The Sole Substance of Politics

Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Wieland Hoban, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism

Polity Press, 72pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781509541454

reviewed by Stuart Walton

In April 1967, the Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno gave an invitation lecture to the Austrian Socialist Students' Association at Vienna University. He had been asked to address the growing challenge presented by the resurgence of far-right movements and parties in both Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany. The National Democratic Party of Germany, founded in 1964, and uniting right-wing constitutional conservatives and avowed racial supremacists, was on the advance, winning seats in the state legislatures and emboldening a return to the kind of political discourse not heard in Germany since 1945.

Adorno's address, an audio recording of which in the original German can be heard on YouTube, is included in a forthcoming collection of his lectures from the postwar era, but has been extracted and published separately in various European translations in light of what is seen as its present timeliness. Right-wing extremism, including its most virulent manifestation, unrepentant fascism, is everywhere enjoying a renaissance, in many instances one parasitic on the lurch towards unconstitutional and subversive political practices by established right-of-centre governments. The latter tendency, universally accorded the sloppily misleading epithet 'populism', has outflanked many centre-left establishment parties, who have found themselves in the unaccustomed position of defending due process and time-honoured political tradition against those who, for the time being at least, have no further need of it.

In his opening remarks, Adorno points out that the social, if not the political, conditions for fascism still exist, in accordance with the classic Marxist analysis of the concentration of capital and the chance it gives the bourgeoisie for feeling hard done by. Unexpectedly, perhaps, he pinpoints the agricultural policy of the then European Economic Community as a principal driver of resentment, and suggests that nothing less than the wholesale collectivisation of agriculture will provide a solution. The old antagonisms between city and countryside still played a significant part in German national politics, and Adorno, himself the son of a Frankfurt wine merchant, mentions outbreaks of reactionary vituperation among the small wine-growers of the Pfalz region.

Invocation of these localised phenomena soon gives way to the kind of overarching dialectical analysis of which the speaker was one of the Frankfurt School's most supple exponents. Ideologies, Adorno argues, 'take on their demonic, their genuinely destructive character precisely when the objective situation has deprived them of substance'. Those selling pernicious nostrums typically don't fully believe their own claims, but rely on the general capacity for nervous excitation and gullibility among the public at large. The far right is far better versed than the broad left at presenting itself as a mass movement, rather than a loners' sect of true believers, to which end it never fails to emphasise the importance of propaganda, even at the cost of ensuring the triumph of such technical means over rational political ends, so that propaganda itself becomes the sole substance of politics.

There are particular reasons, Adorno suggests, for the recrudescence of far-right extremism in the German-speaking countries, as against Italy, for example. The defeat of Mussolini's forces destroyed – for the time being, history's footnoting service cannot help pointing out – people's faith in the system that had sustained it since the early 1920s, but this was far from the case in the Third Reich, where a significant sector of popular opinion stubbornly refused to believe that defeat had been necessary, or that the Nazi state had anything very much to atone. Notwithstanding these special circumstances, though, the persistence of a lunatic right-wing fringe in many countries is the ugly evidence for Adorno that democracy has not yet anywhere lived up, as the Hegelians say, to its concept.

Fascism wants, and eagerly anticipates, the cataclysmic crises on which it feeds, with which a spasmodically cyclical global capitalism obligingly provides it. So too, of course, does radical leftism, for all that much of the latter's energy is devoted to heading off the worst aspects of these critical phases. Capitalism may be nervous of the effects of a band of gangsters such as the NSDAP coming to dictatorial power but, ever-resourceful shape-shifter that it is, will happily rub along with such regimes because they do not represent an ontological threat to it. Anything that smells of communism is another matter. Adorno correctly declares that the spectre of communism is more easily attacked, the more abstract and empty it becomes, without explicitly drawing the countervailing conclusion that with fascism, precisely the opposite obtains. Only where it results in mass murder and vicious repression does it become a sitting target. Its ethereal subliminality beneath the surface of many present right-wing governments, what is sometimes termed the 'dog-whistle' effect, is where it proves itself most tactically evasive.

Adorno drew extensively in his 1967 lecture on the sociological fieldwork he had helped organise and analyse in the United States for the substantial body of research published in 1950 as The Authoritarian Personality. Much criticised over the years for its excessively psychologistic approach, this body of work was nonetheless effective in pinpointing many of the classic character traits of those most likely to succumb to fascist propaganda: a tendency to vulgar idealism, anti-intellectualism, an all but limitless capacity for rhetorical repetition, a willingness to engage in contentless praxis. This last, indeed, is what worried Adorno so acutely about the leftist students' commitment to revolutionary action over theory, and which would erupt with harrowing, and eventually – for Adorno himself – lethal, results at Frankfurt University.

Right-wing extremism is built on a vast subterranean foundation of lies, compounded by the insuperable obstacle that authoritarian personalities are very skilled at not letting anything antithetical get through to them. This remains as much a barrier to real political enlightenment now as then. The point, however, as ever, is to change it. And that can only be done, as Adorno suggests in his closing point, by refusing the invitation to try to predict how things will turn out, as opposed to taking a controlling interest in how they will. If we are not to be mere spectators, we must assume the responsibility to alter the course of events, through a judicious mixture of patient theory and effective, ends-driven political practice.

In a useful Afterword to the present volume, sociologist Volker Weiss argues that fascism has no need of a party to survive. It has a shadow existence in the repressed opinions of those who tell pollsters they believe wholeheartedly in democratic procedures and ideals. The public opinion recorded by the polling organisations means little or nothing if we do not also hear the non-public opinion that runs in tandem with it. We are still living with the long-term effects generated by the tactical blunder of western occupying forces in the postwar Federal Republic, when they switched from highlighting the criminality of fascism to proselytising against the communist threat, as a way of enlisting West German support in the coming Cold War.

When Adorno addressed the Vienna students, he spoke extempore from notes, as was his practice in academic lectures. The seven handwritten pages he used have survived among the papers in his personal estate. As the reader will glean, his allotted time clearly began to run down long before he had got near the end, so that the last few pages comprised a rather hurried series of unexplored residual points that would have benefited from further development. Nonetheless, this is an important text, and while Suhrkamp, its German publisher, evidently intended, by issuing it separately, for readers to search it for clues to an understanding of the present morass, scarcely anything about central European politics in the late 1960s could have trained its clients for the task to come – that of rectifying a defective world led by openly racist, defiantly incompetent ultra-nationalists, now handed the gift of a global pandemic in which to consolidate their power. As Adorno already warned, we have to do that ourselves.
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.