der »Kampagne« aus und nahm Kurs auf NATO und Godesberger Programm.

Die waren die ersten politischen Erfahrungen Ulrike Meinhofs. Im folgenden Jahrzehnt –von der Mitte der fünfziger bis zur Mitte der sechziger Jahre – wurde Ulrike Meinhof innerhalb weniger Jahre zur bedeutendsten linken Journalistin der Bundesrepublik. Sie war es, die am klarsten die Enttäuschungen über die reaktionäre Entwicklung der Sozialdemokratie formulierte. Sie kämpfte gegen den Krieg in Algerien, gegen die Notstandgesetze und gegen die ›Große Koalition‹. Sie agitierte für die Beendigung des Krieges in Vietnam und für eine andere ›Ostpolitik‹. Sie widmete sich schließlich zwei Grundfragen des Marxismus: der Klassenanalyse und der Frage der revolutionären Gewalt:

Wer gehört zur ausgebeuteten und unterdrückten Klasse? Und, damit verbunden, wie ist die Befreiung dieser Klasse durchzusetzen? Es waren Überlegungen, die von den Betroffenen ausgingen, vom tatsächlichen Elend, nicht von der theoretischen Entfremdung. Und da waren es die Randgruppen, die in den Blick gerieten: Die Eingesperrten, die Fürsorgezöglinge, die Weggelaufenen und Durchgedrehten. Ulrike Meinhof nahm damit sehr früh etwas wahr, was wir heute erst zu begreifen beginnen: die psychischen Kosten des Kapitalismus, die innere Verelendung.

Ulrike Meinhof berichtete viele Jahre über Gefängnisse und Fürsorgeheime, sie arbeitete in Stadtteilen und sie war Beobachterin in Prozessen. 1970 ging sie in den Untergrund und propagiert den bewaffneten Kampf für die Veränderung der Verhältnisse.

Auch diese Entscheidung hat mit unseren Verhältnissen zu tun: Die Polizei hatte zu jener Zeit – 1970 – die ersten Demonstranten erschossen, der Kampf gegen die Notstandsgesetze war vergeblich gewesen, der Bombenterror in Vietnam war auf dem Höhepunkt, die politische Kritik in den Medien wurde immer stärker zensiert.

Die rasende Wut der Staatsgewalt gegen die »Rote Armee Fraktion« haben wir alle erlebt. Die »Baader-Meinhof-Bande« wurde zum ›Staatsfeind Nr. I‹ erklärt, ganze Stadtviertel abgeriegelt, tausende von Personen Tag und Nacht vom ›Staatsschutz‹ überwacht, hunderte von Wohnungen durchsucht – am Ende machte sich die Polizei nicht einmal mehr die Mühe zu klingeln und einen Duchsuchungsbefehl vorzuweisen: Sie trat einfach die Tür ein und nahm sämtliche Bewohner und Papiere mit. Und schließlich: Die Polizei tötete währen der zweijährigen Fahndung mehr Menschen als die fünf, die bei den Attentaten der »Rote Armee Fraktion« getötet wurden.

Wir haben erlebt, wie die politische Zielrichtung der Attentate geleugnet wurde und weiter nach den ›Kriminellen‹ gefahndet wurde, obwohl bereits der Umfang der Fahndungen diese Behauptung widerlegte. Wir haben erlebt, wie die politischen Manifeste der Gruppe unterdrückt wurden. Wir haben schließlich erlebt, wie der Prozeß gegen Ulrike Meinhof geführt wurde.

Ulrike Meinhof war eine der klarsten Kritikerinnen des Kapitalismus in der Bundesrepublik. Diejenigen, die ihre Taten als ›Anarchistin‹ kritisieren, sind fast stets diejenigen, die sie in den Jahren zuvor als Kritikerin bekämpften und lächerlich machten.

Das wollen wir nicht vergessen. Es sind unsere Verhältnisse, die wir nicht vergessen wollen. Ulrike Meinhof starb am 8. Mai. An diesem Tag wurde vor 31 Jahren der Krieg beendet. An diesem Tag eröffneten die Christdemokraten den diesjährigen Bundestagswahlkampf mit der Parole »Freiheit oder Sozialismus«! Wir sagen, mit Rosa Luxemburg und Ulrike Meinhof: »Freiheit und Sozialismus!«

Und diejenigen unter uns, denen vielleicht die Entscheidenheit und Strenge Ulrike Meinhofs zu fremd ist, erinnern wir an die beiden Zeilen von Bert Brecht: »Ach, wir / Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit / Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.«

Thinking need from California: The 1942 seminars of the Frankfurt School and the Brecht Circle

PREFATORY NOTE: Marx once wrote that men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances. I can add that they do not write history as they please either. This paper was written for the conference „Um Abschied geht es ja nun“ Exil und kein Ende at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 11-13 July 2014. But it was written in somewhat difficult circumstances: the death of a friend in London, and beginning of my own search for spiritual asylum in the archives 600 miles from home. It was composed fast, with access to literature limited to what I had intuitively flung into my suitcase. The consequence is that it is weighted heavily to an account of the Frankfurt School side of the debate. An indication of a possible elaboration of Brecht’s position can be found in footnote 7. 

During the summer of 1942 four seminars took place in Los Angeles on the theory of needs. The attendees were drawn from two groups of German intellectuals: the Frankfurt School and the Brecht Circle, along with a number other emigrés. Günther Anders, who attended, remarked in the 1980s, “there really was an attempt made to bring together two chamber ensembles, who would otherwise play separately, into a small orchestra.”[1]

The exile of so many German and Austrian intellectuals to California has become a historical curio. For 40 years an academic industry has discussed this uncomfortable meeting of cultures. Two approaches are today worn out from overuse: the first sees these thinkers as a miniature model for describing the Americanisation of culture in the mid-twentieth century, the disruptive shift from the European avant-gardes to a “culture industry” of skyscrapers and Disney. The emigrés are characterised as hopeless mandarins crashing against a culture they cannot keep pace with, or hapless communists integrated into a movie industry they cannot control. Their critiques of America draw strength from the melancholy of displacement and untimeliness, from their insuperable foreignness. The second approach concerns itself with the inner lives of those emigrés – giving life to their expressions of American experience. “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, damaged”[2] writes Adorno. But illuminating a damaged subject often sacrifices the dynamic of history. As history becomes personal anecdote the wound becomes a puzzling scar whose interpretation is lost to the past; the most tender intellectual portrait becomes a nature morte.[3]

Both approaches exemplify the danger faced by intellectual history: the labour of thinking one hopes to describe – itself negative – is transmuted into a positive image. The critical historian must steer a difficult path: to one side lies biographicism with thought reduced to the asocial dispositions of the thinker. Such intellectual history becomes the history of intellectuals. To the other side lies sociologism: thought reduced to its social basis, its difficulties becoming mere reflections of social antagonisms. A deflected strength must be drawn from both positions, doing justice to the autonomy of thought born of its negativity, but registering the frustration of this autonomy in social heteronomy.

My paper today will thus be both modest and speculative. The seminars I will introduce are something small: conversations between a few men, recorded in the hand of a taciturn woman – Gretel Adorno. Despite being available to scholars since the 1980s, they have garnered little attention. Yet they mark a movement of thought regarding Marxism, materialism, and critique. I would like to capture that movement in thinking as a dynamic and negative thing – tied to personal displacement, and to concrete transformations of capitalism. California is lodged within it.


Each meeting was comprised of a presentation followed by a group discussion. In the first week, Ludwig Marcuse would present on culture, the last man, and utopia in Nietzsche’s writing. The second seminar opened with a presentation on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the third both Horkheimer and Adorno presented theses: Horkheimer, reflecting again on Brave New World, offered a critique of the separation of higher and lower needs; Adorno developing this critique through contemporary American culture. In the final seminar Gunther Anders presented on cultural needs, cultural value, and the relation of need to art.

These were not traditionally Marxist topics, but they provided models against which a critical thinking of Marxism could develop. Significantly, these models revolved around non-Marxist utopias. The basis for addressing these models was the immediate social situation: at stake was an attempt to formulate a Marxism against a capitalist society so profitable that it could offer a generalised social wage high enough that human needs for food, shelter, and clothing, were satisfied. Alongside Nietzsche and Huxley’s theoretical utopias, an idée fixe pervades the discussions: an image of a “pint of milk.” This pint of milk that so purturbed these Marxist emigrés stood for a utopian aspect of American capitalism. It referred to a speech given in May that year by Vice-President Henry A. Wallace. When the war was won, he had said, American would provide each person in the world a pint of milk each day and a pair of shoes.

Appreciating the meaning of this pint of milk to Marxism requires a slightly longer historical view. Germany suffered two major economic crises during the 1920s. Unemployment rocketed and the demand for work suppressed. Workers were unable to reproduce themselves. Within these crises human need and profit seemed to stand in contradiction; the demand for the satisfaction of vital needs against capitalism’s incapacity to reproduce the workforce appeared revolutionary. This was reflected in Marxist theory: the Frankfurt School’s economist Henryk Grossmann’s reconstructed Marx’s Das Kapital with the depression of real wages and final crisis of capitalism at its centre.[4] In crisis, communism appeared as the intention of need from the condition of wretchedness. Communistic action would commit to that need. Brecht’s 1931 play, Die Mutter, to which Eisler composed a score, depicts the struggle for work and against hunger as a communist demand:

If you have no soup
Do you want to fight against that?
You have to turn
the whole State upside-down
Until you have your soup
Then you’ll be your own guest

If there is no work available you
You have to fight agiants that!
You have to turn
The whole state upside-down
Then you will be your own employer
And work will be available to you.[5] 

The crises of the 1920s were not the end of capitalism. In the United States the New Deal polices would bring about a return to growth. By the end of 1941, after the United States entered the war, full employment was achieved. To explain this recovery, as well as the development of fascism in Europe, the Frankfurt School’s economist, Friedrich Pollock, developed a theory of “state capitalism.” Under state capitalism the laissez faire market system of private capitals would be replaced by a system of state-controlled monopolies. Ultimately economic domination would be overtaken by political domination, ushering in a new historical epoch.[6]

Within the model of state capitalism, the satisfaction of need could no longer be identified with the overcoming of class society. The controlled market would see the end of the starvation of old economic crises, but humans would nonetheless remain dominated. In positing this historical integration of capitalism, the old Marxist thinking of need was exposed as requiring transformation. The seminars became an arena both for discussing the capacity to transform the world from within a society in which basic needs would be satisfied, and for developing a critique of an orthodox Marxism that had considered the demand for general satisfaction of needs as truly communist. Yet this thinking was not shared by all of the seminar’s participants in the seminar: Brecht (with the exception of a single remark)[7] appears as an intransigent orthodox Marxist, against whom the Frankfurt School were able to think. He too would notice this, writing in his Arbeitsjournal

dr pollock, the economist of the institute for social research (previously frankfurt, now hollywood), is convinced that capitalism can definitely make itself free of crises, simply through public works. marx could not have forseen that the regime could one day simply build streets. eisler and I, somewhat weary from this line, ‘sat down in the wrong’ for lack of another seat.[8]

The distinction between Brecht and the Frankfurt School can be elucidated in their understanding of Los Angeles. At the same time as the seminars, Brecht began composing songs with Eisler, the Hollywood Liederbuch. One reads:

This city has taught me
That Paradise and Hell can be one city
For the destitute paradise is hell[9]

For Brecht Hollywood appears as a place of division, through the division of social product and profit between the rich and the poor. There is, for Brecht, no possibility of the universal satisfaction of needs in California. Instead it is a place of extremes. A text written two years later by Adorno in Minima Moralia, which may be read as a direct attack on Brecht’s position:

The most striking example is that of intellectuals whose material situation has changed: no sooner have they only perfunctorily persuaded themselves of the need to earn money by writing and that alone, than they turn out trash identical in all its nuances to what, with ample means, they had most passionately abjured. Just as once-rich emigrés are often as self-indulgently miserly on foreign soil as they always wanted to be at home, so the impoverished in spirit march joyously into the inferno that is their paradise.[10] 

For Adorno, California appears as an impoverished paradise, in which needs are at least gratified if not satisfied; an illuson of heaven composed of trash and death. The complete division of the social product is not necessary for Adorno to recognise it as Hell.

These two chamber ensembles play not in unison, but one draws a productive strength from its dissonance with the other.


In the first seminar, Adorno advanced the beginnings of a critique of orthodox Marxism. He says, “[Nietzsche] saw that not only democracy, but also socialism has become an ideology. One therefore has to formulate socialism in such a way that it loses its ideological character.”[11] Both Adorno and Horkheimer would claim, during the seminars, that this ideological character is contained in the notion that human needs are static and constant. Orthodox Marxism considered needs to be a constant and natural aspect of humanity, and socialist thinking and action became something like a demystification, or more precisely a disenchantment [Entzauberung] of capitalism’s irrationality: a revelation that it humans served capital, instead than capital serving their natural needs. The call to materialism by such Marxism, then, had become nothing but the Romantic cry of static nature against a dynamic history that oppressed it. If materialism as an expression of nature revealed the conditions of death and wretchedness underpinning capitalism, it had itself become myth in static and eternal idea of need. For this orthodox Marxism history is not acted against historically, instead being abstractly negated by nature. But precisely in the claim to pure nature, the demand for the truly historical transformation of society separates itself off from history. In this disjunction socialism appears as ideology. Adorno would claim:

‘Need’ is a social category. Nature, the “drive” [Trieb], is comprehended within it. But the social and the natural moment of need are not capable of being split off from each other as primary and secondary moments [12]

It was in the context of considering state capitalism, Adorno and Horkheimer had recognised that the demand for the satisfaction of purely natural needs was inadequate for the transformation of the world. Those needs could be fulfilled by a society that was “integrated” but not free. The sort of utopia that an orthodox socialism demanded appeared as a Saint-Simonian fully instrumentalised order, a capitalism that had subsumed within its enormous profits the arbitrariness of the market.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World provided a model of such an integrated yet unfree society. This book, conceived after Huxley visited Los Angeles,[13] satirically presents a utopia founded on the principles of Fordism. The stable society rests on the persistence of a class division and the constant “conditioning” of its citizens. Where needs were not satisfied, the citizens were gratified with a drug called “Soma.” They were ultimately enslaved and alienated from one another. All individuals were subordinated to the unity of society; their needs are made absolutely social and can be socially satisfied. They were dominated by their social usefulness, becoming mere shells of individuals, while losing all relation to history.

During the seminars, Brecht quickly recognised Huxley as a bourgeois moralist. He sniped, “Huxley only fears the 10 cent stores because then there would be no Huxley anymore.” And Eisler would follow suit: “The anxiety towards a society in which all needs are satisfied is symptomatic of this type of author.”[14] For Adorno and Horkheimer, the antimoralism of Brecht and Eisler was too stark. It was not that Adorno and Horkheimer would establish a moralist position, but instead they wanted to rescue something in Huxley’s book for revolutionary critique: disgust. In his theses, Adorno would write that

Hunger, conceived as a category of nature, can be satisfied with grasshoppers and gnat-cakes, which many savages consume. The concrete hunger of civilised people has however its own kind of satisfaction. They must get something to eat which they do not find disgusting; and in disgust and its opposite are reflected the whole of history.[15]

Adorno would developed this thought against American culture.

The thought that a revolutionary society would clamour for the execrable acting of Hedy Lamarr or the execrable soup of  Campbell is absurd. The better the soup, the more delectable the abstention from Lamarr.[16] 

We might then compare Adorno and Brecht’s in their consideration of soup. For Brecht, in Die Mutter, the provision of soup was just a question of satiation. Where people were not sated there was a cause for revolution. But this hunger was not thought historically, even if it was produced historically. The danger for Adorno, of thinking need as detached from history is that it was resigned with regard to utopia. If need was grounded in the imagined stasis of the natural needs of humans then it demanded not freedom, but only stability. Here Huxley’s utopia acts as a utopia against which a Marxist one might think: “‘Stability,’ insisted the Controller, ‘stability. The primal and ultimate need. Stability. Hence all this.’”[17] For Adorno and Horkheimer such an integration was a real possibility for capitalism.

The danger of domination migrating into humanity by way of monopolised needs is […] a real tendency of late capitalism. This ‘danger’ refers not to the possibility of barbarism after the revolution, but to the prevention of revolution through the agency of total society.[18] 

Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique rests on two related propositions: the first is the non-identity of need [Bedürfnis] and the instrumental satisfaction [Gebrauch]; the second is that class society not only produces commodities that are capable of satisfying needs, but it also necessarily produces needs themselves that cannot be satisfied without the total transformation of society. To understand the connection between these two thoughts relies on an extended thinking of the problem of need. For Adorno the particular satisfaction of a civilised need contains not only an instrumental satisfaction but also the idea of the total satisfaction of needs, of freedom and happiness. And this particular satisfaction or disgust is recognisable only in the particular commodity and not in a general notion of need. This promise of happiness is lodged in the non-identity of need and use. For Adorno it is precisely in the taste of soup that the historical situation can be registered and acted upon historically.

This thought had a specific effect for how Adorno and Horkheimer were to understand materialism. It was not to be thought dogmatically as a pure and eternal nature suppressed by the ideology of history. Instead, they followed Marx’s thought as it is presented in Volume 3 of Das Kapital:

Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must the civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. […] But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.[19]

Adorno would summarise this in his Philosophische Terminologie lectures:

The telos, the Idea of Marxian materialism is to do away with materialism, that is to say, to bring about a situation in which the blind compulsion of material conditions over human beings is broken, and in which alone the question as to freedom could first become truly meaningful.[20] 

If Adorno and Horkheimer’s believed that a new age of monopoly capitalism might present a serious challenge to revolution, they were nonetheless not resigned. Instead, they demanded that the old immiseration theory be revised, not in order to allow for a an account of “relative poverty,” but to expand the very definition of wretchedness. For both Horkheimer and Adorno this new poverty was to be found in dehumanisation [Entmenschlichung]. Although they offer no programme from which this new wretchedness might overcome the society that imposes it, they nonetheless believed that the theory and praxis of the dialectic might offer solutions. Horkheimer would say in the third seminar,

The dialectic can in no way be indifferent to the specific form of dehumanisation that is carried out against humans under late capitalism.

This argument was not well received by Brecht. At a crucial moment in the second seminar he unleashed his fiercest critique: “I am interested in abolishing class society because it bludgeons nearly all needs. Why should I rack my brains about what happens then?[21] Despite the simplicity of this critique, its answer is complex. I would like to close by focusing on the answer that Adorno develops. What is important in this question is that it asks about the relation of need, to thought, to the Absolute. Brecht turns away from the Absolute because he imagines an immediate relation between need and historical action. Brechts position is rigged to deter moralism. But Adorno begins to produce an answer to this criticism, that is not moralistic but which arises from the particularity of the quality of need in thought. To understand the argument that he makes another book in the history of the theorisation of need must be opened.

In his early essay, The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, Hegel argued that apart from the prosaic needs of the everyday, philosophy itself arose from a special need of society:

Dichotomy is the source of the need of philosophy; and as the culture of the era, it is the unfree and given aspect of the whole configuration. In culture, the appearance of the Absolute has become isolated from the Absolute and fixated into independence. But at the same time the appearance cannot disown its origin, and must aim to constitute the manifold of its limitations into one whole[22]

For Hegel this situation of a cultural dichotomy was founded in a thought of modernity as an epoch in which a unity had been lost. But he also considered the development of culture as the hardening of the dichotomies of society:

As culture grows and spreads, and the development of those outward expressions of life into which dichotomy can entwine itself becomes more manifold, the power of dichotomy becomes greater, its regional sanctity is more firmly established and the strivings of life to give birth once more to its harmony become more meaningless, more alien to the cultural whole.[23]

If Adorno was unable to provide a fully worked out solution to Brecht’s question during the seminars, he would begin to do so in the following months in his essay ‘Reflections of Class Theory.’ The solution would be a metacritique of Hegel’s proposition. For Adorno the dichotomies of modern society were produced not from the disintegration of a unified culture, but were determined by the division of labour and class society.

As a philosophy, Marxism remained true to [Hegel’s syllogistic thinking of history]. It confirms Hegelian idealism as prehistory’s existing knowledge of its own identity. But it puts it back on its feet by unmasking that identity as prehistorical. For Marxism, the identical truly becomes the state of need, the need of human beings who are merely articulated by the concept. The irreconcilable power of the negative that sets history in motion is the power of what exploiters do to their victims. As a shackle binding one generation to the next, it functions as an obstacle to both freedom and history.[24] 

Adorno, borrowing an argumentative strategy from Marx’s introduction to his Elements of a Critique of Political Economy, designates the moment that Hegel’s need of philosophy and its apparent fulfilment in the actuality of the Absolute as prehistory [Vorgeschichte]. If the divisions of class society create a general need, then it is the strength of capitalism that it consistently also provides an objective thinking of the Absolute that instrumentally fulfils this need both technically and conceptually through integration.[25] In every concept and technology of capitalism, subject and object are synthesised as though free, and as though they in that moment satisfy societies needs. But as prehistory, the objectively thought capitalist Absolute remains false. Its falsity shows through in the non-identity of the satisfaction and freedom, in the perpetuation of the material constraint of humanity. Its true expression is in the particular need, and the subjective act of thinking this need. Hence Hegel’s thesis is dialectically inverted: the presupposed false absolute leads to the expression of need in thinking. The final formulation of this thought for Adorno can be found in the last paragraph of a book he wrote 25 years later, Negative Dialektik:

But thinking, itself a comportment, contains need – primarily the necessity of life [Lebensnot] – within it. Thought arises out of need, even where we disdain wishful thinking. The motor of needs is the exertion that thinking as an act involves. The object of critique is not the need in thinking, but rather the relation between the two. The need in thinking wants, though, to be thought. It longs for its negation through thinking, and must disappear into thought if it is really to be satisfied, and in this negation it endures. Contained in the innermost cell of thought is that which is not like thought. The smallest inner-worldly movements would have relevance for the Absolute, because the micrological gaze shatters the shells of that which is helplessly isolated under the measure of the cover-concept, exploding its identity – the deception that it was merely a specimen. [26] 

The most extreme predictions of state capitalism were never realised after the War – there was no end to world hunger, no absolute predominance of state monopolies, and no end to the economic basis of domination. But there remains something in Adorno’s thinking learnt in California: capitalism always threatens to integrate need through into an apparently satisfied and stable unfree society. Freedom and happiness are exchanged for regression and gratification. But precisely in that integration, in the apparent utopia of the identity of subject and object that determines every intra-historical movement of the capitalism, need endures in the experience of particularity. It endures as something cognitive but nonconceptual. The task of the dialectic – of the truly aporetic praxis of materialist thought – is to grasp it in its dynamism. For within it lies the relation of history to freedom.

[1] Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften, Band 12, pp. 560-561. Trans. mine.

[2] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 4, p. 35. Trans. mine.

[3] Two recent works that struggle hard against these stories are Esther Leslie’s Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde and Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s 2010 film on Brecht in exile in California The Empty Plan. Both have been indispensible to the writing of this paper.

[4] Henryk Grossmann, Das Akkumulations- und Zusammebruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems, 1927.

[5] Brecht, Die Mutter, 1931. Trans. mine

[Wenn du keine Suppe hast
Willst du dich da wehren?
Da musst du den ganzen Staat
Von unten nach oben umkehren
Bis du deine Suppe hast.
Dann bist du dein eigener Gast.

Wenn für dich keine Arbeit zu finden ist
Da musst du dich doch wehren!
Da musst du den ganzen Staat
Von unten nach oben umkehren
Bis du dein eigener Arbeitgeber bist.
Worauf für dich die Arbeit vorhanden ist.]

[6] Pollock, ‘State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations’ in The Frankfurt School Reader, pp. 71-95, especially p. 78.

[7] At the end of the second seminar, Brecht says “I believe that socialism has never considered that it could ‘satisfy’ material needs. Socialism sees itself opposite a planned deficiency that it wants to abolish.” This sentiment is not responded to, but marks out a revolutionary nihilism as opposed to an orthodox Marxism in Brecht that has often recently been discussed with regard to Benjamin’s essays ‘The Destructive Character’ and ‘Experience and Poverty.’ For reasons of time it cannot be discussed here.

[8] Brecht, Arbeitsjournal, Band 2, p. 510, trans. mine

[9] Brecht, Hollywood Liederbuch (1942-1943), trans. mine.

[Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt,
Paradies und Hölle können eine Stadt sein.
Für die Mittellosen ist das Paradies die Hölle.]

[10] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 4, p. 31; Minima Moralia, trans. Edmund Jephcott, pp. 29-30.

[11] Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften, Band 12, p. 568. Trans. mine.

[12] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 392; ‘Theses on Need’ in Quid, 16, Trans. Keston Sutherland.

[13] See David Bradshaw’s introduction to the Vintage edition, pp. xix-xx.

[14] Hokheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 12, p. 572, trans. mine.

[15] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 392; ‘Theses on Need’ in Quid, 16, Trans. Keston Sutherland.

[16] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 394; ‘Theses on Need’ in Quid, 16, Trans. Keston Sutherland.

[17] Huxley, Brave New World, p. 36.

[18] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 393; ‘Theses on Need’ in Quid, 16, Trans. Keston Sutherland.’

[19] Marx, Capital Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach, (London: Pelican, 1981), pp. 958-959

[20] Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie 2, p. 198. Trans. Simon Jarvis in his essay “Adorno, Marx, Materialism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno.

[21] Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 12, p. 256. Trans.

[22] Hegel, Differenzschrift, (1801); The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, trans. H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf,  p. 89.

[23] Hegel, Differenzschrift, (1801); The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, trans. H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf,  p. 92.

[24] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 375; ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, trans. Rodney Livingstone, p. 95.

[25] See Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, p. 255 (thesis 5 of his presentation) on this point.

[26] Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 6, pp. 399-400, trans. mine.  

Birkbeck to end 24 hour building access

I got into university today to discover a sign in the library saying that Birkbeck College (one of the big universities that makes up the University of London) is no-longer going to be running its site 24 hours a day. Birkbeck is a slightly unusual institution in that it’s a night school, with classes mostly taking place between 6pm and 9pm. The idea is that people can attend a higher education institution even if they are burdened during the daytime with work or other responsibilities. Since I have been a student at Birkbeck (I started here in late 2010) the overnight provisions have always been relatively meagre. Compared to other universities in London (such as UCL, Goldsmiths, and LSE) Birkbeck has never provided 24 hour library access, but it has always had computer rooms open at night that students can use – and which are used by many students (including myself on occasion.) The night-time security for the building is provided by a number of poorly paid workers outsourced to a company called CIS who run outsourced security at a number of university buildings around Bloomsbury.

The announcement of a reduction in opening hours is a flagrant attack on the resources offered by the university to its students and staff. Although the notice mentions that this is for the sake of “safety and security” this is without doubt a cost-cutting measure, from which the students – and indeed most likely those students who are already busiest and most in need of university resources – will lose out. I will be interested in finding out how the university projects that this change will affect already disadvantaged groups of students. Furthermore there has been no consultation of students about this measure. And it is hardly a surprise that the change is being smuggled through during the summer when many students are not around. The poster kindly omits an email address that people can air complaints to, I have been informed that complaints should be sent to (but I’m also going to be sending mine to the Pro-Vice Master for Research, Stephen Frosh:, and the Pro-Vice Master for Teaching and Learning, Sue Jackson: I’ll also be talking to the night security staff tonight to find out what is happening with their jobs. But for the moment I recommend that everyone complain about this change.

A famous picture reinterpreted

Elbow-communism: a late night thought

I remember that during fourteen years of school someone would occasionally say, “did you know that it’s impossible to lick your own elbow?” This would normally result in everyone spending a few minutes trying to lick their own elbows. It is a testament of the depth and strength of ideology that even at such a young age we didn’t just think to lick each other’s elbows.

Communist Fairy Tale: The Boy who wanted to Fight with a Dragon

Berta Lask, 1921, trans. Jack Zipes

A boy and a girl walked together on a country road. They were carrying books and pencils in their knapsacks and heading toward school. Along the way the boy said, “We have our history lesson today. That’s neat! The teacher will tell us again how the Germans fought the French. I love to hear all about it. You know, when I grow up, I’ll go to war and kill all the French.”

     The Girl replied. “Please don’t kill all of them. Perhaps there are some good people among them. Then you’ll have killed the good with the bad.”

     But the boy answered, “What do you mean? There are no good ones. I’m going to kill them all.”

     They continued along their way for a while, and the young girl asked, “What sort of stories did your mother tell you? She knows so many.”

     The young boy said, “Yesterday, she told me about Siegfried and how he killed a dragon. And the day before she told me about little Roland and how he killed a giant. You know, when I grow up, I’m going to kill a dragon and a giant or many dragons and giants. And there are evil knights who kidnap princesses and hold them prisoner. I’m going to kill all of the evil knights, too, and free all the princesses.”

     “That’s terrific,” the girl said. “And I’ll help you.”

     The young boy laughed and said, “You want to help me? But you’re just a girl. Girls can’t kill dragons. Boys are the only ones who know how to do that.”

     Then the girl responded, “Well, you can at least show me the dragon after you’ve killed one. I want to see if it’s a real one. Still, I’ll do something that’s just as good as killing dragons.”

     “What’s that?” the boy asked.

     “I don’t know yet. I still have time.”

     Just at that moment they arrived in front of the school.

Several years later the young boy was grown up and no longer went to school. So he bought a gun and ammunition and marched along the country road – “ left, right, left, right,” snappy, like a soldier. He was now ready to fight against the French. But when he asked people where he could find the enemy forces of the French, they laughed at him and said, “The war with the French ended many years ago. There’s nothing to fight against now.”

     When the young man heard this, he returned sadly to his home and placed the ammunition in a drawer and the gun in a closet. “I can’t fight the French now,” he thought, “but I can still kill a dragon and evil knights who kidnap princesses.”                

     The following day the young man wandered along the country road again. He wore a fine suit made out of smooth blue cloth and a warm overcoat. Under the coat he carried a large sharp sword that he wanted to use to kill dragons and evil knights. After some time he arrived in a city. And as he went through the streets, he heard a soft clappety-clap. Hey, the young man thought, it clatters like iron armour. There must be a knight around here somewhere. And he listened carefully to the clattering noise that came out of a cellar. The young man crouched and looked through a window; he saw a young girl with a pale, sad face. Hey, the young man thought, she must be a princess. I’m going to go right down there and kill the iron knight and free the princess.

     The young man went down some steps and entered a small, dark cellar. An old woman sat on a stool and peeled potatoes, and a sewing machine stood at the window. There sat the pale girl whom the young man had seen from outside. She was sewing as fast as she could and did not even look up at the young man as he entered. The young man was puzzled by this and said, “I thought you were a kidnapped princess because you looked so sad and pale, and I thought an evil knight was guarding you because I heard rattling like an iron armour.”

     You fool, the girl wanted to say, but then she stopped sewing for a moment and looked up at him. And when she noticed that his face was good and honest, the girl laughed a little and said, “My iron sewing machine is the evil knight that keeps me prisoner. I have to sew from early morning until late at night and can hardly leave the room. If it were a knight it would fall asleep every now and then or die. But the sewing machine neither sleeps nor dies.”

     The young man then drew his sword from beneath his coat and said, “I’m going to chop the sewing machine into a thousand pieces so that it will no longer hold you prisoner.”

     But the girl became very annoyed and cried, “You foolish thing, if you destroy my sewing machine, my mother and I will starve.”

     “But what are you sewing?” the young man asked.

     “I sew fine suits like the one you have on,” the girl said.

     “But why must you sit like a prisoner and work day and night in a small dark room?” the young man asked.

     “I don’t know why,” the girl said. “I don’t have time to trouble myself to find out why. But if you are a good, brave lad, then you could take the time and trouble to find out”.

     “Yes,” the young man said. “I’ll do it, and when I know how to help you, I’ll return.”

     The young girl laughed again and then quickly continued to sew as the young man departed.

     I’d rather fight against a knight than against a sewing machine, the young man thought, but now I don’t know what to do. And he continued on his way steeped in thought. After some time he left the city and came to a patch of wood. There, in the distance, he could see a large factory with two tall chimneys puffing thick, black smoke into the air. Suddenly women, girls, and little children emerged and headed toward the factory. The stragglers were running. Why are they running like that, the young man thought; perhaps there’s a wild animal running after them, perhaps a dragon. And he called to the women, “Don’t be afraid of the dragon. I’ll handle him.”

     “What’s that? What shouldn’t we be afraid of?” the women asked.

     “The dragon who’s after you,” the young man replied.

     The women and girls laughed loudly. But one of the women went over to the young man. She led two children by the hand and told him, “There’s no dragon after us. But there is a dragon in front of us, waiting for us. Do you see the flames coming out of his mouth?”

     Through an open door of the factory the young man saw a gigantic furnace filled with glowing red coal. That was what the woman meant by flames coming out of the dragon’s mouth.

     “And do you see the black smoke he puffs out of his nose? That’s the dragon. He drags me away from my children every day.”

     “Do you always have to go to the dragon?”

     “Every day, from early morning until late at night.”

     “And what do you do there the entire day?”

     “We make nice warm cloth like the cloth of your coat,” the woman said.

     “I don’t want to wear a warm coat anymore if you have to leave your children alone because of it,” the young man said. “I’m going to start a large fire and burn down the entire factory. Then the dragon won’t be able to drag you away.”

     “No,” the woman said, “that’s the one thing you shouldn’t do. Otherwise, my children and I shall starve. But if you’re a smart, brave lad, think of a way you can help us.

     Upon saying that, the woman went with the others into the factory. The children remained outside, and many cried because their mothers had gone away. Just then a young woman carrying a basked came out of the woods. It was the girl who had gone to school with the young man some years ago. Upon catching sight of the young woman, the children stopped crying and ran toward her. She began telling them beautiful stories, and she played with them. And when the children became hungry, she took some bread and milk from the basket so that they could eat and drink.

     The young man was surprised and watched for some time. He no longer thought about the sword under his coat, and it slipped to the ground without his noticing it. But the young woman cried out to him, “You’ve lost your sword. Come over here and bring it with you.”

     The young man turned around and said, “Let it lie there. I don’t need it now.”

     The young woman laughed and asked him whether he had killed all of the dragons. “Why didn’t you bring me one?”

     “I haven’t killed one single dragon yet,” the young man said. “It’s more difficult than I thought. The real dragon that causes evil keeps on hiding. But I’ll find him one day, and then I’ll fight it out with him.”

Horkheimer’s Attack on Sohn-Rethel - A Translation



In a letter to Adorno, sent on 8 December 1936, Horkheimer mounted an attack on Sohn-Rethel, with whom Adorno had suggested collaborating. This argument is perhaps the most important and extensive critical early statement on Sohn-Rethel’s work and to my knowledge has never previously been translated into English. The following is a translation of this attack, excerpted from the letter. In producing this translation I have attempted to render Horkheimer’s prose as accurately and literally as possible, straying only into metaphor where it seemed that the writing itself demanded it, or where a direct translation into English would not do justice to the intellectual movements of the text. Horkheimer was rarely a great stylist, and was certainly never of the rank of Benjamin or Adorno. But his correspondence, particularly in the 1930s, contains many insights crucial to the early development of critical theory. Perhaps that which has been most discussed was his challenge to Walter Benjamin on the question of the closedness of history, but his other letters are often equally rich in their theoretical critique of those around the Frankfurt School, and have for the most part – due to lack of translation – have gone entirely unnoticed by the Anglophone world. The letters of that generation of critical theorists, written as they were forced into exile by fascism, continued to exert a force over their intellectual work long after the end of the Second World War. This was shown to be the case not least for Alfred Sohn-Rethel, when in 1974 his exchange with Adorno nearly 40 years earlier (which prompted this response from Horkheimer) was published in the book Warenform und Denkform. Today interest in Sohn-Rethel has achieved something of a second wind not just in the small boring world of Marxology, but also in the slightly bigger, more brightly lit, but often equally glib world of cultural theory. There the force of negativity has long since been traded for sloganeering on an ever-buoyant market. I hope that in translating this attack some of this sloganeering might be questioned. Horkheimer’s letter may also still prove useful to readers of Sohn-Rethel’s magnum opus Intellectual and Manual Labour as it offers a distinctive critique of any attempt of closure of the system: between its (in Kantian terms) theoretical moment in the formal analysis of the exchange abstraction in Part 1 and its practical moment in the historical presentation of social synthesis in Part 2 of that book.

The letter from which this passage is drawn exists in two scholarly editions: the Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften Band XV, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag, 1995), pp. 763-775; and Adorno-Horkheimer Briefwechsel Band I, eds. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003), pp. 246-267. A further version of this entire extract is given in Theodor W. Adorno und Alfred Sohn-Rethel Briefwechsel, ed. Christoph Gödde (München: text + kritik edition, 1991), pp. 38-41. There are minor textual differences in these versions, which I have marked in the footnotes, although why they occur is beyond me. They are marked in footnotes “H”, “A” and “SR” respectively. The Adorno edition has edited the text into post-reform orthography, which with many misgivings I’ve kept, as it is the latest scholarly edition. I have consulted the two books that contain translated quotations from this material: Johm Abromeit’s new biography Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School, and Michael Robertson’s translation of Rolf Wiggershaus’ The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. I am not a translator by trade, and there may well be the occasional problem with this translation – I am presenting it here alongside the German text so if people think I need to make amendments they can tell me and I can fix it. Please do get in touch. I have also included a number of critical footnotes that offer some contextual information, critical commentary, or highlight moments where the original German is unclear. In the English version I have left a number of German words in parentheses where they may help in contextualising the writing in the German philosophical or critical theoretical tradition. If anyone wants to publish this properly and/or wants to give me some money to write a proper critical introduction to it, let me know. The above portrait of Sohn-Rethel is by Kurt Schwitters, 1941. 

English Version

Unfortunately our opinions differ on Sohn-Rethel’s work. Marcuse and I have read the outline of his project,[1] admittedly only in part. However we are afraid that we have already arrived at a judgment about it. If he has given you a strong impression from his letter and in conversations (instead of through a recommendation) which cannot  be traced back to some completely different Sohn-Rethelian insight from that which comes to expression in the outline, then, despite your great intelligence, you have been easily won over.

Insofar as we can find anything correct in the work, it is the theoretical view – which we have all shared for a long time – declaimed in an academically conceited and bombastic tone. Where for instance it is stated that “the solution to the problem of cognition” will be undertaken “through its achievement in praxis,” it is either a bad formulation of the thought that theory is interwoven into praxis, and that one must win in praxis – that is in practical struggles – or it is simply prattle. The same applies to the sentence that immediately follows this: “On the contrary one sees that the formal problem of truth of cognition concerning its validity-character, the material problem of truth of consciousness in the sense of the historically developing essence of humans, and finally the practical problem of truth in the sense of the practical solution to the problem of Being of humans, who exist in an indivisible nexus with each other.” This holy trinity of formal, material, and practical problems of truth is marked for a move ever after which it would be asserted that all of the problems and categories are identical with each other and arise out of each other. “The proof of the genesis of valid cognition out of social being is equivalent to the practical critique of the truth of the social being of humans from the measure of their essence.” You certainly have no particular sympathy for such exaggeratedly idealist formulations. You remember those parts of Schelling’s philosophy of identity, which Hegel described as the night in which all the cows are grey.[2] At least Schelling did not construct incessant boastful postulates, all of which would have to be fulfilled; instead the conviction in his metaphysical outlook was proclaimed as the identity of each and every.[3] Sohn-Rethel’s perpetual reassurance that any of these proofs would have to be achieved, after which any “geneses” out of being, or out of history, or out of the developing being of humans, or out of the deepest root of the being of humans in their history, would be comparable with the problem of truth of consciousness, or the question of the validity of cognition, or with praxis of the society – this feels eternally tiresome and uninteresting. [4]

It almost seems to me as if you were infected with Sohn-Rethel’s mania of dialectical (or rather more undialectical) identification, becoming blind to the enormous difference between your own mode of thought and his. Your aim – that of proving the necessary and immanent relatedness of the idealist concept of the subject with the materialist one – may converge with Sohn-Rethel’s postulate of a materialisation of the idealist concept of cognition, but under certain circumstances such formal concordances could even be established between us and our worst enemies. This question seems to me to be less one of such grand philosophical ambitions than of arriving at determinate formulations in particular. You must therefore look more closely at Sohn-Rethel’s project: observe[5] the connection of the particular propositions with each other, and look especially for some kind of indicator for the relation in which this whole work stands to historical reality, and how the author has latched on to that reality. You will not be able to ward off the feeling that stolen behind this dreary flow of sentences full of words heavy with content there lies such a great power of thought, that it could be history herself, or would otherwise belong to a Jaspers or some other professor. In every sentence of your Jazz essay[6] our strained relation to reality comes closer to expression than in the weightiness of Sohn-Rethel’s declaimed explanations. Your Kierkegaard book[7] may also still carry within it the traces of the idealist mode of thinking that you renounce in that book; but in many places it is your vitriolic gaze, sharpened with hatred for the existing conditions, which is decisive. Yes, I have also learnt that your thought cannot be unified with the present objective spirit, where to me the correctness of thought appears doubtful. I reiterate: hold up Sohn-Rethel’s work once again and stare at the view through its eyepiece; the formal concordance of your intentions will disappear behind the meaningful test of this instrument.

Worst of all is the way that Marxian theory appears in the text. I would argue that Comtean or certainly Spencerian concepts could stand in place of the Marxian categories without anything changing.[8] And furthermore, instead of economic categories arbitrary historiographical, biological, or psychological ones could be deployed. Nowhere is the characteristic irony of Marxian categories operative; nowhere does their critical function appear. Indeed, the consequences of their specifically economic content are never worked through. Marxian theory serves him only in that it makes it possible to exemplify his path to the “concrete” as radical, although along this path the conception of the concrete and radical does not have to differ so much from that of Gestalt psychology[9] or phenomenology.

“The analysis of the value-form is adequate to assert: firstly, that the value-form itself is the form of reflection of the being of things with regard to their unity; and secondly, that within this analysis the existence of things [Dasein der Dinge] relates to humans in the same plane of being [Ebene des Seins] as that of existent subjects [existierendes Subjekt].” The natural-scientific section of Hegel’s Encyclopaedia also contains sentences in which purely linguistically it could be remarked that the author is not at home with the object. But in Sohn-Rethel’s assertions it is all too clear that the author is in real conflict with the analysis. Probably this sentence contains an undigested memory of the phenomenon of reification, retained by Sohn-Rethel from his reading of Lukács.[10] This develops into the theory that social needs are themselves asserted, whether more or less badly, in value, through which something like the unity of the society is mediated. I would probably say that it is prohibited here, as in other places, to bring Sohn-Rethel’s arguments into clear connection with economic theories because of the generality of their formulation: nothing is said of particular humans or particular periods; only the form of the being of things, the existence [Dasein] of things, “humans as such” and so forth are spoken of. The concept of exploitation is completely stripped of all of its aggressive content in a way not even Mannheim achieved; it becomes a mere placeholder for some other arbitrary conceptual relation. It somehow abides with ideology, with which it sits more easily.[11] From Sohn-Rethel we learn that between the human poles of the relations of exploitation a reflection plays out, which raises “real relations of genesis into purely interpersonal movements”, and these are “adhered to as immediately valid.” With which demonic powers may these reflections otherwise always be granted, other than being made possible on the foundation of the magnificence and the depth of the philosophical formulations in which they are written, reverberating over the relations of exploitation and transfiguring them. The State, which is the “result of reflection” of the primary social relations of exploitation, and “therefore this exploitation  is in the shape [Gestalt] of an essence [Wesen]”, which “against its genesis out of it where the negation of a genesis is completely sealed off, of an essence without a rear view, in which its genesis is left only as the self-entanglement in its own existence [Existenz] and the objective mediation of the relation of domination between mere people and its immediate validity affects only its claim to objectivity” – this State would have already appointed the author of this magnificent sentence as its dignitary. I know that all of that can be understood if necessary, but as soon as one has more or less understood it one notices that what the author has taken trusted insights, dressing them up idealistically but while removing every trace of their vitriol. As I have said, I cannot arrive at a conclusive judgment with regard to everything, but I presume that these particular instances, of which I have until now been able to discover not a single exception, do not deceptively depict of the whole work.

That I have the opinion of you that this case can finally rest on your greater experience, means that I will also respect if your opinion stands in opposition to mine. So I request primarily only that you in any case make no promises to Sohn-Rethel, before we have further notified you. Should you be in favour of commissioning him to compose a short and clear, eventually publishable essay about his foundational thoughts – for which we could pay on my behalf a thousand Francs – I would agree. However, we ought not to create any further hopes, because if the essay does not display wholly other qualities from the outline I will seriously attempt to dissuade from the thought of a collaboration with Sohn-Rethel.

[1] Sohn-Rethel had sent Adorno with an outline plan of his  work in a letter composed in early November 1936. This is published in Theodor W. Adorno und Alfred Sohn-Rethel Briefwechsel, pp. 13-31. Its transmission to Horkheimer is detailed in Adorno-Horkheimer Briefwechsel Band 1, pp. 225-227.

[2] Horkheimer here refers to paragraph 16 of the Phenomenology of Spirit. There Hegel implicitly attacks Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, “Nowadays we see all value ascribed to the universal Idea in this non-actual form, and the undoing of all distinct, determinate entities (or rather the hurling of them all into the abyss of vacuity without further development or any justification) is allowed to pass muster as the speculative mode of treatment. Dealing with something from the perspective of the Absolute consists merely in declaring that, although one has been speaking of it just now as something definite, yet in the Absolute, the A=A, there is nothing of the kind, for there all is one. To pit this single insight, that in the Absolute everything is the same, against the full body of articulated cognition, which at least seeks and demands such fulfilment, to palm off its Absolute as the night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black - this is cognition naively reduced to vacuity.” (trans. A.V. Miller, p.9).  It is perhaps significant that Horkheimer makes a mistake in referencing this image, for he writes of a night in which all the cows are grey. The error, reminiscent of Beckett’s opening stage direction for Endgame: “bare interior / grey light”, brings to mind another – and not disimilar – famous image from Hegel: at the closing of the preface to the Philosophy of Right Hegel writes of how philosophy paints its grey on grey. That such a slippage between these two images was possible indicates something of the Frankfurt School critique of Hegel: that is that he does not escape the empty formalism of Schelling’s philosophy of identity. Indeed it would be the claim to this unity of the Absolute in Hegel that would lead many of Adorno’s later critiques of Hegel in his Hegel: Three Studies and Negative Dialectics.

[3] There are a number of such statements in Schelling’s Oeuvre. Perhaps the most famous is that given in the preface to his 1797 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, where he writes: “Philosophy, accordingly, is nothing other than a natural history of our mind. From now on all dogmatism is overturned from its foundations. We consider the system of our ideas, not in its being, but in its becoming. Philosophy becomes genetic; that is, it allows the whole necessary series of our ideas to arise and take its course, as it were, before our eyes. From now on there is no longer any separation between experience and speculation. The system of Nature is at the same time the system of our mind, and only now, once the great synthesis has been accomplished, does our knowledge return to analysis.” (trans. Harris and Heath, p. 30).

[4] The implication in Horkheimer’s parody of Sohn-Rethel’s sentence is that in his formalism Sohn-Rethel may have fallen into an existentialist position.

[5] The version given in H and S-R would read “Consider…”.

[6] Adorno’s article ‘Über Jazz’ was written 1936 and published under his pseudonym Hektor Rottweiler in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. A translation by Jamie Owen Daniel is given in Adorno on Music, ed. by Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002),pp. 470-494.

[7] Adorno’s book Kierkegaard. Konstruktion des Ästhetischen was published in 1933. It is now Volume 2 of Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 20 vols., ed. Tiedemann, Rolf, (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998). An English translation by Robert Hullot-Kentor exists as Kierkegaard: Contruction of the Aesthetic, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

[8] For a further elucidation of Horkheimer’s critique of the pairing of Comte and Spencer see his essay ‘Authority and the Family’ trans. by Matthew O’Connell, in Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1972), p. 49.

[9] In all published editions of the letter the Horkheimer uses the word “gestalters”. Without access to the original typescript or manuscript I can only assume that this word, with its unusual English pluralisation and lack of capitalisation, refers to Gestalt psychologists, against whom both Horkheimer and Adorno had developed critiques.

[10] Horkheimer refers to Lukács’ 1923 book History and Class Consciousness, particularly its central essay ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’.  

[11] Sentence unclear in the original German. 

German Version

Über die Arbeit Sohn-Rethels gehen unsere Meinungen leider auseinander. Marcuse und ich haben den Entwurf, freilich nur zum Teil, gelesen, trauen uns jedoch immerhin schon ein Urteil darüber zu. Wenn der starke Eindruck, den Sie von seinem anstelle eines Gutachtens geschriebenen Brief  und von der Aussprache mit ihm gewonnen haben, nicht auf ganz andere Sohn-Rethelsche Einsichten zurückgeht, als auf diejenigen, die im Entwurf zum Ausdruck kommen, dann haben Sie sich durch seine grosse Intelligenz einfach bestechen lassen.

Soweit wir etwas Richtiges in der Arbeit finden können, sind es theoretische Ansichten, die uns allen seit langem gemeinsam sind, vorgetragen in einer akademisch eitlen und bombastischen Sprache. Wenn etwa gesagt wird, dass »die Lösung des Erkenntnisproblems … zur Gewinnung der Praxis« unternommen werde, so ist das entweder eine schlechte Formulierung für den Gedanken, dass die Theorie in die Praxis verflochten ist und dass man die Praxis, das heisst die praktischen Kämpfe, gewinnen muss, oder es ist einfach Gerede. Ähnlich steht es mit dem gleich darauf folgenden Satz: »Man sieht aber, dass das formale Wahrheitsproblem der Erkenntnis hinsichtlich ihres Geltungscharakter, das materiale Wahrheitsproblem des Bewusstseins im Sinn der geschichtlichen Wesensentwicklung der Menschen und endlich das praktische Wahrheitsproblem im Sinn der praktischen Lösung der eigenen Seinsprobleme der Menschen in einem ganz untrennbaren Zusammenhang miteinander stehen.« Diese heilige Dreieinigkeit von formalem, materialem, und praktischem Wahrheitsproblem ist kennzeichnend für ein Verfahren, in dem immer wieder behauptet wird, dass alle Probleme und Kategorien miteinander identisch seien und auseinander hervorgehen. »Der Nachweis der Genesis der geltenden Erkenntnis aus dem gesellschaftlichen Sein ist gleichbedeutend mit der praktischen Wahrheitskritik des gesellschaftlichen Seins der Menschen nach den Massen ihres Wesens.« Sie selbst haben bestimmt für solche übertrieben idealistischen Formulierungen keine besondere Sympathie. Sie erinnern an jene Partien aus Schellings Identitätsphilosophie, auf die sich das Wort Hegels von der Nacht, in der alle Kühe grau sind, bezieht. Nur hat Schelling nicht unaufhörlich grosssprechrische Postulate aufgestellt, was alles geleistet werden müsse, sondern seine Überzeugung von der Identität alles und jedes als seine metaphysische Anschauung ausgesprochen. Sohn-Rethels fortwährende Versicherung, dass irgendwelche Nachweise geleistet werden müssten,[1] nach denen irgenwelche “Genesen” aus dem Sein oder aus der Geschichte oder aus der Seinsentwicklung des Menschen oder aus der tiefsten Wurzel des Seins des Menschen in seiner Geschichte gleichbedeutend seien mit dem Wahrheitsproblem des Bewusstseins oder der Geltungsfrage der Erkenntnis oder mit der Praxis der Gesellschaft – empfinde ich als undendlich ermüdend und uninteressant.

Fast scheint es mir so, als seien Sie, durch Sohn-Rethels Manie der dialektischen oder vielmehr undialektischen Identifikation angsteckt, gegen den ungeheuren Unterschied Ihrer eigenen Denkart und seiner blind geworden. Ihre Absicht, die notwendige und immanente Bezogenheit des idealistischen Subjektbegriffs auf Materielles nachzuweisen, mag mit Sohn-Rethels Postulat einer Materialisierung des idealistischen Erkenntnisbegriffs zusammentreffen, aber solche formalen Übereinstimmungen können Sie unter Umständen auch zwischen uns und unseren ärgsten Gegnern feststellen. Es scheint mir weniger auf diese grossen philosophischen Zielsetzungen als auf die bestimmten Formulierungen im einzelnen anzukommen. Sehen Sie aber einmal diesen Sohn-Rethelschen Entwurf daraufhin etwas näher an; beobachten Sie auch die Verbindung der einzelnen Sätze miteinander und suchen Sie vor allem nach irgendeinem Anhaltspunkt dafür, in welcher Beziehung diese ganze Arbeit zur geschichtlichen Realität steht und was der Autor von dieser kapiert hat. Sie werden sich des Gefühls nicht erwehren können, dass hinter diesem trostlosen Ablauf von Sätzen mit inhaltsschweren Worten zwar eine große Denkkraft steckt, dass diese aber zur Geschichte selbst, wie sie ist, auch nicht viel anders steht als irgendein Jaspers oder sonst ein Professor. In jedem Satz Ihres Jazzaufsatzes kommt unser gespanntes Verhältnis zur Realität klarer zum Ausdruck als in den mit Gewichtigkeit vorgetragenen Erklärungen Sohn-Rethels. Mag Ihre Kierkegaard-Arbeit auch noch die Spuren der idealistischen Denkweise an sich tragen, von der Sie sich mit jenem Buch lossagten, so macht sich doch an vielen Stellen Ihr vom Haß geschärfter Blick auf das Bestehende geltend, ja, ich habe die Unvereinbarkeit Ihrer Gedanken mit dem vorhandenen objektiven Geist auch dort erfahren, wo mir die Richtigkeit der Gedanken als zweifelhaft erschien. Ich wiederhole: sehen Sie unter diesem Gesichtspunkt den Entwurf noch einmal durch! Die formale Übereinstimmung in der Intention wird hinter der vielsagenden Probe ihrer Durchführung verschwinden.

Das Schlimmste ist die Art, wie die Marxsche Theorie darin auftritt. Ich behaupte, dass anstelle der Marxschen Kategorien Comtesche, sicher aber Spencersche Begriffe stehen könnten, ohne dass irgendetwas verändert wäre. Ja, noch mehr! Anstatt ökonomischer Kategorien können beliebige geschichtsphilosophische, biologische oder psychologische eingesetzt werden. Nirgends wird die eigentümliche Ironie der Marxschen Kategorien wirksam, nirgends erscheint ihre kritische Funktion, ja, es werden nicht einmal Konsequenzen aus ihrem spezifischen ökonomischen Gehalt gezogen. Die Marxsche Theorie dient ihm nur dazu, seinen Zug zum »Konkreten« möglichst radikal zu exemplifizieren, wobei dies konkret und radikal gar nicht so sehr viel anders gemeint sein muss als bei den gestalters oder der Phänomenologie.

»Es genüge aus der Analyse der Wertform die Aussage, daß erstens die Wertform selbst die Reflexionsform des Seins der Dinge hinsichtlich seiner Einheit ist und daß zweitens in ihr das Desein der Dinge auf den Menschen als in der gleichen Ebene des Seins wie sie existierendes Subjekt bezogen ist.«[2] Auch Hegels Encyclopädie[3] enthält im naturwissenschaftlichen Teil Sätze, denen man es rein sprachlich anmerkt, dass er mit dem Gegenstand nicht vertraut ist. Aber dieser Aussage merkt man allzu deutlich an, dass der Autor mit jener Analyse auf dem Kriegsfuss steht. Wahrscheinlich enthält der Satz eine unverdaute Erinnerung an das Phänomen der Verdinglichung, die Sohn-Rethel aus der Lektüre von Lukács geblieben ist, und weiter an die Theorie, dass im Wert sich die gesellschaftlichen Bedürfnisse, wenn auch mehr oder minder schlecht, durchsetzen, wodurch so etwas wie die Einheit der Gesellschaft vermittelt wird. Wahrscheinlich sage ich, denn die Allgemeinheit der Formulierung, mit der nicht etwa von bestimmten Menschen in bestimmten Perioden, sondern von der Form des Seins der Dinge, vom Dasein der Dinge, von »dem« Menschen und so fort gesprochen wird, verbietet es hier wie an anderen Stellen, Sohn-Rethels Behauptungen mit ökonomischen Theorien in klaren Zusammenhang zu bringen. Den Begriff der Ausbeutung alles[4] aggressiven Inhalts völlig zu entkleiden, und zum blossen Platzhalter für irgendeinen beliebigen anderen Beziehungsbegriff zu machen, hat nicht einmal Mannheim fertiggebracht. Er hielt sich immerhin an die Ideologie, mit der es leichter war. Von Sohn-Rethel erfahren wir, dass zwischen den menschlichen Polen des Ausbeutungsverhältnisses eine Reflexion spielt, welche die »Realverhältnisse der Genesis … in die rein zwischenmenschliche Beziehung« hebt und sie dort »als unmittelbare Geltung festhält«. Mit welchen dämonischen Kräften diese Reflexion sonst auch immer begabt sein mag, sie vermag, lediglich auf Grund der Grossartigkeit und Tiefe der philosophischen Formulierungen, mit denen sie beschrieben wird, auf das Ausbeutungsverhältnis zurückzustrahlen und es zu verklären. Der Staat, der das »Reflexionsresultat« des primären gesellschaftlichen Ausbeutungsverhältnisses und »deshalb diese Ausbeutung in Gestalt eines Wesens« ist, »das gegen seine Genesis aus ihr mit der Negation einer Genesis seiner überhaupt verschlossen ist, eines Wesens ohne Rückenansicht, in dem seine Genesis nur noch als die Selbstverfangenheit in die eigene Existenz und die sachliche Vermittlung der Herrschaftsbeziehung zwischen blossen Menschen nur noch im Objektivitätsanspruch ihrer unmittelbaren Geltung vorkommt« – dieser Staat müsste den Autor dieses grossartigen Satzes schon deshalb zu seinem Würdenträger machen. Ich weiß, das[s] alles lässt sich zur Not verstehen, aber sobald man es à peu près verstanden hat, merkt man, dass das, was der Autor hier mit vertrauten Erkenntnissen getan hat, ihre idealistische Verbrämung und nicht etwa ihre Schärfung ist. Ich kann, wie gesagt, über das ganze kein abschliessendes Urteil fällen, vermute aber, dass die Einzelheiten, von denen ich bis jetzt nicht eine einzige Ausnahme zu entdenken vermochte, keine irreführenden Zeichen für die Arbeit sind.

Da ich eine Meinung von Ihnen, die sich schliesslich in diesem Fall dazu noch auf grössere Erfahrung stützt, auch dann respektiere, wenn sie der meinigen entgegengesetzt ist, so bitte ich Sie zunächst nur darum, Sohn-Rethel jedenfalls keine Versprechungen zu machen, ehe wir uns nicht weiter verständigt haben. Sollten Sie dafür sein, ihm den Auftrag zu erteilen, einen kurzen und klaren, eventuell druckbaren Aufsatz über seinen Grundgedanken anzufertigen, für den wir ihm meinethalben tausend Franken bezahlen könnten, so bin ich damit einverstanden. Irgendwelche weiteren Hoffnungen sollten wir ihm jedoch nicht machen, denn wenn der Aufsatz nicht ganz andere Qualitäten zeigt als der Entwurf, werde ich ernstlich versuchen, Sie von dem Gedanken an eine Zusammenarbeit mit Sohn-Rethel abzubringen.

[1] A: “müssten”; SR und H: “müssen”.

[2] SR: “als in der gleichen Ebene des Seins wie [die das] existierenden Subjekts bezogen ist.”

[3] H und SR: “Enzyklopädie”

[4] H und SR : “alles”