Criticism of “Contemporary Society” and “Negative Dialectics”
(Excerpts on Adorno)

by E. Batalov

Chapter II


The fact that socio‑critical theory, based on "negative dialectics", analyses advanced capitalist society through the prism of its "one‑dimensionality", calls for total negation of that society and ignores the contradictions inherent in the objects of its analysis, does not mean, however, that it overlooks the problem of contradictions altogether. Negation itself, interpreted in the spirit of "negative dialectics" is approached by the advocates of this theory starting out from a one‑sided interpretation of contradiction, which comes to the fore particularly clearly in the philosophical, sociological and musicological works of Theodor Adorno. [1]

Unlike Marcuse Adorno did not enjoy wide popularity among members of the New Left: for them he was too academic and took far less interest in the protest movement than did Marcuse or Sartre. Nevertheless the substance of his philosophy and its overall spirit has much in common with Marcuse's work and this entitles both the radical Left and also their critics to rank the names of these two philosophers together.

When it comes to theory Adorno is really more "left" and more "radical" than Marcuse and still further divorced from the real world; all this despite the fact that when claiming to criticise abstract systematising and the construction of general concepts he attempts to counter these with the discovery of the uniquely specific qualities of that which is individual.

For a start Marcuse and Adorno have a good deal in common in that they both build up a system of "negative dialectics" starting out from Hegel and contesting the latter's ideas so as eventually to reject Hegel's view of negation as an element in the transition to a new synthesis. [2] This lies at the root of their criticism of "logic of identity" and "omnipotence of reason" with which they link the dominance of positivist thinking which they reject. Adorno, like Marcuse, criticises Hegel's elevation of the Absolute Idea, his "dictatorship of general concepts" and hierarchical interdependence of dialectical categories to the dialectic since he sees Hegel's hierarchy of ideas to be nothing but a copy of the socio‑political hierarchy, an ideal reconstruction of society based on the principle of domination and subordination. Adorno associates any self‑contained hierarchy of concepts with a closed circle which impedes the individual's break‑through beyond the confines of the given world and his awareness of the imperfection of that world, and which, therefore, lays down the limits of social "repression".

Adorno counters Hegel's thesis to the effect that "truth is whole" with the assertion that "the whole is untrue". [3] A complete, self‑contained and integral system is something false, for the world itself, in so far as it is in a state of movement and therefore at every given moment incomplete, provides, according to Adorno, no justification for trying to "systematise” it in such a way as to leave no loose ends. [4] This applies still more, according to Adorno, in the case of "late‑bourgeois society", where overall cohesion of the elements making up the state machine is obtained at the cost of the disintegration of traditional institutions and ties. This approach leads Adorno to conclude that the established and defined form of concepts should be taken apart and presented in the internal division of its opposites, but in division that is not sublated when synthesised but which is retained in the capacity of the permanent, non‑transient state of an object. The logic of identity should in Adorno's opinion be replaced by "the logic of disintegration", for only the latter is capable of adequately reproducing a picture of the social world, in which the whole becomes completely intangible for the subject, in so far as it is packaged into thousands of "pieces" to be absorbed by the individual without any kind of contact between him and the whole.

Essentially both Adorno and Hegel, despite diametrically opposed evaluations of the whole, define it in the language of dialectics applied to the social world, not the process of that world's development, but historically circumscribed states of bourgeois society, the "appearances" which confront the individual. The theses they put forward represent an absolutisation of one aspect of social development and do not characterise the process of social development as a whole complete with all its historical stages that succeed each other.

Indeed in advanced capitalist society the individual is confronted with a mosaic world ridden with contradictions that he apprehends as "organised chaos", a shattered mirror in whose pieces he can perceive only certain parts of his face, but never his face "as a whole", for the overall picture has been distorted beyond recognition.

In these conditions Adorno's rejection of the approach to the object in its integrity as "untrue", expresses fairly accurately the consciousness of such an individual. But as soon as Adorno claims to achieve something more than reproduction of the structure of the "mosaic" consciousness, he finds himself on rather unsure ground.

However much an object might be subject to inner contradictions it represents a system which at each given moment is identical with itself and in this sense is integral. If the given phenomenon becomes an object of cognition then the question is not whether it should or should not be regarded as an integral system but how it should best be singled out and defined in an adequate system of concepts. Even if the world were quite mad, it cannot be approached outside an integral system‑that is of course if we are eager to understand the essence of that madness.

Rejection of a systems approach inevitably leads to a "factorial" approach from which it is but a short step to the construction of utopias, that is arbitrary, illusory systems.

Man always feels the need for an ideal reproduction in his mind of the world around him as an integral whole, within whose framework he might find his own place, lend his activity and existence meaning and purpose and glean confidence in the expediency and effectiveness of his activity. Moreover the more alienated and divided the world appears to him, the stronger is his spontaneous urge to reproduce that integrated whole. After deliberately rejecting the approach to the world as an integral whole and finding himself left with nothing but a collection of "factors" while at the same time feeling an inner compulsion to create an integrated concept of the world, the individual constructs his own arbitrary picture of the world which can easily lead him astray into a world of grotesque fantasy or utopian illusions.

While placing deliberate emphasis on the analytical and destructive aspect of thought, on the "logic of disintegration" that singles out and defines contradictions, Adorno holds at the same time that any attempt to view a contradiction as soluble would imply a return to the "logic of identity", and hence to repression. Yet, according to Adorno, while it is impossible to view a contradiction as soluble, it is also wrong to envisage any definite alternative, or even to hope, for hoping is tantamount to deviating from or impeding any alternative.

Of course Adorno sees such description of the division and contradictory nature of the existing world not merely as confirmation of the actual state of affairs but also as a means of stirring "dormant", "integrated" consciousness. However the future should, according to Adorno's logic, shine forth despite the present, and against the background of its "darkness" as a result of the activities of individuals who strive forward precisely because they do not see even the tiniest gleam of light—Hope. The true struggle for the future begins when it becomes simply impossible to live in the present world and when the bare bright light of hope might only serve to cool man's ardour and resolution to take up the struggle. [5]

Here it would seem that Adorno is still more "negative” and one‑sided than Marcuse. The latter extols those who without hope follow the path of the Great Refusal, yet Marcuse does so because he can find no real basis for hope. Negation in Marcuse's view of things is a reaction to the concealed nature of contradiction: negation has to be introduced to the system from outside.

Adorno, on the other hand, attaches importance to singling out and providing conceptual definition for contradiction, which is to provide the basis for negation. In doing so be absolutises and perpetuates contradiction, and hence negation as well: contradiction is expressed in permanent, absolute negation, but is not solved or sublated in the latter. Hence Adorno's logical conclusion: "the whole is untrue". Here he is in total agreement with Marcuse who expresses the same idea in almost identical words. Zoltai aptly comments: "Adorno only recognises thesis and anti‑thesis. For him affirmation and negation are poles with no connecting links which can only come into contact with each other when exaggerated to an extreme degree. This philosophical construction would have no truck with synthesis, with negation of negation." [6]

Adorno rejects Hegel's synthesis since he does not accept Hegel's system. The advance of social development and social progress finding expression in Hegel's idea of synthesis as the unity of "affirmation" and "negation" was not simply a speculative construct for the great German philosopher. Adorno, on the other hand, regards the modern world not so much as an embodiment of movement forward and progress, as a contradictory chaotic chain of elements not arranged in any integral system. [7] Criticising Hegel for his absolutism Adorno is guilty of a similar if not greater degree of absolutism: while Hegel absolutises the whole, the system, Adorno does the same to fragmentation, chaos, forgetting that even madness (madness of a world in which everything can be bought or sold) has, as observed earlier, its own system.

Adorno sees before him a world as seen by the alienated individual living within that world, namely a world split into "affirmation" and "negation" existing side by side with each other, contiguous yet not forming any synthesis, as something stable, or as the result of their interaction. [8]

In actual fact Adorno's dialectics present not so much the actual state of the existing world as the state of "split" consciousness of the philosopher himself, serving to reproduce the visible chaos of the world before him beyond whose confines he can find no means of escape apart from morbid introspection.

The elimination of connecting links between the poles of affirmation and negation as forms that express continuity in human history and in the development of culture means, essentially speaking, that development is interrupted: the world becomes frozen in its state of splintered fragmentation, in its fixed state of contradictoriness once and for all. The moment is transfixed as eternity, relativity as the absolute and catastrophe as the unchanging state that cannot be sublated in the realisation of an alternative, all the more so because an alternative cannot be clearly defined. In art, particularly in music which was the special object of Adorno's sociological research, this fixed state of contradictions manifests itself in dissonance [9] and in society in social dissonance, in "disintegration" driving the individual to engage in permanent revolt.

Adorno endeavours to persuade the individual to adopt a non­conformist approach to the world around him, a critical attitude to that world as something "inferior". Yet the "negative dialectician" gives the individual no firm basis for such criticism and when advocating the other extreme he transforms the non‑conformist into the rebel, for whom the means becomes an end in itself. In his philosophy which is directed towards an end (as something definitive, polar) Adorno comes forward as both nihilist and apocalyptic. Yet apocalyptical revolt is a revolt that knows no moderation, no limits, which sweeps aside everything in its path, and is of course very far removed from social revolution.

Confirmation of this can be found in a conception, whose author admittedly has nothing in common with the Frankfurt school and never declared himself an advocate of "negative dialectics", but who nevertheless evolved ideas very close to "negative dialectics" in spirit, [10] namely Maoist teaching with regard to contradictions which expresses the same spirit of nihilism as that which permeates Adorno's "negative dialectics". Naturally it would be wrong to regard Mao Tse‑tung as the ideologist of militant youth in the West, yet nevertheless in his statements just as in the works of Marcuse, Adorno, etc., we find philosophical justification of revolt.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the whole system of Mao's ideas centres round his teaching with regard to contradictions based on the absolutisation of struggle between opposites and the relativisation of their unity. In his work On the Question of the Correct Solution for Contradictions among the People he writes: "For each concrete thing (phenomenon) the unity of opposites is conditional, temporary, transient and therefore relative, while the struggle between opposites is absolute."

[Omitted here is a digression on the philosophy of Mao Tse-Tung.]


For the radical Left "negative dialectics" fulfils a twofold function: it is a method of criticising existing society and a method of critical action directed against the establishment. Radicals claim they adopt a consistently irreconcilable stand in relation to existing society, rejecting all half‑measures and compromises. The principle underlying their action is "either‑or". Moreover as "negative dialecticians" they are not entitled (if they wish to be consistent) to put forward any concrete alternative. They substitute for the latter, either "hope" or inner "predisposition" to the future, its vague expectation (as in Adorno's case). The rebel is therefore a tragic figure, in so far as he condemns himself to a blind struggle, which, however, he endeavours to wage to the end even when he senses within himself that the struggle is hopeless. Yet in such struggle the rebel often suffers defeat, since he is not aware of true historical necessity.

In so far as "negative dialectics" claims to reach beyond purely intellectual activity and to invade the sphere of practical politics, its critical analysis presupposes something that extends beyond the confines of purely logical assessment, the definition of its socio‑political essence, particularly since it reflects the destiny of its creators and adherents as typical representatives of that section of the bourgeois intelligentsia characteristic of periods constituting a turning‑point in the development of capitalist society.

"Negative dialectics" embodied the tragic destiny of its creators and the generation of the West European—in particular German—intelligentsia they represented. With reference to Adorno there is no denying that "in the precise sense of the word he was a son of the impulsive, yearning twenties filled to overflowing with disillusionment and hopes which determined the intellectual and psychological make‑up of the post‑war and post­revolutionary generation in the West. . . . In Western Europe the spirit of revolutionary negation could not come into its own in practice . . . the revolutions in Hungary and Germany, suppressed when still in embryo had no opportunity to develop their potential, and the Mephistophelean dialectical 'spirit of negation' was again obliged to return to the realm of consciousness, to the 'elevated' heights of culture and art, back to where it had originally sprung from and where now, after partaking of the tree of life and tasting live flesh, man found life far more crowded and intolerably oppressive than before." [11] Such was the overall intellectual climate which moulded the world outlook of Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm and many other philosophers, who despite all their preoccupation with "criticism" were insufficiently critical to extend their activities beyond the sphere of purely intellectual pursuits.

"Negative dialectics" is neither a new interpretation of Hegel's dialectic, nor is it on the other hand a simple imitation of any contemporary school of philosophy. It is above all a means of self‑expression for the radical as a "situation‑individual" extrapolating that situation to all social reality and elevating the emotional mood bound up with that situation to the rank not only of a categorical moral imperative but also to an almost universal law of social being. It is in this connection perhaps that the existentialist roots of the overall methodological premises of "negative dialectics" come to the fore most clearly of all. However when this theoretical position proves to be no more than a means of self‑expression for its creator, then the historical destiny of such a philosophical position is bound to share, as so often happens, his unfortunate fate. "Negative dialectics" when viewed as a theoretical principle can, in the sphere of political thought, only lead to escapism and nihilism, or, to anarchist revolt, when under the impact of some impulse moods of this type take the form of practical action. Yet revolt proves powerless when confronted by the dictatorship of the ruling class that relies on armed force and traditions of conservative thought (above all as personified by the bourgeois state). If activist moods are not "sublated" in conscious, organised and purposeful struggle, revolt will very quickly lose its driving power and exhausted and disappointed rebels will give in to the very same establishment which they had been attempting so recently to destroy.

Without analysing in detail the question as to what was the real socio­political impact of the New Left movement in the sixties, it can still confidently be maintained that the tactics of revolt as a political weapon, the tactics of action based on principles of pure negation were not vindicated; they showed the movement's incapacity to overthrow not only political but also cultural institutions of advanced capitalist society and replace relations of domination and subordination with qualitatively new ones. And even if the protest movement did yield some results, this occurred above all wherever it ran counter to the "negative dialectical" principle.

Yet in the world of art, "negative dialectics" is much more at home than in the political sphere.

This is acknowledged even by the adherents of "critical theory". Marcuse and in particular Adorno always set their sights on the elevated world of art and literature as the pure sphere of the true embodiment of "negative dialectics" achieved first and foremost by the artistic avantgarde, in which they included such widely disparate artists as Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Breton, Brecht. It was precisely in their works that Marcuse and Adorno assumed that "the language of dialectics and poetry meet on common ground. The element they have in common is the quest for an 'authentic language’—a language of negation, of the Great Refusal to accept the rules of the game played with marked cards. Poetry is . . . the capacity to negate things, the power which Hegel. demanded, paradoxical though it may sound, every authentic thought should have." [12] However as a theoretical principle "negative dialectics" does not hold water even when it comes to aesthetics and art in so far as it advocates art out of touch with reality. Art of this kind can admittedly be interpreted as a symbol of protest, as a means of confronting the reader, beholder or listener with the question as to whether he is leading a meaningful life and whether that which he assimilates as a mass consumer of artistic works possesses artistic or social value. However art based on the principle of total negation provides the consumer with no answers to the questions confronting him and leaves the consumer alone with himself, with his rootless consciousness and without any confidence that the shock stemming from this consciousness will force him to reassess his earlier values. To tear the mask from the "unreal world" and show how repellent it actually is, is still not enough to make the world better than it is.

Yet since it came into being not as a theoretical principle but as a kind of metaphor, [13] "negative dialectics" returns to its original state, without reaping any harvest from the field of social creation, without gleaning productive force as a theoretical principle. However the "negative dialectician" after experiencing the full measure of disillusionment in the surrounding world without finding contact with that world remains in the isolated sphere of celestial "poetry", from which, to use Goethe's expression, he was unable to construct a bridge that would take him into the world of truth.


[1]  Theodor Adorno (1903‑1969), German philosopher, sociologist and aesthetician and Professor at Frankfurt University headed the Institute of Social Sciences in that city from 1953 until his death; he belongs to that group of German philosophers whose views took shape under the influence of the Frankfurt school.

[2]  It is important to point out in this connection that from Hegel's point of view negation in the new of the preceding quality through sublation is not simple disbandment of an old quality. In an exposition of this idea Hegel wrote: "The word Aufheben (sublation) in our language has a two‑fold meaning: it implies preservation and retention and at the same time cessation, termination. Actual preservation implies the negative meaning that something is wrested from its immediacy and therefore from the sphere of existence open to outside influences in order that it might be retained. Thus that which is sublated is at the same time preserved and has only lost its immediacy but it is by no means destroyed as a result." (G.W.F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik. In: G. W. F. Hegel, Werke in 20 Bänden, Bd. 5, Teil 1, S. 114.)

[3]  See Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Frankfurt am Main, 1970.

[4]  This idea which runs through all Adorno's main works, he reiterated once again not long before his death in a paper delivered at the XVI Congress organised for West German sociologists. Adorno stated that he who was anxious not to deprive himself of the chance to understand the all‑important significance of the structure in comparison with concrete data would not assess contradictions as shortcomings of method, as mistaken reasoning and try to remove them through coordination of scientific systems. Instead he should examine contradictions in the structure itself, which was antagonistic for as long as there existed society in the true sense of that word, and which would remain so (See Theodor Adorno's introductory lecture at the XVI Congress of German sociologists: "Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft?" (Late Capitalism or Industrial Society) in Verhandlungen des 16 Deutschen Soziologentages, Stuttgart, 1969, S. 15).

[5]  Adorno came round to this view during the Second World War when he was living as an emigre in the United States not cherishing any illusions and at the same time bereft of hope. This is clear from certain passages in Thomas Mann's memoirs which have already attracted the attention of Adorno's critics. When recounting the background story to his Doktor Faustus Mann wrote: "When after a fortnight’s work I had finished that part (i.e. the novel's epilogue—E. B.) or rather thought I had, I read it to Adorno in my room one evening. He made no comment on the musical details but came over morose with regard to the ending, the last forty lines, in which after all the darkness there is talk of hope and mercy and which were not the same as those in the final version and were simply a mistake. I had been too optimistic, too benevolent, too straightforward; I had kindled too much light and laid on the comfort too thick. . . . I then lent them the cautious form they now have, first lit upon the phrases 'transcendence of despair', the 'miracle reaching beyond faith' and the much‑quoted final cadence bordering on verse, mentioned in almost any discussion of the book, in which the fading note of grief is transposed as 'light in the night'." Mann recalls how this ending met with Adorno's whole‑hearted approval. (Thomas Mann, Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus. Roman eines Romans, Frankfurt am Main, 1949, S. 194‑95.)

[6]  D. Zoltai, "Musical Culture of the Modern Age in the Mirror of Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory" in Voprosy filosofii (Questions of Philosophy), No. 3, 1968, p. 105.

[7]  At the XVI Congress of sociologists held in West Germany Adorno pointed out that despite dynamism and growth of production signs of a static situation were nevertheless to be observed. This applied to production relations, which were no longer just a matter of property but also one of administration including the role of the state (see Theodor Adorno's introductory lecture at the XVI Congress of German sociologists: "Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft?" Ibid., S. 12‑26).

[8]  Adorno's views "give serious ground for wondering whether Adorno takes into account social parameters for any other order apart from bourgeois society—otherwise his view of 'sociality' would have been far richer and would have included not only 'horizontal' but also 'vertical' sections of history: then not the capitalist form of social development would have provided the model for socium . . . but rather all human history taken as a whole." (Y. Davydov, "Negative Dialectics of Adorno's 'Negative Dialectics' ", Sovietskaya muzyka (Soviet Music), No. 8, 1969, p. 114).

[9]  "From now on music is not capable of anything other than the embodiment within its own structure of social antinomies, which in their turn bear the blame for its isolation. The more deeply music is able to imprint in its forms the force of these contradictions and the need for their social resoluton, and the more clearly it expresses in the antinomies of its own formal language the disastrous state of society, using the medium of suffering to call for change, the finer music is." (Quotation taken from D. Zoltai, op. cit., p. 100.) The reader should not be misled by these words concerning the need to resolve contradictions. This need is envisaged in the form of perpetuated suffering and the "transcendence of despair".

[10]  The vulgar interpretation of Marx's views provides the substance of "negative dialectics" and the set of slogans and principles which made its appearance in certain parts of the Third World under the heading "philosophy of negation".

[11]  Y. Davydov, Sovietskaya musyka, No. 8, Moscow, 1969, pp. 103‑04.

[12]  Herbert Marcuse, One‑Dimensional Man, Boston, 1968, pp. X‑XI.

[13]  It was not without cause that Jürgen Habermas suggested that the approach to the Great Refusal as a theoretical principle was the result of delusion on the part of Marcuse's supporters and critics and, incidentally, the lack of clarity characteristic of the "negative dialectician's" exposition of his views. The Great Refusal is no more than the expression of a specific orientation but by no means a theoretical standpoint. (See J. Habermas, Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse (Answers to Herbert Marcuse), Frankfurt am Main, 1968.)

SOURCE: Batalov, E[duard]. The Philosophy of Revolt (Criticism of Left Radical Ideology), translated by Katherine Judelson (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), excerpts from Chapter II, Criticism of “Contemporary Society” and “Negative Dialectics”, pp. 84-91, 94-97.

Note: Footnotes have been converted to endnotes and numbered for convenience of reference. —RD

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