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The aim of this chapter is to outline the sig- nificance of materialism for the formulation of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory of society. Traditionally, materialism has been taken to mean that the world is composed of a single substance or matter, and that all worldly phenomena – including ostensibly intangible ones, such as thought – are modi- fications or attributes thereof. Accordingly, materialism has long been equated with the view that our experience of the world is rooted in (and conditioned by) tangible, material circumstances. It signals an effort to explain the world out of itself, on its own terms, i.e. without appealing to any higher principle, be it the primacy of the Idea or the supreme reign of God. The wider implication of this view – famously elaborated in the nineteenth century by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their followers – is that these material circumstances are historically pro- duced, rather than naturally given or divinely


Sebastian Truskolaski

sanctioned, and that, as such, they can be contested, challenged and, ultimately, changed. However, as we will find, many of the most prominent attempts to give concrete shape to these views have wound up inad- vertently reproducing the very metaphysical assumptions that they set out to overturn. The materialism of the Frankfurt School stems squarely from within this contested space. Accordingly, the positions advanced by fig- ures from its so-called ‘first generation’ (par- ticularly Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, as well as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse) mark a sig- nificant, if not uncritical, contribution to the history of this idea. Horkheimer, for instance, discusses the question of materialism in his early essays ‘Materialism and Metaphysics’ (2002a), ‘Materialism and Morality’ (1993) and his seminal ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ (2002b). This theme is taken up again in his discussions with Adorno (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2011), who – in turn – treats it in his lectures on Philosophical


Terminology (1974) and his magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1973). Other notable examples include Bloch, who explores the issue in his book Das Materialismus- Problem, seine Geschichte und Substanz [The Problem of Materialism, its History and Substance] (1972), Benjamin, who debates the matter in the notes comprising his unfin- ished Arcades Projects (1999), and Marcuse, who examines the subject in his essay ‘New Sources on the Foundation of Historical Materialism’ (2005). What holds these texts together is that, in one way or another, they all interrogate the professed materialist dis- position of Marxian social criticism, which, they suggest, had hardened into a dogmatic worldview by the 1930s – at least in its offi- cial iterations. Following figureheads of ‘Western Marxism’ (Elbe, 2013), such as Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, the authors from the Institute for Social Research thus re-inscribe the diverse concerns collected under the heading of materialism into the his- tory of philosophy, especially that of German Idealism – a tradition which, in their estima- tion, had been prematurely left for dead. In this regard, Horkheimer, Adorno et al. explore questions of experience and affectiv- ity, cognition and morality, as well as the relation between nature and culture in the age of ‘positivism’ – a byword for the philo- sophically un-reflected empiricism of much scientific thought, including its Marxist vari- ants. By re-engaging with the problems of materialism in this expanded sense, and by drawing on a range of disciplinary special- isms – from sociology to philosophy and economics – the authors from the orbit of the Institute for Social Research thus sought to recast the parameters of this concept with and beyond Marx. In this regard they position themselves against a tendency, prevalent amongst Soviet Marxists such as Lenin, who tended to neglect the wide-ranging philo- sophical implications of Marx’s early writ- ings, thus re-converting the emphasis on the material transformation of society into a metaphysical doctrine.

It is noteworthy, too, that many of the most pointedly Marxian aspects of the early Frankfurt School’s materialism were taken up in the 1960s/1970s by students of Adorno and Horkheimer in Germany, and Herbert Marcuse and Leo Löwenthal in the United States. Significant examples include works by Alfred Schmidt (1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1981), Hans-Jürgen Krahl (1974), Hans- Georg Backhaus (1997), Helmut Reichelt (2001), Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt (2014), as well as Angela Davis (1998). Their positions markedly contrast with those of prominent figures from the so-called ‘second- generation’ of the Frankfurt School, includ- ing Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, whose work has tended to foreground ques- tions of normativity over explicitly Marxist- materialist forms of social criticism. Without presuming to account for the full breadth of the Frankfurt School’s materialism – there are, of course, considerable differences between its individual players – the follow- ing pages will attempt to highlight some of its salient features, such as the prominent emphasis on the suffering body, on material- ist epistemology, and on the negative image of utopia that the examination of these themes is supposed to throw into relief. To this end the chapter is organised into three parts:

(1) An overview of the history of materialism, and an indication of the Frankfurt School’s place therein; (2) An account of Adorno’s ‘imageless materialism’ as a paradigmatic instance of the Frankfurt School’s position; (3) An attempt to highlight the cotemporary resonance of the Frankfurt School’s ideas in contrast with a recent form of philosophical materialism known as Speculative Realism. All the while the overarching conceit is the following: the Frankfurt School’s re-formula- tion of materialism – the malleability of man’s historical, material situation – intends to safe- guard Critical Theory from the perceived pit- falls of both Soviet-style Marxism and liberal scientism by creating an interdisciplinary toolkit with which to change the world that philosophy has hitherto only interpreted.




Although it is arguable that the concern with matter and the way that it relates to conscious- ness is coeval with the emergence of (European) philosophy itself, materialism – in the sense of a distinctive intellectual formation – means an eminently modern phenomenon; one that rose to prominence in eighteenth-century France during the era of the so-called ‘High Enlightenment’ and is associated with the writ- ings of the Baron d’Holbach, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius and others (Israel, 2001). In turn, the French materialists – whose fiercely atheistic views are frequently named in connection with the revolutionary ferment of the late 1780s – forged their positions in response to a wide range of older philosophies, which fore- grounded the material stuff of life over the lofty realm of ideas: from the Pre-Socratic Atomism of Democritus and his follower Epicurus, to the pantheistic monism of Spinoza, and the scien- tific thought of Galileo, Bacon and Descartes. With a view to these sources, amongst others, the French materialists developed their charac- teristically polemical, politically explosive view that human beings are quasi machine- like, that they are independent of divine design, and that – as such – they are not answerable to clerical and (by extension) royal authority. A famous formulation of these views appears in d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770), which denies the existence of any final causes, arguing that there is no soul apart from the living body, and suggesting that faith in God is the result of an irrational fear before the ulti- mately mechanistic processes of nature. Despite the widespread political reception of the French materialists’ ideas amongst German-speaking intellectuals, which was due – above all – to their association with revolutionary Republicanism, their philoso- phy as such tended to be met with some sus- picion. Immanuel Kant, for instance, whose declared, if not unambiguous, sympathies for

the French revolution are well documented (Kant, 1996), rejected materialism – along-

side Idealism – as insufficient for grounding

a critically self-reflexive form of philosophy. As he writes:

Through criticism alone can we sever the very root of materialism, fatalism, atheism, of freethinking unbelief, of enthusiasm and superstition, which can become generally injurious, and finally also of idealism and skepticism, which are more danger- ous to the schools and can hardly be transmitted to the public. (Kant, 1998: 119)

The German aversion to materialism, which was foreshadowed in the famous controversy

between Leibniz and Newton (Bertoloni- Meli, 1993), remained in force throughout the first three decades of the nineteenth century

– a period that was dominated by the Idealist

systems of Fichte, Hegel and Schelling. The Idealist’s relation to materialism can be gleaned in Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy (1995), which praise the French materialists’ attempt to overcome the dualism of body and mind, whilst rejecting their view that it is possible to grasp totality in terms of mere matter. What is important here is that following Hegel’s death in 1831, Idealism – the philosophy of Spirit – increasingly came under fire. As a consequence, numerous attempts were made to circumnavigate its perceived failings. They are characterised by an extraordinary conceptual breadth, ranging from Søren Kierkegaard’s Existentialism to Hermann von Helmholtz’s Neo-Kantianism. Amongst these varied programmes there are four specifically materialist approaches that bear mentioning, insofar as they form the backdrop to the Frankfurt School’s subse- quent work. They are, first, the physiological materialism of Jacob Moleschott, Carl Vogt and Ludwig Büchner; second, the anthropo- logical materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach; third, the early dialectical/historical material- ism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; and fourth, the late reformulation of dialectical/ historical materialism by Engels, as well as its reception by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.


(It exceeds the limitations of the present chapter to outline a fifth important forebear of the Frankfurt School’s position, namely: the messianic materialism of the Jena Romantics [Frank, 2004].) First, then, Moleschott, Vogt and Büchner are notable principally because their posi- tions demonstrate the extent to which German-speaking philosophers had aban- doned the precepts of Idealism by the mid nineteeth century (Gregory, 1977). Over the course of the 1850s, Vogt, for instance, pub- lished a series of popular texts that echoed the fierce atheism of the French materialists by rejecting the biblical view of creation on biological grounds, arguing that the world, and our experience of it, is to be explained in purely physiological terms; a view that, in turn, led him to identify psychological pro- cesses with physical ones (e.g. thinking with brain activity). Vogt’s ideas were vigorously contested by an array of Christian thinkers, most prominently Rudolf Wagner, culminat- ing in a public disagreement at Göttingen in 1854 – the so-called Materialismus-Streit (Bayertz et al., 2012). Without touching on the finer points of these debates – in essence they amount to a series of broadly ideological declarations of the superiority of materialism over spiritualism and vice versa – the public interest in such issues, spurred on by major advancements in the life sciences, created a fertile climate for the proliferation of other materialist philosophies. Second, Ludwig Feuerbach – a contem- porary of the physiological materialists, who corresponded for a time with Moleschott and Vogt (Feuerbach, 1993) – is significant for introducing an anthropological dimension into the newly fangled German debates about the primacy of matter. Along with Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner and others, Feuerbach had been associated with the left-leaning Young Hegelians, who – in the period before 1848 – foregrounded aspects of Hegel’s phi- losophy that had seemed to them to call for a ruthless criticism of the present (chiefly reli- gion, but also the state) in the name of a fully

actualised form of reason, and an associated state of freedom, which, they claimed, fol- lowed from Hegel’s thinking, but exceeded in its radicality his stated intentions. Although Feuerbach is best remembered for the criti- cisms levelled at him by Marx (2000) and Engels, his central work – The Essence of Christianity (1957) – is an important fore- runner of dialectical/historical materialism, not least because it emphasises the impor- tance of human sensuality. As Feuerbach writes, ‘I negate God. For me this means that I negate the negation of the human. I put the sensual, real, and, consequently, necessarily political and social position of the human in place of its illusory, fantastic, heavenly position’ (Feuerbach, 1990: 189). On this basis, Schmidt has done much to rehabilitate Feuerbach’s philosophy by pointing out the importance of his atheistic humanism for the development of subsequent materialisms. As he argues:

If, in its most advanced form, Marx’s theory dis- cusses societal reality on two levels (which are related precisely by dint of their mediation); if it insists that, despite their objectivity, economic categories, such as the commodity, value, money, and capital are ‘subjective’, i.e. that they are con- crete existential determinations of embodied human beings, then this insight points back to Feuerbachian impulses. (Schmidt, 1973: 19)

Third, then, Marx and Engels are crucial for carrying out a practical re-orientation of Feuerbach’s anthropological materialism, by foregrounding the agency inherent in human sensibility, which is central for the wider project of re-shaping the material world. Although Marx acknowledges the impor- tance of Feuerbach for the development of these ideas, one of the best-known docu- ments of his consequential efforts to recast the concept of materialism is a set of critical notes known as the ‘Theses On Feuerbach’ (2000): ‘Feuerbach’, we are told, ‘wants sensible objects – really distinguished from thought-objects: but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity … Hence he does not grasp the significance of



revolutionary, practical-critical activity’ (Marx, 2000: 171). As such, Marx chides, Feuerbach merely presents another variant of traditional materialism. By contrast, he suggests, the true task of materialism would be to outline an approach that is intellectually adequate to the actualisation of philosophical ideas, to ‘revolutionary, practical-critical activity’ – in short, to changing the world. This is why, as Schmidt points out, Marx’s concept of materialism aims at a critique of social objectivity. But there is another instructive point that can be gleaned from this short passage, namely:

Marx’s redefinition of the then prevalent philosophical conception of subjectivity. That is to say, Marx sought to recast the (Kantian) concept of the subject – the ‘I’ – as, in the first place, passively apprehending the material world as an object of intuition before mastering it intellectually through its conformity to certain mental structures that are deemed to be universally human (space, time, causality). However, although Marx concedes Kant’s point that the subject is central to producing knowledge of the mate- rial world, he denies that the role of human sensibility is merely passive in this process. Rather, he ascribes sensibility – and hence human activity more generally – a trans- formative role. As Peter Osborne points out, ‘This new materialist redefinition of the human subject as sensible practice (practical activity as the sensuous being of the human), rather than a subject being defined by its knowledge of an object, has profound conse- quences for the traditional philosophical concept of human essence’ (Osborne, 2005:

29). Instead of appearing as a mere ‘abstrac- tion inherent in each single individual’, the inter-relatedness of human activity means that the old conception of society as an aggregate of competing individuals no longer holds. Instead, Marx foregrounds the relational character of socially transforma- tive practice under the banner of his new materialism – a materialism aimed at chang- ing society.

Finally, it bears stressing the importance of Engels’ reformulation of his and Marx’s concept of materialism in later works like Anti-Dühring (1987a), Dialectics of Nature (1987b) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1990), as well as the reception of these works by Lenin. (As we will find, it is the Engelsian- Leninist position that prompts the Frankfurt School’s reformulation of materialism.) On Engels’ late account, his and Marx’s com- mon goal had been to demonstrate a ‘general law of development of nature, society, and thought’, which is at once historical and onto- logical (Marx and Engels, 1990: 361). Engels thus equates certain socio-political develop- ments with particular natural processes. As he argues, ‘what is valid for nature’ – the mate- rial world as such – ‘must also be valid for his- tory’; ‘Political praxis is … the consummation of historical’ and, by extension, natural ‘laws’ (Elbe, 2013). This schema has epistemologi- cal implications. For Engels, the ‘law’ of the dialectic, which he and Marx had taken over from Hegel, is, in fact, ‘split into “two sets of laws”’: into ‘the dialectic of “the external world”’, on the one hand, ‘and the dialectic of “human thought”’, on the other (Elbe, 2013). In this sense, Engels’ view aims at a material- ist reversal of Hegel’s philosophy. ‘The inver- sion of the dialectic in Hegel rests on this, that it is supposed to be the “self-development of thought”, of which the dialectic of facts is … only a reflection, whereas the dialectic in our heads is in reality the reflection of the actual’, material, ‘development going on in the world of nature and of human history in obedience to dialectical forms’ (Marx and Engels, 1975:

520). In this sense, Engels suggests, Hegel’s dialectic is marked by a simple mind–matter dichotomy, which is unduly weighted in favour of thought. It is not Spirit which drives the historical process, but an as yet unnamed material force. (By contrast, it will be recalled, for Marx this force had been human activity: practice.) Undoing this con- fusion is supposed to put the dialectic back on its feet. On the one hand, this is intended


to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all fields of intellectual inquiry (philosophy, political economy and the natural sciences are all seen as evincing the same dialectical-his- torical tendency); and, on the other hand, this unifying endeavour is designed to put social- ism on the authoritative ground of empiri- cal science. However, Engels’ view that the dialectic ‘in our heads’ is merely a reflec- tion of ‘actual developments in the world’ undercuts the primacy of praxis, and with it critique, which he and Marx had previously insisted on. Engels portrays consciousness

as a mere ‘product of evolution and a passive

reflection of the process of nature, not how- ever as a productive force’ (Schmidt, 1971:

55–6). In other words, as Schmidt points out, Engels’ later characterisation of his and Marx’s concept of materialism portrays the external world as a rigid, immutable given, in which humankind is ‘limited to a mere mirroring of the factual’, i.e. the ‘uncriti- cal reproduction of existing relationships in consciousness’ (Schmidt, 1971: 56). It seems

clear, then, that if the Frankfurt School’s con- ception of a Marxian materialism entails that human beings have the power to practically affect their material circumstances (a return

to Marx’s early insight), then the cogency of

this view will depend on how effectively they can challenge Engels’ position. In order to gain a fuller sense hereof, however, it remains

to consider a final episode from the history of

materialism, namely: the reception of Engels’ ideas by Lenin. Engels’ late re-formulation of his and Marx’s concept of materialism resounds in Lenin’s meta-scientific opus Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1961) – a work that

went on to significantly shape the theoretical foundations of Soviet Marxism. On the sur- face, Lenin’s book is couched in a string of factional debates concerning recent develop- ments in the natural sciences. The discovery of radioactivity, in particular, is supposed to have led to a widespread rejection ‘of an objective reality existing outside the mind’;

a sentiment that – in turn – provoked ‘the

replacement of materialism by idealism and agnosticism’ (Lenin, 1961: 252). Lenin’s misgivings are directed chiefly at Alexander Bogdanov’s three-volume work Empirio- Monism (1904–6), which – for its part – draws on theories developed by the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. In brief, Mach argues that physics proceeds not from the study of matter, but from the study of sense- experience: ‘not bodies produce sensations, but element-complexes (sensation-complexes) constitute the bodies’ (Mach, 1959: 29). Bogdanov follows Mach by advocating a strict empiricism, which rules out any form of a priori knowledge. As he argues, ‘The real world is identical with human experi- ence of it’ (Rowley, 1996: 5). His specifically Marxist manoeuvre is to recast the individual experiences described by Mach into those of a collective subject: the proletarian class itself. Accordingly, knowledge of the external world – and the ability to change it – is not based on the merely subjective whims of indi- viduals. Rather, it is made up of the ‘shared perceptions of the collective consciousness of a society’ (Rowley, 1996: 5). However, as Lenin charges, Bogdanov’s idiosyncratic adaptation of Mach cannot escape its rooting in a fundamentally individualistic outlook. Accordingly, the prioritisation of sense- experience is said to displace the primacy of mind-independent matter – a circumstance whose political consequence is taken to mean that materialism, which Lenin equates with political praxis, is transformed into subjec- tive quietism. Accordingly, the purportedly bourgeois ‘belief that our knowledge of the world is constructed out of a field of sense- data’ is seen as creating ‘an insuperable bar- rier between human consciousness and the external world’ (Richey, 2003: 43). Lenin’s effort to defend the priority of matter thus requires an alternative account of how human beings relate to the material world – an alter- native epistemology. As Lenin argues, rather than constituting bodies, sensation appears as ‘the direct connection between consciousness and the external world’ (Lenin, 1961: 51).



In a clear echo of Engels’ later works, sense data is said to mirror the world as it really is, independently of (and external to) conscious- ness. Consequently, Lenin argues that ‘sensa- tion, perception, idea, and the mind of man generally’ are to be regarded ‘as an image of objective reality’ (Lenin, 1961: 267). This framework is supposed to guarantee the sim- ple primacy of matter over ideas since ‘con- sciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image can- not exist without the thing imaged, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it’ (Lenin, 1961: 69). The proof that these images are bearers of objective truth is supposed to be provided by scientific experi- mentation, the analogue of which is seen as political praxis. However, here Lenin runs into difficulties since his suggestion that ‘it is absolutely unpardonable to confuse … any particular theory of the structure of matter’ with the ‘epistemological category’ of matter itself, suggests that the primacy of matter is somehow immune to scientific contestation (Lenin, 1969: 129). Accordingly, his effort to escape the trappings of Idealism (the mas- tery of reality in thought) runs the danger of reproducing, rather than refuting, the posi- tion he rallies against. Indeed, the problem that Adorno, Schmidt and others point to in this regard can be summed up as follows: if no ‘particular theory’ can pose a challenge to the unshakeable reality of matter as an ‘epis- temological category’, then matter itself – along with the revolutionary politics that it is supposed to guarantee – is dogmatically elevated to a metaphysical invariant. It goes beyond the limitations of the pre- sent chapter to explore in detail how Lenin’s reflections bear on his explicitly political thought, and, furthermore, on his consequen- tial revolutionary activities. The mediations are complex. Suffice to note that Lenin’s views became fundamental for formulat- ing the theoretical self-understanding of the Soviet Union as the quasi-inevitable product of history’s untrammelled, ‘dialectical’ pro- gress. It is this official iteration of a Marxist

materialism that was forcefully contested by the members of the Frankfurt School, espe- cially following the publication of Marx’s Grundrisse in 1939. This juncture invites

a preliminary observation. To the extent

that one can speak of materialism in terms

of a unified concept, it seems to fall under

what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as

a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ (Adorno and

Horkheimer, 2002: 26): on the one hand, the philosophically problematic insistence on the simple primacy of matter can serve as an emancipatory blow against the entrenched,

and apparently divinely ordained social struc- tures of, say, the ancien régime; however, on the other hand, a suggestion such as Lenin’s, that human consciousness merely reflects mind-independent matter, risks reproducing these structures under a different name – as incontestable facts of a seemingly inevitable historical process, which tends (in Adorno and Horkheimer’s estimation) to culminate

in barbarism rather than socialism. In other

words, a materialist programme like that of the Frankfurt School – to ‘reject the illusion that … the power of thought is sufficient to grasp the totality of the real’ (Adorno, 1977:

120) – cannot be put into practice if matter is transformed into a philosophical ideal.


Having briefly outlined some major markers from the history of materialism – from d’Holbach to Lenin – it remains to consider

the Frankfurt School’s particular contribution

to the development of this theme. Instead of

surveying its members’ individual positions, the following section will focus on one para- digmatic example, which speaks to many of their common concerns, namely: Adorno’s notion of an ‘imageless’ materialism. As will become apparent, Adorno outlines a philo- sophically self-reflexive challenge to the scientistic tendencies of Marxist materialism


by elaborating on a number of the Institute’s core ideas: a form of mimetic rationality that would radically reconfigure the relationship between humankind and the material world under the yoke of capitalist modernity; the suffering body as a negative expression of humankind’s wish for physical fulfilment; and an associated form of historiography that would resist the progressive narratives of vulgarised leftist discourse. In one way or another all of these themes are echoed in a memorable passage from Adorno’s magnum opus Negative Dialectics, titled ‘Materialism Imageless’. There Adorno writes:

Representational thinking [Abbildendes Denken] would be without reflection – an undialectical con-

tradiction, for without reflection there is no theory.

A consciousness interpolating images, a third ele-

ment, between itself and that which it thinks would unwittingly reproduce idealism. A body of ideas would substitute for the object of cognition,

and the subjective arbitrariness of such ideas is that

of the authorities. The materialist longing to grasp

the thing aims at the opposite: it is only in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such absence concurs with the theo- logical ban on images. Materialism brought that ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be positively pictured; this is the substance of its negativity. At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology. Its great desire would be the resurrection of the flesh, a desire utterly foreign to idealism, the realm of the abso- lute spirit. The perspective vanishing point of his- toric materialism would be its self-sublimation, the spirit’s liberation from the primacy of material needs in their state of fulfilment. Only if the physi- cal urge were quenched would the spirit be recon- ciled and would become that which it only promises while the spell of material conditions will not let it satisfy material needs. (Adorno, 1973: 207)

Above all, this passage seems to stake an epistemological claim: that a purportedly materialist form of cognition which interpo- lates images – ‘a third element’ – between consciousness and ‘that which it thinks’, in fact, ‘unwittingly reproduces idealism’. Adorno’s phrasing thus recalls the traditional opposition of materialism and idealism – the realm of ‘material needs’ vs. that of ‘absolute spirit’. It acknowledges a ‘risk that

supposedly materialist thinking will involun- tarily turn into its opposite’ (Jarvis, 2004:

96), i.e. into a form of subjective domination, which Adorno associates with certain unspec- ified ‘authorities’. To be sure, Adorno’s refer- ence to ‘representational thinking’ calls to mind the various forms of ‘reflection theory’ that punctuate the history of materialism from Democritus to Locke. In this respect, the German term Abbild – image, copy – takes centre stage. The locus of the problem, Adorno suggests, lies in ‘the Eastern coun- tries’ (Adorno, 1973: 206). Notwithstanding this indelicate indictment of the so-called ‘East’, it is striking that Adorno speaks here of a ‘materialism come to political power’, of ‘governmental terror machines’ that ‘entrench themselves as permanent institutions, mock- ing the theory they carry on their lips’ (Adorno, 1973: 204). Accordingly, his invec- tive appears to be directed chiefly against the official materialist doctrines of the Soviet Union, not least amongst them Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that Adorno explicitly names Lenin in the paragraph pre- ceding the one from which the long citation above is drawn. As he writes, ‘When Lenin, rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it in compulsively reiterated avowals of the noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to demonstrate that subjective positivism is con- spiring with the powers that be’ (Adorno, 1973: 205–6). This is further borne out in a lecture dated 17 January 1963, where Adorno describes ‘the big book by Lenin about Empirio-Criticism, which through a sort of dogmatic repetition declares the objec- tive reality of the world vis-à-vis its reduction to subjective givens’ (Adorno, 1974: 200). Accordingly, the question arises as to what kind of materialism is at issue here – what kind of politics is supposed to follow from it? Certainly, any attempt to answer these questions cannot go unqualified today. Inasmuch as the theoretical and political sway of the Soviet Union has been irrevoca- bly consigned to the history books, Adorno’s



objections to the functionaries of dialectical materialism may appear to have lost much of their currency. Nevertheless, ‘Materialism Imageless’ points beyond its immediate con- text by holding fast to what Adorno describes elsewhere as a ‘Utopia of cognition’ (Adorno, 1973: 10). That is to say, ‘the materialist longing to grasp the thing’ means nothing less than a desire to radically reconceive how thinking bears on the material world, albeit not without certain caveats. For what can we really say about a cognition that neither merely depicts nor constitutes things – how is it to be thought?’ (Schmidt, 1984: 25). After all, the Utopia implied by Adorno’s concept of materialism – ‘harmony between man and nature’, as Schmidt puts it (1984: 25) – is subject to a ban on representation. As Adorno argues, ‘one may not cast a picture of Utopia in a positive manner’; ‘one can only talk about Utopia in a negative way’ (Adorno and Bloch, 1988: 9). To form any image of Utopia is to predetermine it from the stand- point of the present situation and thus ‘to garnish the status quo with its ultimate apolo- gia’ (Comay, 1997: 348). The question thus arises as to how we can make sense of Adorno’s concept of materialism given that it resists any positive determinations. One possible avenue would be to respond to this question negatively, i.e. by clarifying the terms in which Adorno criticises Soviet mate- rialism, especially Lenin’s theory of reflection. This will allow us to situate his views, and – by extension – those of the Frankfurt School more generally, in the long history of materialism sketched in the previous section. The following pages, then, will consider two prominent aspects of Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism: its quasi- epistemological dimension and its somatic moment. In Negative Dialectics Adorno argues that Lenin’s concept of materialism is rooted in ‘an Epicurean-style materialist mythol- ogy, which invents the emission by matter of little images’ (Adorno, 1973: 205). As he writes, the ‘naïve replica-realism’ of Lenin’s theory of reflection is rooted in a ‘materialist

metaphysics, such as that advanced by antique Epicureanism, with its thesis that we continually receive little images from matter’ (Adorno, 1974: 213–14). Adorno thus raises the question as to how matter, which Lenin characterises as being ‘wholly without soul or spirit, i.e. causal-mechanical material in the sense of Democritus’, comes to emit such images in the first place (Adorno, 1974: 214). What interests us here is how the analogy between Moscow and Athens allows Adorno to expose certain metaphysical presupposi- tions underlying Lenin’s account of how con- sciousness relates to the material world. In

this regard it is worth considering a lecture on Atomism, perhaps the earliest form of philo- sophical materialism, which Adorno gave in

1963. 1 Drawing on a major work by the pre-

eminent Neo-Kantian historian of material- ism, Friedrich Albert Lange (Lange, 1887; Schmidt, 1974), Adorno describes how, in Democritus and Epicurus’ view, all mat- ter continually emits ‘fine particles’, which are absorbed by our sense organs (Lange, 1887: 106). The origin of our sense impres- sions – mental images – is thus due to a con- stant flow of such particles from the surface of material bodies. As Lange expounds, it is thus that ‘actual material copies of things’ are said to ‘enter into us’ (Lange, 1887: 106). Accordingly, it is the impact of these particles on our sense organs that enables us to per-

ceive the images supposedly sent out by mat- ter. Adorno objects to the Atomists’ views by asking how it is possible ‘to simultaneously teach the being-in-itself of nature as some- thing independent of us, whilst’, at the same time, ‘assuming that our sensory perception is the source of all cognition?’ (Adorno, 1974: 212). In order to square this contradic- tion, Adorno suggests, ‘Epicurus is forced to posit a metaphysical thesis, which is irrec- oncilable with Materialism’s denial of meta- physics’ (Adorno, 1974: 212), namely: that matter emits little images, whose truth is ver- ified by sensory experience. In turn, Adorno asserts a convergence of the Atomists’ views with Leninist reflection theory. As he argues:


This reflection theory, then, played a significant role in the history of Marxist materialism. To this day it lives on in the form of DIAMAT reflection theory, according to which theory is supposed to be an image of reality, regardless of the fact that whilst the spiritual and intentional may be directed at particular states of affairs – it may mean them, make judgements about them – it does not resem- ble them … imagistically. (Adorno, 1974: 212)

To be sure, Adorno’s identification of Lenin’s dialectical materialism with Epicurean Atomism is uneasy. His suggestion that there is an absolute correspondence between Democritus’ belief that nothing happens by chance and Lenin’s alleged historical deter- minism, for instance, does not account for the role of Democritus’ doctrine of the atomic swerve – clinamen – which states that the movements of atoms, the indivisible building blocks of matter, are ultimately random – a claim that is supposed to account for the existence of human beings’ free will in an otherwise mechanistic universe. Nevertheless, Adorno argues, Lenin’s theory of reflection reproduces those meta - physical presuppositions that it seeks to recant by assigning an extra-physical quality to osten- sibly disenchanted matter. By positing the mysterious ability of mind-independent bodies to emit images whose truthfulness is confirmed through sensory reflection, and by elevating this reality to the status of an unal- terable philosophical principle which ensures the efficaciousness of revolutionary praxis, Adorno charges that Lenin’s concept of materialism succumbs to the very ‘meta- physical subtleties and theological niceties’ that it aims to overcome (Marx and Engels, 1996: 81). In other words, Lenin is said to fetishise matter by imbuing it with life-like qualities, whilst simultaneously reifying human consciousness by turning it into a passive object: a reflecting mirror. It follows that if the official materialist doctrines of the so-called ‘East’ aid the ‘uncritical reproduc- tion of existing relationships in conscious- ness’, as Schmidt suggests, then the kind of Marxism that these doctrines serve to ground

is, at the very least, theoretically deficient. As Adorno contends, Lenin’s trans-historical metaphysics of matter embeds human beings in a system of seamlessly determined nature which belies ‘the possibility of freedom, whilst’, paradoxically, ‘speaking at the same time of spontaneous action, even revolution’ (Schmidt, 1984: 18). Whether or not bad politics necessarily stems from bad theory, as Adorno implies, cannot be decided here. Suffice to note that his objections to Lenin are designed to underscore the historical constructed-ness of capitalist modernity, as well as the imperative to critically interro- gate its apparent permanence. But what does Adorno’s criticism of Lenin say about his own conception of material- ism? If ‘Materialism Imageless’ negates the images of Leninist reflection theory by polemically invoking the theological ban on images, then this strategy implies a different mode of grasping (and acting upon) the mate- rial world, which does not limit itself to mere mirroring, and which does not inflict on it the kind of violence that Adorno associates with identity thinking. In other words, Adorno seeks to cast into relief a different way of con- struing the relation between mind and matter; a relation which calls to mind the ‘Utopia of cognition’ cited above. Such a relation, however, resists positive portrayal, not least because the tools available for its construal are insufficient for expressing it. The task of philosophy is thus to think thought beyond its inbuilt limitations whilst using the restricted terms at its disposal. Materialism, on this reading, implies a complete overhaul of how human beings think the material world, and the possibility of its transformation, from the inside out. Such a complete overhaul, how- ever, raises questions – not directly answered by Adorno – as to the kind of Marxism that is conceivable on this basis. What seems clear is this: whereas Lenin (following Engels) postulates socialism as a quasi-natural his- torical inevitability, Adorno (and the other members of the Frankfurt School) stress contingency, failure and the reversal of an



emancipatory tendency into its opposite; and whereas Lenin (again, following Engels) emphasises the mind’s propensity to reflect the world, Adorno aims to negate the image of the status quo. Having thus established the sense in which Adorno’s confrontation with Leninist reflec- tion theory throws into relief a new form of materialist epistemology whose utopian implications cannot be positively pictured, it remains to explore the aforementioned somatic dimension of his thought. In Negative Dialectics Adorno argues that ‘the object’, whose primacy is dogmatically asserted by Lenin, ‘is a terminological mask’ (Adorno, 1973: 192). It covers over an elusive excess of matter that cannot be captured by thought. Wittingly or not, ‘Once the object becomes an object of cognition’, Adorno suggests, ‘its physical side’ – its irreducibly material moment – ‘is spiritualised’ (Adorno, 1973:

192). As he contends, leaving this spirituali- sation unchallenged reduces sensation – ‘the crux of all epistemology’ – to a ‘fact of consciousness’ (Adorno, 1973: 193). In this sense, theories of reflection, such as Lenin’s, run the danger of misconstruing the thing that is registered in sensation as being merely another link in the chain of cognitive func- tions. By contrast, Adorno argues, sensation is not spent in consciousness. ‘Every sen- sation is a physical feeling also’ (Adorno, 1973: 193). It is such ‘physical feeling’ that Adorno associates with a ‘resurrection of the flesh’ in ‘Materialism Imageless’. Curiously, Adorno explicitly denies the Christological connotations of his formulation. Instead, he cites the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ as his source (Adorno, 1974: 187). Whatever the prov- enance of Adorno’s imagery, ‘resurrection’ is intimated negatively. Suffering becomes the somatic index of the non-identity between humankind and the material stuff of nature. This contrasts starkly with Lenin’s Engelsian suggestion that matter is simply reflected by sensory experience. Adorno sugges- tively illustrates this point in a passage from Negative Dialectics titled ‘Suffering

Physical’. As he writes, ‘all pain and all nega- tivity, the motor of dialectical thought, is the variously mediated, sometimes unrecognis- able form of physical things’ (Adorno, 1973:

202, translation altered). In a characteristic gesture Adorno identifies the antithetical moment of dialectical thought – ‘negativity’ – with ‘pain’. His ‘Utopia of cognition’ thus presents itself as ‘the mirror image’ of a neg- ative affect, which inversely signals a state of hedonic fulfilment (Adorno, 1974: 247). Adorno thus upends the Engelsian-Leninist topos of reflection. This is the sense in which, for Adorno, suffering is imbued with an ethical imperative. The ‘physical moment tells our knowledge that suffering ought not to be, that things should be different “Woe speaks: Go”. Hence the convergence of the specifically materialist with the critical, with socially transformative praxis’ (Adorno, 1973: 203, translation altered). Once again, Adorno’s multifarious concerns converge:

materialism is assigned an ethical dimension, one which coincides with his view of critique as a form of socially transformative praxis. Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud resound in these lines. As Adorno continues, ‘the telos of such an organisation of society’ as would allow for the satisfaction of want ‘would be to negate the physical suffering of even the least of its members’ (Adorno, 1973: 203–4). The insistence on a negation of ‘physical suffering’, in turn, recalls a for- mulation from another important document of Adorno’s materialism, his ‘Theses on Need’ (1942). ‘The question of the imme- diate satisfaction of needs should not be posed under the aspects “social” and “natu- ral”, “primary” and “secondary”, “true” and “false”. Rather it falls into the same category as the question of the suffering of the vast majority of all the people on earth’ (Adorno, 2005: 43). In a ‘classless society’, he argues in an atypically affirmative manner, the rela- tion between ‘need and satisfaction will be transformed’ (Adorno, 2005: 43, emphasis added). Notwithstanding the question as to what kind of anthropology informs Adorno’s


slippery conceptions of need and satisfaction, this passage points forward to a central tenet of his unfinished final work, Aesthetic Theory (2002). The alleviation of bodily suffering, the reconciliation of subject and object, the overcoming of societal antagonisms – in short, Utopia – can only be achieved in sem- blance, through the labours of autonomous art, conceived of as the paradoxical product of modernity par excellence. In the present context this means that whilst the possibility of societal transformation is mandated by an individual experience of bodily suffering, the ‘satisfaction of material needs’ hinges on the continued criticism of a philosophical tradi- tion, and a lived political reality, that has been prematurely declared obsolete. ‘The power of determinate negation’, as Adorno puts it in Hegelian terms, ‘is the only permissible fig- ure’ of such fulfilment (Adorno, 1992: 18). It occurs in formally advanced works of art. With this in mind, let us recall briefly the long passage cited at the beginning of this section. If Adorno argues that ‘spirit’ would ‘be rec- onciled and would become that which it only promises while the spell of material condi- tions will not let it satisfy material needs’, then the implication seems to be that ‘such spirit may only emerge undiminished when the conditions of lack and privation, which it repressed, will come to an end’ (Buchholz, 1991: 144). This ‘end’ can only be arrived at critically – through the consummate negation of false life. Accordingly, Adorno argues that ‘one of the substantive misinterpretations of materialism believes that, since it teaches the preponderance of matter, or, indeed, of mate- rial conditions, this preponderance itself is what’s desired’ (Adorno, 1974: 198). Rather, he suggests, ‘the telos … of Marxist mate- rialism is the abolition of materialism, i.e. the introduction of a state in which the blind coercion of people by material conditions would be broken and in which the question of freedom would become truly meaningful’ (Adorno, 1974: 198). On Adorno’s reading, then, a truly Marxian concept of materialism is ultimately self-cancelling. This is the sense

in which he argues that ‘the perspective van- ishing point of historic materialism would be its self-sublimation, the spirit’s liberation from the primacy of material needs in their state of fulfilment’ (Adorno, 1973: 207). That is to say, properly speaking, materialism would mean its own undoing, erasing even the trace of itself in the satisfaction of need. As such, it is not simply a counter-position to Idealism but rather the outcome of its imma- nent critique – an immanent critique that aims at an altogether different relationship between humankind and the material world, which goes beyond the coercive strictures of the status quo. Adorno’s ‘imageless’ mode of materialist cognition, then, points beyond the critique of ‘representational thinking’ to a ‘Utopia of cog- nition’ whose quasi-messianic ‘promise’ moti- vates the unlikely deployment of an ostensibly biblical motif in the critical re-imagination of a Marxian materialism that rejects the lure of positive portrayals of a reconciled future.


Having thus outlined Adorno’s misgivings concerning Lenin’s mode of ‘representa- tional thinking’, it remains to explore the contemporary resonance of his critique. Accordingly, it is worth noting that central precepts of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio- Criticism have recently resurfaced in a vari- ant of philosophical materialism known as Speculative Realism. This is especially true of Quentin Meillassoux’s book After Finitude (2008a), which has been described as reading ‘like a repetition of Lenin’s ill-famed Materialism and Empirio-Criticism … rewritten for the twenty-first century’ ( Ži ž ek, 2012: 625). Before proceeding to interrogate this claim, however, it bears emphasising the sense in which Lenin’s presence at this junc- ture is revealing: if it is true that After Finitude seeks to ‘complete and correct the programme of Marxist philosophy under- taken by Lenin’ (Brown, 2011: 163), as has



been suggested by some critics, then the question arises as to whether the kind of social/political change conceivable on this basis is prey to Adorno’s critique of dialecti- cal materialism. The point here will be to argue that, if Meillassoux’s approach marks a resurgence of a quasi-Leninist metaphysics of matter, then Adorno’s position – and by extension that of the Frankfurt School more generally – provides a timely model for rethinking materialism (and, indeed, Marxism) today. In order to do so, however, it is neces- sary to briefly summarise the central claims of After Finitude. Put briefly, Meillassoux’s argument is two-pronged: on the one hand, he suggests, it is possible to have determinate knowl- edge of mind-independent matter; on the other hand, he insists, one can demonstrate that the form of this mind-independent mat- ter is radically contingent. He expounds these views in two steps: (1) Through a critique of what he calls ‘correlationism’; (2) Through a radicalisation of what he describes as ‘Hume’s problem’. As a first step, Meillassoux’s effort to show that human beings can grasp mind- independent matter depends on his objections to a characteristic of modern philosophy, which teaches that ‘we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being’ – mind and matter – ‘and never to either term considered apart from the other’ (Meillassoux, 2008a: 5). In the main, Meillassoux argues, European philosophers since Kant have mistakenly surmised that nothing can be totally a-subjective since objectivity can only be construed on ‘the foundations of the cognition in which it is grounded’ (Kant, 1998: 507). He illustrates this point by citing a passage from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which famously likens the endeavour of critical philoso- phy to ‘the first thoughts of Copernicus’ (Kant, 1998: 110), the so-called Copernican turn. Whereas, in Kant’s view, traditional metaphysics assumed that ‘our cognition must conform to objects’ (the metaphorical

analogue of the sun’s revolution around the earth), we must now consider the reverse:

that objects ‘conform to our cognition’, i.e. that the earth revolves around the sun (Kant, 1998: 110). Without presuming to recount the intricacies of Kant’s argument, the compari- son with Copernicus is important because – as Meillassoux points out – it contains a slippage.

It has become abundantly clear that a more fitting comparison for the Kantian revolution in thought would be to a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’, given that what the former asserts is not that the observer whom we thought was motionless is in fact orbiting around the observed sun, but on the contrary, that the subject is central to the process of knowledge. (Meillassoux, 2008a: 118)

If Copernican heliocentrism places reality at the centre of intellectual inquiry, then Kant’s critical turn entails a geocentric counter- revolution through which humankind becomes the measure of matter. Notwith- standing the biases of Meillassoux’s reading (Cole, 2015), his objection serves to frame the question that he shares with Lenin: how can thought grasp mind-independent matter? Meillassoux seeks to ‘overcome the correla- tional obstacle’ from the inside out by show- ing that Kant’s ‘critique of metaphysical necessity itself enables … the speculative affirmation of non-necessity’ (Hallward, 2011: 136). In short, the correlation between thought and being itself is presented as a mere contingency. As Hallward explains, ‘in order to guard against idealist claims to knowledge of absolute reality’, Kant ‘accepts not only the reduction of knowledge to knowledge of facts’, that is, to knowledge of appearances within certain intellectual strictures; he also accepts that this ‘reduction’ is itself nothing but one fact amongst others: ‘another non- necessary contingency’ (Hallward, 2011:

136). In this tacit admission, Meillassoux locates the supposed non-necessity of sub- ject–object dialectics, which are presented as incidental to the history of philosophy. Immediate access to matter as such is thus deemed possible.


In a second step, Meillassoux attempts to radicalise the passages from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that con- test the principle of sufficient reason. As he suggests, ‘any cause may actually produce any effect whatsoever, provided the latter is not contradictory’ (Meillassoux, 2008a:

90). In other words, ‘we may well be able to uncover the basic laws that govern the uni- verse – but the cause that underlies those laws themselves, and which endows them with necessity, will remain inaccessible to us’ (Meillassoux, 2008a: 90). Meillassoux concedes Hume’s basic point; however, he suggests that Hume shied away from the full consequence of his insight by declaring it as being beyond demonstration. By contrast, he contends, the impossibility of demonstrating that things are as they are of necessity in fact proves that no such necessity exists. ‘Rather than try to salvage a dubious faith in the apparent stability of our experience’ – like Lenin, Meillassoux speaks of fideism – ‘we should affirm the prospect that Hume refused to accept’: that ‘an infinite variety of “effects” might emerge on the basis of no cause at all, in a pure eruption of novelty ex nihilo’ (Hallward, 2011: 132). Here a decisive differ- ence between Meillassoux and Lenin comes into focus. Whereas Lenin holds that ordinary sense experience provides the ultimate proof of matter’s primacy, which, in turn, ensures the pre-eminence of transformative political praxis, Meillassoux argues that it is precisely the stability of ordinary sense experience which prevents us from surrendering to the full consequence of absolute contingency:

complete, spontaneous transformation. As Hallward points out, the ‘conversion of Hume’s problem into Meillassoux’s oppor- tunity’ thus requires a ‘deflation of experi- ence and the senses’ (Hallward, 2011: 133); it demands ‘that thought must free itself from the fascination for the phenomenal fixity of laws, so as to accede to a purely intelligible Chaos capable of destroying and of produc- ing, without reason, things and the laws which they obey’ (Meillassoux, 2008b: 274).

In this respect, Meillassoux is far from Adorno’s insistence on the significance of sensory experience and human affectivity. Instead, he isolates the mathematical dimen- sions of objects from their physical exten- sion: ‘what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible’ (Meillassoux, 2008a:

126). The irrefutable reality of mind-inde- pendent matter is supposed to be proven – ex hypothesi – in terms of pure number. There are at least two aspects of Meillassoux’s argument which resonate with Adorno’s critique of Lenin: one regarding the place of transformative praxis, the other regarding materialism’s relapse into idealism. First, Meillassoux equivocates between meta-physical and physical necessity, between ‘epistemology and ontology’ (Hallward, 2011: 137). In short, he inverts the Engelsian- Leninist view that reality evinces a devel- opmental logic, whereby both cells and societies evolve according to dialectical laws that are reflected in consciousness. After all, as we have seen, Meillassoux claims that ‘there is no cause or reason for anything to be the way it is’. Consequently, the transforma- tion of material conditions may be both abso- lute and instantaneous (Meillassoux, 2008a:

138). Although the consequence of the Engelsian-Leninist dialectic is a strong form of historical necessity, whereas the outcome of Meillassoux’s speculative-realist deduc- tion is an absolute form of contingency, both positions converge in mistaking metaphysical claims for ontological ones. Whereas the for- mer over-determines the course of history, the latter can provide no account of what drives processes of transformation. In other words, whereas Engels and Lenin struggle to make room for spontaneous action, Meillassoux can provide no adequate substitute for what others have called ‘substance, or spirit, or power, or labour’ (Hallward, 2011: 138). That is, ‘his insistence that anything might hap- pen can only amount to an insistence on the bare possibility of radical change’ (Hallward, 2011: 138). By contrast, Adorno insists on the need for radical societal transformation



without consigning it to the realms of abso- lute necessity or absolute contingency, but, rather, to the domain of possibility, however slim it may be. Second, Meillassoux’s defence of mind- independent matter tends to get tangled up in mathematical abstractions, which not only lose sight of the material reality they purport to safeguard, but which – on Adorno’s model – might be seen as repro- ducing capitalism’s abstract reduction of quality to quantity.

As a matter of course, every unit of measurement,

from the length of a meter to the time required for

a planet to orbit around a star, exists at a funda-

mental distance from the domain of number as such. If Meillassoux was to carry through the argu-

ment of ‘ancestrality’ to its logical conclusion, he would have to acknowledge that it would elimi- nate not only all reference to secondary qualities like colour and texture but also all conventional primary qualities like length or mass or date as well. What might then be known of an ‘arche- fossil’ … would presumably have to be expressed

in terms of pure numbers alone … Whatever else

such … knowledge amounts to, it has no obvious relation with the sorts of realities that empirical science tries to describe. (Hallward, 2011: 140)

Meillassoux’s misstep, then, lies in the assumption that such mathematical forms of argumentation can remedy the ills of capi- talist abstraction, which seem to appear to him as ‘mere errors of the intellect’ that do not have ‘any basis in a social, material and extra-logical reality’ (Hallward, 2011: 140). That is to say, the mathematical form of Meillassoux’s argument undermines its pur- portedly materialist content: the material condition of ‘the tiny, fragile human body’, to use Benjamin’s evocative phrase (Benjamin, 2002: 144). The point, then, would be to say that Adorno’s outline of an ‘imageless’ materialism gains currency in the present context because it models a radi- cally open-ended criticism of capitalist modernity, which does not foreground mind-independent matter, so much as it insists on the importance of an on-going criticism of everything that exists.


As has been argued, the Frankfurt School’s particular contribution to the history of mate- rialism lies in its foregrounding of certain epistemological, ethical and aesthetic impulses, which follow from a focus on indi- vidual experiences of visceral, somatic suffer- ing in capitalist modernity. On these grounds, Adorno et al. aim to negatively intimate a Utopian mode of relating to the material world, including humankind’s own corporeal- ity, which resists the dogmatic prioritisation of mind-independent matter. Accordingly, the authors from the orbit of the Institute for Social Research are notable for seeking to challenge the orthodoxies of dialectical mate- rialism by casting into relief a Marxism that would liberate humankind ‘from the primacy of material needs in their state of fulfilment’. On this basis, the Frankfurt School tacitly devised models for a broadly Marxian form of social criticism that aimed to offset the per- ceived failings of Engels and Lenin’s dog- matic metaphysics of matter. The resurgence of certain precepts of such a materialist meta- physics in the work of authors including Meillassoux, in turn, gives a renewed actuality to the Frankfurt School’s position. However, the openness of their concept of materialism – its critical disposition – means that its applica- bility to current political struggles must continually be determined afresh by subse- quent generations of readers.


1 Adorno refers in passing to the surviving frag- ments of Marx’s doctoral dissertation, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epi- curean Philosophy of Nature from 1841. A more thorough investigation of this text might have prompted him to redraw the genealogy of Marx’s concept of materialism in order to contrast it with its Leninist re-imagination – a task that is laud- ably undertaken in Schmidt’s doctoral disserta- tion, which was written under the supervision of Adorno and Horkheimer.



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