Unspeakable Utopia: Art and the Return to the Theological in the Marxism of Adorno and Horkheimer

By Hughes, John | Cross Currents, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Unspeakable Utopia: Art and the Return to the Theological in the Marxism of Adorno and Horkheimer


Hughes, John, Cross Currents


Introduction: The Problem of Culture

A spectre has haunted the Marxist tradition from its origins to the present day: the spectre of theology. Born of the quasi-theological ideas of German Romanticism and Idealism, Marxism has always contained traces of this parentage. Most obviously its philosophy of history resembles Hegel's account of world history as the philosophical outworking of the Christian hope for redemption. Yet even before Marx, in Hegel's supercession of the theological by philosophy, and then in the Young Hegelians' turning philosophy against theology, we can detect an hostility to the theological as mythic and ideological in its support for the status quo. In the Theses on Feuerbach of 1848, Marx broke with the Young Hegelians, radicalising their critique to include philosophy itself. The true motive force of history, Marx argued, is the economic material 'base'; while all cultural productions belong to the 'superstructure', which at most mirrors these economic realities, or at worst justifies them through ideology. From then on he sought to purge himself of any traces of the theological, disavowing his own earlier 'utopian naivete', and that of the Christian Socialists. From this beginning, Marx's ideas have been applied in undoubtedly cruder ways than he intended. Hence Marxism has been accused of taking a reductive, dismissive approach to cultural phenomena. Works of art, great philosophies and religious faiths were 'decoded' as expressions of class interest. Kafka was 'typically bourgeois'; Christianity the faith one would expect from former slaves and disenfranchised artisans, and so on.

The Frankfurt school--most famously Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno--is of interest in that, while standing within the Marxist tradition, it repudiated these reductionist tendencies towards cultural phenomena. (1) Inasmuch as the Marxist polemic against culture began as a critique of theology, which was then extended to all ideology as 'priestly' deception, so the Frankfurt's school's rehabilitation of the cultural can be seen as a return to the theological. If this is the case, the Frankfurt school authors certainly did not make it completely explicit, and continued to show a suspicion towards many forms of religion. (2) Nevertheless such a return can be detected in the views of Frankfurt school authors on aesthetics and on scientific rationality. In these two areas the value of the cultural and with it the theological is rediscovered as the source of political resistance and hope, although, as is particularly well illustrated by the discussion of aesthetics, this can only be a negative hope. We shall consider these two areas before discussing the more explicit references to religion, the 'Jewish' critique of Christianity, and a few abiding questions that the theologian might want to put to the Marxists.

The 'Autonomy' of Aesthetics

'Art, since it became autonomous, has preserved the utopia that evaporated from religion.' (3)

The Frankfurt school's interest in aesthetics goes back before its foundation. Horkheimer studied philosophy of art under Hans Cornelius in Frankfurt, writing his thesis on Kant's Critique of Judgment, while Adorno studied music in Vienna under Berg. It is unsurprising then, that they did not follow the 'orthodox' Soviet Marxist aesthetic tradition of Lenin and Zhdanov, which rejected the claims of modernist aesthetics. Against the 'bourgeois' idea of 'disinterestedness' in art, the Soviet tradition had encouraged the political commitment of Tendenzliteratur, of 'realistic' art, which accurately described the social relations of the people, against the 'subjectivism' of modernist art from Dostoevsky through to Joyce and Kafka. The Frankfurt school's break with even the more moderate sympathisers of this Soviet tradition can be seen in Adorno's discussions of Lukacs and Brecht. Both writers were far from simple ideologues of the Soviet system. …

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