The Third International after Lenin

Friday, March 11, 2016



by Theodor W. Adorno

. . . . we [critical theorists] neither provided actionist programs nor did we even support actions by those who felt inspired by critical theory. I will not address the question of whether that can be demanded from theoretical thinkers, who are relatively sensitive and by no means shockproof instruments. The purpose that has fallen to them in a society based on the division of labor may be questionable; they themselves may be deformed by it. But they are also formed by it; of course, they could not by sheer will abolish what they have become. I do not want to deny the element of subjective weakness that clings to the narrowed focus on theory. . . . The objection, effortlessly rattled off, runs along these lines: the person who at this hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who therefore neither participates in spectacular, violent actions nor recommends them has resigned. What he has in mind he thinks cannot be realized; actually he doesn't even want to realize it. By leaving the conditions untouched, he condones them without admitting it.

Distance from praxis is disreputable to everyone. Whoever doesn't want to really knuckle down and get his hands dirty, is suspect, as though the aversion were not legitimate and only distorted by privilege. The distrust of whoever distrusts praxis extends from those on the opposite side who repeat the old slogan “enough talking already” all the way to the objective spirit of advertising that propagates the image—they call it a “guiding image”—of the active, practical person, be he an industrial leader or an athlete. One should join in. Whoever only thinks, removes himself, is considered weak, cowardly, virtually a traitor. The hostile cliché of the intellectual works its way deeply into that oppositional group, without them having noticed it, and who in turn are slandered as “intellectuals.”

Thinking actionists answer: among the things to be changed include precisely the present conditions of the separation of theory and praxis. Praxis is needed, they say, precisely in order to do away with the domination by practical people and the practical ideal. But then this is quickly transformed into a prohibition on thinking. . . . The much invoked unity of theory and praxis has the tendency of slipping into the predominance of praxis. Many movements defame theory itself as a form of oppression, as though praxis were not much more directly related to oppression. In Marx the doctrine of this unity was inspired by the real possibility of action, which even at that time was not actualized. Today what is emerging is more the direct contrary. One clings to action for the sake of the impossibility of action. . . .The forced primacy of praxis irrationally stopped the critique that Marx himself practiced. In Russia and in the orthodoxy of other countries the malicious derision of critical critique became an instrument so that the existing conditions could establish themselves so terrifyingly. The only thing praxis still meant was: increased production of the means of production; critique was not tolerated anymore except for the criticism that people were not yet working hard enough. So easily does the subordination of theory to praxis invert into service rendered to renewed oppression.

The repressive intolerance to the thought that is not immediately accompanied by instructions for action is founded on anxiety. Untrammeled thought and the posture that will not let it be bargained away must be feared because of what one deeply knows but cannot openly admit: that the thought is right. An age‑old bourgeois mechanism with which the eighteenth century enlightenment thinkers were quite familiar operates once again, but unchanged: the suffering caused by a negative situation—this time by obstructed reality—becomes rage leveled at the person who expresses it. . . .  Pseudo‑reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo‑activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself. People locked in desperately want to get out. In such situations one doesn't think anymore, or does so only under fictive premises. Within absolutized praxis only reaction is possible and therefore false. Only thinking could find an exit . . . . If the doors are barricaded, then thought more than ever should not stop short. . . . It is up to thought not to accept the situation as final. The situation can be changed, if at all, by undiminished insight. . . .

Pseudo‑activity is generally the attempt to rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society. . . . The disastrous model of pseudo‑activity is the “do‑it‑yourself . . . activities that do what has long been done better by the means of industrial production only in order to inspire in the unfree individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the assurance that everything depends on them. . . . However, spontaneity should not be absolutized, just as little as it should be split off from the objective situation or idolized the way the administered world itself is. . . . Even political undertakings can sink into pseudo­-activities, into theater. It is no coincidence that the ideals of immediate action, even the propaganda of the act, have been resurrected after the willing integration of formerly progressive organizations that now in all countries of the earth are developing the characteristic traits of what they once opposed. . . . By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it.

This is made easier for the individual by his capitulation to the collective with which he identifies himself. He is spared from recognizing his powerlessness; the few become the many in their own eyes. This act, not unwavering thought, is resignative. No transparent relationship obtains between the interests of the ego and the collective it surrenders itself to.The ego must abolish itself so that it may be blessed with the grace of being chosen by the collective. . . . The sense of a new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. The consolation that thinking improves in the context of collective action is deceptive: thinking, as a mere instrument of activist actions, atrophies like all instrumental reason. . . .

By contrast the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. . . . Open thinking points beyond itself. . . .Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish. But it cannot be denied that something of it survives. For thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. . . .The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it.By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “Resignation”, in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 289-293.

Radio lecture & first publication in German, 1969. First English translation by Wes Blomster, Telos, no. 35, 1978, pp. 165-168; reprinted in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 171-175.

Ellipses are mine, as is the boldface. Footnotes are omitted. This essay is so good, you shouldn’t miss any of it. Try to get hold of either translation.

Uploaded 22 December 2003

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