The end of history?
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965
Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Polity. Pages 348. £ 19.99.

Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965IN Adorno’s works we see the consistent relevance of history and freedom to contemporary times. The lectures complied here for the first time challenge the notion of progress, of primitivism, of human history. As a true postmodernist, Adorno, like Nietzsche, rattled the iron-cage of language and the foundations of Western philosophy, always standing against final solutions and fixed definitions. The onward march of history is always tentative and lies towards new beginnings. This is implicit in Marxism too, though much scholasticism has wasted its time in understanding its theoretical version, what Marx disparages as "theoretical attitude" found in Feuerbach’s argument.

Adorno was to never lose sight of the downtrodden with whom he always maintained his solidarity. His view of history was underpinned by an open-endedness, a perspective best for any analysis of the human condition. To him the "colour of the concrete" was always preferable to the abstract universalisms that have obsessed man down through history. What is admirable is how he brought his full public knowledge along with his conscience to what he wrote and thought and was, like Raymond Aron and Jean Paul Sartre, always ready to go back and revise what he had thought and written. Indeed, the traditional idea of truth as permanent, unchanging and ahistorical was an anathema to him through his life.

These lectures are, therefore, an overview of the various strands in Adorno’s philosophy of history, ranging from existentialist concept of "historicity" to the notion of the dominance of nature. The lectures were delivered in the 1960s in preparation for his monumental work, Negative Dialectics. In terms of content, they represent an early version of the chapters on Kant and Hegel. The lectures are largely improvised and show Adorno at his dialectical best, with an insistence on the importance of history and its philosophy for future survival. They counter the ominous sounding idea of "post-historie", a phase after the collapse of the Soviet Union that had resulted in the end of history and ideology.

Adorno, many years in advance of Derrida and other radical thinkers on the Left, had reacted sharply against the Hegelian idea of the end of history that later was projected in a triumpalist note from the neo-conservatives like Fukuyama. This becomes clear from Adorno’s lectures conveying the message that "hitherto the concept of history as progress had been a failure and that consequently the historical process represented a continuation of the same thing, a stasis that was still the stasis of myth."

Adorno took to task the Hegelian argument of looking at the Christian world as a structure of "completion" when "the grand principle of being is realised". Such a philosophy, it is clear, ignores "the aspiration of spirit that is not satisfied." Adorno argues that Hegel had regarded history as justification of the ways of God so as to comprehend evil and reconcile it finally with the "thinking spirit". Such a harmonising view of history stands rejected especially "after Auschwitz" and the social catastrophes of the 20th century, which can never allow man to complacently look at history as having arrived. This leads to the conclusion that Adorno’s philosophy, therefore, is "anti-system" and "anti-theodicy".

While Hegel had taken the rational as real and the real as rational, Marx had looked at the reality of poverty and suppression which was a negation of Hegel’s idea of the height of progress in the Prussia of his times. If there is note of optimism within Marxism in its project of a classless society, there seems to be no evidence of it in the face of the reality of one catastrophe after another which compels a redefinition of the world spirit as a "permanent catastrophe."

Adorno, along with his colleague Horkeimer, had in their joint magnum opus Dialectic of Enlightenment tried to find answers to the decline and fall of man "into a new kind of barbarism". This quest would remain a lifelong obsession with both of them. Philosophy’s other traditional problems of language, of reflection on the meaning of being remained irrelevant in the context of the "rupture in civilisation". To live after Auschwitz became an existential issue for them. Traditional philosophy after Auschwitz, Adorn forcefully puts across, stands redundant as no final answer to the course of history is possible.