Adorno For Revolutionaries?

David Black

In Adorno for Revolutionaries Ben Watson attempts to show how Theodore Adorno, starting with the commodity form, outlined a revolutionary musicology, a passageway between subjective feeling and objective conditions. In extending the analysis beyond the confines of ‘highbrow’ classical music Watson aims to ‘detonate the explosive core of Adorno’s method’. – Editors.

Ben Watson, Adorno For Revolutionaries, Unkant Publishers, London 2011.

‘It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads…’

Theodore Adorno


In 1968, Tuli Kuferberg of the New York band, the Fugs, in a détournement of Plato, intoned, ‘When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake’.  In Britain, in 1969, Thunderclap Newman had a number one hit with  ‘Speedy’ John Keene’s song, ‘Something In the Air’, the lyrics of which went: ‘Hand out the arms and ammo. We’re going to blast our way through here. We’ve got to get together sooner or later. Because the revolution’s here, and you know it’s right’. Pete Townshend, as producer and bass player on the record, later saw fit to reaffirm his own sceptical reformism with the Who single, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. Almost inevitably, ‘Something In the Air’ would end up as the soundtrack for a British Airways TV ad (minus the incendiary lyric content just quoted). In retrospect, ‘Something In the Air’, like (to give just one more example) the Situationist-inspired anthems on the Jefferson Airplane album, ‘Volunteers’, could be seen as merely reflecting the ‘naïvity’ of ‘revolutionary youth’ whose illusions were as much fuelled by Spaghetti Westerns as by Che Guevara’s martyrdom . But many musicians were, if not radical in the strict, political sense, totally radical in their resistance to producing dull, conformist music to satisfy a ‘popular taste’ that was really a function of  the hidden persuaders of advertising and conformist mass media propaganda.

Did the new musical sensibilities and practices represent new anti-capitalist aspirations, or was it a case of new styles and patterns of consumption just reflecting the social and political changes?  After the counter-culture of the 1960s ‘revolutionized’ the ‘music industry’, universities assigned increasing resources for research into ‘fan culture’, ‘youth identity formation’ and the ‘sociology of Rock’.  Sociology and academic ‘cultural studies’, like market research, helped provide big business with important information and analysis for targeting potential consumers. Strangely enough, the sociologists, musicologists and social anthropologists themselves tended to be of the New Left that had emerged out of anti-racist and anti-war struggles, the Student Revolt and the Women’s Liberation movement. But in the 1970s, out of the ‘Pop Sociology’ of the New Left academies of post-structuralism and the Althusserian ‘cultural turn’, came Simon Frith’s seminal book, The Sociology of Rock,  published in 1978. Frith is today the eminence grise of what Ben Watson calls the ‘Popsicle Academy’, whose leading lights are assessed and duly trashed in Watson’s book of essays, collective titled, Adorno For Revolutionaries.

Watson sees a fairly straight line running from the post-structuralist academicians of the 1970s to the present day postmoderns, who love pop and consumption as much as they hate ‘whingeing’ about globalization and the tenuous ‘triumph’ of commodification in all areas of life. Postmodern intellectuals, he says, ‘who have lost their faith in Marxism, but think that  listening to the Beatles instead of Beethoven constitutes some kind of rebellion, do not like to be reminded of the limits of their playpen’ —  a fact borne out in Watson’s entertaining accounts of rows he has gotten himself into at various conferences (Watson is a journalist, critic, ‘Zappologist’ and broadcaster on London’s Resonance FM, not an academic; as a founder of the Association of Musical Marxists, his political inspirations include not only Guy Debord and Theodore Adorno, but also Tony Cliff and Trotsky).


As Watson shows, contrary to postmodernist myth, Adorno was neither a defender of ‘high culture’ nor a detractor of ‘popular taste’; rather he wished to expose the mechanization and standardization in both classical and popular music. ‘Pop’, Watson points out, is not a musical form. Unlike ‘jazz’ or ‘folk’, ‘Pop’ does not describe anything, but is merely a speculative category about what sells in large amounts. The pop sociologists exclusively focus on ‘consumers’ and familiar tales of ‘rags-to-riches’ in subaltern social groups. Dissolving issues of genuine musical innovation into classifications of particular ‘styles’, the pop sociologists ignore the plain fact that that ‘Pop’ is meaningless without its binary opposite: what is ‘unpopular’ and ‘avant guard’. In the real world, where abstract antinomies are in continual interpenetration and transformation, postmodernism erroneously conflates the binary of ‘avant guard’ and ‘popular’ with another binary: ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. In fact, as Watson points out, all key moments in the development of innovative British music in the 1960s were experienced as interactions between the ‘avant guard’ of British youth and the ‘low’ culture of American Black Music.

Adorno, quoted by Watson, writes:

‘The purity of bourgeois art, hypostatized itself as a world of freedom in contrast to what was happening in the material world, was from the beginning bought with the exclusion of the lower classes – with whose cause, the real universality, art keeps faith precisely by its freedom from the ends of false universality.’

Watson sees in such statements ‘a highly political defence of critical avant guard art – arguing that in attempting to be free in its own terms, refusing the temptation to feed the market… art does more to help the cause of the proletariat than by seeking to be “effective” in a commodity world’. The work of art is only ‘truthful’ by relating to its commodity role. Therefore, claims Watson, Adorno’s ideas ‘explain what was so valuable about Punk’, which ‘brought discussions of record contracts and money and manipulation into pop music’.

Adorno says: ‘The distinction between entertainment and autonomous art points to a qualitative difference that ought to be retained, providing one does not overlook the hollowness of the concept of serious art or the validity of unregulated impulses in low-brow art.’ Watson argues that unleashing the unregulated impulses can sabotage ‘low’ art’s subservience to commodification. According to Watson, against ‘lifestyle’ marketing,

‘The vibrational universalism craved by every conscientious musician is the revolutionary Aufhebung of this material homogeneity. This is how Hendrix playing “Johnny B. Goode” could simultaneously be rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues, political protest, electronic composition, funk, free improvisation, mass orgy, Situationist évènement and pub rock.’

Many Adorno scholars might see in Adorno for Revolutionaries an attempt to conjure up, in the manner of a Philip K. Dick fantasy, a spectral Adorno, who never existed, but ought to have done: one who, instead of calling the cops on his students for taking his critique of capitalism too seriously, ought to have joined the boshevised New Left and moved from ‘permanent critique’ to permanent revolution; one who in his last years (Adorno died in 1969) ought to have supplemented his musical diet of avant-guard Serialism with a stiff dose of Krautrock or Free Jazz. Watson however, argues that in the artistic sphere Adorno’s analysis ‘runs parallel’ to Trotsky’s take on Marx’s ‘revolution in permanence’; like bourgeois revolutions, developments in artistic production create opportunities for autonomous and independent actions initiated by the ‘vanguard’. It is certainly the case, as Watson shows, that Adorno was something of closet Leninist; and like Lenin, a ‘materialist’ critic  of Hegel’s ‘idealism’.


The methodologies of the pop sociologists originated in a ‘cultural materialism’ which denounced what it saw as ‘essentialism’ and ‘idealism’ in a futile search for ‘authenticity’. But the pop sociologists are, in Watson’s terms, really ‘idealist’ Kantians, attempting to fit social phenomena into predetermined categories as ‘consumers’ of ‘styles’.

If, in what follows, I digress somewhat with some strictly ‘philosophical’ observations, I do so in order to address one of Watson’s key concerns: how to overcome the narrow individualist subjectivity of bourgeois culture with socially liberating creativity (which for him is nourished in such fields as Free Improvisation as well as class struggle). In the Kantian world rent by the divide between subject and object, we only perceive the world as ‘prisoners of our own constitution’. However, in Adorno’s interpretation (in ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy’, in Hegel; Three Studies), in the Kantian transcendental synthesis there is already the notion that the world of appearances is not the ultimate. Hegel adds to this notion the idea that by conceptually determining the limits of subjectivity we can pass beyond it towards objectivity in the sense of Plato’s objective Reason, whose heritage Hegel ‘chemically compounded’ with the subjective Kantian philosophy of transcendentalism. As Adorno puts it, ‘Although the structure of Hegel’s system would certainly collapse without [the Absolute Idea], the dialectic’s experiential content does not come from this principle but from the resistance of the other to identity’. But Adorno is enough of a Nietzschean to reject totality as system building: ‘Universal history must be both construed and denied’.

In contrast, Gillian Rose, in Hegel Contra Sociology, shows the difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating form and content in Hegel’s dialectic, i.e. of separating the dialectical method from the universal form which unifies theory and practice in the Absolute Idea. Rose argues that with the concept of the Absolute removed, ‘dialectics’ regresses to the Kantian formal method for justifying pre-supposed  conclusions, whether by the analytical method of imposing dialectical categories on phenomena through abstraction, or the synthetic method of subsuming contradictions under a ‘dialectical unity’. Hegel in breaking the limits of Kantian subjectivity, sees that behind the intellect of the Spirit lies objective, empirical reality and the collective mind of the social whole. But if Hegel’s dialectic is wrongly interpreted to mean that it is Spirit that creates the world, then such an idealism can be inverted as a metaphysical materialism, with ‘matter’ serving as the first principle from which all is derived, and economics serving as the source of all social movement. In that case subjectivity is abolished under the banner of ‘dialectical materialism’ – an inverted idealist theology, of use only to ideologists and ‘believers’.

Raya Dunayevskaya points out in her 1974 paper for the Hegel Society of America (published in the collection The Power of Negativity) that Adorno, writing in 1958 in ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy’, insists that ‘Subject-object cannot be dismissed as a mere extravagance of logical absolutism’; for if genuine cognition isn’t just a photocopy theory of reality then it ‘must be the subject’s objectivity’. However six year later, in Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno argues that the ‘utopian aspect’ of Hegel’s thought had been negated by such horrors as Auschwitz. Adorno, who calls his own philosophy ‘negative dialectics’ because he is so opposed to identifying human beings with fetishized, inhuman social systems, takes Hegel’s concept of absolute negativity (the negation of the negation) as a final affirmation of identity philosophy. The critique of commodity fetishism is extended to the ‘fetishism of the concept’ in such a way that the subjectivity is barely conceptualized at all, and least of all as the proletariat. Adorno, in tackling what he takes to be the ‘theoretical inadequacies of Hegel and Marx’ seeks ‘to free dialectics from such affirmative traits’ as Hegel’s ‘negation of the negation’ and implicitly Marx’s ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. In Dunayevskaya’s view, for Adorno, ‘the next step was irresistible, the substitution of a permanent critique, not alone for absolute negativity, but also for “permanent revolution” .’

For Gillian Rose also (though from a different, not entirely Marxist  perspective), the shortcomings of Adorno’s critique of Hegel are related to how he, as a Marxist, views subjectivity: ‘[In Adorno’s work] Marx’s theory of value is generalised as “reification” with minimal reference to the actual productive relations between men, and without any identification of a social subject’ (Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science p. 141). Such observations would suggest that Adorno’s retreat from revolutionary theory was philosophical rather than just due to the world-weary ‘cynicism’ and ‘pessimism’ that Watson thinks defined his last years.


Adorno assesses great bourgeois works of art and philosophies as expressions of social truth and even ‘scientific’ knowledge, however unintentionally. As he shows, the most interesting works of music are those composed and performed as reactions to changes in mass production, reproduction and marketing. But although Adorno sees mechanization and standardization in both classical and popular music as a direct result of capitalistic production he never examines the work process itself. Watson says of Marx’s debt to Hegel, ‘Without Hegel’s dialectical logic and its assault on the subject/object antinomy, the humanist polemic of Capital becomes inaccessible’. This is very true, but Adorno, like many theorists, at times seems stuck in the realm of circulation and exchange-value, and ignores value-production itself. Adorno does explain forms of ‘bourgeois’ music in relation to the categories of production; relating for example the division of labour in the symphony orchestra to the capitalist division of labour in industry. But Adorno does not relate proletarian labour or class struggle  —  through the subjectivity of the labourer — to musical production. Nor, crucially, as  Rose argues in The Melancholy Science, is Adorno ever able ‘to distinguish between the political effects of different forms of popular art’. Therefore, Adorno’s inability to see Jazz as a musical object worthy of study in itself is not surprising.

Nevertheless, Adorno’s work is, despite the shortcomings of its philosophical underpinnings, certainly worthy of study in itself; as is the music Watson writes about from his Adorno-inspired standpoint. For those who have the ears to hear I strongly recommend Adorno For Revolutionaries as a substantial and very readable effort.



Originally appeared in The Hobgoblin (London), organ of the London Corresponding Committee, an affiliate of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization


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