No experience marked the life and work of Theodor Adorno so deeply as the confrontation with National Socialism.
The Institute for Social Research had its connection to the University of Frankfurt severed in April 1933, leading to a period of exile both for it and for Adorno himself.
Both returned to Germany in 1949 to begin the long and arduous work of rebuilding German society on a basis other than that which had led to so thoroughgoing a catastrophe.
The study of the social and political origins of National Socialism was a consistent thread in the work of the Institute.
Although its work retained a pronouncedly Marxist inflexion, the analyses of Nazism carried out under its auspices went considerably beyond the simplistic class analysis of orthodox Marxism.
Weaving together the work of Freud and Weber, the Frankfurt School, as it became called, formulated an expansive account the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Much of its work after the Second World War pondered how, in light of the East-West confrontation and the development of liberal capitalism, fascism might similarly return.
Adorno, in particular, never ceased in his attempts to come to terms with the question of Nazism both in its original incarnation and in its more modern forms.
From large research projects such as the work published under the title The Authoritarian Personality (1950) to incisive interpretive essays, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), the half-Jewish philosopher sought to analyse the underlying causes of authoritarian thinking, all with an eye to giving opponents of fascism better tools to fight it.
Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (1967) recently published for the first time and now available in English translation, is an apposite addition to this project, particularly given the recrudescence of extreme far-right politics in Europe and the United States.
Delivered as a lecture to a meeting of the Socialist Students of Austria, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism provides one of the clearer views on the subject by the composer of notoriously recondite texts.
To a great extent, this is because this was a recorded talk, rather than a text prepared by Adorno for publication. It was also a sign of the times.
The relative accessibility of recording technology in the second half of the 20th century has resulted in the preservation of a wide range of non-published material by major scholars that, in a prior era would have disappeared.
One thinks here of the lecture courses delivered by Michel Foucault at the College de France in the 1970s and early 1980s, texts which, since their publication, have opened dramatic new vistas and modes of insight into his later work.
Some of Theodor Adorno’s lecture courses have also survived. While he was uncomfortable with the publication of transcriptions, texts collecting his lecture courses such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Negative Dialectics have proved important sources of secondary material for the interpretation of Adorno’s oeuvre.
Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism is a later text, delivered sixteen months before the author’s death while on vacation in Switzerland in August 1968, and composed while he was in the process of working on (but not completing) his Aesthetic Theory, which would not be published until two years after Theodor Adorno’s death.
Fascism, Adorno argued, had survived the defeat of National Socialism.
So much was clear not only because of the formation of the unapologetically ultranationalist Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) in 1964, filling the ideological space left by the banning of the Sozialistische Reichspartei in 1952, but also in the reactionary views that one could hear in the casual conversations of middle-class Germans.
Fascist movements were, Adorno argued, “the wounds, the scars of a democracy that, to this day, has not yet lived up to its own concept”.
In a text of some 40 pages, Adorno provided a number of points of entry into the project of understanding the far-right.
From the fear of technological unemployment to underlying psychological motivations, from a distaste for the civilisation of the United States to idealised memories of the years before 1945, Adorno wove a range of factors into an analysis of fascism based on his isolation of its causes.
This provides an important corrective to many current debates about the status of the far-right in the 21st Century.
The question of whether this or that movement constitutes fascism, or right-wing authoritarianism, or some variety of populism, or whether it might contain elements of all three, is not uninteresting.
However, there is a sense in which it misses the point. Categorisation only becomes important to the extent that it highlights fundamental differences calling for different fightbacks.
If two conservatisms can, or must, be responded to with the same tactics, then the terms used to refer to them are largely irrelevant.
Ironically, given the rather pessimistic reputation of Adorno, this mini-book retains a certain degree of optimism.
“One of the most crucial aspects of how to resist [the NPD],” Adorno argued, was “to warn the potential followers of right-wing extremism about its own consequences, to convey to them that this politics will inevitably lead to its own followers to their doom too and that this doom was part of it from the outset.”
Much as there is a great temptation to leave the incorrigibles to their ignorance, Adorno believed that verbal confrontation was a viable strategy for rebutting extremist ideas.
Far-right ideology represents a hodgepodge of ideas, some based in reality, others merely caricatures or simple reversals of otherwise valid assertions (such as the claim by the far-right still heard to this day that it represents the “true” democracy).
Far from addressing the problem at high levels of abstraction, much of Adorno’s text is devoted to analysing the argumentative strategies employed by extremists in ways that once again suggest addressing far-right politics through argument rather than violence.
“The hush hush tactice” of keeping quiet about the extreme right, Adorno argued, should give way to appeals to their “real interests” rather than moralising:
“Perhaps I can also remind you that one of the findings of our Authoritarian Personality research in America, which revealed that even prejudiced personalities, who were certainly authoritarian, repressive, and politically and economically reactionary, when it came to their own transparent interests, transparent to themselves, reacted quite differently.”
One can legitimately ask the question of whether the context in which these lines were written – Germany during the upheaval of the late 1960s – is not so different than our own, that the prescription of vocal opposition to fascism and the far-right might not be inappropriate.
Perhaps, but one might also decide that having lived through the Nazi era, Theodor Adorno’s views on the topic merit the benefit of the doubt. At least the argument is worth having.
Beneath it all lies Adorno’s sleek, clear, and committed prose, in which he strove to stand as a light of reason against the dark night of a fascism reborn.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.