People on the political right like to throw around the phrase "cultural Marxism" as a label for identity politics, feminism, intersectionality etc. Evidently its a reference to the Frankfurt school, which is supposed to have infected post-war American Universities with a strand of collectivist ideology wrapped up in the language of critical theory. Of course the Frankfurt school were leftists, but I always thought their leftism was more about economics, capitalism, consumerism, art, media etc. than race/gender theory. So the way right-wingers use the phrase "cultural marxism" always sounded illiterate to me. But recently it was pointed out to me that the phrase "identitarianism" was actually coined by Adorno. I tried reading the SEP entry on Adorno, but the relevant section on the term is hard for me to understand (a bunch of stuff about Kant and Hegel). Does anyone know if Adorno is at all part of the provenance of our contemporary notion of "identity politics", or whether this is just an accident?

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    Maybe useful Identity Thinking in Adorno: "Adorno coined the term 'identity thinking'. [...] Adorno condemns identity thinking as systematically and necessarily misrepresenting reality by means of the subsumption of specific phenomena under general, more abstract classificatory headings ". Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 12:25
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    You can see also Brian O'Connor, Adorno, Routledge (2012) Ch.5. Identity and nonidentity Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 12:29
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    In conclusion: YES, gender and race are (according to Adorno) "general label" used to identify. Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 12:30
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    This is a good book, Title: Autonomy and solidarity : interviews Author: Habermas, Jürgen. Verso, 1986.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 13:04
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    "Identity politics" is divide and conquer politics, it's the way the Left is divided and destroyed. It's a killer virus, and if you are on the Right you can only sit back and chuckle about it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 13:16

1 Answer 1


In Dialectic of Enlightenment and later in Negative Dialectics, Adorno talks about the non-identity between concepts and objects.

Western thinking has privileged concepts over particular objects of experience that can't be reduced to the concepts used to subsume and define them. So, if I'm friends with Fred and Fred is black, it is not unusual to subsume "Fred" under the general category "black." I then lose contact with that which is unique and does not fit under any general rubric. This:

a) shows the limit of the conceptual, as some things cannot be grasped in terms of general concepts, and

b) makes mass-society and dehumanization of particular individuals possible by lumping them in such categories.

This is very much at odds with "Identity Politics" which relies on general concepts both for understanding and changing society.

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. Welcome. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 18:42
  • It's not obvious to me how much modern identity politics, especially, eg, intersectionality, which stresses the uniqueness of individuals through the unique exchanges of power they embody, has to do with the ideas Adorno is critiquing. Could you say a bit more in that direction? Also, welcome to p.SE.
    – Canyon
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 16:16
  • Adorno is, perhaps above all, interested in individuality. He thinks that in mass-societies individuals interpret their own individuality and that of others by means of culturally predefined, pre-structured categories, hierarchies and identities. Since there exists a multiplicity of categories they can and do intersect. But in knowing Smith is Asian & poor & queer, I don't know Smith as an individual. Reflexivity and critical thinking are what enable each of us to think and act as individuals rather than being tokens of types or instantiations of general concepts.
    – silverskid
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 4:12

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