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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 4 January 27, 2024

Book Review: The Scars of Democracy - Theodor Adorno and the crises of liberalism | Peter E. Gordon

Saturday 27 January 2024



Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism

By Theodor W. Adorno; Wieland Hoban, trans.

On April 6, 1967, Theodor W. Adorno accepted an invitation from the Association of Socialist Students at the University of Vienna to deliver a lecture on “aspects of the new right-wing extremism.” The topic held a special urgency: The National Democratic Party, a recently founded neofascist group in West Germany, was surging in popularity and would soon surpass the official 5 percent threshold needed to secure representation in seven of Germany’s 11 regional parliaments. In Europe after World War II, Adorno was highly esteemed 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, and the students and socialist activists gathered in Vienna were eager to hear his thoughts.

The lecture, though brief, addressed the specific instances of a neo-fascist resurgence in postwar West Germany. And it spoke to the general question of what fascism is and how we should think about challenges to liberal democracy that come from the extreme right. Liberal democracies, Adorno argued, are by their nature fragile; they are riven with contradictions and vulnerable to systemic abuse, and their stated ideals are so frequently violated in practice that they awaken resentment, opposition, and a yearning for extrasystemic solutions. Those who defend democracy must confront the persistent inequalities that breed this resentment and that prevent democracy from becoming what it claims to be.

Newly transcribed from a tape recording and now published in an English translation under the title Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, the lecture reminds us of Adorno’s political engagement into the late 1960s. It should also serve as a corrective to the popular misconception of Adorno as a philosopher of unrelieved darkness and negativity who took refuge in what Georg Lukács scornfully described as the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” After his years of exile in the United States and his return to Frankfurt, Adorno dedicated himself not just to philosophy but to the rebuilding of the Federal Republic of Germany as well, and he spoke frequently, in person and on the radio, exhorting his audiences to embrace the democratic ideals of self-criticism, education, and enlightenment.

For those not blind to the resurgence of authoritarian movements across the globe, the earlier spasm of neofascist enthusiasm in mid-’60s West Germany may serve as a sobering confirmation of Adorno’s claim that fascist movements are not exceptional to liberal democracy but rather are internal and structural signs of its failure. This insight—we might even call it the essential theme in the Frankfurt School’s dialectical assessment of fascism—is easily misunderstood, and not just by conservative apologists who enable the forces now threatening democracy. Some critics on the left are unwilling 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 misses the mark. Reading his lecture during the current era of neofascist revival can help us appreciate the enduring power of his claims.

Of the many misrepresentations about Adorno that circulate among critics on the left and cranks on the right, perhaps the most persistent is the notion that he was a man of great wealth who preferred to luxuriate in the esoteric artifacts of high modernism and had little patience or aptitude for practical politics. The actual story is more complicated. Born in 1903 in Frankfurt, Adorno grew up in a middle-class household. His father, a wine merchant of Jewish descent, was well-off but hardly rich, and young Teddie received a serious education in music from his mother and his aunt, both accomplished musicians. But he was also drawn to modern philosophy and social thought—the classics (Kant and Hegel) and the works of rebels (Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud)—which he read in what became his characteristic style, playing them off one another and exposing their contradictions, until what was once settled doctrine became an endless dialectic.

After gymnasium, Adorno attended the University of Frankfurt, where he plunged into 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 fell in with a circle of left-wing intellectuals and social critics that included Walter Benjamin, who inspired Adorno to sharpen the blade of his criticism, applying it ruthlessly 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 the historian Gershom Scholem, a mutual acquaintance, called it a kind of plagiarism.

Adorno was hardly a political activist, but he was instinctively critical of the interwar years’ liberal politics, and he and his like-minded colleagues found a congenial home in the Institute for Social Research, which was playfully known among the students in Frankfurt as Café Marx. There they framed even their most abstractly philosophical insights in the context of concrete problems in history and society, and no matter how far they strayed from the Marxist or neo-Marxist agenda of the institute’s founders, a dialectical understanding of the relation between philosophy and lived experience remained a constant theme in their work.

Forced into exile in 1933, Adorno and many of his Frankfurt School colleagues became preoccupied with fascism as an object of cultural and sociological inquiry. Critical theory, in fact, emerged from this crucible. Adorno and other members of the institute struggled to explain how fascism took hold, how it appealed to diverse constituencies in democratic elections, and how, once in power, it transformed the state. Though Adorno seldom descended from philosophical to institutional analysis, he shared with his colleagues a conviction that fascism was not just a German problem but a human one, a pathology that threatened all modern societies and could be explained only with multidisciplinary tools that combined political science, sociology, and even psychology. These efforts carried the risk that in their use of such a method, fascism would lose its specificity, becoming inflated into a universal affliction with few distinguishing marks of time or place. In their best work, however, Adorno and his colleagues kept their focus on what he called “micrological” criticism, sustaining a dialectic between the general and the particular.

This emphasis on the particular is immediately evident once we shift our attention from soaring, speculative classics like Dialectic of Enlightenment, written by 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 too often pass without mention today but whose works were once central to the institute’s anti-fascist program. Nor should we neglect exercises in social psychology like The Authoritarian Personality and Group Experiment, in which Adorno and his fellow researchers marshaled quantitative and qualitative data to develop a comprehensive understanding of the potential for fascism in a democratic citizenry, delving deep into the psyche but never failing to note that authoritarianism is not 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 broad trends—such as conventionalism, rigidity, and hostility to imagination—that promised to explain why modern subjects might feel drawn to fascism or possess few of the critical resources necessary to resist it.

Reading The Authoritarian Personality and Group Experiment today, one is struck by the wealth of empirical detail, the readiness to discern authoritarian tendencies not only in specific political institutions but also in the most commonplace features 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 far more unsettling: a latent but pervasive feature of bourgeois modernity. With this broadened definition, one could hardly take comfort in the defeat of fascism at the war’s end. In that 1959 lecture, Adorno made this point explicit: “The past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”

For Adorno, fascism’s deeper persistence was undeniable. Hundreds and even thousands of former Nazi Party officials had succeeded in avoiding scrutiny for their wartime conduct and continued their careers in the Federal Republic of Germany without interruption. But fascism was also, in his words, born from “the general situation of society.” Liberal democracy contained in itself a drive toward standardization, powered by the commodity form, that reduced objects as well as human subjects to items for exchange. Stripped of their differences, individuals dwindled into an unreflective mass that loathed the very thought of resistance and was primed for submission. Fascism could never be addressed or defeated if it was seen merely as liberalism’s other, an exotic pathogen that had come from the outside. It was composed not of rare elements but of the base metals that are the building materials of our common world. In a 1959 lecture, Adorno declared, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”

This understanding of fascism as something internal, not alien, to liberal democracy may also reflect Adorno’s history. Even before the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, he was conscious of the latent violence that courses through the veins of bourgeois society, and in later years he was not embarrassed to invoke even the most casual memories as evidence. In his postwar collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, he recalled the schoolyard bullies of his childhood, writing, “The five patriots who set upon a single schoolfellow, thrashed him and, when he complained to the teacher, defamed him as a traitor to the class—are they not the same as those who tortured prisoners to refute claims by foreigners that prisoners were tortured?” The suggestion may sound forced, but only if one clings to the illusion that Nazism was all high politics without roots in everyday conduct. Having witnessed the Nazis’ rise, Adorno harbored no such illusions; well before the Nazi seizure of power, he was in the grips of an “unconscious fear” that the future would bring catastrophe.

And catastrophe did come. With the Nazis in power, the new laws of the Third Reich forced Adorno into exile. First he attempted to restart his career at Oxford, then he abandoned this effort and joined Horkheimer and other colleagues from the institute in the United States. His parents managed to survive only by slender odds. Remaining in Germany after their son had taken up residence in New York, they were arrested during the wave of persecution that followed Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom against Jewish businesses and homes. His father was beaten and sustained a serious injury to his eye, and the offices of the family firm were ransacked and confiscated; Jewish property could simply be claimed by the state. Eventually his parents were released, though the experience left them shaken. They escaped via Cuba to the United States, but the specter of fascism continued to haunt the entire family.

Such experiences impressed Adorno with a visceral sense that fascism is not simply a political form but also a species of regression, a violent descent into archaic modes of collective behavior that could be understood only by appealing to the categories of anthropology and psychoanalysis. Prompted by Freud’s essay “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” he came to believe that human groups display an instinctive resistance to change and a longing for authority. The group, Freud wrote, “wants to be ruled and oppressed,” and it looks to its heroes not for enlightenment but for “strength, or even violence.” From psychoanalysis, Adorno also took 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 underlying factors that make authoritarianism an enduring temptation.

The analysis of fascism as a persistent threat within liberal democracy is a recurrent theme in Adorno’s work. This is true of The Authoritarian Personality and Group Experiment and in the public lectures he delivered after his return to Germany. He was deeply troubled by the emergence of neofascist organizations like the National Democratic Party, as it was, in his view, a sign that the spirit of the old fascism had never been truly vanquished. He was equally troubled by the fact that the public did not show much interest in committing itself to the difficult process of “working through the past.” In his speeches, if not in his published philosophy, he addressed such concerns with clarity and moral urgency. The 1967 lecture on the new right-wing extremism is only one modest and rather brief specimen of this work, but it deftly encapsulates his general view that fascism was never really defeated but resides in the everyday facets of both social structure and personal conduct and must always be combated anew.

In that lecture, Adorno warned against taking a merely “contemplative” view of the recent events, as if politics were a series of natural phenomena, “like whirlwinds or meteorological disasters.” Adopting such a stance, he said, was already a sign of resignation, as if one could do away with oneself as a political subject. “How these things will continue, and the responsibility for how they will continue,” he declared, “that ultimately lies in our hands.”

In the spring of 1967, few on the left could feel optimistic about the prospects for real democracy in West Germany. Since its founding in 1949, it had remained in the grips of the Christian Democratic Union and Konrad Adenauer, a staunch conservative who was 73 years old when he became the nation’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 recently reorganized Social Democratic Party.

The SPD’s resurgence might have seemed like a glimpse of light. But in 1966 and ‘67, West Germany suffered its first major setback when a recession punctured its famous “economic miracle.” Unemployment climbed to at least half a million people by early 1967, and the once marginal National Democratic Party began to grow, its membership surging by 1968.

The NPD was by no means the first far-right party to appear in West Germany. The Socialist Reich Party, a group of avowed neo-Nazis, was founded after the war but banned in 1952; the German Reich Party and related groups appeared in its wake, but by the mid-’60s the Reich Party had dissolved. The NPD, however, drew many of its leaders and members from the older groups and posed a far greater threat. Adolf von Thadden, a prominent nobleman who was an active Nazi during the war, held the party’s reins of power, even if he was not at first its titular head; after internal struggles, he gained control in 1967. In local meetings and when assured that the national media would not take notice, the NPD railed against “international Judaism and the Jewish press,” insisting that the Third Reich had committed no 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 Landtags, or regional parliaments, in Hessen and Bavaria, and it appeared poised to win inclusion in many others across West Germany.

For Adorno, the NPD manifested some of the tendencies he examined in his earlier work on fascism and authoritarianism, and he took note of its appearance in a global context, where the distinctions of national identity were losing their political relevance. Animated by a “pathic” nationalism in an age of great-power blocs, parties like the NPD would “take on their demonic, their genuinely destructive character precisely when the objective situation has deprived them of substance.” Paradoxically, this element of unreality may be the most distinctive feature of fascism: It evacuates politics of its content and reduces it to the mere circulation of propaganda. The old fascism and the new are alike in their ingenious use of propaganda without a higher purpose, as if the only aim were the perfection of mass psychology for its own sake. “There was never a truly, fully developed theory in fascism,” Adorno said; instead, it stripped politics of any higher sense, reducing it to sheer power and “unconditional domination.”

Such considerations helped explain why fascist movements exhibit such flexibility in ideology, or what Adorno called “conceptless praxis.” Emerging from a conformist society that had enfeebled the capacity for resistance, fascism was less a distinctive political form than a radicalization of what modern society was already becoming: cold, repressive, thoughtless. Fascism, for Adorno, was therefore not an excrescence that could be simply removed from an otherwise healthy organism.

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

The proponents of centrist liberalism will insist that fascism be expunged so that democracy can carry on just as before. But for Adorno, democracy is not a full-fledged reality that fascism has damaged; it is an ideal that is yet to be realized and that, as long as it betrays its promise, will continue to spawn movements of resentment and paranoid rebellion. Some of Adorno’s critics—and even some of his admirers—persisted in thinking of him as a radical pessimist who disparaged the ideals of the Enlightenment and felt that progress itself was a myth. But he was far more dialectical in his thinking: He wanted to overcome the false ideology of progress so that its truth could come to light. No matter how far he may have traveled from the explanatory orthodoxies of neo-Marxism, he recognized that democracy remained merely formal in its modern expression and not concrete. The systems that now boast of themselves as democratic will never be adequate to their stated ideal, he insisted, as long as they are premised on irrationality and exclusion. Few lines by Adorno serve as a better summation of his concept of fascist movements than his 1967 claim 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 help but recognize in his warnings a reflection of the current global situation. In Germany a neofascist resurgence has once again taken root with Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right and anti-immigrant movement that in 2017 secured 94 seats in the Bundestag to become the body’s third-largest party. Across Europe and around the rest of the world, this trend in neofascist or authoritarian politics is now ascendant (in Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the United States). The extravagant notion that the past is utterly past—that its alterity inhibits us from drawing any analogies across differences of time and space—will hold us in its grip only if we see history as broken into islands, each one obeying laws entirely its own.

Although Adorno warned against “schematic analogies,” he also knew that the image of the past as a foreign country is in error. As historians of American racism have long shown, there are more continuities between the past and the present than apologists would care to admit. (Nor should we forget that the Nazis drew instruction from racist policies in the United States.) Fascism, too, casts a long shadow and cannot be consigned to the past, especially when it rears its head once again. Well after Adorno’s death in 1969, conservative historians in Germany voiced the complaint that the left would not cease reminding contemporaries of the nation’s crimes. In the words of the historian Ernst Nolte, Nazism was “the past that will not pass away.” The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who had been Adorno’s student, intervened in this historians’ controversy, insisting that continuity and comparison must serve as instruments of criticism, not apologetics.

To be sure, nothing ever occurs precisely as it did before; resemblance does not preclude difference. But any similarities should alert us to the fact that beneath the superficial markers of historical transformation, things have not changed as much as they should. The shadows of the past stretch into the present, and much like statues in public parks, they loom darkly over public consciousness. Citizens in Germany (or most of them, anyway) eventually learned that memorials to fascism could serve critical rather than apologetic ends, as reminders that it must never be permitted to return. As Alternative für Deutschland claws its way to the center of parliamentary politics, this lesson has once again assumed a new urgency. It is no different in the United States, where too many statues to the past seem to confirm rather than criticize the racism of our own time. The past, indeed, does not pass away.

(Review Author: Peter E. Gordon teaches philosophy and social theory at Harvard. His newest book is Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization.)

(Courtesy: The Nation, December 28, 2020/January 4, 2021, Issue)

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