Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism

Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745328362
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 11/20/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Holloway is a Professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico. His publications include Crack Capitalism (Pluto, 2010), Change the World Without Taking Power (Pluto, 2005), Zapatista! Rethinking Revolution in Mexico (co-editor, Pluto, 1998) and Global Capital, National State and The Politics of Money (co-editor, 1994).

Fernando Matamoros is the author of La Pensée Coloniale, Découverte, Conquête et Guerre des Dieux au Mexique (2007) and co-author (with Sylvie Bosserelle and Etienne Dehau) of Mexique, vision de l'empire des dieux (2005).

Sergio Tischler is the co-editor (with Werner Bonefeld) of What is to be Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today (2002).

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John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, Sergio Tischler


This is not a book about Adorno; nor is it written by specialists in Adorno or set out to give a full and active portrayal of Adorno and his work. It is written, rather, by a number of people who consider it important for the development of anti-capitalist thought to read Adorno and particularly to develop his idea of negative dialectics. It starts from a simple question: why, in spite of everything, do we consider it important to develop Adorno's ideas? The "in spite of everything" refers to the difficulty of Adorno's language, but above all to the fact that he called in the police when students occupied the Institute of Social Research in January 1969.


This book takes sides in a political-theoretical controversy. This is a controversy that grows out of the collapse of the USSR and of the Leninist conception of revolution. The debate has to do with the meaning of dialectics and its role in revolutionary thought.

It has become common in recent years to denounce dialectics and argue that the anti-capitalist movement should abandon the concept. This rejection grows out of an identification of dialectics with the "dialectical materialism" proclaimed by the USSR and the Communist Parties, and it is particularly strong in those countries in which the Communist Parties were highly influential, politically and intellectually, especially France and Italy. The authors who take this position – Althusser, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Derrida, Macherey, and more recently Hardt, Negri and Virno, among many others – see "dialectical materialism" as rooted in Hegel's dialectic, and their criticism of Communist Party politics takes the form of a repudiation of Hegel and a declared preference for Spinoza.

The rejection of dialectics focuses principally on two related points. It is argued that dialectical thought leads to closure rather than openness. The typical Hegelian triad of thesis–antithesis–synthesis ends in a closing synthesis, which provides the basis of a view of history as a series of stages or steps. The synthesis is a reconciliation of opposites, the establishment, in other words, of a new modus vivendi between labour and capital. A recent article by Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones states the charge clearly:

The dialectical operation consists in putting an end to that which has none, giving a defined orientation to that which has no finality, taking (overcoming) the previous moments by rescuing what is useful (preserving) in the service of a new affirmation, prohibiting every consciousness of an irreducible diversity, of an excess which is not retaken ... As final moment, this idea of the dialectic concludes open processes, synthesises in a final unity multiplicities without relations that are a priori determinable. (Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones 2007)

Related to this is the charge that the dialectical notion of contradiction means the suppression of differences, the reduction of a multi-coloured multiplicity of varied lives and struggles to the single contradiction of labour against capital. "The Hegelian dialectic destroys difference in two distinct moments: first it pushes all the differences to the point of contradiction, masking their specificities; and, precisely because the differences are emptied, as terms of a contradiction, it is possible to subsume them in a unity" (Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones 2007). The world is seen as a multiplicity of differences or singularities. The problem with the Hegelian dialectic is twofold: it pushes this great multiplicity into a single contradiction, and, because this contradiction is then devoid of content, it is easy to subsume it within a unitary synthesis. In the practice of the Communist Parties, the rich variety of struggles was subordinated to a concept of the working class (labour as contradiction of capital), and this working class, a concept largely devoid of meaning since it had been abstracted from the richness of real struggles and subordinated to the discipline of the Party, could then be easily integrated into a new capitalist synthesis (a welfare state, for example).

Those who argue against dialectics do so, then, in order to reject the synthetic closure associated with Hegelian dialectics and to emphasise the richness of social struggle, which they see as a multiplicity of differences rather than a single contradiction.

The emphasis on difference rather than contradiction has had a considerable influence. Whereas contradiction appeared to fit easily with forms of organisation that pitted (or seemed to pit) the working class against capital, the concept of difference is accommodated more easily to an organisation of struggle that takes the form of a multiplicity of groups emphasising their specific identities as homosexuals, indigenous, women, blacks, and so on. For such struggles, the attraction of the concept of multitude is clear: multitude refers to the loose alliance of struggles against the existing form of oppression (capitalism, neo-liberalism, postmodernism, whatever one likes to call it).

In spite of the attractions of this approach, there are problems, however, connected principally with the questions of negation and contradiction.

In the extension of the rejection of the Hegelian synthesis to the rejection of dialectics altogether, there is a throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is not only synthesis that is abandoned, but also the central notion of movement through negation. "In the radical philosophy of immanence it is not life that is absent but negativity, contradiction as the model of movement" (Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones 2007). Life becomes a positive concept rather than the struggle against the negation of life. There is in general a positivisation of thought. Struggles are seen as struggles for, rather than being principally struggles against. The centrality of crisis (a negative concept) is lost and replaced by an emphasis on restructuring (a positive concept). Refusal is marginalised (though not denied) in the movement from the origins of autonomism (Tronti and his seminal article on "The Strategy of Refusal") to the post-autonomism of recent years (represented in particular by Hardt and Negri). Irony of ironies, a theory of stages makes its reappearance in the form of changing "paradigms": the world is to be understood at any particular moment in terms of the prevalent paradigm of domination. The rejection of dialectics, because it includes the rejection of negation, leads precisely to synthetic thought, a thinking that seeks to fit everything in place within the scheme of the dominant paradigm. This has not only theoretical but also political consequences: it can lead to a blurring of the distinction between negation and synthesis, between refusal and reconciliation, between an uprising and the reconciling government that follows the uprising.

The second problem is the abandonment of the idea of contradiction. The argument, as we have seen, is that the idea of contradiction operates like a straitjacket, forcing the infinite richness of life and struggle into a binary antagonism. The question, however, is whether this is the result of dialectical thought, or whether dialectics is simply reporting a process of antagonistic binarism that is actually taking place in the world. Capital is the name given to this process of antagonistic binarisation. Capital is not a thing but a social relation, a forced transformation of people's activity into labour: an alien activity shaped by the requirements of producing profit. It is not dialectics but capital that is the name of the straitjacket that forces our multiple differences into the binary antagonism of exploited labour. The immense and multicoloured richness of useful-creative doing (useful labour, as Marx calls it) is forcefully reduced to abstract, value-producing labour: that is what capital means. Difference is reduced by capital to contradiction, to an antagonism against its own suppression. In all our variety and difference we are put in prison, the prison of capitalism. Dialectics is, then, the escape plan, the thinking-against-the-prison, thinking-against-the-wrong-world, a thinking that would no longer make sense if we were outside the prison of the wrong world – but we are not. To put aside the dialectical awareness (not creation) of contradiction is to forget that we are in a prison, that we are living in a form of social organisation that daily reduces our infinite creativity to the monotonous process of producing profit. And that is in fact what happens with this line of thought: the concept of capital and capitalism fades into the background and the struggle is seen primarily not as one against capital but as a struggle for "real democracy." This leaves out of sight the central issue of any struggle for change: the organisation of our daily doing, the struggle of doing against labour. Our doing pushes towards difference, yearns for a world free of contradiction, but for the moment it is entrapped within contradiction, within a world of coercion enforced by money. To assert difference, then, is to make an assertion against, but the possibilities and movement of this assertion against can be understood only if we understand it as the movement of a contradiction.

This book shares many of the concerns mentioned above – the use of dialectical thought to impose closure and impose uniformity on struggle – but insists that it is nevertheless important to defend and develop the concept of dialectics. What we need is not to reject dialectics as such, but only the synthetic understanding of it: to insist, in other words, on a negative dialectics, a restless movement of negation that does not lead necessarily to a happy ending. History is seen not as a series of stages, but as the movement of endless revolt.

Adorno's importance, then, lies in the fact that it is he who develops the notion of a negative dialectic most directly, in his book of the same name. The opening words of the Preface declare his aim to be the freeing of dialectics from its positive heritage: "Negative Dialectics is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation: the thought figure of a 'negation of negation' later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy" (1990: xix). For Adorno, as for all the authors we have mentioned, the starting point is the political-theoretical failure of orthodox Marxism: he writes "after the attempt to change the world miscarried", after the "moment to realise [philosophy] was missed" (1990: 3). After Stalin, Auschwitz and Hiroshima there are no certainties, above all no guarantee of a happy ending. That is why it is necessary to abandon the notion of dialectics as a process of negation leading to a synthesis, a negation of negation leading to a positive ending. The only way in which we can now conceive dialectics is negatively, as a movement of negation rather than of synthesis, as a negative dialectics.

Why dialectics at all, then? Simply because it is the only form of thought adequate to a wrong world. Dialectics exists because we are in the wrong place, in the wrong sort of society: "dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction" (1990: 11). It is the wrongness of the world that makes dialectics or negative thought necessary. The wrongness of the world means that right-thinking and right-doing are necessarily negative, thinking against and doing against. If the world is wrong, then we are negative beings; our very existence is a movement against. For Adorno, the central category is nonidentity, the movement against identity, against that which is. "The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder ... Contradiction ... indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived" (1990: 5). Non-identity is the subterranean movement of the refusal of identity, of that which is: "contradiction is non-identity under the aspect of identity" (1990: 5). Dialectics is sensibility to the movement of this refusal: "dialectics is the consistent sense of non-identity."

Dialectics understood in this way is a movement of breaking and opening. Nonidentity breaks identity and opens the way to the creation of something new. The movement of non-identity is the movement of creativity. Non-identity is an overflowing beyond what is, it is change and self-change, creation and self-creation. To put non-identity at the centre of philosophy is to put negation-creation at the centre.

Dialectics, so understood, is a long way from the dialectics rejected by Deleuze, Guattari, Hardt, Negri and others. Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones have recently recognised the danger of identifying all dialectics with the synthetic, Hegelian dialectics and, quoting Macherey, they suggest the need for an open dialectic: "What is a dialectic like here and now that functions in the absence of all guarantee ... without the promise that all contradictions on which it embarks will be resolved by right, because they carry in themselves the conditions of their resolution?" (Hardt and Colectivo Situaciones 2007). This is essentially the question asked by Adorno and the other members of the so-called Frankfurt School. The answer, Adorno suggests, can be conceived only in terms of a firmly negative dialectic.


This book is a series of reflections on the challenge posed by the idea of a negative dialectic.

The short opening chapter by John Holloway asks why we should read Adorno and suggests that an answer can be found by confronting him with Tronti and the autonomist tradition from which he is so different but with which he nevertheless shares the starting point of negation/refusal. The most striking difference between Adorno and the theorists of the autonomist tradition is, of course, that they immersed themselves in direct political action (and many of them were imprisoned as a result), whereas Adorno held himself aloof from the student movement of the late 1960s. And yet ...? Adrian Wilding, through an examination of Adorno's last lectures, discusses the complex relation between Adorno and the student movement in terms of Adorno's warning of the dangers of "thought bowing irrationally to the primacy of practice" and his fear of being pushed into the role of guru or, worse, Pied Piper of the movement. Wilding warns against coming to simplistic conclusions and emphasises Marcuse's strong defence of Adorno's political importance, despite the fact that Marcuse himself took a very different position in relation to the student movement.

In the second part of the book we focus specifically on the central theme of negative dialectics as a critique of neo-structuralism. In his chapter on "Antagonism and Difference," Alberto Bonnet centres his argument on the contrast between Adorno's emphasis on contradiction and the rejection by Deleuze and others of the notion of contradiction in favour of difference. He argues that the distinction has important political implications and that the emphasis on difference can easily lead to the theory and politics of liberalism. Darij Zadnikar takes up the same issue of the political implications of the rejection of dialectics and suggests that it is connected to the growth of a new "post-vanguardism" in the global movement against capitalism. A second short contribution by Holloway develops a similar point in terms of a contrast between positive and negative autonomism.

The third part of the book develops some of the key elements of the critique of mainstream revolutionary theory. Sergio Tischler focuses on the importance of Adorno's critique of totality and his insistence on the importance of particularity. The crisis of totality is the crisis of a whole mode of understanding and organising class struggle – in short, the crisis of party-Marxism which received its highest theoretical expression in the work of Lukács. The movement of particularity (or of non-identity) is the driving principle of an emerging new constellation of class struggle. Werner Bonefeld addresses the question of the political richness of Adorno through a discussion of Adorno's concept of the concept. The "constitutive character of the non-conceptual in the concept" (Adorno 1973: 12) unlocks the door to a critical understanding of class struggle as "permanent revolution", the ceaseless movement of determinate negation. This movement breaks through the pessimism that gives the tone to much of Adorno's work.


Excerpted from "Negativity and Revolution"
by .
Copyright © 2009 John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros and Sergio Tischler.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

I Introduction to the Issues

1 Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism John Holloway Fernando Matamoros Sergio Tischler 3

2 Why Adorno? John Holloway 12

3 Pied Pipers and Polymaths: Adorno's Critique of Praxisism Adrian Wilding 18

II Negative Dialectics Versus Neo-Structuralism

4 Antagonism and Difference: Negative Dialectics and Poststructuralism in View of the Critique of Modern Capitalism Alberto R. Bonnet 41

5 Adorno and Post-vanguardism Darij Zadnikar 79

6 Negative and Positive Autonomism. Or Why Adorno? Part 2 John Holloway 95

III Emancipation and the Critique of Totality

7 Adorno: The Conceptual Prison of the Subject, Political Fetishism and Class Struggle Sergio Tischler 103

8 Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno Werner Bonefeld 122

IV The Politics of Sexuality and Art

9 Adorno, Non-identity, Sexuality Marcel Stoetzler 151

10 Solidarity with the Fall of Metaphysics: Negativity and Hope Fernando Matamoros 189

11 Mimesis and Distance: Arts and the Social in Adorno's Thought Jose Manuel Martinez 228

List of Contributors 241

Name Index 242

Subject Index 246

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