Happy Hanukkah from Adorno & Horkheimer
December 24, 2011
Towards a New Manifesto:
￼Conversations between Adorno & Horkheimer, 1956
A life-long intellectual partnership between two major thinkers, so close that their most celebrated single texts were co-authored and their names are difficult to dissociate, is rare enough to rank as virtually a sport of history. There seem to be only two cases: in the 19th century, Marx and Engels, and in the 20th Horkheimer and Adorno. Might they be regarded as prefigurations of what in a post-bourgeois world would become less uncommon? Their patterns differed. Marx and Engels, born two years apart, were contemporaries; once their friendship was formed, collaboration between them never ceased. Adorno was eight years Horkheimer’s junior, and a close working relationship came much later, with many more vicissitudes: initial meeting in 1921, intermittent friction and exchange up to the mid-1930s, concord only in American exile from 1938 onwards, more pointedly distinct identities throughout. The general trajectory of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research is well known, as over time ‘critical theory’— originally Horkheimer’s code-word for Marxism— confined it- self to the realms of philosophy, sociology and aesthetics; to all appearances completely detached from politics. Privately it was otherwise, as the exchange below makes clear.
This unique document is the record, taken down by Gre- tel Adorno, of discussions over three weeks in the spring of 1956, with a view to the production of—as Adorno puts it—a contemporary version of The Communist Manifesto. In form it might be described, were jazz not anathema to Adorno, as a philosophical jam-session, in which the two thinkers improvise freely, often wildly, on central themes of their work—theory and practice, labour and leisure, domination and freedom—in a political register found nowhere else in their writing. Amid a careening flux of arguments, aphorisms and asides, in which the trenchant alternates with the reck- less, the playful with the ingenuous, positions are swapped and contradictions unheeded, without any compulsion for consistency. In substance, each thinker reveals a different profile. Horkheimer, historically more politicized, was by now the more conservative, imbibing Time on China, if not yet to the point where he would commend the Kaiser for warning of the Yellow Peril. Though still blaming the West for what went wrong with the Russian Revolution, and rejecting any kind of reformism, his general outlook was now close to Kojève’s a decade later: ‘We can expect nothing more from mankind than a more or less worn-out version of the American system’. Adorno, more aesthetically minded, emerges paradoxically as the more radical: reminding Horkheimer of the need to oppose Adenauer, and envisaging their project as a ‘strictly Leninist manifesto’, even in a period when ‘the horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one’.