Adorno – Lecture 5 on Negative Dialectics: “Theory and Practice” (11/23/1965)

This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape. 

The 5th lecture goes further into the topic that Adorno addressed at the end of the 4th lecture: the 11th of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

In my summary of the 4th lecture, I added in my own thoughts about there being a possible surface reading of the above statement, as well as a deeper theoretical reading. Obviously, there could hypothetically be many more readings, but I think looking at this in terms of the two readings I identify is useful. Anyway, I explained that I take issue with Marx’s quote on the grounds of the surface interpretation. I also explained that Adorno takes issue with the deeper theory. Here in the 5th lecture, Adorno takes issue on both levels.

The Revolution Will Not Be Actualized

With the 20th century arose some serious difficulties for The Revolution, namely a) the evident propensity for successful Communist revolutions to lead to despotic Communist regimes, and b) the invention of the atomic bomb. With these two things in mind, today The Revolution appears destined for failure, and likely catastrophe.

And yet, the idea that we just aren’t there yet – that in fact capitalism is predestined to subvert itself and bring about global utopia and so we should sit back and wait for it – is also bunk. Technological and scientific advancements are not all pressing workers into factories to develop class consciousness. In fact society is “growing” in techno-scientific capacities but these changes are simply not leading to the great polarization of classes that Marx envisioned. Revolution is not being brought closer with time. We are faced with a context where The Revolution is postponed indefinitely.

I will come back to this later.

“Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”

Adorno insists there is no clear and distinct binary between theory and practice. This alone, of course, is not a particularly revolutionary statement within Marxist theory, wherein the dialectical relationship between theory and practice is a very common topic. Yet the surface reading of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach indicates a clear distinction and even opposition between the two; and Adorno’s lecture makes evident that he was concerned about the sort anti-intellectual activist trends I was referring to regarding my objection to the 11th thesis. I don’t usually put block quotes in these summaries, but I make an exception this time:

…there is a very great risk that the idea of practice will lead to a shackling of theory. By this I mean that ideas of all sorts are restricted by the insistence on the question ‘Yes, but what must I do in practice? What can I do with this idea?’ Or even, ‘If you think in this way, you will stand in the way of some possible practice or other.’ It is always happening that when you address the enormous barriers facing every conceivable political intervention stemming from the relations of production and the social institutions built around them – that when you address this, you instantly receive the reply ‘Yes, but…’, an objection that I regard as one of the greatest dangers in intellectual life. (p. 49)

Elsewhere he describes “the renunciation of theory and the view that all we need to do is to wade in with our fists and there will be no more need for thought” as “fascist,” and further asserts “it would be grossly unjust to Marx to impute such views to him” (p. 47). At the same time, Adorno indicates a suspicion that Marx leaned towards wanting people to shut up about philosophy and become revolutionary activists instead. It is hard for me to imagine that if Marx felt this way, that the surface reading is somehow completely off the mark. Even if Marx didn’t intend to express this sort of anti-intellectual, “move it or lose it” idea in the quote in question, it seems fair enough to believe that the sentiment may have slipped through. But this is somewhat beside the point…

Adorno sees Marx’s ambivalence on the issue of theory vis-à-vis practice to be important to understand, and not just because it is a more appropriate understanding of the ideas of Marx himself. It is also important because it points to an antinomy that has not been resolved in philosophy or in political history. And at the present moment (literally meaning the 1960s, but I would argue also the 2010s), the issue deserves serious meditation.

Brief Digression on Wishful Thinking

Levi R. Bryant (2009) astutely coined the term “Normative Fallacy” to refer to deriving an is principle from an ought principle. In his words: “The Normative Fallacy occurs…when someone attempts to argue that something is not the case or is the case based on a set of ideological, ethical, moral, political, or other normative commitments.”

This is an epidemic tendency when action-oriented people meet theoretical critics. It is also very common in Marxist objections to poststructuralism/postmodernism.

In the block quote from Adorno that I included above, he gives three examples of practice-minded retorts to theoretical criticisms. The third example – if you think in this way, you will stand in the way of some possible practice or other – is specifically relevant to to the problem of “Normative Fallacy” that Bryant articulates.

A person can be passionate about social change, and committed to making maximum impact in minimal time; but what if no roads lead to Rome? You always have the option of throwing away the map, picking the road that is lit up the nicest, or is shortest, or has the best rest stops, etc., and telling yourself it is the correct road because it is the one you want to take. I cannot argue with that. But it will not take you to Rome. Just because something feels morally right, does not mean that it is real.

Attempting to beat a reasoned argument with a practical conviction is like trying to slice an apple with an orange: it doesn’t work. It is actually impractical. An objection to my argument might be: Why bother trying to slice the apple when the orange is your real concern? Just ignore the apple and let it be oranges all the way down! Adorno has something to say about this…

Stop! Self-Criticism Time!

We need to stop and think. Theories about practice today need to take into account more than just Marx’s observations about capitalism a century ago. They need to take into account how the world has changed. As I indicated earlier, Adorno insists – Hegelian-Marxist that he is – that theory and practice are not in different dimensions that fail to touch. For him, theory and practice are and ought to be interrelated, each influencing and involving the other.

The fact that the revolution will not be actualized needs to be grappled with. We need to understand this, theorize it, and use these understandings to aid informed practice. Philosophy needs to be self-critical, not just shrink away from practice and doodle around with architectonics as if the world does not concern theory. Shrinking will not help us. Neither, however, will practice qua practice, as if theory does not concern the world. We need to soberly (or drunkenly, either way) reflect upon the obstacles to good practice that recent history has revealed and that the present presents.


Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

Bryant, L. R. (2009) “The Normative Fallacy.” Larval Subjects.

Marx, K. (2005[1845]) “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Jeremiah Morelock

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