The theory of revolution in Theodor Adorno

Image: Regina Silveira


How can you read the negative dialectic as a theory of radical political action aimed at insurrection?

“Do we not know the story of people who, due to great moral misfortunes, took refuge in the desert, but there, by no means, remained hidden and in secret? […] who could better fulfill this task than those already initiated into the [desperate] labyrinths of life!” (Goethe, Elective Affinities).

This brief essay — an attempt — seeks to configure a working hypothesis about the negative dialectic. The slight assumption I would like to present is about the presence of a theory of revolution in Theodor Adorno's thought. Or if you prefer, a theory of radical political action with a view to insurgent emancipation in the master of (organized) contradiction.

Before presenting the working hypothesis Adorno-theory-of-revolution-or-of-radical-political-action that may eventually emerge from reading the book, negative dialectic An argumentative excursus is in order — as a justifying resource for my essayistic insinuation.

A historical misunderstanding

Theodor Adorno is the author, within what became known as Western Marxism, of antipolitics. An author who “denied” politics as a theoretical problem; who focused his intellectual efforts more on music theory than on questions about the state apparatus. This is said both externally to Critical Theory, an example of this is the case of Perry Anderson (in Thoughts on Western Marxism), as well as within the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research itself, with the reconstructive projects of Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth (which have as their objective, in a certain way, the political acceptance of the normative assumptions of liberal-representative democracy, within the scope of constitutional States ).

From the point of view of contemporary intellectual and political (and, in a certain way, academic) concerns, the commitment to airing hasty readings about Theodor Adorno is important. To this extent, it is not the most interesting thing to launch the theoretical interventions of the philosopher of music, to the professional enthusiasm of specialists; of those that Jean-Paul Sartre called technicians of practical knowledge.[1]

At the moment of debate regarding the reconstruction of left-wing thought, one cannot mimic in the world of ideas and critical culture, the academic-institutional context of social sciences, which for years has been taken over by the political philosophy of political-social liberalism -egalitarian (a la Rawls-Habermas): but which today not only has no theoretical explanatory capacity, but is also going through an immeasurable political defeat (Katrina Forrester).[2]

Subverting formal equality

How can you read the negative dialectic as a theory of radical political action aimed at insurrection? The fundamental question is whether in the textuality of the negative dialectic there is what Raymond Geuss (2006) calls a notion of change in the structure of needs. Yes; and the 1966 text can be read as an impulse for action to change the structure of needs, even if these are presented as structural needs of the concept of ordering diverse and contradictory reality.

This point is then expressed in the moments when Theodor Adorno comments, critically, about the process of identifying the concept with that administered (by capital) or in its terms, “when the conceptual order places itself ahead of what the thought wants to conceive” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]). Here it is important to remember that the world of bourgeois management moves within the process of static ordering of categories. And these present themselves as a procedure for the appropriation of the diverse and the particular, transfiguring the moment of the abstract concept into a principle of domination that “tears apart society” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]).

We can say that the more society is torn apart by the principle of domination resulting from the abstract logic of the conceptual order of the world controlled by technology, the more society becomes mythologized in the naive search for formal equality. Now, Theodor Adorno does not say explicitly, but it is possible to interpret, to forge a hermeneutics, that when he radically confronts the mystification of the “conceptual order” that anticipates the practical thought that wants effective recognition, he is telling us about the losses countless numbers of formal equality for those who suffer the implications of an unreconciled society.

He is reflecting, criticizing, therefore, the State that in modernity appears as a concept of State, as a falsehood (oppressive) of bourgeois life or in the formulation of Robert Pippin (2005), in the self-representation of a society that is false, and that has to impose itself on the subversive powers of the politics of despair — via the State itself that defrauds itself, legitimized by formal equality, and that therefore has to realize itself in history.[3]

It was not occasional, or even a naive exercise in handling words, when Adorno said: “if we had summarily shot those in charge of torture together with their orderlies and their extremely powerful protectors, that would have been more moral [and just] than opening a process for some of them (Adorno, 2009 [1966]). Indeed; and again, it is no coincidence that when we talk about politics, we discern it with the concept of State: and in these terms the difficulty of reading Adorno as a political theorist of “revolution”. Thus, the theory of radical political action is there in the material content that escapes, rebels with violence, to the merely formal of modern bourgeois equality, because whoever “wants the content wants the utopia” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]) material

At this point I would like to introduce an element that seems fundamental to a political-radical, or revolutionary, reading of negative dialectic. Which is: the process of social life constructed as a false totality — as “the conceptual sum of identical determinations” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]) in which the violence of the metaphysical representation of the State causes pain and suffering in subjects. And this violence occurs precisely, “in spite of the ideal of bourgeois equality that does not tolerate anything qualitatively different” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]) and not identical to the formal principle of liberal society.

Adorn's theory of political subversion is where individuals and the groups they constitute go through the experience of the violence of the identity concept of formal equality that conditions the existence of the modern-bourgeois State apparatus. In other words; It is there in the factuality of the materiality of the non-identical that oppose the formalistic concept of state equality that we will be able to reconstruct the subjects of revolutionary politics. In other words, it is from suffering (resulting from and imposed by the inauthentic political concept of equality) that the transformative impulse of Adornian theorizing emerges.

Quoting a passage from negative dialectic a little stylized to finish: “For this identity [of formal-state equality], specialized language [would be and is] suddenly ready the current formula of identity [of violence] [in the face of] the non-identical. It would be necessary to initially oppose, in a contrastive and [utopian-disruptive] way, the non-identity [political-radical of the subjects] [against the] identity [of formal equality]” (Adorno, 2009 [1966]) of our constitutional democracies.

The task of a negative dialectical thought, which seeks to be radical and insurgent, is to make speak the contingent language of the politics of the non-identical subject who suffers the violence of the concept of formal equality transformed into a (cynical) democratic myth. Refusing to affirm the inexistence in Adorno of a political theory, of politics itself, (therefore of an understanding of what the modern State is in dynamics), especially from the point of view of negative dialectic, could be a suggestive start amid the deep crisis of the contemporary left.

What could be more political, critical-radical, and revolutionary than the articulated proposition: “The current State is destructive, [it is the] loss of identity because of abstract identity, of naked [formal] self-preservation, [… ] [so that the only possible response to this is to force] the subject [to get rid] of himself [of formal equality] as the ultimate myth, [since] utopia would be, without any sacrifice, non-identity” (Adorno , 2009 [1966]).[4]

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).


[1] Conf. Jean-Paul Sartre. In Defense of Intellectuals. Attica, 1994.

[2] Conf. Katrina Forrester – The Future of Political Philosophy. Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, September, 17, 2019; The Crisis of Liberalism: why centrist politics can no longer explain the world. The Guardian, November 18, 2019.

[3] Conf. Raymond Geuss – Dialectics and the Revolutionary Impulse. In: Tom Huhn (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge University Press, 2006; Robert Pippin – Negative Ethics: Adorno on the Falseness of Bourgeois Life. In: Robert Pippin – The Persistence of Subjectivity: on the Kantian aftermath. Cambridge University Press, 2005

[4] Theodor Adorno. negative dialectic, Zahar, 2009.

the earth is round there is thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • A study of the Ailton Krenak case1974__Identity ignored 21/07/2024 By MARIA SILVIA CINTRA MARTINS: I prefer to dream of kinship with nature and stones with Krenak than embark on the naturalization of genocide
  • What time is it on the NATO war clock?Jose Luis Fiori 17/07/2024 By JOSÉ LUÍS FIORI: The hands of the “world war clock” are moving faster and faster
  • 40 years without Michel FoucaultVenice 13/07/2024 By VINÍCIUS DUTRA: What still remains admirable in Foucault's way of reflecting is his acumen in contesting ideas intuitively accepted by the critical tradition of thought
  • The Taiwan dispute and technological innovation in ChinaChina Flag 20/07/2024 By JOSÉ LUÍS FIORI: China is now the world leader in 37 of the 44 technologies considered most important for the economic and military development of the future
  • Ailton Krenak's essay productionculture drops transp 11/07/2024 By FILIPE DE FREITAS GONÇALVES: By radicalizing his critique of capitalism, Krenak forgets that what is leading the world to its end is the economic and social system in which we live and not our separation from nature
  • Digital blackoutSergio Amadeu da Silveira 22/07/2024 By SÉRGIO AMADEU DA SILVEIRA: The algorithmic catastrophe and the “blackout” cloud
  • Clarice Lispector at the cinemaculture passion according to gh 22/07/2024 By LUCIANA MOLINA: Commentary on three film adaptations of Clarice Lispector's work
  • The radicality of aesthetic lifeculture 04 20/07/2024 By AMANDA DE ALMEIDA ROMÃO: The meaning of life for Contardo Calligaris
  • After neoliberalismELEUTERIO2 18/07/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: The inability to think of capitalism as a social system formed by structuring social relations
  • The agrarian issue in Brazil — according to Octávio IanniJose-Raimundo-Trindade2 19/07/2024 By JOSÉ RAIMUNDO TRINDADE: Ianni's contributions can help to reformulate the Brazilian agrarian debate, and the author's works point us to the axes for rethinking the Brazilian land structure