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Against Intellectual Resignation

At the very beginning of Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno writes, "Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.  The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried."  For those of us who are familiar with Marx, we cannot miss the fact that Adorno is referring to Marx's famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: "philosophy has only interpreted the world, the point is to change it."  Adorno, however, is arguing that since the communist attempts to change the world have failed, this proud Marxist assertion––this claim that philosophy could not resign itself to interpretation and needed to face the reality––has become a "defeatism of reason."  Thus Negative Dialectics becomes a flight back into the ivory towers of philosophy, an attempt in some ways to reestablish the abstract foundations of dialectical thinking so that philosophy can, once again, no longer interpret the world and, rearmed with a stronger philosophical foundation, we can eventually get back to the business of changing the world.

But Adorno wrote Negative Dialectics in 1966 when world revolution had not, regardless of his cynical understanding of the revisionist Soviet Union, miscarried.  China was still revolutionary, had gone further down the revolutionary road than Russia, and was launching the Cultural Revolution that, though an ultimate failure, was at that time the height of attempts to change the world.  Although even this revolutionary fervour would ultimately fail, the fact that it was learning from previous failures and going further––establishing new developments in revolutionary theory through praxis––is something that Adorno, as a philosopher worthy of being called "historical materialist", should have taken into account. And yet he ignored China, as well as the decolonization movements revolutionary China often inspired, hermetically sealed in academia.

(In fact, I would go even further to say that attempts to change the world had not, despite the counter-revolution in Russia and the eventual counter-revolution in China, failed to change the world: the world was still changed, we learn and progress through defeats and setbacks.  This is important to grasp as a dialectical thinker, just as it is also important to grasp that the most important developments in revolutionary theory emerge in the process of revolutionary struggle.)

I want to suggest that Adorno's resignation is paradigmatic of leftwing academics, representing the most common way we "sell out" and accept, if not publicly or even consciously, that capitalism is the end of history.  We all know the cliche of the radical youth/student who, upon "growing up", becomes at best a social democratic and at worst an inveterate conservative.  And while it is true that some leftwing academics do become liberals or reactionaries, most of us find ways to remain radical in form and resigned in essence.

The reason for this is because leftwing academics, especially those of us who do work on Marx and/or other radical theorists, are academically invested in being LEFTWING.  To honestly denounce our politics publicly would mean that we would be denouncing years of research, perhaps books and papers that we published, and an entire identity based on radicalism.  And those of us who have done excellent and critical work in these areas [personal caveat: I am not convinced that I do such work!], and understand the arguments against capitalism/imperialism/colonialism, cannot bring ourselves to openly and consciously accept resignation without also accepting that we're idiots.  Thus we find a way to cling to the ragged garments of radicalism, often ignorant that we've been left behind, while secretly resigning.

We secretly resign for multiple reasons.  Sometimes we focus on the failures of revolutionary movements, unable to understand the successes that have changed the world––practical-theoretical insights that are still useful, that are still weapons, that we neglect because of intellectual cynicism.  Other times we are utterly ignorant of subterranean movements, or even mass movements elsewhere in the world, that are still in the process of changing history (Adorno and China is an example of this).  Generally we become disconnected, descending further into academic leftism, and we don't realize that, at some point along the way, the original reason for our politics has been replaced by intellectual opportunism, theoretical sectarianism, and ivory tower dogmatism.

Academics, who can produce excellent leftwing theoretical work, are often alienated from global revolutionary struggles.  The more intellectually privileged we become, the more we get invested in the ivory tower game, the more isolated we are from revolutionary praxis.  But Marx and Engels understood, despite their own intellectual positioning, that the greatest developments in revolutionary theory would come through revolutionary praxis, not intellectual debate and academic exercise.  And still we want to imagine that we're at the forefront of radical theorizing, that the masses will read our insights and learn; when they do not, because there is a great schism between academia and common society, we become frustrated.  Perhaps we blame their failures on the supposed limits of revolutionary theory; perhaps we blame ourselves, because we arrogantly believed ourselves to be their intellectual guides, and thus turn the resignation inwards.  Besides, the majority of academics do not want "to go down amongst the masses," and we hate the Maos of the world for telling us to leave our comfortable ivory towers: why can't the people at least meet us half way––can't they just read one of our many books, listen to us, and stop failing?  And in any case, we don't want to go down to their stupid countryside or ghettos or wherever the hell it is the masses are living these days.

So we resign by remaining left in form while retreating from actual left practice.  We come up with new theories, writing hundreds of more competing resignation texts, to argue our resignation: the grand revolutionary projects failed so let's go back and work on theory while ignoring the theoretical developments emerging through sometimes defeated struggle; let's stop talking about organizing and form intellectual debating clubs; let's found social democratic organizations where we are Blanquist leftists and never openly talk about anti-capitalism because we don't want to alienate the now ignorant masses; let's invent new theories that are historically untenable but exciting sounding; let's write biographies on dead revolutionaries, odes to failure; let's argue, in many books and articles, that "authentic" revolution will only be possible in over a hundred years from now…

Because s/he often occupies a privileged position, the leftist academic intellectual will accept these retreats, and use them to maintain the shell of leftism, and at the end of the day feel good about hirself.  Continued privilege hinges on maintaining the form of leftism, after all, because we have names to defend and we cannot publicly give up without looking like we wasted our lives.  Privilege produces resignation and collaboration, but the privileged leftist academic often needs to maintain hir leftwing cred in order to keep hir privileged name––or at least feel good about hir privileged name.  Writing books about this privilege, while remaining resigned, is also a good strategy.

I am not arguing that proper leftists must be "anti-intellectual."  In fact, I argued against this utterly problematic position in an earlier entry.  But to be intellectual is not synonymous with being an academic, though academics definitely possess a privileged access to intellectual life.  Moreover, I think the most exciting revolutionary theory these days is emerging from the subterranean margins, written by brilliant theorists who are not involved in the academic game: my reviews on Sakai's Settlers and Lee's Night Vision were about this very fact.  Those ensconced within academia definitely have the access and time required to engage in revolutionary theorizing, but the danger of being isolated from revolutionary struggle––always present for the tenured and published––can only result in theory divorced from praxis. Alienated theory, ivory tower theory, ignorant and elitist theory.  While I do not think this should mean that academia should be rejected (otherwise I'd be a hypocrite), I do think that leftist academics need to be aware of their positioning and fight both the urge to become elitist and the urge to become anti-intellectual (which is also, as argued in the entry cited above, a form of elitism).

Returning to Adorno, whose semi-opaque passage opened this entry, I want to conclude by arguing that, regardless of the resignation implicit in books such as Negative Dialectics, there is always the possibility of finding important and critical work even amongst these resigners.  I do not write-off Adorno entirely: maybe I can't find use for Negative Dialectics, though I am sure others can, but his earlier work, especially Dialectics of Enlightenment, co-written with Max Horkheimer (who instead of secretly resigning betrayed the revolution by becoming an outright reactionary), is still potentially useful for revolutionary thinking.  Even in the work of resigned leftwing academics, as moribund as their practice might have become, the kernel of radicalism makes their work superior to any reactionary.  At the same time, however, we must take the Adornos as a warning: we should not apologize for their resignation, should not argue that the reason they called the police on student demonstrators in West Germany can be explained away by their fear of the Hitler Youth (if Adorno was truly involved in left praxis, he would have understood the difference between anti-fascist youth and pro-fascist youth).  Nor should we be apologizing for our own resignation, whether academic or honest: we need to be prepared to accept and see every success in every failure and never, ever, agree that capitalism is the end of history: explicitly by rejecting our politics, or implicitly by retreating, like Adorno, into the depths of philosophy.