“I am the last person to underestimate the merits of the student movement; it has disrupted the smooth transition to the totally administered world. But it contains a grain of insanity in which a future totalitarianism is implicit.”
– Adorno, 1969, during the German student uprisings.
Appropriated, this quote might stand today, in light of student protests across Europe, though it is important to understand the quote in its intended context. Firstly, the ‘grain of insanity’ must not be taken at a conservative shying from the nature of protest itself, and, secondly, totalitarianism, for Adorno, was implicit as one of several forms of ‘domination’ which merely employed different methods to achieved the same subordination of the masses at the hands of the powerful. The grain of insanity which Adorno identifies is the tendency towards domination that characterises rationalist thought, which seeks to dominate unfettered nature, but results in a domination of man by man, and then of ‘capital’ over all men. Until this grain of madness is shifted there will be no move away from systems of domination, and any movement which attempts this will be caught up in the antagonisms of power struggle only to be defeated, or to become dominant themselves, and in such a way that perpetuates domination.
If today there is some truth in the quote it is not so much that the student movement and those around its periphery who wish to push the cause towards Marxism, socialism, and so on, run the risk of taking power and perpetuating the forces of domination, as they run the risk of perpetuating domination through protest, in that the play off of struggles at street level absorbs the resources of opposition to capitalism and allows the media to predictably cast the student movement as the expression of thuggery. This is not something which resides in the intentions of protestors, the ‘madness’ is inherent to the system – in the misguided attempt of humanity to dominate nature, which backfires as a domination of all people by capitalist exchange – and cannot been shifted using leftist methods, hence the left become embroiled in the madness.
The above quote comes from personal correspondence between Adorno and Marcuse, the latter writing from America, where the two German-Jewish academics spent World War Two in exile, the former having returned to Germany, where in 1969 he found himself at odds with his students, who were keen to rise up, as had the French student movement one year earlier. The exchange of correspondence from which the quote originates centred around Marcuse wishing to side with Adorno’s students in the interest that a moment ripe for political praxis is not overlooked, whilst Adorno urged caution, being that the conditions did not, for him, exist for genuine revolution to come about. Marcuse upset Adorno by asking that he can address the students personally upon his return to Germany during the 1969 Summer break:
‘But I do believe that there are situations, moments, in which theory is pushed on further by praxis—situations and moments in which theory that is kept separate from praxis becomes untrue to itself.’
Adorno responded that the risk resided in the student movement turning into its opposite, and further added that Marcuse’s criticism of the Vietnam war, a central rallying call of the student movement worldwide (note the contrast with today where, as yet, the student movement has confined itself with to student and academia centred issues) had an ideological element so long as he would not condemn torture at the hands of the Viet Cong. This element is key, for in its counter-intuitive logic, it signals the extent to which Adorno would not be drawn in support of any system or ideology, as much as he despised rampant US capitalism.
Marcuse’s response drives to the heart of the problem faced by academia during moments of mass uprising:
‘Like you, I believe it is irresponsible to sit at one’s writing desk advocating activities to people who are fully prepared to let their heads be bashed in for the cause.’
What is then suggested is that a new theory, equal to the moment, is needed. Though, rather tellingly, without sketching out such a theory, Marcuse instead goes on to characterise Adorno’s refusal to criticise America’s violent excess without criticising the Viet Cong’s excess as a process of thought in favour of Imperialism. The key to the debate resides over whether all opposing political and social forces go towards making up a whole within which they are consigned to re-enacting the forces of domination, or whether some forces may be able to transcend domination. For both thinkers the latter was the hope, but for Adorno any such hope is subject to the former reality. This, for Adorno, marks why theory is praxis, in that theory may think through the negative social forces inherent to rationalist society, in a bid to surpass them. And whilst the theorist cannot bear scars as witness to their commitment to the cause, so long as they are only theorising, much is put at stake through that theorising, when it is often easier as a theorist to protest physically in support of inadequate political theories, than come up with a workable theory in the face of those who heckle and urge that one merely tow a preconceived line. Which not to say that it is easy to protest, or that there are not theorists who protest, and who are not content with what political theory offers at present, though they might better serve the cause of justice if they were more vocal at a point, today, when the voices of the old-Left drown out those from within a vast movement which in reality comprises many perspectives.
Echoing and expanding upon the opening quote here, Adorno finishes his correspondence with Marcuse on the subject of student uprising in the following way, giving the lie to those who perceive him as having been ensconced within the safety that his mere theorising supposedly enabled:
‘I am the last to underestimate the merits of the student movement: it has interrupted the smooth transition to the
totally administered world. But it is mixed with a dram of madness, in which the totalitarian resides teleologically, and not at all simply as a repercussion (though it is this too). And I am not a masochist, not when it comes to theory. Furthermore, the German situation really is different.—By the way, in an exam recently, I got another dose of tear gas; that is most burdensome, given my severe conjunctivitis.’