Adorno and neofascism

Sculpture José Resende /“Watchful Eyes”/Guaíba, Porto Alegre


Commentary on the book “Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism”, by Theodor W. Adorno

On April 06, 1967, Theodor W. Adorno accepted an invitation from the Socialist Students' Association of the University of Vienna to give a lecture on "aspects of the new right-wing radicalism." The issue was of particular urgency: the National Democratic Party (NPD), a newly founded neo-fascist group in West Germany, was growing in popularity and would soon pass the official 5% threshold needed to secure representation in seven of Germany's 11 regional parliaments. Germany.

In post-World War II Europe, Adorno was held in high esteem not only for his philosophical and cultural writings, but also for his analysis of the fascist tendencies that still survived in the so-called liberal democratic orders of the capitalist West.

The talk, though brief, touched on the specifics of a neo-fascist resurgence in post-war West Germany. It addressed the general question of what fascism is and how we should think about the challenges to liberal democracy that come from the far right. Liberal democracies, Adorno argued, are by nature fragile; they are fractured by contradictions and vulnerable to systemic abuse, and their stated ideals are violated so often in practice that they arouse resentment, opposition, and yearning for extrasystemic solutions. Those who defend democracy must confront the persistent inequalities that breed this resentment and that keep democracy from becoming what it claims to be.

Recently transcribed from a tape recording and now published in multiple languages. Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism, Unesp], the lecture reminds us of Adorno's political engagement in the late 1960s. It should also serve as a corrective to the widespread misconception that casts Adorno as a philosopher of relentless darkness and negativity who took refuge in what Georg Lukács scornfully described as the “Grand Abyss Hotel”.

After years of exile in the United States and his return to Frankfurt, Adorno devoted himself not only to philosophy but also to the reconstruction of the Federal Republic of Germany, and he spoke frequently, in person and on the radio, urging his audience to embrace the democratic ideals of self-criticism, education and enlightenment.

For those who are not blind to the resurgence of authoritarian movements around the world, the initial spasm of neo-fascist enthusiasm in the mid-1960s in West Germany can serve as serious confirmation of Adorno's contention that fascist movements are not exceptional for liberal democracy, but internal and structural signs of its failure. This insight – we might even call it a key theme in the Frankfurt School's dialectical assessment of fascism – is easily misunderstood, and not just by conservative apologists who enable the forces that now threaten democracy.

Some left-wing critics don't want to see fascism as an enduring threat, but confine it to an irrelevant past, dismissing fears of its resurgence as a symptom of liberal hysteria. Anyone who has read Adorno will know that this assessment misses the mark. Reading his lecture during the current era of neo-fascist revival can help us to appreciate the lasting power of his claims.

Of the many misrepresentations about Adorno that circulate among critics on the left and eccentrics on the right, perhaps the most persistent is the notion that he was a man of great wealth who preferred to revel in the esoteric artifacts of high modernism and had little patience or aptitude for political practice. The real story is not quite like that. Born in 1903 in Frankfurt, Adorno grew up in a bourgeois family. His father, a wine merchant of Jewish descent, was well off but hardly wealthy, and young Teddie received a serious musical education from his mother and aunt, both gifted musicians. He was also drawn to modern philosophy and social thought – the classics (Kant and Hegel) and the works of the rebels (Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) – which he read in what became his signature style, interpreting them one after the other. others and exposing their contradictions, until what was once an established doctrine became an endless dialectic.

Theodor W. Adorno attended the University of Frankfurt, where he immersed himself in philosophy and wrote on Husserlian phenomenology and psychoanalysis. It was there that he met Max Horkheimer, who would soon assume the directorship of the Institute for Social Research (the so-called Frankfurt School), and he joined a circle of left-wing intellectuals and social critics that included Walter Benjamin, who inspired Adorno to sharpen the blade of his critique, ruthlessly applying it to the details of capitalism and modern life. Adorno's first book, a study of Kierkegaard, bore such a close resemblance in style and method to Benjamin's notoriously difficult study of German Baroque drama that historian Gershom Scholem, a mutual acquaintance, dismissed it as a kind of plagiarism. .

Adorno was not a political activist, but he was instinctively critical of the liberal politics of the interwar years, and he and his like-minded colleagues found a welcome home at the Institute for Social Research, referred to by Frankfurt University students as “Café Marx”. There they framed even their insights more abstract philosophical endeavors in the context of concrete problems in history and society, and no matter how far they departed from the Marxist or neo-Marxist agenda of the Institute's founders, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between philosophy and lived experience remained a constant theme in his work.

Forced into exile in 1933, Adorno, and his colleagues at the Frankfurt School, became concerned with fascism, taking it as an object of cultural and sociological investigation. Critical theory, in fact, emerged from this crucible. Adorno and other members of the Institute took pains to explain how fascism was consolidated, how it won representatives in democratic elections and how, once in power, it transformed the state.

Although Adorno rarely descended from philosophical to institutional analysis, he shared with his colleagues the conviction that fascism was not just a German problem but a human one, a pathology that threatened all modern societies and could only be explained with multidisciplinary tools that combined political science, sociology and social psychology. These efforts carried the risk that, by using such a method, fascism would lose its specificity, becoming inflated and modified into a universal affliction with few distinguishing marks of time or place. In their best work, however, Adorno and his colleagues focused on what he called “micrological” criticism, sustaining a dialectic between the general and the particular.

This emphasis on the particular is immediately evident when we shift our attention away from speculative classics like Dialectic of Enlightenment (Jorge Zahar), from Adorno and Horkheimer, to more empirical work, such as the studies of Nazism by Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, members of the Frankfurt School whose names often go unnoticed today, but whose works were once central to the anti-fascist program from the institute. Nor should we neglect social psychology exercises like Studies on the Authoritarian Personality (Unesp) and “Group Experiment” in which Adorno and his fellow researchers gathered quantitative and qualitative data to develop a comprehensive understanding of the potential of fascism in a democratic citizenship, delving deep into the psyche, but never failing to notice that authoritarianism does not it is reducible to individual psychology but ultimately reflects the objective conditions of modern society.

The famous F-scale, introduced in 1950, was designed as a measure for general trends – such as conventionalism, rigidity and hostility to the imagination – that promised to explain why modern subjects might be attracted to fascism or possess few of the critical resources needed to resist it. .

Reading Studies on the Authoritarian Personality and “Group Experiment” today, we are impressed by the wealth of empirical detail, the readiness to discern authoritarian tendencies not only in specific political institutions, but also in the most common aspects of everyday life. Fascism, the studies argued, is not a sublime evil or a pathology for which there is a simple remedy. It is something much more disturbing: a latent but pervasive feature of bourgeois modernity. With this expanded definition, one could hardly take comfort in the defeat of fascism at the end of the war. In that 1959 lecture, Adorno made this point explicit: "The past from which one would like to escape is still very much alive."

For Adorno, the deeper persistence of fascism was undeniable. Hundreds and even thousands of former Nazi Party officials managed to avoid scrutiny for their wartime conduct and continued their careers in the Federal Republic of Germany without interruption. But fascism was also born, in his words, from the “general situation of society”. Liberal democracy contained within it a drive toward standardization, driven by the commodity form, which reduced objects as well as human subjects to items for exchange.

Stripped of their differences, individuals reduced to an unthinking mass that hated the very thought of resistance and was primed for submission. Fascism could never be faced or defeated if it were seen only as the other of liberalism, an exotic pathogen that had come from outside. It was not composed of rare elements, but of base metals that are the building materials of our ordinary world. In a 1959 lecture, Adorno declared: "I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy potentially more threatening than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy."

This understanding of fascism as something internal to, not alien to, liberal democracy may also reflect Adorno's story. Even before the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, he was aware of the latent violence that runs in the veins of bourgeois society, and in later years he was not shy about invoking even the most casual memories as evidence.

In his collection of postwar aphorisms, Minima Moralia (Editorial Azouge) he recalled the schoolyard bullies of his childhood, writing: “The five patriots who attacked a single classmate, beat him and, when he complained to the teacher, vilified him as a class traitor – they did not are the same as those who tortured prisoners to refute claims by foreigners that prisoners were tortured?” The suggestion may sound far-fetched, but only to someone who clings to the delusion that Nazism was high politics with no roots in everyday conduct. Having witnessed the rise of the Nazis, Adorno had no such illusions; long before the Nazi seizure of power, he was in the grip of an “unconscious fear” that the future would bring catastrophe.

And the catastrophe came. With the Nazis in power, the new laws of the Third Reich forced Adorno into exile. First he tried to restart his career at Oxford, then he abandoned that effort and joined Horkheimer and other institute colleagues in the United States. His parents barely managed to survive. Remaining in Germany after their son took up residence in New York, they were arrested during the wave of persecution that followed the Kristallnacht: pogrom state-sponsored against Jewish businesses and homes. His father was beaten and suffered a severe eye injury, and the family business offices were looted and confiscated; Jewish property could simply be taken over by the state. Eventually, his parents were released, although the experience left them shaken. They escaped via Cuba to the United States, but the specter of fascism continued to haunt the entire family.

These experiences impressed Adorno with a visceral sense that fascism is not simply a political form but also a kind of regression, a violent descent into archaic modes of collective behavior that could only be understood by appealing to the categories of anthropology and psychoanalysis. Stimulated by Freud's essay, Mass Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, he came to believe that human groups exhibit an instinctive resistance to change and a yearning for authority. The group, wrote Freud, "wants to be ruled and oppressed", and looks to its heroes not for enlightenment but for "strength, or even violence". From psychoanalysis Adorno also drew the crucial lesson that the cathexis between a group and its leader is primarily libidinal, not rational, and any attempt to explain mass politics purely in institutional terms or as an expression of rational self-interest will miss the point. the underlying factors that make authoritarianism an enduring temptation.

The analysis of fascism as a persistent threat within liberal democracy is a recurring theme in Adorno's work. This is true in Authoritarian personality studies, and “Group Experiment”, and in the public lectures he gave after his return to Germany. He was deeply concerned about the rise of neo-fascist organizations like the National Democratic Party, as it was, in his opinion, a sign that the spirit of old fascism had never really been defeated. He was equally concerned that the public did not show much interest in engaging in the difficult process of "working with the past". In his speeches, if not also in his published philosophy, he addressed such concerns with clarity and moral urgency. The 1967 Lecture on New Right-wing Extremism is only a modest and brief example of this work, but it deftly encapsulates his overall view that fascism has never really been defeated but resides in everyday facets of social structure and personal conduct and must always be fought again.

In that lecture, Adorno warned against a merely “contemplative” view of recent events, as if politics were a series of natural phenomena, “like whirlpools or meteorological disasters”. Adopting such a posture, he said, is already a sign of resignation, as if one could get rid of oneself as a political subject. “How these things will continue and the responsibility for how they will continue,” he declared, “is in our hands.”

In the spring of 1967, few on the left could feel optimistic about the prospects for true democracy in West Germany. Since its founding in 1949, it has remained in the grip of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Konrad Adenauer, a staunch conservative who was 73 when he became the country's chancellor. He was succeeded by another CDU politician, Ludwig Erhard, who was replaced in 1966 by his colleague Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who formed a coalition government with the newly reorganized Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The SPD's resurgence may have seemed like a glimmer of light. But in 1966 and 1967, West Germany suffered its first major setback when a recession undermined its famous “economic miracle”. Unemployment rose to at least half a million people by early 1967, and the once fringe National Democratic Party began to grow, with membership rising sharply in 1968.

The NPD was by no means the first far-right party to appear in West Germany. The Reich Socialist Party, a group of outspoken neo-Nazis, was founded after the war but was banned in 1952; the German Reich Party and related groups appeared in its wake, but by the mid-1960s the Reich Party had dissolved. The NPD, however, drew many of its leaders and members from older groups and posed a much greater threat. Adolf von Thadden, a prominent nobleman who was an active Nazi during the war, held the reins of party power even if he was not initially its titular head; after infighting, he gained control in 1967.

At local meetings and when it was assured that the national media would not notice, the NPD railed against "international Jewry and the Jewish press", insisting that the Third Reich had not committed any crimes against humanity. They claimed that Nazism had been supported by "the best German elements" and that it was now the NPD's mission to redeem the people from their national humiliation and make Germany great again. In 1966, the party gained entry into the state legislature, or regional parliaments, in Hessen and Bavaria, and looked poised to gain inclusion in many others across West Germany.

For Adorno, the NPD manifested some of the trends he had examined in his earlier work on fascism and authoritarianism, and he noted its emergence in a global context, where distinctions of national identity were losing their political relevance. Animated by a "pathetic" nationalism in an era of great-power blocs, parties like the NPD "would assume their demonic, genuinely destructive character precisely when the objective situation deprived them of substance."

Paradoxically, this element of unreality may be fascism's most distinctive feature: it empties politics of its content and reduces it to the mere circulation of propaganda. Old fascism and new are alike in their ingenious use of propaganda without a higher purpose, as if the only aim were the improvement of mass psychology for its own sake. “There was never a truly developed theory in fascism,” said Adorno; instead, he stripped politics of any higher meaning, reducing it to pure power and “unconditional domination”.

These considerations helped to explain why fascist movements exhibit such flexibility in ideology, or what Adorno called "conceptless praxis". Emerging from a conformist society that had weakened resilience, fascism was less a distinct political form than a radicalization of what modern society was already becoming: cold, repressive, unthinking. Fascism, for Adorno, was therefore not an excrescence that could simply be removed from a healthy organism.

Adorno was not indifferent, of course, to the fact that some individuals can be drawn to right-wing extremism for psychological reasons. Every society, he conceded, has its residue of 'incorrigibles'. But a mass movement is not made up of them alone: ​​it consists of ordinary men and women who are no more irrational than the world they inhabit. If their policies are irrational, it is only because they make explicit the systemic irrationality of the social whole.

Proponents of centrist liberalism will insist that fascism be eliminated so that democracy can continue as before. But for Adorno, democracy is not a full reality that fascism damaged; it is an ideal that has yet to be realized and which, so long as it betrays its promise, will continue to breed resentment and paranoid rebellion. Some of Adorno's critics – and even some of his admirers – persisted in regarding him as a radical pessimist who downplayed the ideals of the Enlightenment and thought that progress itself was a myth. But he was much more dialectical in his thinking: he wanted to overcome the false ideology of progress so that its truth could come to light.

Adorno recognized that democracy remained merely formal in its modern rather than concrete expression. Systems that now pride themselves on being democratic will never live up to their declared ideal, he insisted, as long as they are premised on irrationality and exclusion. Few lines by Adorno better summarize his concept of fascist movements than his 1967 assertion that they are "the wounds, the scars of a democracy that, to this day, has not yet lived up to its own concept."

Readers of Adorno's lecture today cannot fail to recognize in his warnings a reflection of the current global situation. In Germany, a neo-fascist resurgence once again took root with the alternative for Germany, a far-right, anti-immigrant movement that in 2017 secured 94 Bundestag seats to become the institution's third-largest party. Across Europe and throughout the rest of the world, this trend in neo-fascist or authoritarian politics is now on the rise (in Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland and the United States). The extravagant notion that the past is wholly past – that its otherness inhibits us from drawing any analogy between differences of time and space – will keep us in its grip only if we see history divided into islands, each obeying laws entirely of its own.

Although Adorno warned against “schematic analogies”, he also knew that the image of the past as a foreign place is a mistake. As historians of American racism have long shown, there are more continuities between past and present than apologists would like to admit. (We must not forget that the Nazis learned from America's racist policies.) Fascism also casts a long shadow and cannot be relegated to the past, especially when it raises its head once more. Long after Adorno's death in 1969, conservative historians in Germany voiced the complaint that the left kept reminding contemporaries of the nation's crimes. In the words of historian Ernst Nolte, Nazism was “the past that will not pass away”. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who had been a student of Adorno, intervened in this controversy of historians, insisting that continuity and comparison should serve as instruments of criticism, not of apologetics.

To be sure, nothing is exactly the same as before; similarity does not exclude difference. But any resemblance should alert us to the fact that, behind the superficial markers of historical transformation, things have not changed as much as they should have. The shadows of the past stretch into the present and, like statues in public parks, loom darkly over the public consciousness. The citizens of Germany (or most of them, anyway) came to learn that memorials to fascism could serve critical rather than apologetic purposes, as reminders that its return should never be allowed. As the alternative for Germany paves its way to the center of parliamentary politics, that lesson once again takes on new urgency. It is no different in the United States, where many statues of the past seem to confirm, rather than criticize, the racism of our time. The past, in fact, does not pass away.

* Peter E. Gordon is professor of philosophy and social theory at Harvard University (USA). Author, among other books, of Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization (Yale University Press).

Translation: Cesar Locatelli to the portal Major Card.

Originally published in the magazine The Nation


Theodor W. Adorno. Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism. Translation: Felipe Catalani. São Paulo, Unesp, 2020.


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