The Late Frankfurt School on Theory and Praxis (circa 1970)

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

The student revolts of the late 1960s and 1970s brought the tension between theory and practice to a head within the Frankfurt School. Two starkly opposed positions emerged, represented on the one hand by Herbert Marcuse and on the other by Theodor Adorno.

The students and Marcuse advocated for the “unity” of theory and practice. “The petrification of Marxian theory violates the very principle which the New Left proclaims,” Marcuse wrote in his Counterrevolution and Revolt in 1972: “the unity of theory and practice.” (34) As Marcuse explained, “A theory which has not caught up with the practice of capitalism cannot possibly guide the practice aiming at the abolition of capitalism.” (277)

By contrast, confronted with student protest, Adorno almost retreated to theory, crankily debunking the appeal to praxis. “Whenever I have directly intervened in a narrow sense and with a visible practical influence, it happened only through theory,” Adorno emphasized in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” in 1968-69. (277)

Adorno sought to underscore the dialectical—and thus negative or discontinuous—relationship between theory and praxis, but in doing so, Adorno disparaged, or at the very least sounded like he was disparaging, praxis. He attacked the idea that Marx was praxis oriented. Marx’s Capital, Adorno wrote, had “no program for action.” (277) “The theory of surplus value does not tell how one should start a revolution.” (277) “In regard to praxis generally,” Adorno added, “the anti-philosophical Marx hardly moves beyond the philosopheme […]” (277). And in his own key works, including the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, but also more politically engaged texts like the book on Authoritarian Personality, Adorno contends that he too was not oriented to praxis: those writings, Adorno underscores, “were written without practical intentions.” (277)

Adorno attempts to render dialectical the relationship between theory and praxis: the two are neither unified as one, nor distinct as two, but instead, are in a relation of “discontinuity.” (276) In the words of Adorno, targeting Marcuse, “The dogma of the unity of theory and praxis, contrary to the doctrine on which it is based, is undialectical: it underhandedly appropriates simple identity where contradiction alone has the chance of becoming productive.” (277)

In other words, theory does not imply praxis. Praxis is not the application of theory. Neither is subordinate to the other. It is only in their “polar relationship” that they can be productive.

In this, Adorno and Max Horkheimer agreed. The “core” of dialectical theory, Horkheimer argued earlier in Eclipse of Reason (1947), is “the basic difference between the ideal and the real, between theory and practice.” (130) And Horkheimer too positioned himself, even in that essay from 1946, as weary of praxis. “This age needs no added stimulus to action. Philosophy must not be turned into propaganda, even for the best possible purpose. The world has more than enough propaganda,” Horkheimer wrote. (130) As if to dot the i and cross the t, he added: “The concentrated energies necessary for reflection must not be prematurely drained into the channels of activistic or nonactivistic programs. / Today even outstanding scholars confuse thinking with planning.” (130)

To be sure, in 1968-69, Adorno criticizes the pristine Kantian notion of theory—and refuses to “refract[] theory through the archbourgeois primacy of practical reason proclaimed by Kant and Fichte.” (261) He protests that he does not seek to subsume praxis to theory. Yet despite all that, Adorno evinces in his Marginalia a certain, unstated preference for theory. He criticizes those who focus on the “effectiveness here and now” of theory. (260) He chides the call for action, so often associated with bloody reality. (260-61). He feels the need to defend against students’ call for praxis. (263) He writes at length of the “error of the primacy of praxis.” (268) At times, Adorno sounds hostile, even aggressive, towards praxis:

[Praxis] becomes in its turn ideology. The question “what is to be done?” as an automatic reflex to every critical thought before it is fully expressed, let alone comprehended. Nowhere is the obscurantism of the latest hostility to theory so flagrant. It recalls the gesture of someone demanding your papers. (276)

The question “what is to be done?”, in effect, interpellates the subject as a police man would, “demanding your papers”  (think here of the sharp contrast with Althusser). Adorno concludes that his own interventions operate “only through theory.” (277) And Marx himself, Adorno states in closing his article, “by no means surrendered himself to praxis.” (278) The notion of “surrendering” oneself to praxis sounds like a danger. And that danger is precisely how Adorno concludes his piece:

[Praxis] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what is being criticized; no critical theory can be practiced in particular detail without overestimating the particular, but without the particularity it would be nothing. This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows. (278)

By contrast, Marcuse not only argued for the unity of theory and practice—one that admittedly “is never immediate,” but necessary—he also advocated strenuously for a radical New Left movement both inspired by and inspiring to the students in revolt. Marcuse called for a revolution that involved “a radical transformation of the needs and aspirations themselves, cultural as well as material; of consciousness and sensibility; of the work process as well as leisure.” (17) Marcuse called for “new relationship between the sexes, between the generations, between men and women and nature.” (17) Marcuse demanded “a new sexual morality, the liberation of women” to fight against the material conditions of capitalism. (17) This was a New Left that would be built by freeing Marxism of its dogmatic interpretations and updating Marxian thought to address the new conditions of late capitalism.

“Marxian theory remains the guide of practice,” Marcuse declared in 1972, almost snubbing Adorno’s Marginalia. In all this, Marcuse turned to and sought to empower the younger generations.

The sharp contrast between Adorno and Marcuse leaves little doubt that it was Marcuse that Adorno was aiming at in his reticence and resistance to the excesses of praxis—and no doubt that it was for this reason that Marcuse became the champion thinker of the Frankfurt School among the students who rose up in 1968 and thereafter.

One Comment

  1. thank you for this wonderful piece. I wonder how much Marcuse in reality — shall we say, in praxis — actually disagreed with Adorno’s view that the relationship between theory and practice/praxis is in fact dialectical, and that the unity is in the actual embodiment of the theory in practice, which is always partial, incomplete, and contradictory precisely because it’s occurring in the real world rather than on paper. Maybe the synthesis of the 2 is in Angela Davis’ oeuvre – both her theorizing and praxis given that she studied with both and Adorno actually wrote a wonderful recommendation letter for her. It’s also clear that Adorno had the “luxury” of retreating from the messiness of activism, whereas so many marginalized people of color or in the Global South have no opportunity for that so, no matter how imperfectly or messily, have to find a way to make the dialectic work for them, not just negatively but positively as well. I think the work of the Zapatista movement is the best example of how the dialectic between theory and practice can be transversal, producing new theory and action that moves the struggle forward.

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