Eugene McCarraher at The Hedgehog Review:
Marxists can be the very best theologians, especially when they stare, unbelieving, into the abyss of historical hopelessness. Writing in the wake of the Nazi Judeocide and the specter of nuclear holocaust, Theodor Adorno, for instance, enlisted the eschatological hope of biblical religion. “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair,” he mused in the finale ofMinima Moralia (1951), regards all things “from the standpoint of redemption.” Such a philosophy uncovers the world “with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.” To be sure, Adorno was no believer: “The reality or unreality of redemption hardly matters,” he wrote. Thus, the vantage of redemption must be “wrested from what is,” not revealed from outside history; it must be torn from a reality marked “by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.” Yet how could we elicit a promise of deliverance from a world so corrupt and misshapen? Mindful of the ancient Jewish prohibitions against soothsaying and graven images, Adorno insisted that our only purchase on the messianic future lay in “consummate negativity,” a relentless critique of the present that refused any glimpse or blueprint of utopia, a modern, secular surrogate for the prophetic iconoclasm of messianic faith.
Stuart Jeffries quotes this oft-cited passage in his “group biography” of the Frankfurt School, noting of the redemptive perspective only “how precarious it [is] to occupy it.” It’s a missed opportunity for insight. Adorno’s invocation of religion sheds invaluable light on the melancholy Marxism that so significantly informed the thought of the main thinkers among this congeries of dissident intellectuals who, in the 1920s, became informally associated with the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research. Returning to the inaugural moment in the history of the classical Marxist tradition—the repudiation of religion as a form of social criticism—Adorno contravened Marx in seeking to salvage and appropriate the moral authority of the sacred for critical purposes.