Can Europe Make It?

Theodor Adorno and the Prague Spring 1968

There was nearly society-wide consensus that as a power, the communist party could create a more democratic and humane society than those in western liberal capitalism.

Michael Hauser
15 August 2018

Alexander Dubcek, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, on his arrival at the Central Committee building, Sept.12,1968. S & G/ EMPICS Archive/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

In the interview “Who’s Afraid of the Ivory Tower?” (1969) for the German magazine Der Spiegel, Theodor Adorno answered the question of “What is to be done” with “I do not know. I can only analyze relentlessly what is.” In a period that was still charged with the revolutionary enthusiasm of 1968, Adorno was professing pessimism, negativity, and doubt. He perceived the student protest movement, where gung-ho optimism was supposed to shout down “objective doubts” about the real possibilities for social change, as pseudo-activism. The events, demonstrations, and strikes were doomed to failure by the conditions of the time. They might evoke the psychological feeling of something revolutionary, but they were far from ushering in a society free from capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie, and their repercussions could be the exact opposite of what the “proponents of direct action” had promised.

The student protest movement of 1968 and the ivory tower

Adorno foretold that Baudelaire’s concept of the “ivory tower” would have mileage in the years to come. In an article entitled “Resignation”, Adorno conceived of the activity of the student protest movement as drawing an exit on the enclosing wall of a social system to which at that moment there were no alternatives. These walls arouse justified feelings of being closed in, and of being subject to manipulation and unfreedom. But any exit from the walls of the system, however, is not on offer.

Adorno did not claim that all the actions of the 1968 protest movement were pseudo-activities. He supported the student blockade of the Springer Presse building, which, given the manipulation of information and the media witch-hunt against the protesting students, he considered legitimate. He also joined in the protests against the passage of laws on a “state of emergency” that restricted democracy, and against proposed reforms to criminal law. He spoke on radio and television and openly addressed the problems of contemporary German society. By contrast with Horkheimer, he denounced the American invasion of Vietnam. Adorno in his ivory tower was much more publicly engaged than most social scientists of the twentieth century, and his activities are comparable with those of today’s political activists.  


According to Adorno, pseudoactivity does not base itself on a theoretical analysis of a given situation, and therefore acts blindly and instinctively. Its main motivation is the psychological satisfaction of the subject experiencing the feeling of being revolutionary, which has a de facto consumerist character (“let’s enjoy the revolution!”) Pseudoactivists evince hatred towards everything that prevents the “spontaneous” activity of individuals or the commune, and they want to pull it up from the root. From the milieu of the Berlin Kommune 2, this attitude was expressed thus: “What good does old Adorno do with his theories, which have become loathsome to us now, because he says nothing about the best way to burn down this fucking university…”.

Adorno agreed with Habermas, who spoke of the “left fascism” of student radicals. It is fascism because change in society supposedly depends only on the will of a significant number of engaged persons. The actions of the radical students contained a fascist volunteerism, which recognized neither ethical nor institutional considerations. It expressed a contemptuous disdain for democratic institutions. The radical students have thrown themselves into adventurous and violent events for the purpose of awakening social forces hostile to the legal state.

Adorno does not condemn violence as such: Nazism and the Greek military dictatorship (1967-1974) justified the use of violence as a means of political resistance, he declared in an interview for Der Spiegel. However, in a legal state such as the Federal Republic of Germany, leftist violence is pointless and strengthens the very conservative tendencies that it wants to eradicate. Adorno predicted that after their failure the protesting students will fall into general resignation, which is mostly what happened.

The revolution of 1917 and the constellation of 1945: bricked-up exits in the wall of the system

But has an exit ever actually opened up in the wall of the system? Was society’s longing for change always a mere emotion, accompanied by pseudoactivity? Adorno answered that the real possibility of a liberated society had made an appearance in history, but he only refers to this in several marginal comments. For example:

At that time, just like one other time just after 1945, it looked like there was an open possibility of having a politically liberated society. Of course, it only looked that way: it had already been decided in the 1920s, in consideration of the events of 1919 [the defeat of the German revolution – M.H.], against this political potential which, if things had developed differently, would have with great probability also influenced Russian developments and forestalled Stalinism.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Eingriffe. Neun kritische Modelle, Gesamelte Schriften, sv. 10.2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1986, p. 501.)

The first exit in the wall of the system had opened up after the First World War, thanks to the Russian and German revolutions; the second exit in the wall appeared for a short time after the Second World War, perhaps in connection with the continuing cooperation of the Great Powers of the time, which may have aroused hope for the liberalization of Stalinism and the socialization of capitalism. Nonetheless, already in 1950 Adorno makes it clear in the article “The USSR and Peace” that this opening had been squandered. Politics, he thought, is not the actualization of humanity: it is only a façade for international power struggles in which the imperialism of the Stalinist dictatorship exploited the desire for peace in order to buy time for its “totalitarian enterprise”.

Adorno distanced himself from the socialist bloc, in which according to his words, Marxist conceptions transformed into their opposites served inhumane and unfree practices. He turned towards western liberal society, which enabled untrammelled analysis of present conditions, and allowed for autonomous, critical thought. According to Adorno, liberal capitalism had a greater potential to change society than the Soviet Union and its satellites, in which the ideal of a better society was misappropriated in defence of bad conditions, and in which theory was made to serve the practice that created these conditions.

The Prague Spring of 1968 as the third exit in the Wall

Adorno’s stance towards the socialist dictatorship, which is fairly close to that of Hannah Arendt, is probably the reason why Adorno entirely neglects the Prague Spring of 1968. In his extensive oeuvre, utter silence dominates and there is only a mere mention of the “Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia”. But what do we discover when we compare the student protest movements in western Europe and the Prague Spring? Was the political struggle of the Prague Spring just another pseudoactivity that created the illusion of an exit from a closed system?

The Czech writer Ludvík Vaculík wrote in his proclamation, Two Thousand Words: “This spring a great opportunity returned to us again, just like after the war. We have the possibility of taking matters – which has the working name of socialism – into our own hands.” We can understand the Prague Spring as a return to the possibility of a liberated society that appeared after the Second World War, as Adorno mentioned.

However, it was not a simple return. The Czech philosopher Karel Kosík in his essay “Socialism and the Crisis of Modern Man” (written in the period of the Prague Spring) says that the system of manipulation does not only apply to Stalinism, but also democratic capitalism, because both of them are operated by “technical reason”. The political struggle of the Prague Spring forms an alternative to both orders standing on the same foundations.

Kosík is aware that the alternative – called “socialist democracy” – has specific historical assumptions. Its development after 1945 was rife with mistakes, deformations, and violence; but at the time, this was the stage in which the post-capitalist form of ownership (“collective ownership”, which was further divided into state and group ownership) arose, although it was centrally controlled and often in contradiction with the constitution of the time. Stalinism was a bureaucratic-police system that did not allow the autonomy of critical thinking; but it created the groundwork (the post-capitalist form of ownership) in order for an exit to appear from the wall of its own system of manipulation. Kosík would not have agreed with Adorno that the possibility of a liberated society did not exist there. 

In the documents from the XIV (Vysočany) Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party – which took place in Prague on 22 August 1968, just the second day after the country had been invaded by Warsaw Pact troops – we can find the social-critical analysis that Adorno was calling for:

socialism was reduced to a mere nationalization of capitalist ownership, to an administrative directive management of the economy from the center, and to a monopolistic system of political power” (Tanky proti sjezdu. Úvod a závěr Jiří Pelikán, Novela bohemica, Prague 2018, p. 149).

Social thinking becomes self-governing, and it is precisely this that serves the political practice of socialism. The Prague Spring movement, moreover, enjoyed something that the protest movements in the western countries did not: post-capitalist ownership of economic resources. The discussion of alternative models that socialist democracy comprised was therefore not a mere academic debate as it is today, when we can discuss Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s “participatory economics” (parecon) or other proposals for post-capitalist economics ad infinitum without it having any kind of influence on the real form of the contemporary economic system.

In the period of the Prague Spring, workers’ councils were instituted that were collective, democratic bodies governing enterprises, and they were elected by all the workers in direct secret-ballot elections. They determined the salaries of the management and they also had the authority to fire the chief executive and make decisions along with the management regarding how to run enterprises. According to a survey conducted at that time, this economic self-government was supported by a majority of the public. 53.3 % of those surveyed agreed with the institution of workers’ councils; a mere tenth of the public did not agree.

In the protest movement in Germany, France and other western countries, economic self-governance remained only a utopian dream that shattered upon impact with the reality of capitalist ownership of businesses. In France in the period of mass strikes in May and June 1968, workers occupied factories, and in some cases also founded Plant Committees (Comités d'Entreprise), which competed with the traditional inter-union strike committees. These councils remained internally splintered and they did not develop a concept for how to run their businesses.

By contrast with the Prague Spring, when the government prepared a law about the legal status of the workers’ councils, such councils in France in 1968 were illegal and the state authorities soon disbanded them. (In the ČSSR, they were only abolished during 1969 as a result of political changes caused by the occupation.) This fundamental difference in the standing of workers’ councils as collective bodies governing enterprises arises from the different forms of the enterprise ownership. In the ČSSR there existed the condition of economic democracy, which was the post-capitalist form of ownership, whereas in France and Germany the protest movements together with the spectrum of other demands were only aspiring to the creation of these conditions.

At that time, the legitimacy of the “leading role of the Communist Party” stemmed from Dubček’s communist party guaranteeing the preservation of post-capitalist forms of ownership. In documents from the “Vysočany Congress” we read that the goal of the Prague Spring was to ensure that:

“all workers were truly in control of the reproduction process and made the creation of wealth their own rather than serving as its means” (op. cit. p. 155). The socialist democracy of the Prague Spring creates ‘embryos of future higher social justice, which goes beyond the horizon of civil law and the principle of performance.” (ibid, p. 157).

Hence, there was nearly society-wide consensus that as a power, the communist party could create a more democratic and humane society than those in western liberal capitalism. This was the highpoint of the communist movement in the second half of the twentieth century.

We will never know what would have remained to us from socialist democracy if this critical experiment had been given enough time. And yet it is not true that the historical necessity of impending ruin was hanging over it. Jiří Pelikán, one of the main figures of the Prague Spring, who later in his western exile set out to preserve the legacy of the Prague Spring, claimed that the occupation of Czechoslovakia could have been staved off if the leadership of the KSČ had a more revolutionary spirit and expressed the resolve to defend Czechoslovakia with all the means at their disposal in the event of a military intervention. In his opinion, the Soviet Union would probably not have risked creating a new Vietnam in the centre of Europe, and would instead have abandoned the intervention.

Had the political make-up of the Prague Spring leader, Alexander Dubček, contained more of the character of western European revolutionaries of that era, such as Rudi Dutschke, who at the time was calling for a political act, the Prague Spring might have avoided defeat. This way out of the walls of manipulative systems could have fully opened and better international conditions for the success of the western protest movement could have been created. Then Adorno might perhaps have agreed that his pessimism and negativism didn’t need to be the last word on the subject.

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