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Improvising the Future: Theory, Practice, and Struggle in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto

A new manifesto for the radical Left is vital, and it is to emerge from whispers, riddles, and aphorisms without lapsing into dogma, pure utopia, or party politics. Its focus will be on practice and action, but it will refuse to take command of the future. A new manifesto is, if it is to be all of these things at once, improvisation. These are a few of the basic features and premises of Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1956 dialogue, posthumously titled Towards a New Manifesto. Writing and dialoging in the wake and in the midst of fascist reign in Western Europe and Imperial Japan, Adorno and Horkheimer attempt to revision a primary genre of resistance by critically assessing what gains and what limitations philosophy presents for the Twentieth century. Indeed, at the time of their dialogue, political forms and power constellations are at a crossroads. Democracy has emerged as the dominant political form in the free world, and the stage is set for the global emergence of free market capitalism. At the same time, Adorno and Horkheimer are skeptical of their current political situation in the West and claim that “it is not just worse” than prior moments in history, it lacks direction in the face of horrific human rights violations and a shifting political landscape.[1]

While it is only a sketch of what future political declarations and organizational forms might take, its prescience is uncanny. In our contemporary moment, the future of the Left is in question on a global scale; emerging radical movements and riots are profuse, and, to borrow a phrase repeated throughout Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialogue, “the party is dead.” The popular intellectuals of the day are at odds with each other: direct action against state power and transnational capital has been condemned for being merely chaotic and confused outbursts of political rage, and the project of writing a new manifesto that would give shape to these outbursts has been called an obsolete project. Slavoj Žižek claimed this past year:

The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst.[2]

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have recently published their coauthored Declaration, both a diagnosis of the current crisis and a series of platforms and demands for the future of the radical Left, in which they claim:

Manifestos provide a glimpse of a world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change. Manifestos work like the ancient prophets, who by the power of their vision create their own people. Today’s social movements have reversed the order, making manifestos and prophets obsolete.[3]

In no uncertain terms, the popular arbiters of radical political theory are at an intellectual impasse. There is either no room in the contemporary struggle for those who would theorize a new subject of resistance and begin to visualize an alternative future on the one hand or for those who prefer to act, here and now, without waiting for a political program to be handed down from on high on the other. The opportunity for theoretical input to stultify and divide the energies of radical thought and practice in this context is extraordinary—Žižek, Hardt and Negri, perhaps unwillingly, draw a line in the sand where the future of the manifesto and the future of resistance is of concern, potentially damaging the very movements they wish to encourage. And yet, this is precisely the juncture at which Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialogue has contemporary purchase.

Near the dialogue’s conclusion, Adorno and Horkheimer claim that today a manifesto must communicate an anti-programmatic theory of resistance, emphasizing action without the impulse to command it: “What we reject is not practice but telling people what to do. Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”[4] The role of a new manifesto is thus perhaps not as Žižek would have it—to exert a programmatic authority over the organization and action of those who resist power—it is to help establish the conditions from which a composite landscape of revolutionary action might spring. Contra Hardt and Negri, this does not establish the conditions by which the manifesto genre would be eliminated. Rather, it is an opportunity for an entire genre of resistance to be reinvented—one that would in turn help reinvent the shape and character of radical politics. The problem that Adorno and Horkheimer pose is both complex and provocative. How might a manifesto function if it does not prophesy the future of resistance? This question could be formulated slightly differently, but with the same focus and import: How does a reinvention of the manifesto genre come to bear on the relationship shared between theory and practice in the context of resistance?

While Adorno and Horkheimer might be reluctant to tell revolutionaries what to do and how to do it, their position does not culminate in the affirmation of meaningless outbursts or in the total reorganization political forms. Theory, rather, intervenes. Where the project of writing a new manifesto is of issue, theory acts as a kind of relay between the practice of resistance and the potential forms it might take without demanding its adherence to, or its organization by, a single ideology. Here, Adorno claims “on the one hand, theory exists to tell us what can be done without establishing communism within a specific power constellation. On the other hand, it is precisely the pressure to think in terms of such alternatives that reduces thinking to such nonsense today. That is an antinomy.”[5] What Adorno and Horkheimer are thus willing to concede, opposite both Žižek as well as Hardt and Negri, is a position of risk. Theorizing a new manifesto is an invention in creating the commons without lapsing into authoritarianism; it is an attempt to reshape the relationship shared between theory and practice without condemning actions and political experiments that might not move past a confused outburst. Theory affirms a multiplicity of tactics, ideas, and modes of execution that attempt to oppose and move beyond a position of command, but wrestles with the antinomy of its confusion and dissolution where resistance is practiced. To be sure, Žižek’s concerns are not eliminated here, but they are also not figured as a damning or insurmountable problem. Indeed, the impulse to act might be the very condition from which a new manifesto might emerge; it might be the very condition from which a lasting movement is developed. The question of how a new manifesto might function in this manner, however, remains.

Towards a New Manifesto offers two avenues with which to theorize the use and function of a manifesto that refuses to command resistance. One is a question of method; one is a question of constraint. To begin with the question of constraint, Adorno and Horkheimer are clear to say that while they are not interested in telling anyone what to do, the future of revolutionary struggle is also not a vision of unlimited freedom. On the one hand, there are practical gains they desire to maintain. Adorno and Horkheimer laud the forms of prosperity and social justice afforded by liberal democracy and capitalism while they simultaneously refuse to succumb to the hegemony of either. Horkheimer expresses this concern explicitly, stating: “I believe that Europe and America are probably the best civilizations that history has produced up to now as far as prosperity and justice are concerned. The key point now is to ensure the preservation of these gains. That can be achieved only if we remain ruthlessly critical of this civilization.”[6] On the other hand, there are fundamental misconceptions about what would happen after the revolution that Adorno and Horkheimer attempt to dispel. Again, Horkheimer claims that, “the idea that freedom consists in self-determination is really rather pathetic, if all it means is that the work my master formerly ordered me to do is the same as the work I now seek to carry out of my own free will; the master did not determine his own actions.”[7] This, by Horkheimer’s account, is merely “a misunderstanding of feudalism.”[8]

In Horkheimer’s comments Eurocentric overtones abound, but the desire to maintain and propagate democratic justice, advances in technology and communication, and the basic necessities to live a good life are, for the purposes of theorizing a new manifesto, demands that Adorno and Horkheimer are unwilling to sacrifice. Further, they argue that revolutionary struggle should not merely be a vision of self-ownership. Perhaps tied to the idea that a new manifesto must refuse to take command of resistance, revolutionary struggle must also refuse to culminate in the conditions by which the proletariat takes command of the means of the production. Capitalism must be smashed, and authoritarian impulses eliminated. New social, political, and economic relations must be created, and work must be something more than the path to self-determination. Here, the question of method alluded to above is of primary importance.

Towards a New Manifesto is by no means a formalized text or even a set of fully formed ideas. To reapply a phrase from the publisher’s note preceding the dialogue, Towards a New Manifesto is “a philosophical jam session,” leading its interlocutors down paths of intellectual cacophony, harmony, and workable disjunction. In this way, its form matches its political invocations. More than this, however, its method is perhaps the ideal outline for a new manifesto, especially where our current political conditions are considered. The divide that Žižek’s and Hardt and Negri’s thoughts on the manifesto lead us to is politically untenable. What they do not consider or attempt to theorize is in the context of the role and function of the manifesto in contemporary politics is the role of theoretical improvisation. Further, they cannot concede a position of risk. The emphasis on action and revolutionary experimentation is either the poison or the remedy to our current political conditions. Žižek desires a set of political imperatives that would formalize contemporary acts of resistance into a new communist program. In so many words, he desires a reinvention of the Comintern. Hardt and Negri desire a set of aporias: a command without the command, a future without a prophecy, and a subject of resistance absent of a unitary subjectivity. And it is here that a philosophical jam session supersedes these oppositions.

What Adorno and Horkheimer offer in Towards a New Manifesto is a series of possible routes and desire lines for theory and practice to germinate, to possibly succeed, or to possibly fail. Adorno and Horkheimer indicate what social and political conditions they consider to be necessary goods in the present, what social and political conditions are intolerable, and what they wish to avoid as revolutionary theory and practice take shape. They do not prescribe action. Nor do they merely affirm action to the exclusion of its manifestic expression. What they offer is a model that allows revolutionary theory and practice to proliferate. It is thus a model for a new manifesto and a model with which to engage the political questions of our contemporary moment. It is a difficult proposition, but one that emphasizes a dynamic and malleable relation between theory and practice, rather than positions that would divide the radical Left and blunt its energies at a defining moment. To follow Adorno and Horkheimer in this project is to improvise our way toward the future and to refuse an intellectual and political dead-end where radical politics is theorized and practiced. But insofar as Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialogue might function as a model for a future manifesto, it awaits its actualization in practice. Perhaps a project for the future of critical theory, Towards a New Manifesto is a call to action for activists and academic alike.


1. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, trans. Rodney Livingston (New York: Verso, 2011), p. 109.

2. Slavoj Zizek, “Shoplifters of the World Unite!” London Review of Books, August 19, 2011.

3. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Declaration (Argo-Navis, 2012), p. 1.

4. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, trans. Rodney Livingston (New York: Verso, 2011), p. 108–9.

5. Ibid. 89.

6. Ibid. 35–36.

7. Ibid. 25.

8. Ibid.

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