Notes from Adorno, ‘Theses on Need’


This rather hard to find text was recently translated by Keston Sutherland and a digitised version kindly sent to me by a prolapsarian. An improved (OCR’d) scan is now available at

The text seems to me to relate to a rather complex discussion between members of the Frankfurt School and Brecht’s circle, held in L.A in 1942, the ‘seminar on needs’. The ideas debated at the seminar were derived from reading Marx’s philosophy against emerging social conditions after the Second World War by which the capitalist state appeared able to satiate basic human needs and this appeared, to Pollock, Adorno and Horkheimer at the time, to fulfil Marx and Engel’s condition for the end of prehistory and beginning of history, it also threatened to loosen the ties binding suffering and critical culture.

A humorous gloss on this discussion can be read in Todd Cronan, ‘The Political Ontology of Unemployment: Why No One Need Apply’, a more sensitive account is given by Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, ‘Thinking need from California: The 1942 seminars of the Frankfurt School and the Brecht Circle’,

The text, similarly to the essay ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, (1942) contains several formulations directly related to Max Horkheimer’s essay, ‘The Authoritarian State’, written in 1940 and published in 1942. In a sense Adorno is responding to, echoing and developing many of the thoughts expressed by ‘The Authoritarian State’ in these two shorter pieces. My notes on ‘Reflections…’ can be found here. Below are mostly just some choice quotes. I’ll add my notes on ‘The Authoritarian State’ here soon.

Notes from Theodor Adorno ‘Theses on Need’ (1942), (Trans.) Keston Sutherland, Quid, No.16, pp.40-44

‘Need is a social category […] But the social and natural moment of need are not capable of being split off from each other as secondary and primary moments, in order that we can then set up a pecking order of satisfactions.’ p.40

‘The concrete hunger of civilised people has however its own kind of satisfaction. They must get something to eat which they do not find disgusting, and in disgust and its opposite are reflected the whole of history.’ p.40

‘The social mediation of every drive [Trieb] is so effective, that its natural object never comes to light immediately, but always and only as an object produced through and by society.’ p.40

‘The appeal to “nature” as if this existed in opposition to some kind of need is never anything but the mask of denial and domination.’ p.40

‘The distinction between superficial needs and deep needs is an illusion with social origins. The so-called superficial needs are reflections of the work process, which makes people into “appendages of the machine” and compels them, outside of work, to reduce themselves into mere reproductions of the commodity called labour power. These needs are the badges of a situation which compels its victim to flee, and at the same time holds him so securely in thrall, that the flight itself always degenerates into a convulsive repetition of the very situation from which he would flee.’

See Kracauer, The Salaried Masses.

Also, the above suggests a critical anticipation of Deleuze’s famous maxim:

“To flee, but in fleeing to seek a weapon.”

– Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 102.

‘The bad thing about these needs – which are not really needs – is that they aim toward a satisfaction which at the same time betrays them.’ p.40

Need contradicts itself 

‘the monopoly has long since taken the deep into its possession, just as it did the superficial.’ p.41

By ‘the monopoly’ Adorno refers to the system of trusts and monopolies which developed in America in the 1890s, but I think by the time Adorno used it here, it simply stood for ‘big business’ and the complicit arrangement between state and capital as a whole, thus ‘the monopoly’ either indicates just how monolithic this arrangement appeared at the time (just as finance capital appears as ‘the blob’ today) or the monopoly was a form so standardised and recognisable that every instance of it could be made to stand in for the same interests.


‘The theory of need must recognise […] that currently existing needs themselves are, in their present form, the product of class society.’ p.41

‘The danger of domination [Herrschaft] migrating into humanity by way of monopolised needs is not some heretical belief that can be exorcised through excommunication, but a real tendency of late capitalism. This ‘danger’ refers not to the possibility of barbarism after revolution, but to the prevention of revolution through the agency of the total society.’ p.41

The phrase ‘domination migrating into humanity’ appears in another context below, here with a historically specific valence, ‘late capitalism’ for Adorno, rather than Horkheimer’s phrase, ‘state capitalism’.

‘Today, under the monopoly, what is crucial is how individual needs stand in relation to the continued existence of the monopoly.’ p.41

‘Needs are not static. The stasis in which they are apparently locked today – their fixation on the reproduction of the eternally same – is merely the reflex of material production, which itself assumes a stationary character in consequence of the elimination of markets and competition concurrent with the continued existence of class domination. The end of this stasis would mean that need would appear in a completely different light.’ p.42

‘If production were instantly and without restriction converted into the satisfaction of needs – the satisfaction even, and precisely of those needs produced by capitalism itself – the needs themselves would therewith be crucially changed. The impenetrability of genuine and false needs is fundamental to class domination. Under class domination, the reproduction of life and the suppression of life form a unity; and though the law of this unity is, to be sure, transparent in the whole, in its individual forms it is impenetrable.’

Cinema and Reproduction

‘The thought, for example, that the cinema, along with the home and nourishment, is necessary for the reproduction of labour power, is true only in a world which conditions people for the reproduction of their labour power and compels their needs to harmonise with the employer’s interests, namely profit and domination.’ p.42


‘The demand for production solely for the satisfaction of needs itself belongs to the prehistory of a world which produces not for needs, but for profit and the establishment of domination, and where, for that reason, shortage dominates. If shortage disappears, the relation between need and satisfaction will be transformed.’ p.43

Classless Society

‘Classless society, which abolishes the irrationality with which production for profit is tangled up, and which satisfies needs, will by the same token abolish the practical spirit which still asserts itself in the faraway aims of bourgeois l’art pour l’art. This society sublates [aufhebt] not only the bourgeois antagonism between production and consumption, but also their bourgeois unity. It is then no longer a disgrace for something to be useless. Conformity loses its meaning. Productivity now for the first time has an effect – in a real, not in a disfigured, sense – on need: not through the unfulfilled need letting itself be satisfied with useless things, but through the satisfied need being capable of acting in the world without making a mess of the world through universal usefulness. When classless society promises the end of art through sublation of the tension between what is real and what is possible, it also promises at the same time the beginning of art i.e. the useless, experience of which tends toward reconciliation with nature because it no longer stands in the service of usefulness for the exploiters. pp.43-44


Additionally Simon Jarvis in Adorno: A Critical Introduction, insists Nietzsche is crucial to Adorno’s denaturing of needs.

Adorno credited Nietzsche with an insight into the potentially coercive function of a primacy of practice based on ’true needs’ in socialist thought; and into the fact that domination was not identical with economic exploitation:

The migration of domination into human beings themselves means that human beings have no other needs than those prescribed for them by an invisible domination. Nietzsche’s taboo-like disinclination to examine all questions bound up with material existence has all the bad aspects it could possibly have, but it also shows his awareness that there is something wrong with the concept of a totalized praxis. Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction p.65 [quoting from ‘Beitrag zur Ideologienlehre’, in GS 8, Soziologische Schriften I, pp.457-77, p.472.]


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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