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Review: Social Philosophy after Adorno

Lambert Zuidervaart

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

By David Brian Howard

“It is not the portrayal of reality as hell on earth but the slick challenge to break out of it that is suspect. If there is anyone today to whom we can pass the responsibilities for the message, we bequeath it not to the “masses,” and not to the individual (who is powerless), but to an imaginary witness—lest it perish with us.”

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno,

The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

In the last two decades, scholarly interest in the work of one of the leaders of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno, has accelerated significantly. Whether as a response to the need to maintain a complex engagement with Marxism in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall or out of the need to come to terms with the legacy of George Bush and 9/11 (and one might as well add the entire history of American imperialism and the history of modernity), monographs and journal articles on Adorno have elevated his profile to the point that it is now comparable one of the other great icon of twentieth century critical Marxism: Walter Benjamin. One of the tremendous benefits of this plethora of critical discourse on Adorno is that, unlike earlier periods of critical analysis on his work, the depth and range of critical opinion is far more diverse, more varied, and thus, for the devoted reader, extremely more rewarding in critical insights. One of the most subtle and insightful of these interpreters of Adorno’s work is Lambert Zuidervaart, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, whose previous book-length treatment of Adorno, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion (2004), still stands as the finest critical explication of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.

In his intriguing new book, Zuidervaart sets himself two major tasks: the first, a welcome critical retrieval of the “crucial insights” into Adorno’s aesthetics and social philosophy after decades of criticism, and the second, an examination of the requirements for collectivity and normativity in a global context. The latter task, Zuidervaart suggests, requires salvaging many of Adorno’s keenest critical insights in order to enable a robust theory of social democracy that could better address the challenges facing social philosophy “after” Adorno. Taken as autonomous segments, Zuidervaart accomplishes both tasks with aplomb. Zuidervaart feels that it is Adorno’s own successors, more than his opponents, have blocked a fresh reception of his work. Zuidervaart singles out Jürgen Habermas, Adorno’s former pupil, in particular, as a key actor in thwarting the reapplication of Adorno’s theory in the 21st century. In Chapter 4 Zuidervaart adroitly parries the Habermasian critique of the overarching theme of reification by highlighting the “sustained misreading of the remembrance of nature in Adorno’s thought.” Whereas Habermas claims that Adorno and Max Horkheimer fatally expand the concept of reification via Weber’s rationalization thesis and Luckác’s theory of reification into a totalizing “critique of instrumental reason” (118-119[1]) in their book, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Zuidervaart counters with a post-Habermasian renewal of Adorno’s social vision for the age of globalization. Zuidervaart argues convincingly that Adorno remains a dialectical critic that provides a normative critique of Western society. He also, quite rightly, draws attention to the allegorical interpretation that leads back to the Jewish religion reinforcing the commitment to dialectical social criticism but “without the Hegelian safety net of ‘totality … as the absolute.’” (116) Finally Zuidervaart highlights the claim that Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, make in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, that domination is inherently self-limiting especially as a result of the tools it requires. What Adorno articulates more eloquently than his successors, argues Zuidervaart, is that “the whole is the false.” Thus, we cannot resist the repression of desire and the destruction of nature unless we dismantle economic exploitation. What he [Adorno] needed to say more vigorously, however, and with greater nuance, is that the whole is not wholly false. This is the valid point to Habermas’s otherwise overwrought critique.” (131) Zuidervaart is extremely effective at neutralizing the critiques of Habermas, Axel Honneth, and others, and he assists in helping to rescue Adorno from the oddly reductive framing to which he was subjected by many associated with the second and third generations of the Frankfurt School.

Zuidervaart’s second and more challenging task is to develop a social philosophy that takes seriously the “new categorical imperative” that Adorno advocates for the avoidance of a repetition of Auschwitz in the future. Zuidervaart links his defense of Adorno with his vision of social philosophy after Adorno, hinting throughout his book, but elaborating more fully in Chapter 6, his own vision of a fully-fledged theory of social democracy. Drawing upon John Dewey’s three concepts of freedom, participation, and recognition, as well as Hauke Brunkhorst’s book Solidarity (2005), and the social vision of Rebecca Todd Peters, especially her In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (2004), Zuidervaart seeks to counter what he calls the increasingly antidemocratic turbocapitalist economy, with “a fully fledged theory of social democracy [that] would render Adorno’s strategic elitism moot.”(167). Peters, for example, advocates for a “democratized power sharing, caring for the planet, and the social well-being of all people, and as a normative framework for evaluating stances toward globalization,” (169-170) which strongly resonates with the underlying social message of Zuidervaart’s thesis. Throughout his text Zuidervaart draws our attention to the need for a social democratic politics of global transformation that heals the rift between the powerlessness of the autonomous individual and critical art practice and the far greater potential of a democratic vision of change. However, this is the crucial point where the threads of Zuidervaart’s argument begin to fray as he attempts to overcome the gap between theory and practice that he feels is present in Adorno. Zuidervaart separates himself from Adorno’s defense of modernist art and autonomy, which he characterizes as monadic and transgressive, by defending a post-Adornian model of autonomy characterized by dialogical and transformative characteristics. Zuidervaart’s characteristics of autonomy, while acknowledging that it is difficult to imagine the elimination of social exclusion (and the suffering associated with it), antidemocratic tendencies, and the life-destroying effects of capitalism, demonstrate that Zuidervaart is distancing himself from Adorno’s advocacy of critical modernism and the autonomous individual in favor of an insistence on normative and socially democratic forms of collective action that he obviously feels are the basis for a more socially and politically effective and responsible ethic in the twenty-first century. While claiming not to ignore Adorno’s critical insights, Zuidervaart harshly critiques Adorno on questions of collectivity and normativity while castigating him for the complete absence of arguments that could seen to represent a social ethics.

Therefore a social philosophy informed by Adorno would articulate principles of justice, resourcefulness, and solidarity that are not utopian “nor sink into a postmodern morass.”(180) However, Adorno’s defense of critical modernist art practices and the ongoing importance of the dialectically engaged autonomous individual remain important, if not the sole, sites of resistance in the face of increasing antidemocratic tendencies in the West, as well as around the world, and the life-destroying effects of late capitalism. As unforgivably weak as those positions are, it is important to remember the fundamental mistrust of both social democracy and the scientific Marxism of the Second International from the nineteenth century onwards that led Adorno, Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and other members of what would become to be known as the Frankfurt School, to adopt a highly critical stance towards any overly optimistic belief that the gap separating theory and practice in social philosophy could be transcended in such an undialectical manner, hence the emphasis by various key members on critical art production, whether of the modernist or avant-garde variety. Zuidervaart himself hints at such a deep anxiety for his own project when he states: “Clearly, if globalization simply means the spread of this [American] empire, all bets are off.” (128).

Given Zuidervaart’s apparent social and political optimism, it is perhaps surprising that a Toronto based philsoper is not more concerned about the omnipresence of the American Empire. In addition, why is it, as Slavoj Žižek has been so right to point out, that the default position for so many ex- or post-Marxists is a mildly left wing social democratic perspective, as if, somehow, the political and social contradicitions of social democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have been overcome? It is hard to believe that the insights of the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, including those of Walter Benjamin, have been substantially surpassed by the moderate left wing discourses of the last several decades. Nor does it appear that a more viable political and social vision is now just around the corner for those on the critical left to rally around, which the election of President Barack Obama has done very little to dissipate? In addition, given all the difficulties with the social and aesthetic positions that current social democratic movements reveal in their attempts to unite theory and practice beyond the aporias of the Frankfurt School, little more than a regression to older critical stances that predate the critical breakthroughs the Frankfurt School in the 1930s seems to have been achieved.

Thus, while claiming to be in a position to close the gap between theory and practice in the present, and overcoming Adorno’s inability to articulate both a social ethics and a vision of societal transformation could unfold, Zuidervaart’s social and aesthetic approach is not entirely successful at bridging the historical divide between Critical Theory and social democracy. Yet after having said all of that, Zuidervaart’s book, along with other writers on Adorno’s politics of whom Zuidervaart is highly critical, such as Espen Hammer, author of Adorno and the Political (2005), are valuable contributions to the growing body of scholarly literature on Adorno. Zuidervaart deserves a wide readership both in terms of his nuanced defense of Adorno’s radicalism against his more conservative left wing critics and for his problematic efforts to articulate a social democratic philosophy foregrounding a rearticulated notion of autonomy after Adorno.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Brunkhorst, Hauke (2005) Solidarity. From Civic Friendship to a Global Legal Community. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hammer, Espen (2005) Adorno and the Political. New York: Routledge.

Peters, Rebecca Todd (2004) In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization. London: Continuum.

Zuidervaart, Lambert (2004) Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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