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‘The world spirit on the fins of a rocket’

‘The world spirit on the fins
of a rocket’

Adorno’s critique of progress
Michael Lowy and Eleni Varikas

The ideology of progress, born (in its modern guise)
during the Enlightenment, finds its culminating
philosophical expression in Hegel’s conception of
history. Here, everything that happens marks a further
step in mankind’s march towards freedom: watching
Napoleon ride into his home town, Hegel is convinced
that he has witnessed ‘the world spirit [Weltgeist]
mounted on horseback’.

The thought of Theodor Adorno is at the furthest
possible remove from such optimism and progressivism.

For Adorno, there was no possibility of identifying with
the all-conquering advance of Reason. Writing during
the Second World War, he parodied Hegel’s metaphor in
a bitterly ironic passage of Minima Moralia: he too had
seen a ‘world spirit’ , he said, but it was mounted not on
horseback but ‘on the fins of a rocket’. , The history of
the twentieth century was a sufficiently striking
refutation of Hegel’ s philosophy.

Apart from a lecture given in 1962, Adorno never
offered a ‘systematic’ or detailed account of his views on
progress. Nonetheless, the critique of ‘progressivist’

illusion runs right through his work. It is central to his
historical vision and decisively important in the
development of his ideas on art, literature and culture.

The critique of progress was, of course, already a
familiar theme in Central European culture and
philosophy. Adorno’s reflections on the topic draw on a
large stock of (often bitter) polemic against bourgeois
modernity. They form part of the broad Romantic current
which has flowed through German, and European,
cultural history from the late eighteenth century right up
to the present. Romanticism is to be understood here not
simply as a literary movement, but as a world-view
whose basis is a critique of modern capitalist/industrial
society founded on pre-capitalist social and cultural
values. The two high points of his critique are the
moment of ‘classic’ Romanticism in the early nineteenth

century, and the so-called ‘neo-Romantic’ phase of the
late nineteenth century, which was especially influential
in academic circles. These two moments are of
fundamental significance to Adorno’s view of progress,
though he evidently reinterprets and reworks them in the
terms of a philosophy which remains in the last analysis
wedded to the tradition of the Enlightenment.

Thus Adorno acknowledges the (admittedly partial
and limited) legitimacy of the Romantic critique of
modernity and of the Enlightenment: insofar as it is pure
instrumentality, ‘a mere construction of means, the
Enlightenment is as destructive as its romantic enemies
accuse it of being’ . Even in its most reactionary guise, as
for instance in Catholic reaction, Romanticism justly
criticizes Enlightenment liberalism insofar as the latter
is shown to transmute freedom into its opposite through
the operations of the market economy. 2 In some respects,
Adorno came close to sharing the cultural elitism of the
mandarins of the late-nineteenth-century German
academy, with its hostility to the positivistic and
utilitarian values of a modern mass society dominated by
the market and by technology. This is the case even
though he took radically different positions in his Marxist
social views, his allegiance to aesthetic modernism, and
his rejection of any restoration of the aristocratic
privileges of the past. 3
Such a position may seem to be in contradiction to
Marxism’s faith in progress. But this depends how we
read Marx: and the texts are susceptible of very divergent
interpretations … For Adorno, the Marx of the Critique
of the Gotha Programme is to be understood as rejecting
the view that the doctrine of labour as the sole source of
social wealth necessarily led to an endless growth of well
being: Marx also admitted ‘the possibility of relapse into
barbarism’.4 Such a reading – which is selective, but not
necessarily mistaken – allows Adorno to mitigate the
tensions between his deep and sincere commitment to

Radical Philosophy 70 (March/April 1995)


the Marxist project of social emancipation, and his
sympathy for the cultural critique of progress. His friend
Walter Benjamin had already interpreted Marx along
these lines, and Benjamin’s writings were undoubtedly
the most important and immediate source of Adorno’ s
ideas in this domain. Adorno offers a close reading of
works by two twentieth-century writers, Aldous Huxley
and Oswald Spengler, which he takes to illustrate both
the value and the limitations of such a ‘reactionary’

critique of progress, based upon the values of the past.

In both Minima Moralia and Dialectic of
Enlightenment, Huxley figures – together with Jaspers
and Ortega y Gasset – as a typical exponent of the
‘reactionary critique’ of civilisation, based on nostalgia
for the past and carried out in the name of the defence of
culture. 5 Adorno develops this analysis in an essay
written in 1942 (and collected in Prisms), in which he
assesses the content of Huxley’s Brave New World.

Adorno sees the novel as an expression of the panic
which the intellectual feels when face to face with the
universal and unchallenged sway of the brute mechanism
of market exchange. It is to Huxley’s credit that he
‘makes no concessions to the childish belief that the
alleged excesses of technical civilization will be ironed
out automatically through irresistible progress’: he
‘projects observations of the present state of civilisation
along the lines of its own teleology to the point where its
monstrous nature becomes immediately evident’.

Nonetheless his book is ultimately a failure. It has a
reactionary aspect: Huxley ‘cannot understand the
humane promise of civilisation’ because he does not
recognize that reification has a positive dimension
(however ‘brittle and inadequate’). In his puritanism, he
‘fails to distinguish between the liberation of sexuality
and its debasement’. He betrays his affinity with
romantic philistinism when he opposes man to the
machine and humanity to technology, mistakenly
viewing ‘the limitations imposed by the relations of
production (the enthronement of the productive
apparatus for the sake of profit)’ as ‘properties of the
human and technical productive forces per se’. The book
reveals his unreflecting individualism, latter-day
romanticism and nihilist ethics: it ‘is to be criticised …

for its failure to contemplate a praxis which could
explode the infamous continuum’ from the world of
today to the ‘Brave New World’ it depicts. 6
This is surely an unduly harsh judgement, which
ignores the richness and power of the novel. Indeed, the
premises of the critique seem rather un-Adornian: would
Adorno have charged Beckett or Kafka with failing to
imbue their ideas with the notion of a transforming
praxis? This rather strange article contains a number of



passages which put one in mind more of Lukacs’ s attacks
on the ‘nihilism’ of modern writing than of the literary
aesthetics we associate with the philosopher of negative

It is paradoxical that Adorno should treat Huxley less
sympathetically than he does Spengler. Oswald
Spengler, the ‘Prussian socialist’ (subsequently a
National Socialist), was after all a conservative
ideologue. His sympathies lay uncomplicatedly with the
ruling class, and his philosophy of history underwrites
the legitimacy of the existing order. Like Comte, ‘he
made positivism into metaphysics, subordination to the
given into amor fati, swimming with the stream into
cosmic tact’. Nonetheless, ‘Spengler is one of the
theoreticians of extreme reaction whose critique of
liberalism proved itself superior in many respects to the
progressive one’, for progressive critics never took
seriously the ‘real possibility of a regression into
barbarism’ .7
Adorno regards as unjustified the oblivion into which
the author of The Decline of the West fell following his
death. ‘Spengler found hardly an adversary who was his
equal; his oblivion is the product of evasion.’ To read the
critical literature on him up to 1922 is ‘to see how
completely the German mind collapsed when confronted
with an opponent who seemed to have inherited all the
historical force of its own past’.8 Spengler was acute
enough to perceive ‘the dual character of enlightenment
in the era of universal domination’. His ‘specific
prognoses’ are equally striking: in the arts as in the press,
in warfare as in economics, the state of affairs we know
‘coincides with Spengler’s prognosis clearly enough’.9
Those who oppose him can hardly do so from any
‘blissful confidence’ in ‘the health of culture’: the sole
reply to Spengler will be that uttered by those whom
history throws aside and annihilates, in whose desperate
protest lies ‘the only hope that fate and power will not
have the last word’ . 10
This surprising over-valuation of Spengler may give
us pause, 11 as may the parallel disparagement of Huxley;
but it makes clear Adorno’s readiness to take seriously
the romantic critique of the conformist ideology of
progress. But Adorno altogether rejects the antiEnlightenment premises of that critique, with their
retrogressive and conservative bias. His approach to this
current of thought is very clearly brought out in a fine
passage in Minima Moralia: ‘One of the tasks
confronting thought – and not the least of those tasks – is
to bring into the service of Aujkliiring and of progress all
the reactionary arguments that have been moved against
Western civilisation.’12 The whole of his philosophy of
history, and particularly his meditations on progress, can

be understood as an attempt to realise this programme,
which he restates as follows in his 1962 lecture on
‘Progress’: ‘A theory of progress must acknowledge the
pertinent aspects of invectives against progress, as an
antidote to the mythologies to which it may otherwise
succumb.’ 13
Such an approach implies an attitude towards the past
quite different from that of those romantics who seek to
restore former glories. For Adorno, the point is not to
conserve the past, but to realise the hopes of the past.

This means that whatever survives of the old prebourgeois world is valuable only insofar as it may contain
the germ of the new. 14

A constant tension
It is odd that in considering romantic crItiques of
progress, Adorno confines his attention to those who
have spoken in reactionary, conservative and counterrevolutionary accents. He seems unaware that within this
same cultural milieu, romanticism has spoken with a
revolutionary voice: the voice of Rousseau, Blake, Ernst
Bloch and Waiter Benjamin. Adorno’s neglect of this
revolutionary romantic tradition is all the more surprising
. when we recall that in the development of his own
conception of progress, Benjamin’s work was (despite
the difference between the two men) a co~stant point of

In particular, Adorno was deeply influenced by
Benjamin’s 1940 ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ .

Of particular significance was Thesis VII, in which
Benjamin represents the Angel of History as propelled
towards the future by a storm which drives it away from
Paradise – a storm which piles ruin upon ruin, and whose
name is ‘Progress’. This allegorical figure is reproduced
almost exactly in a passage in Dialectic of
Enlightenment: ‘The angel with the fiery sword who
drove man out of paradise and onto the path of technical
progress is the very symbol of that progress.’ IS
In his 1962 lecture, Adorno refers to Benjamin’s
‘Theses’, praising them for their effective critique of the
notion of ‘progress’ in favour among ‘those who have
been classed (rather too hastily) as politically
progressive’. He aligns himself with Benjamin in a
common refusal to regard the progress of knowledge and
technology as identical with the progress of humanity;
and, like Benjamin, he is convinced that true progress
involves a redemptive moment, even if this now takes a
secular form. But he rejects, as ‘ahistorical theology’,
any direct assimilation of these two moments: as St
Augustine realised long ago, ‘redemption goes hand in
hand with history, and is not to be confused with it.’ 16
In comparison with Benjamin, Adorno takes a

nuanced view of progress, being prepared at times to
acknowledge its positive aspect. However, his views
involve a constant tension. Indeed, his refusal to resolve
this tension is fundamental to his whole approach, which
– consistently with his basic distrust of abstract
conceptualisation – rejects any totalising concept of
progress. His unwillingness to make progress into a
‘conclusive category’ derives from his respect for the
‘dialectical taboo against fetish-concepts’, which
epitomises the self-critical spirit of Aufkliirung to which
despite everything Adorno remains committed. 17
From this standpoint, we can see his writings as
marked not so much by a vacillation between positive
and negative judgements as by a true dialectic which both
draws upon and participates in the dialectic of
Enlightenment. This dialectic is already at work in his
writings of the early 1930s, in the reservations about
Western rationalism that he expresses in ‘The Actuality
of Philosophy’. Of all the inner circle of the Frankfurt
School, Adorno – following Benjamin in this – probably
showed the strongest doubts about the progressive
dynamic of Reason. ls This scepticism receives full
expression in Dialectic of Enlightenment, where progress
appears as the embodiment of progressive domination .

This work was admittedly the result of Adorno’s
collaboration with Horkheimer, in whose subsequent
writings (such as ‘The End of Reason’) this negative
historico-philosophical attitude largely. persists.

Horkheimer, however, was less directly concerned with
the epistemological implications of the critique of
Aufkliirung, whereas for Adorno those implications were
a theme of constant reflection from the 1940s onwards.

Concerns of this kind, which confront philosophy with
the primary task of reflecting upon its own aporia,
provide the framework within which the idea of a
dialectic of progress is developed.

Just as the dialectics of Enlightenment presuppose a
point of view at once internal to and critical of
Aufkliirung, so the dialectics of progress imply a point of
view that criticises the idea of progress without banishing
that idea beyond the conceptual horizon. It is along these
lines that Adorno interprets, and “adapts, Benjamin’s
critique of social-democratic progressivism, according
to which progress (says Benjamin) was the progress ‘of
humanity itself (and not of its capacities and
know ledge)’ . Adorno reads this passage as addressing a
certain conception of progress, rather than as seeking to
banish progress from critical theory.19 Critical theory
cannot do without the idea of progress, which conveys
the hope that ‘things will get better, and one day men
will be able to breathe more freely’. Without progress,
there is no good, and no trace of the good. Or rather,


progress consists in the struggle against the triumph of
ultimate evil, the fight to resist the constant danger of
regression, and the possibility of avoiding complete
disaster. 2o

Reification is forgetting
Underlying both the dialectics of Enlightenment and the
dialectics of progress is an ethical position whose
criterion is neither the degree to which human
understanding advances, nor the emancipatory potential
of that advance, but rather the degree to which this
promise of emancipation has been realised. This refusal
to dissociate progress in knowledge and understanding
from the progress of humanity highlights the ‘double
character’ of a dynamic which ‘has always developed
the potential for freedom simultaneously with the reality
of oppression’ :21 ‘Every progress made by civilisation
has renewed together with domination [the] prospect of
its removal.’ 22
The double character of progress is evident from the
outset in technological and scientific development.

Within any sphere – the introduction of machinery, the
development of communications media, the further
refinement of the division of labour – it is always possible
for progress to become regression. This imbrication of
regressive possibilities within the possibility of progress
is apparent, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, as soon
as we take stock of the technical means that are now at
our disposal.23 If we consider the example of mechanical
reproduction, it is plain that advances in the processes of
production take place at the expense of production
according to need: indeed, the new processes themselves
come to dominate, and need adapts itself to them. Worse
still, in the realm of both cultural and material goods,
progress is regarded not as a matter of how far productive
techniques meet human needs, but as inherent in the
producti ve process itself regardless of what it reproduces.

Technical progress is marked by a modernising spirit
of rational calculation. In consequence, modern societies
have lost something relative to pre-modern ones: there
has been decline and degradation. Under the impress of
technical progress, human gestures have lost any quality
of reticence, circumspection, refinement; experience and
attainment have dwindled and grown desiccated, talent
has degenerated. In a word, progress means that
‘mankind has lost the human dimension of culture’. The
great art of modernism, the work of writers such as
Beckett and Kafka, bears anguished witness to the
declension of human subjectivity in modern life. This is
why Adorno prizes those pre-capitalist survivals which
can still be found in twentieth-century Europe – which,
unlike North America, has not been entirely


‘modernised’. In Germany, for instance, certain cultural
and artistic institutions, such as the academy, the theatre,
museums, remain outside the sway of market
mechanisms: these institutions, the legacy of the
absolutist period, have passed into the control of political
powers which have ‘assured their independence from the
forces that dominate the marketplace, just as the feudal
princes and lords of the nineteenth century did’. In
America, by contrast, the antinomies of progress stand
revealed in all their paradoxical inhumanity: there is a
complete lack of that snobbery towards the
dishonourable element which lies, to the feudal mind, in
the exchange relation, the democratic aspect of the profit
motive is acknowledged, and this ‘contributes to the
maintenance of anti-democracy pure and simple, of
economic injustice, and of human degradation. Nobody
can conceive that goods might exist which cannot be
expressed in terms of their exchange value.’24
Just as reason must fall short of achieving its own
realisation if its emancipatory goals are blocked, so
technological progress, reason’s especial means of
expression, becomes transformed into progressive
domination as soon as it loses touch with the ends which
it is supposed to serve. In this sense, what allows the
machine to be turned into an instrument of domination is
not the development of science or technology, but the
adaptation of machinery itself to the ends of power. The
manipulation of the collective consciousness by ~hat
Adorno termed the culture industry, and the use by
Fascist barbarism of technology in its most sophisticated
forms, constitute two crucial aspects of this reversal of
scientific progress.

However, the double character of progress is not a
matter only of the abuse of science. A more fundamental
issue is the existence within the roots of the very project
of science of a potential for dehumanisation. In pushing
their exploration of the Dialectic of Enlightenment back
to the emergence of Western reason, Adorno and
Horkheimer delineated a tendency towards ‘progressive
domination’ which they saw as bound up with the
enunciation of two founding aspects of the scientific
project: the reduction of qualitative difference to
quantitative identity (which was to reach its apogee in
the precept ‘Science is Measurement’), and the search
for mastery over nature. Instrumental manipUlation of
nature led inexorably to an instrumental view of human
beings, just as the transformation of the world into mere
object led to the reification of human relationships.25
Humanity’S blindness towards mastered nature’s grief
and suffering, a necessary condition of scientific
progress, led – as if brutalised nature were taking its
revenge – to humanity’s blindness towards the sufferings




of fellow-humans. This analysis seems strikingly
contemporary, although Adorno and Horkheimer were
not thinking of questions of ecology so much as of the
way in which men had suffered disastrously because of
their alienation not only from the nature over which they
exercised their mastery, but also over that within
themselves which was connected with nature. Progress,
which had begun by demystifying the superstitions of
animism, according to which things possessed a soul, had
ended up under the sway of a far more powerful magic the magic of a world in which men’s souls are
transformed into things. Modern man, forgetful of his
ancient unity with the natural world, remained in a state
of enchantment: reification, noted Adorno and
Horkheimer, always involves forgetfulness and oblivion.

In Adorno’ s consideration of progress, the theme of
the ‘return to nature’ constantly recurs, sometimes as a
reflection on ‘the revenge of brutalised nature’ and
sometimes as an emphasis on the need for
‘reconciliation’. In ‘Juliette or Enlightenment and
Morality’ (in Dialectic of Enlightenment), the ‘return to
nature’ denotes not simply a regression to a state prior to
civilisation, but a moment of civilisation itself: ‘Juliette
embodies (in psychological terms) neither unsublimated
nor regressive libido, but intellectual pleasure in
regression – amor intellectualis diaboli, the pleasure of
attacking civilisation with its own weapons. 26
Horkheimer expressed this differently in Eclipse of
Reason, where he depicted fascism as a satanic synthesis
of reason and nature, the diametrical opposite of the
reconciliation of those two extremes of which philosophy
had always dreamed.27
The fate suffered by women in modern civilisation
can stand as a paradigm of the dehumanisation which
follows, according to Adorno, from the double
precondition of progress: the levelling out or refusal of
qualitative difference, and the search for mastery over
nature. Women, who bear the indelible marks of a
naturally imposed and irreducihle difference. hecome the

favoured objects of domination. As the representative of
nature in a civilisation which glories in its oppression of
nature, woman becomes ‘the substrate of never-ending
sUbsumption notionally, and of never-ending subjection
in reality’. Insofar as she is the most visible sign of the
impossibility of humanity’s ever becoming absolutely
autonomous of nature, she draws upon herself an
unbounded hatred, whose depth is revealed more fully in
Sadean violence than in the benevolent pretences of
bourgeois paternalism. Women’s subordination is an
emblem of the fate of modern man in a society ruled by
coercion and reification. Denied access to the status of
individuality, she is merely ‘an example ofthe species’ just as modern men, deprived of their individuality,
become representatives of their species, rendered
identical by their isolation from each other. As with the
oppressed indigenous peoples of colonial states, or with
the Jews among the ‘Aryans’, so ‘women’s
defencelessness is the legal title of their oppression’ . This
is why women figure as a minority even where they
constitute the actual majority. This powerlessness,
together with women’s long exclusion from any exercise
of power, in their turn confirm their closeness to nature.

However, this closeness to nature, like the ‘nature of
women’ itself, is actually the product of oppression.

What patriarchal and bourgeois logic designates under
the term ‘nature’ is nothing other than ‘the stigmata of a
social mutilation’: far from being bounQ up with
‘instinct’, femininity consists in ‘what every woman
must force herself – with a force that is masculine – to
become’. In other words, ‘woman as an alleged natural
being is a product of history, which denatures her’ .28
This is a profoundly pessimistic appraisal. Progress,
far from laying to rest the more destructive and
maleficent elements of nature, has brought us close to
the threat of final destruction. There is no universal
history that leads from savagery to human civilisation,
Adorno remarked bitterly in Negative Dialectics, but
there very probably is a universal history that leads from
the catapult to the atomic bomb. 29 This bleak assessment
is the background to Adorno’s desperate appeal for
reconciliation, an appeal based upon nostalgic visions of
a distant past in which man lived in harmony with nature.

If there is a utopian dimension to the mimetic aspect of
art, this is because mimesis preserves a memory of that
lost harmony and prefigures the possibility that it will
one day be restored. The pages of Dialectic of
Enlightenment are haunted by the memory of a long-lost,
primordial happiness, in a prehistory which knew neither
domination or discipline. 30 However, as Martin Jay
rightly remarks,3! Adorno (for all his deeply nostalgic
tone) does not appeal for complete reconciliation with


nature in the sense of a restoration of total identity. Such

Anti-progressivism as despair

an identity would not be desirable even if it were

In historical terms, the dialectic of progress receives a

possible: the point is not to make man subject to the
forces of nature, but to preserve as far as possible 32 the
living memory of his original unity with nature, as an

largely negative appraisal. For, whereas ‘real history is
woven out of a real suffering that is not lessened in
proportion to the growth of means for its abrogation’, 34

antidote to the baleful enchantments of reification.

the realisation of the perspectives of human progress has

Domination is to be opposed not so much by nature itself

always remained a potential, a promise. Adorno

as by the memory of nature.

It should be possible to make good the ravages of

concludes from this that we must reject any positive

progress, Adorno argues, ‘by making use of the forces of

philosophy of history which implies finality, preestablished laws, and linear temporality. But if history

progress itself, but never by restoring the previous

certainly cannot be seen as a progression towards

situation’. In refusing to entertain retrogressive illusions
about a return to the past, Adorno is concerned both to

gradual descent into hell. It contains the possibility of

preserve the promise and the emancipatory potential of

ruptures, which break into its previous course and open

progress, and to keep alive the memory of those former
injustices against which progress pitted itself. There was

onto radically different prospects. For a philosopher of
the Frankfurt School, the threatening implications of

the promise that a better world would come, in which

such a view were all too evident, after Dachau and

hunger would no longer exist; the promise, too, of that
‘socialist element in progress’ which meant that all social

Hiroshima. But there was also the potential for those

functions would be open to everyone. Even the
quantitative logic of exchange and ‘identity thinking’,

freedom and emancipation, neither can it be seen as a

messianic moments cherished by Adorno’s friend Waiter
Benjamin. In such a vision of history, the past can at any


moment break through, either as a recurrence of the
eternally repeated spectacle of domination, which has

assessment, bore within them the promise of that ideal,

never ceased to haunt humanity, or as the recollection of

free and fair exchange – even if that ideal had in truth
served as a pretext for injustice. In truth, moreover,

messianic hopes of radical change. 35

comparative assessment, insofar as this has involved

consistently refused to make an ontological fetish of

quantitative measurement, has been employed to reduce

decline, any more than of progress. His dialectical






Pessimistic though he may have been, Adorno

what is qualitatively different to a set of quantifiable

approach is founded not only (and obviously) on .his

determinations, while whatever has not been amenable

critique of Aujkliirung, but also on the epistemological

to quantitative normalisation has been relegated to the
status of otherness and inferiority. Without comparison,

was announced in the 1930s, when he insisted that ‘the

and political implications of that critique. That approach

however, there can be no grounds on which we can

interpretation of any given reality is bound up with its

legitimately proclaim the equality of all human beings as

abolition’. And to the extent that an actually transforming

something more than the quality of humanity which they

praxis became hopeless, it was all the more necessary to
turn, as one’s sole resource, to the struggle in thought
against existing reality. 36 These are the concerns which

have in common. It is the principle of identity which
legitimates the comparison between the social position
of the masters and of those whom they oppress, and

underlie his rigorous critique of both progressivist and

which allows the latter to say: We too … And in this, that

anti-progressivist philosophies of history. For both

principle reveals its subterranean affinity with the antiauthoritarian tendency of Reason, which, as Horkheimer

tendencies threaten to legitimate the existing order, by

and Adorno note, is a less loyal servant of the powers of

eliminating forever that utopian possibility which resides
in the consciousness that things might be transformed.

domination than were the ideologies of antiquity. Indeed,

Progressivism naturalises what is, all that humanity has

this blow struck at the legitimacy of domination
constitutes perhaps the sole progress achieved in history,

created: everything becomes a positive fact, and imposes
itself on human consciousness as self-evident or

since it has given energy to every revolt against


oppression and injustice. To abandon comparison on the

consciousness becomes ashamed of itself and of its

grounds of an alleged respect for the irreducible element
ofthe qualitative would be, in Adorno’s view, ‘an excuse

utopianism, degenerating into a docile confidence in the

for returning to the old injustice’. There is every reason

historical despair into a norm which we must respect:

to pay heed to this warning in our own times, when the

there has been no progress up till now, therefore there

‘right to difference’ is becoming the rallying-cry of

will never be any. In both we find the same positivistic
tendency,which proclaims that whatever men have

inequality, racism and xenophobia. 33







objective tendencies of history. Anti-progressivism turns

lacked has been denied to them by an ontologicalfiat. 37
Faithful to his fragmentary method, Adorno nowhere
in his writings offers a systematic critique of progress.

Nor does he offer a theory of history which might form
the basis of such a critique. On the contrary: he proceeds
by a succession of brush-strokes to delineate a most rich
and nuanced dialectical problematisation of the notion
of progress. Going beyond bourgeois myths and
reactionary nostalgia, transcending the one-dimensional
optimism of positivist Marxism and the mystifying
apologetics of liberalism, he sets forth the contradictions
and antinomies of progress and highlights the dangers
and the promises which it bears. His thought, wracked
by inner tensions, never comes to rest and can find no
satisfactory conclusion. This unfinished symphony is
dominated, nonetheless, by a melancholy and pessimistic
tone: it refuses to succumb to the siren songs of progress
and modernity.

Adorno’s reflections draw upon the historical
experience of his generation. To be more precise, they
originate in the experience of a Central European Jew
brought face to face with two perverse (and certainly very
different) aspects of twentieth-century progress fascism, and the American way of life. The pessimistic
note is understandably most audible in his writings of
1944-1948, Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima
Mo ra lia , composed during the Second World War and
while he was exiled in the USA. However, his writings
as a whole bear witness to a consistent dialectical
approach, and to a consistent and desperate struggle to
retain some hope in a future emancipated from the baleful
magic of interlocking ‘progress’ and ‘regression’.



Eugene Lunn regards Adorno as a ‘mandarin of the left’

motivated by an ‘aristocratic/socialist’ anti-capitalism: see
his Marxism and Modernism: an Historical Study of
Lukdcs, Benjamin and Adorno, Berkeley, California
University Press, 1982, pp. 211-12.

‘Progress’, p. 100.



Prisms, pp. 99, 106, 103, 114, 117.


Ibid., p. 65.



Ibid., p. 54.

MM, pp. 148-9; DE, p. xv.

Ibid., p. 58.


11. Martin Jay points out that Adorno’s subtle, and
controversial, treatment of Spengler and of other
apparently reactionary thinkers stems from his desire to
rescue what is valuable in the romantic critique of
capitalism. See M. Jay, Adorno, Cambridge, Harvard
University Press, 1984, p. 17.

12. MM, p. 192.

13. ‘Progress’, p. 94.

14. See DE, p. xv; MM, p. 118.

15. DE, p. 180.

16. ‘Progress’, pp. 85-7.

17. Ibid., pp. 100-101.

18. Cf. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics,
Hassocks, Harvester Press, and New York, Macmillan
Free Press, 1977; and Richard Wolin, ‘Critical Theory and
the Dialectic of Rationalism’, New German Critique 41,

19. Adorno argues that for Benjamin, ‘the concept of progress
draws its legitimacy from the theory that the
representation of the happiness of generations yet unborn
– without whom it is impossible to speak of progress – is
inevitably accompanied by the representation of the idea
of redemption’: ‘Progress’, p. 85.

20. ‘Progress’, p. 101.

21. MM, p. 146.

22. DE, p. 40.

23. MM, p. 118.

Translated by Martin Ryle

24. MM, pp. 40, 146, 195; DE, pp. 132-3; Martin Jay, Adorno,
Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, p. 130.

Originally published in French in Revue des Sciences
Humaines No 229 Janvier-Mars, 1993

25. See Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of
the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research,
1923-1950, Heinemann, London, 1973, p. 261.

References to works by Adorno are made using the following

Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer, 1947),
translated by John Cumming, Verso, London, 1979 [DE];

26. DE, p. 94.

27. See M. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, New York, Oxford
University Press, 1947.

28. DE, pp. 110-11; MM, pp. 95-6; DE, p. 111.

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951),
translated by E. F. N. Jephcott, Verso, London, 1978 [MM];

29. ND, p. 320.

Prisms (1955), translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber,
Spearman, London, 1967.

31. See Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, pp. 266-7, and
Adorno, pp. 64-5.

‘Progress’ (1962), translated by Eric Krakauer, in Gay Smith
ed., Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, pp. 84-101.

32. Some degree of forgetfulness is inevitable: see the letter
from Adorno to Benjamin (29 February 1940) which Jay
quotes in The Dialectical Imagination, p. 267.

33. ‘Progress’, pp. 97, 100; ND, pp. 146-50.

Negative Dialectics (1966), translated by E. B. Ashton,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1973 [ND];

For terminological consistency, translations of quotations have
sometimes been made from L6wy and Varakis’ s citations of
French editions. References are given to the equivalent
passages in the English translations.


MM, p. 55.


DE, pp. 42, 90.

30. See Jay, Adorno, p. 156.

34. DE, p. 40.

35. See Jay, Adorno, p. 104.

36. See Adorno, ‘The Actuality of Philosophy’, Telos 31,
Spring 1977, p. 129; ND, p. 3.

37. ‘Progress’, pp. 87-8,94-5.



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