It's The Song I Hate

Ben Watson, Adorno for Revolutionaries

Unkant, 217pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780956817600

reviewed by Ian Birchall

Ben Watson’s writing on music is the very antithesis of ‘easy listening’. He has a poet’s love of language and a leftist’s love of polemic. He skips, sometimes disconcertingly, from music to philosophy, from literature to politics to (sometimes rather shaky) history. He has powerful enthusiasm – mainly for musicians you’ve probably never heard of – and powerful distaste. Given the many causes for grief and anger in this world, it is bewildering to see so much fury directed against an anodyne sociologist like Simon Frith. (One of Frith’s alleged crimes is liking the Pet Shop Boys.)

Watson is adept at causing offence. As the introductions to items in this volume show, he appears to have repeatedly fallen out with those one might naïvely see as his intellectual or political allies. In a colourfully bad-tempered exchange with Gordon Finlayson he argues that ad hominem attacks are based on Marxist principle (‘social being determines consciousness’). He can be sorely irritating yet also strangely endearing; nobody who compares Slavoj Žižek and Sting as products of the star system can be all bad.

The present book is a collection of articles and reviews about music, all taking as a central point of reference the ideas of Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher and musicologist (1903 - 1969). For Watson the important thing about Adorno is his Marxism, since ‘the only “science” that could unite the critical energies of mass music is revolutionary Marxism.’ Adorno saw music as a ‘historical product’, understood in relation to class and technology; he ‘wanted to develop a theory of music that … turned musical taste into a political question.’

There are many insights here, as when Watson demolishes the rhetoric of “hard work” by invoking the Marxist theory of value: ‘if a competitor finds a way of producing twice the widgets in half the time, your labour time has an exchange value of only a quarter of what it was before, however much effort you put in.’ But the central claim of the relation between music and politics leaves more questions unanswered than it resolves. To refer to ‘Schoenberg’s twelve-tone revolution’ is selfevident in terms of musical form; but is there any direct connection between this and the social revolution aspired to by Marxists? The example of Rock Against Racism (in which Watson was an activist), which united punk and the far left to isolate the National Front in the 1970s, is significant but not sufficient. Is there in fact such a thing as ‘music structurally opposed to capitalism’?

As a result of this tenuous association, he often lapses into selective approval and wishful thinking. With some justice he derides the influence of Stalinism on artists in the 1930s. Yet Brecht, who made a virulent defence of the Moscow Trials, escapes criticism. Brecht’s Stalinism does not make him a bad playwright; nor does his dramatic prowess make him an anti-Stalinist. There is a contradiction here, and Watson, for all his invocation of ‘dialectics’, fails to grasp it. Likewise Lukács is dismissed: ‘The sensitive bourgeois Hegelian could hail revolution as the solution to history without being transformed thereby in the process.’ He is compared unfavourably to Walter Benjamin. Yet Lukács took part in a real revolution (Hungary 1919), whereas Benjamin’s record of political activism is decidedly meagre.

Lukács developed the notion of ‘imputed’ class consciousness – referring not to the ideas actually in workers’ heads, but the potential consciousness the working class was historically capable of achieving. Often it seems that we are dealing here with an ‘imputed’ Adorno, one who thinks what Watson believes he ought to. As he puts it: ‘The modern response to Adorno needs to break the bounds of official Adornoism, and break into analysis of musics he turned his back on or never heard.’ But could it ever be more than a provocative speculation to assert: ‘Adorno is much more likely to understand punk than someone who treats it as “pop”’?

This book may encourage people to read or re-read Adorno, and perhaps to discover that he was not quite such a splendid chap as Watson makes out. Watson does at least have the honesty to note that – like his other heroes, the Situationists – Adorno failed the test of 1968. There is plenty more in this book, a fair amount good, some bad. For example, a provocative cliff-hanger: I am unconvinced that Watson has understood Saussure’s theory of language, and I think his notion of ‘natural’ (normal, youthful) sexuality is profoundly reactionary. As Wittgenstein said of Freud, ‘hang on to your brains’.
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.