Towards a New Manifesto
“We cannot call for the defence of the Western world.”
In 1956, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer sat down to write an updated version of the Communist Manifesto. These are previously unpublished notes from their discussions.
12 March 1956 (as recorded by Gretel Adorno and translated by Rodney Livingstone.)
Horkheimer: Thesis: nowadays we have enough by way of productive forces; it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings. In this situation it is mankind’s dream that we should do away with both work and war. The only drawback is that the Americans will say that if we do so, we shall arm our enemies. And in fact, there is a kind of dominant stratum in the East compared to which John Foster Dulles is an amiable innocent.
Adorno: We ought to include a section on the objection: what will people do with all their free time?
Horkheimer: In actual fact their free time does them no good because the way they have to do their work does not involve engaging with objects. This means that they are not enriched by their encounter with objects. Because of the lack of true work, the subject shrivels up and in his spare time he is nothing.
Adorno: Because people have to work so hard, there is a sense in which they spend their spare time obsessively repeating the rituals of the efforts that have been demanded of them. We must not be absolutely opposed to work.
Horkheimer: We ought to construct a kind of programme for a new form of practice. In the East people degenerate into beasts of burden. Coolies probably had to do less work than today’s workers in six or seven hours.
Adorno: ‘No herdsman and one herd.’ A kind of false classless society. Society finds itself on the way to what looks like the perfect classless society but is in reality the very opposite.
Horkheimer: That’s too reactionary. We still have to say something to explain why mankind has to pass through this atomistic stage of civilization. Nowadays people say: treat us nicely and productivity will rise. The fact that this is said openly is worth a good deal in itself.
Adorno: The reason why this entire question of spare time is so unfortunate is that people unconsciously mimic the work process, whereas what they really want is to stop working altogether. Happiness necessarily presupposes the element of effort. Basically, we should talk to mankind once again as in the eighteenth century: you are upholding a system that threatens to destroy you. The appeal to class won’t work any more, since today you are really all proletarians. One really has to think about whom one is addressing.
Horkheimer: The Western world.deal in itself.
Adorno: We know nothing of Asia.
Horkheimer: What are we to say to the Western world? You must deliver food to the East?
Adorno: The introduction of fully fledged socialism, third phase in the various countries. Everything hinges on that. What about the Communist Manifesto as a theme for variations?
Horkheimer: The world situation is that everything seems to be improving, but the world’s liberators all look like Cesare Borgia.
Adorno: I have the feeling that, under the banner of Marxism, the East might overtake Western civilization. This would mean a shift in the entire dynamics of history. Marxism is being adopted in Asia in much the same way as Christianity was taken up in Mexico at one time. Europe too will probably be swallowed up at some point in the future.
Horkheimer: I believe that Europe and America are probably the best civilizations that history has produced up to now as far as prosperity and justice are concerned. The key point now is to ensure the preservation of these gains. That can be achieved only if we remain ruthlessly critical of this civilization.
Adorno: We cannot call for the defence of the Western world.
Horkheimer: We cannot do so because that would destroy it. If we were to defend the Russians, that’s like regarding the invading Teutonic hordes as morally superior to the [Roman] slave economy. We have nothing in common with Russian bureaucrats. But they stand for a greater right as opposed to Western culture. It is the fault of the West that the Russian Revolution went the way it did. I am always terribly afraid that if we start talking about politics, it will produce the kind of discussion that used to be customary in the Institute.
Adorno: Discussion should at all costs avoid a debased form of Marxism. That was connected with a specific kind of positivist tactic, namely the sharp divide between ideas and substance.
Horkheimer: That mainly took the form of too great an insistence on retaining the terminology.
Adorno: But this has to be said. They still talk as if a far-left splinter group were on the point of rejoining the Politburo tomorrow.
Horkheimer: What are the implications of that for our terminology? As soon as we start arguing with the Russians about terminology we are lost.
Adorno: On the other hand, we must not abandon Marxist terminology.
Horkheimer: We have nothing else. But I am not sure how far we must retain it. Is the political question still relevant at a time when you cannot act politically?
Adorno: On the one hand, it is ideology, on the other, all processes that might lead to change are political processes. Politics is both ideology and genuine reality.
Horkheimer: You spoke in the subjunctive; you evidently do not really believe in these processes.
Adorno: My innermost feeling is that at the moment everything has shut down, but it could all change at a moment’s notice. My own belief is as follows: this society is not moving towards a welfare state. It is gaining increasing control over its citizens but this control grows in tandem with the growth in its irrationality. And the combination of the two is constitutive. As long as this tension persists, you cannot arrive at the equilibrium that would be needed to put an end to all spontaneity. I cannot imagine a world intensified to the point of insanity without objective oppositional forces being unleashed.
Horkheimer: But I can. Because mankind is destroying itself. The world is mad and will remain so. When it comes down to it, I find it easy to believe that the whole of world history is just a fly caught in the flames.
Adorno: The world is not just mad. It is mad and rational as well.
Horkheimer: The only thing that goes against my pessimism is the fact that we still carry on thinking today. All hope lies in thought. But it is easy to believe that it could all come to an end.
Adorno: And that no one will carry on thinking. But even Mr Eisenhower will be unable to choose Nixon as his running mate for fear of a preventive war.
Horkheimer: Perhaps. But what is that compared to the murder of twenty million Chinese?
Adorno: The fact is that there is an authority that has the potential to prevent total catastrophe. This authority must be appealed to. It is the instinct in American voters that would refuse to tolerate Richard Nixon as Vice President.
Horkheimer: That is a reformist position.
Adorno: I have the feeling that what we are doing is not without its effect.
Horkheimer: More or less, depending on whether we have a clear idea of what ought to be done. We cannot rely on the assumption that people will still have any memories of socialism. That can easily lead to arrogant criticism of the kind practised by Marx and Karl Kraus, where you have the feeling that their criticism is based on a mistaken theory. That only strengthens the wicked. What is dubious about Kraus is a kind of crowing, because whatever underlies his position is not something we can approve of. We have to defend the view that the West should produce so that no one will go hungry.
Adorno: This must first be applied to the West itself.
Horkheimer: What should happen? In France, for example? Should they make better laws?
Adorno: Recorder culture is spreading throughout Europe. We shall hear tomorrow that Rosenstock-Huessy has been made adviser to Eisenhower.
Horkheimer: How would it be if we were to withdraw to the position of saying that we want to see to it that as much as possible of this Western culture is taken over into the next stage of history, in particular the tradition of rationality.
Adorno: We cannot advocate that. Schelsky is simultaneously stupid and shrewd.
Horkheimer: In addition to work we still have the concept of freedom.
Adorno: On the one hand, we are facing questions today that can no longer simply be expressed in economic terms; on the other hand, anthropological questions can no longer be separated from economic ones.
Horkheimer: Today it is no longer possible to distinguish between good and bad.