Reflections on Adorno’s Reflections on Class Theory

Human_WorkHuman! Work!

Notes from Adorno, ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, (1942),

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann and trans. by Rodney Livingstone,  2003, pp.93-110.


‘By extending the concept of class to prehistory […] The venerable unity of traditional structure, the natural insight of hierarchy in a society that was presented as having grown organically, turned out to be a unity of interested parties.’ p.93


‘Natural law is historical injustice that has become obsolete; the articulated organism is a system of divisiveness […]’ p.93

This discussion of Nature and here ‘natural law’ is explored at greater length in The Dialectic of Enlightenment — where the development of the subject and its establishment of second nature is achieved at the expense of first nature and through the destruction of particularity — and, earlier, in the posthumously published lecture ‘Idea of Natural-History’ by which the tension established between Nature (as mythic fate) and History (as human self-control or self-determination) is reversed. In Aesthetic Theory the tension between nature, technology and the subject is explored further and in such a way that subject-formation is described as a form of technology — human practice and know-how concentrated in human forms-of-life as mere tools or use values of capital to be ground-up in production:

By virtue of its mimetic preindividual elements, every idiosyncrasy lives from collective forces of which it is unconscious. The critical reflection of the subject, however isolated that subject, stands watch that these forces do not provoke regression. Social reflection on aesthetics habitually neglects the concept of productive force. Yet deeply embedded in the technological processes this force is the subject, the subject congealed as technology.

Aesthetic Theory, p.42

The development of this universal congelation is most clearly articulated in a passage in Minima Moralia (written between 1946-47) entitled ‘Novissimum Organum’,

‘The organic composition of man is growing. That which determines subjects as means of production and not as living purposes, increases with the proportion of machines to variable capital. […] Only when the process that begins with the metamorphosis of labour-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through and objectified each of their impulses as formally commensurable variations of the exchange relationship, is it possible for life to reproduce itself under the prevailing relations of production. Its consummate organization demands the coordination of people that are dead. The will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live: self-preservation annuls all life in subjectivity. […] Even what differs from technology in man is now being incorporated into it as a kind of lubrication. Psychological differentiation, originally the outcome both of the division of labour that dissects man according to sectors of the production process and of freedom, is finally itself entering the service of production. […] Here it is subjectivity itself, knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism, functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their “owner” and from the material and concrete nature of the subject-matter in hand.’

‘Novissimum Organum’, Minima Moralia, pp.229-230

This passage bears striking presentiments of the post-autonomist literature of the 2000s, particularly that authored by Paulo Virno and Antonio Negri. However, there are key distinctions. For Adorno, this state of affairs is the consequence of a revolution that was missed, a telos which will never arrive, history which will never begin. For the post-autonomists, in different ways and with different emphasis, this close binding of the labouring subject to capital, its ‘subsumption’ of intellectual faculty to its ends, binds capital itself to the vicissitudes of the subject and ‘life’ or biopower (Virno). For Adorno, however, at least at this point (1946-47) the law of value still exists: ‘the individuated function in the modern economy as the mere agents of the law of value.’ ( For others, Negri, Virno, even Jacques Camatte, the developments of the 1970s, the autonomisation of finance from productive industry presages a suspension of the law of value. Whether this is latterly the case for Adorno remains the subject of some debate. Late texts such as Aesthetic Theory and ‘Late Capitalist or Industrial Society?’ (1968), suggest  this was the case. Yet, most likely this was arrived at from a heterodox position not necessarily assimilable to the periodisation e.g. Antonio Negri arrives at in the 1970s. Diverse formulations of the idea that exchange value had overcome use value: ‘The goods made available nowadays are a kind of pseudo-consumer goods; exchange value is substituted for use value.’  (‘Towards a New Manifesto’ (with Horkheimer, 1956)), occur across a number of post-war texts. As Gillian Rose points out, without a theory of surplus value, it is difficult, even prohibitive, to ground the formation of classes. No wonder then, that by 1968 Adorno would write the following:

everything socially existent today is so thoroughly mediated, that even the moment of mediation is itself distorted by the totality. There is no standpoint outside of the whole affair which can be referred to, from which the ghost could be called by its name […] The false identity between the constitution of the world and its inhabitants through the total expansion of technics is leading in the direction of the confirmation of the relations of production, whose true beneficiaries one searches for in vain, just as proletarians have become invisible.’ — Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?’, English translation by Dennis Redmond of an address to the 1968 German Sociological Congress

By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole, whose immutable nature was the source of the privileged status of capitalism as well as its forbears. p.93


‘If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted on man culminates in the modern age in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then the past is revealed in conditions and things – the romantic contrast to industrial reason – as the trace of former suffering.’ p.94


‘The archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable.’ p.94


‘Jakob Burckhardt hazards the suggestion that the parable of the cave in Plato’s Republic, with its sublime symbolism of the doctrine of eternal ideas, derived from the horrendous image of the Athenian silver mines. This implies that the philosophical idea of eternal truth had sprung from the contemplation of present torment. All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory.’ p.94


‘From the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole.’ p.94


A many sided dialectic

Dynamism is merely one side of [the] dialectic: it is the side preferred by the belief in practicality, masterful action, the indefatigable “can do” attitude, because constant change is the best way to conceal the old untruth.’ p.94


‘Hegel’s movement of the concept […] is no developmental doctrine.’ p.95

To be re-read again and again vis a vis Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Adorno appears to be self-consciously revising his friend’s work here, building suffering into that which we experience as ‘contemporaneity’ and into the structural relation between new and old.

‘The new does not add itself to the old but remains the old in distress, in its hour of need, as it becomes topical as an immanent contradiction through its act of reflection, its indispensable confrontation with the universal in the old.’ p.95


‘Thus throughout all its antithetical mediations, history remains one vast analytic proposition. That is the historical essence of the metaphysical doctrine of the identity of subject and object in the Absolute. The system of history, the elevation of the temporal to the totality of meaning, abolishes time and reduces it to an abstract negation.’ p.95

See Marx (as quoted by David Black and Ben Watson), does this concretion of Hegel’s concepts relate well? Or not?:

‘But what would old Hegel say in the next world if he heard that the general [Allgemaine] in German and Norse means but the common land [Gemeinland], and the particular [Sundre, Besondere] nothing but the separate property divided off from the common land?’

— Karl Marx Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, p. 142

More negation

‘The irreconcilable power of the negative that sets history in motion is the power of what exploiters do to the victims. As a shackle binding one generation to the next, it functions as an obstacle to both freedom and history. The systematic unity of history, which is supposed to give meaning to individual suffering or else demote it from on high to the level of something fortuitous, is the philosophical appropriation of the labyrinth in which men have toiled to this day, the epitome of suffering.’ p.95

More light

Theory knows of no “constructive force” but only of one that lights up the contours of a burned-out prehistory with the glow of the latest disaster in order to perceive the parallel that exists between them. p.95

The diabolical image of harmony, the invisibility of the classes caused by the petrified mold in which they are held fast, can only gain such power over people’s minds because the idea that the oppressed, the workers of the world, might unite as a class and put an end to the horror seems doomed in the light of the present distribution of power and impotence. p.96

Class struggle is dismissed and sent to join the ranks of ideals, where it has to make do with slogans about tolerance and humanity in the speeches of trade-union leaders. The age when people could build barricades now lies almost as firmly in the past as the time when a craftsman’s trade was a solid foundation for life. p.96

So, what parts of these reflections holds up? Now, in the age of riots, we know Adorno is wrong, at least as far as the opportunities for building barricades is concerned.

I tend towards doubt, especially when the previous is followed by such compact contrarianism as this.

So great has the tension become between the poles that never meet that it has ceased to exist. p.97

The sentence sings, but the poles betray lassitude and non-relation. We might better say that the relationship between these poles is in crisis.

‘The immeasurable pressure of domination has so fragmented the masses that it has even dissipated the negative unity of being oppressed that forged them into a class in the nineteenth century. In exchange, they find they have been directly absorbed into the unity of the system that is oppressing them. Class rule is set to survive the anonymous, objective form of the class.’ p.97

From rifts in the class:

Membership in the same class by no means translates into equality of interests and action. p.97

To an invariant plan of action:

Its basis, the division of society into exploiters and exploited, not only continues unabated but is increasing in coercion and solidity. Change it, because the oppressed who today, as predicted by the theory, constitute the overwhelming majority of mankind are unable to experience themselves as a class.’ p.97

Yet, though Adorno refers to the typical scenario of the male worker coming home from work to beat his wife there are no further reflections on gender and class. Rather, the episode is used to reflect, a little… very little, upon the class’s relation to the state – the police. There is a rift here, which Adorno doesn’t seen the potential of or for…

As the anonymous unity of the owners of the means of production and their various appendages, the bourgeosie is the class par excellence. p.97

pp.97-98 Adorno seems concerned for the bourgeoisie as much as for a proletariat… existence of each class ‘entails the same injustice…’p.98

There is a contemporary echo of this ‘equality’ in Frank Ruda’s account of Hegel’s rabble, the luxury-rabble and the poverty-rabble. Yet, Ruda provides a cogent correction to the idea that this ‘injustice’ is the ‘same’ (de-italicised phrases indicate authors emphases — italicised in original):

here one can find an important distinction in the form of appearance of the two types of rabble which can be read at the same time as a distinction between two different dimension[s] of contingency. The poor depends on the alms and the public institutions i.e. he ultimately depends on nothing but contingencies to maintain his subsistence. The private person who is reduced to the egoistic side of business, i.e. to the pure self-seeking accumulation of capital, is on the one hand also structurally dependent on contingencies. But it is decisive that he himself has contingently, which is to say, arbitrarily decided in favour of these contingencies. He who thirsts for luxury is subordinated to contingency, just as the poor man is. But one cannot claim that it is the same contingency in both cases. If the poor is involuntarily in the situation of depending on contingencies, nevertheless, the voluntary decision of a single private person precedes this dependence.

— Frank Ruda, Hegel’s Rabble, London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 39

Yet, elsewhere in the essay, Adorno has few illusions about bourgeois ‘equality’:

‘Equal rights and equal opportunities among the competing parties are largely a fiction. Their success depends on the power of their capital outside the competitive process, a power they already possess on entering the marketplace.’ p.98 (and non-liquidation of feudal property)

‘Bourgeois tolerance wants to be tolerated.’ p.98

Bourgeois tolerance wants to be tolerated. It does not mean justice for those at the bottom of the pile, not even for those members of its own class who find themselves condemned by those above them ‘in the spirit of objectivity’. p.98

Duality of class as reality and ideology p.98

Its [class society’s] truth is its critical aspect: it designates the unity in which particular bourgeois interests are made real. Its untruth lies in the non-unity of the class. Its immanent determination by the state of power relations is the tribute it is forced to pay to its own particularity, which its unity benefits. Its real non-unity is veiled by its no less real unity. p.99

Transition from consensual form (based on deference) to ‘direct economic and political command’. p.99

‘The ruling class disappears behind the concentration of capital.’ p.99

Capital as ‘an institution, as the expression of society as a whole.’ p.99

‘The trade unions become monopolies, and their officials become bandits who call for blind obedience from those permitted to become members. They terrorize outsiders but are loyally prepared to share the spoils with other monopolists, if these have not already taken over the entire organization in the form of open fascism.’ p.100

The laws of exchange have not led to a form of rule that can be regarded as historically adequate for the reproduction of society as a whole at its present stage. Instead, it was the old form of rule that had joined the economic apparatus so that, once in possession, it might smash it and thus make its own life easier. […] In the image of the latest economic phase, history is the history of monopolies. In the image of the manifest act of usurpation that is practiced nowadays by the leaders of capital and labour acting in consort, it is the history of gang wars and rackets. p.100

How much all this talk of rackets and gangs reminds me positively of Camatte and Collu On Organisation (1972). To the extent that I think their text was some kind of reply or development of Adorno’s earlier essay, just as both are self-consciously developments of Marx’s incomplete work, each posing the question of why Marx’s working class had not completed his theory in practice.

‘Marx died before he could develop the theory of class, and the working class let the matter rest there.’ p.100

Class… The revisionists (Adorno means Eduard Bernstein presumably) p.100 >> class becomes a ‘pedagogic tactic’ – ‘theory must take some of the blame for the degeneration of practice.’ p.101 (see above p.100).

The theory that learns how to identify the different gangs within the classes today is a parody of the formal sociology that denies the existence of class in order to make those gangs permanent. p.102

Against the ‘immiseration, or pauperisation, thesis’:

There can be no question of their being driven by hunger to join forces and make a revolution. p.103

The individual thrives better in an organization of special interests than in one opposed to them. p.103

[…] the pauperization thesis is itself dependent upon the dual nature of class, the distinction between direct and indirect repression that its concept contains. p.104

The rationale of such progress is the system’s consciousness of the conditions that enable it to be perpetuated, not the unconscious mathematics of the process concerned. p.105

Just as war confirms the faux frais [incidental expenses] of the power apparatus as profitable investments once the war is over, it also cashes in the credit of poverty that the dominant cliques cleverly managed to defer, although that same cleverness finds itself confronting an immovable barrier when it comes to poverty itself. Poverty can be eliminated only by the overthrow of the dominant cliques, and not by a process of manipulation, however disguised. p.105

The alliance of pushing and falling is a symbol of the ancient double character of class that is only becoming visible today. p.106

such actions [the Gunpowder Plot, mutilation of Hermes in Athens, the Reichstag fire] are perhaps not as coincidental as all that; they are acts of freedom testifying that the objective historical trend is a delusion unless it harmonizes with the subjective interests of those who use history to order history about. p.106

‘Reason is a good deal more cunning than Hegel believed.’ p.106

‘Not, indeed, in the Prussian state but in Hitler’s charisma freedom comes into its own as the repetition of necessity.’ .p.107

world of coercion = World of freedom

‘The social importance of the proletariat is the product of conflicting tendencies. On the one hand, there is economic pauperization, on the other, the extraeconomic improvement of the standard of living. This impotence was not forseen by the theory.’ p.107

‘Industry […] deform[s] consciousness’ p.107

‘Marx refused to be drawn into the psychology of the working class. Such a psychology presupposes individuality and a kind of autarchic view of motivation in the individual. Such individually is itself a socially constructed concept, which comes under the rubric of political economy. […] those at the bottom of the heap are denied individuality by the property system. This can only be called dehumanization.’ p.108

Down with anthropology! p.108 Down with sociology p.101-102

‘The great intensification of the division of labor does ideed distance the worker further and further from the end product with which the craftsman was thoroughly conversant. But at the same time the work processes are increasingly undifferentiated, so that the man who can perform one can perform virtually all and can understand the whole operation.’ p.108

The car ‘contains no secrets that cannot be imagined on the model of that action.’ p.108 But this all still mitigates impotence of workers. ‘of course it is unlikely their individuality will accelerate the revolution. p.109

‘men have truly become its products […] the process of dehumanization is perfected on the backs of the civilised as an all-encompassing reification, not as naked coercion; indeed, this dehumanization is what that civilization is.’ p.109

‘a conditioned universal humanity gives birth to the barbarism that in fact it is.’ p.109

‘the vestiges of the ideologies that mediated autonomy and domination disappear along with the vestiges of autonomy.’ p.109

‘dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified himan beings reification finds its outer limits.’ p.110

‘They catch up with the the technical forces of production in which the relations of production lie hidden: in this way these relations lose the shock of their alien nature because the alienation is so complete. […] Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting theom from the dominant power.’ p.110

Final sentence

‘The mimicking of the classless society by class society has been so successful that, while the oppressed have been co-opted, the futility of all oppression becomes manifest. Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end.’ p.110


About anti

Anthony Iles is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Art & Design, Middlesex University. A founder member of the Full Unemployment Cinema. A contributing editor with Mute / Metamute since 2005. He is the author, with Josephine Berry-Slater, of the book, No Room to Move: Art and the Regenerate City (Mute Books, London 2011), contributing editor to the recent publications, Anguish Language: writing and crisis (Archive Books, Berlin, 2015), and Look at Hazards, Look at Losses (Mute/Kuda, 2017) and a contributor to Brave New Work: A Reader on Harun Farocki’s Film A New Product. Recent essays have been published in Mute, Radical Philosophy, Rab-Rab: Journal for Political and Formal Inquiries in Art and Logos.
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One Response to Reflections on Adorno’s Reflections on Class Theory

  1. Pingback: Notes from Adorno, ‘Theses on Need’ | saladofpearls

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