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6 August 2014

Forgetting Theodor Adorno (11 September 1903 - 6 August 1969)

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno died 45 years ago today. He was a sociologist, cultural critic, musicologist, and a leading member of the Frankfurt School. He is associated with critiques of modern society, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the culture industry, and 64 years on he still taken seriously by Left-wing academics in Western universities. His writings strongly influenced the development of the New Left.

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund—also called Theodor Ludwig Adorno-Wiesengrund, Theodor Ludwig Adorno-Wellington, and Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno—was born on 11 September 1903, son of a singer and a wine merchant. His mother was a Corsican, and professed Catholicism; his father was an assimilated Jew who had converted to Protestantism. Said to have been a child prodigy, he enjoyed playing Beethoven on the piano aged 12. He also excelled in school, gratuading at the top of his class. Unfortunately, he was quickly led astray, for he had not even yet obtained his diploma when György Lucáks and Ernst Bloch poisoned his mind with their Marxist theories.

Adorno's hatred for German nationalism was like a reflex, and he was bitter at how promptly Germany's intelligentsia—including Max Weber, Max Scheler, Georg Simmel, and Siegfried Kracauer—pronounced itself in support of the Great War. His disillusionment was echoed by Jewish intellectuals who would later become Adorno's collaborators: Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Ernst Bloch.

Through his father's links with the Karplus family, who owned a factory in Berlin, Adorno met his future wife, Margaret, known as "Gretel". She facilitated valuable contacts from her intellectual circle, which included Benjamin, Bloch, Brecht, and Marcuse. He, however, would not put a wedding ring on her finger for fourteen years.

In keeping with this intellectual proclivities, Adorno's musical tastes were firmly with the classical avantgarde: he attended performances by Schönberg, Schreker, Stravinsky, Bartók, Busoni, Delius, and Hindemith. While still in school, he went to study composition at the Hoch Conservatory, where he took private lessons with Bernhard Sekles and Eduard Jung.

By this time he'd made friends with Kracauer, and the two would read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, an experience that profoundly impacted the young man. The two would then move on to Hegel and Kierkegaard as Adorno began his higher education at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. During this period, Adorno would start publishing concert reviews and his own musical compositions for relevant journals. Not an easy man to please, however, he would both support the avantgarde and grumble about the deficiencies of musical modernity. In particular, he took exception to Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, which he dubbed "a dismal Bohemian prank". Schönberg, on the other hand, would be his idol and around the time he completed his doctorate (on Edmund Husserl), in the Summer of 1924, he impurtuned Alban Berg, Schönberg's disciple and collaborator, after a performance. By this time he had already met Max Horkheimer, a self-described communist, who in turn introduced him to Friedrich Pollock, another communist.

On the back of his chat with Berg, Adorno quickly wormed himself into the Second Viennese School circle. Moving to Vienna, he took atonal lessons with his new friend, and made new ones, including the by then former commissar of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, György Lucáks, who had developed Leninist ideas and navigated the outermost fringes of the Left.

Adorno then travelled for a while, before returning to Frankfurt and hunkering down for his Habilitation. In 1927 he presented it to Cornelius, who had also been his doctoral supervisor, but the latter found Adorno a copycat and sent him packing. In addition to carbon-copying Cornelius, Adorno had spoken of the pseudoscientific theories of Sigmund Freud as a "sharp weapon" against the deification of organic nature. We can see where this was going.

Undeterred, Adorno threw himself into music. He succeeded in having one of his pieces performed in Berlin. He also became active in the editorial committee of Musikblätter des Anbruch, and decided to use the publication as a battering ram against Pfitzner and Strauss. So fervid a proponent of radical modernism was he, that even Hindemith, Stravinsky, and the whole dodecaphonic project now seemed tame. Music had to be exploded completely.

But Adorno once again changed his mind and made his philosophical pursuits top priority. Soon he was working on a new, renegade Habilitation, away from academic supervision. His friends, Professor Paul Tillich, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer backed the outlaw, however, and, on their word, the University of Frankfurt awared Adorno the venia legendi in 1931.

By this time, Horkheimer had assumed the directorship of the Institute of Social Research, which attracted a number of rather odd individuals, including Leo Löwenthal, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse—the so-called "Frankfurt School". Adorno fell in with that lot very quickly, and, while still not officially a member, he accepted an invitation to speak. He, however, was a difficult man even at the best of times, and he horrified his audience by directly contradicting Horkheimer's programme, mapped out a year earlier. Nevertheless, he managed to get several of his essays published in the group's journal, where he growled about contemporary music and vituperated against Jazz. His work was steeped in Marxist terminology, and, after a while, Adorno abandoned any pretence to a neutral sociology, opting instead for ideology.

Before long, however, the National Socialists were in power, and Horkheimer's Marxist and mostly Jewish-led group came under suspicion. The Institute's offices were searched by the criminal police, and Adorno's house was ransacked as well. Adorno's right to teach was revoked, and his membership application in the Reich Chamber of Literature summarily denied. The government's view was that frequent involvement in subversive activities, including communism and other radical movements, made Jews a threat to Germany. His path thus blocked, Adorno chose exile.

Unable to transfer his Habilitation to the University of Vienna, Adorno settled in Britain, where he Academic Assistance Council helped him register as a mature student at Merton College. Relations with Horkheimer, by then in New York, were strained, and the Institute's journal rejected several of his essays, on one of which he'd laboured for years. Eventually, upon seeing Horkeimer's book of aphorisms, he copied the idea and wrote his own. This would later be published as Minima Moralia, which can be read online for free.

After four years in Britian, Horkheimer wheedled for Adorno a position at the Princeton Radio Project, under the leadership of Paul Lazarsfeld. Adorno grabbed the opportunity and travelled to New Jersey. Lazarsfeld, however, had been trained in mathematics, and was eager to get additional funding for his operations. This relied on being able to produce quantifiable results with a practical, commercial application. Adorno, on the other hand, disdained quantitative research, and sought to conduct his studies on the sociology of broadcast music his own way, using subjective methods and theory. After two years heading the music division and labouring on studies and essays, Lazarsfeld thought it best not to mention Adorno's work in his renewed funding application (the first one had been turned down). Lazarsfeld groaned at Adorno's prose style and complained about his "lack of discipline in . . . presentation". In view of this, Horkheimer found Adorno a permanent place at the Institute.

Adorno followed Horkheimer to California, where they joined other émigrés. There, these fellows worked jointly in a revisionist history of the Enlightenment, which would take them six years to publish in book form as Dialectic of Enlightenment. The text a blackly pessimistic Marxian reflection, marred by Freudian psychanalysis and a needlessly frustrating prose style, argues that the Enlightenment simply resulted in new systems of domination.

By this time, Horkheimer, along with Adorno, had for some time been preoccupied with authoritarianism, fascism, and anti-Semitism, having both written on this topic. Wagner, Nietzsche, and Hitler, published in 1947, was Adorno's first volley.

With funding from Nevitt Sandford's Public Opinion Group and the American Jewish Committee, Adorno was put in charge of a study of the so-called "authoritarian personality", which resulted in an eponymous book published in 1950. As may be imagined, study was biased, methodologically flawed, and pseudoscientific (it relied on Freudian psychoanalysis, for starters[1]); its conclusions, fixed in advance, were strained and counter-intuitive. Kevin MacDonald points out that hierarchical harmony and traditional family life, was treated as fascistic, while dysfunction was treated as healthy. Nevertheless, it was widely promoted, to the point that it is still stocked by university libraries and included in curricular reading lists, where it is treated as a serious work.

As would other work on anti-Semitism coming from the Institute, Adorno's has been criticised by MacDonald as being tendentious and one-sided, in that it refuses to examine inter-ethnic conflicts of interests as a source of inter-ethnic hostility; anti-Semitism is regarded simplistically as a form of insanity or psychic dysfunction, whereas its causes, he argues, are multi-faceted.

Adorno loved American egalitarianism and openness, but hated American culture, so he gladly returned to Germany in 1949, but not before penning a few atonal compositions. If life is too short, suffice it to say that Adorno's music simply aped Schönberg's and they are rarely if ever performed. If only he'd stuck to music!

Yet, if The Authoritarian Personality was noxious, it was not until Adorno had installed himself as a professor at Frankurt University, as well as a guru in the repatriated Institute, that he really began to swing the intellectual wrecking ball against the country of his birth. His devoted wife, a trained chemist with a formidable brain, who had ran a company before the war and given him access to elite intellectual circles in the first place, was given secretarial duties.

Despite the ruins and the homicidal American efforts to denazify and impose American-style liberalism[2], Adorno detected Nazism everywhere in Germany, insisting, even twenty years after the end of the war and the death or execution of all the top Nazis, that it still survived under the surface, wherefrom it could break out again at any moment. Therefore, from the 1950s onwards he set about systematically to demolish traditional German culture through critical sociology and philosophy. The German mind had to be completely destroyed and remade, "emancipated" or averruncated from the past, in line with the Freudo-Marxian principles of Critical Theory. Two influential essays would be published: The Meaning of Working through the Past (1959) and Education after Auschwitz (1966). Adorno, who said that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry, was rebuked for exploiting Auschwitz in service of his "absolute negativity".

Various tetchy essays harrumphing about mass culture would also appear during the 1950s, and a full-length treatment would follow in the 1960s. These make a few valid—albeit trivial—observations, arguing that capitalism uses industrially produced, low quality mass culture to pacify, dumb-down, and keep the populace under its thumb. Some modern theoreticians have criticised this analysis as simplistic and no longer pay them any attention. Besides, Henry Ford, the American industrialist, had already advanced a comparable argument nearly three decades earlier, so it was nothing new; Adorno's was simply a more elaborate effort in the Freudo-Marxian idiom.[3]

During this period, Adorno also became a public intellectual, scribbling for the press, opining on the radio, and pontificating in panel discussions. In 1958 he also assumed command of the Institute, which he had been co-directing for some time. He even cultivated contacts with Suhrkamp Verlag, Hermann Hesse's publisher, and not only threw his weight around to get his chums' work into print, but this vain Frankfurter, whose writing native German speakers already found turgid and sludgelike, also convinced them to publish some of his own.[4] Besides influencing New Left, his demoralising ideas laid the foundations for political correctness in Germany and elsewhere.

This frantic activity was not without consequences, however, and by the late 1960s his attacks on "authoritarianism" came back to bite his fundament. Any illusions he may have had of ending his days as a bourgeois academic, subverting culture peacefully as theoretician from the safety of his office or the classroom, were violently shattered by the 1968 student revolts, fuelled by Marxian theories and anti-authoritarian ideas. He found his lectures disrupted and, on one occasion, at a lecture about the dialects of the object and the subject, standing at a lectern, surrounded by three female bare-breasted student protesters scattering petals over his pate. The blackboard behind him accused him of complicity with capitalism. His loss of authority was complete, and, after fleeing the venue, he was forced to cancel all his seminars but one. Poetic justice at last.

By the Summer of 1969, these shenanigans had worn the bald man down, and he retired to Zermatt, a mountaineering and ski resort in the Swiss Alps. Alasa, rather than health, he found a heart attack. The man who'd made a career out of destruction died on the anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic blast.


[1] Cf. Kevin MacDonald, "Freud's Follies", Skeptic, 4(3),  94–99. Reprinted in The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, Michael Shermer (Ed.). ABC-CLIO, December 2002.

[2] Cf. Savitri Devi, Gold in the Furnace: Reflections on Post-War Germany (Atlanta, GA: Savitri Devi Archive, 2008).

[3] Both Adorno and Ford complained about low quality mass produced culture, and both saw it being used by a controlling elite as a method for shaping general attitudes. The difference is that Ford's writing was crude and moralistic, and that bogeyman for him was not capitalism generally but Jewish capitalists. See: "Jewish Supremacy in Motion Picture World" The International Jew vol 2 (Dearborn, MI: Dearborn Publishing Co., 1921), and "Jewish Jazz Becomes Our National Music", The International Jew vol 3 (Dearborn, MI: Dearborn Publishing Co., 1921).

[4] Specifically: Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900; Siegfried Kracauer's writings, and his own Minima Moralia (1951).


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