“I am very happy to see so many flowers here and that is why I want to remind you that flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.” These were the words of Herbert Marcuse, who was addressing a packed auditorium at a “Dialectics of Liberation” conference almost forty years ago. The point still stands, but Marcuse, who briefly commanded the world’s attention as a New Left guru, has faded from sight. Born in 1898, Marcuse belonged to a generation of German Jewish intellectuals who fled to the United States. Some of these figures–Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein–became cultural icons in the New World. Others vanished into the margins of American life; still others, unnoticed here, returned to Europe after the war to find acclaim. In this last group was Theodor Adorno, whose life and work have elicited increasing interest.

Adorno and Marcuse were linked by their role in what has become known as the “Frankfurt School,” a loose association of scholars based in Frankfurt, Germany, in the early 1930s, who developed a “critical theory”of society. For critics on the right, critical theory served as a polite term for Marxism at best and Stalinism at worst. For critics on the left, critical theory spelled the neutering of Marxism. Georg Lukács, the great Hungarian Communist philosopher, famously derided the Frankfurt scholars as residents of the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Presumably, they preferred contemplating the decline of capitalism from luxurious suites rather than from the gritty streets of the proletariat.

To be sure, the Frankfurt scholars were hardly proletarians. Then again, neither was Lukács, the son of a banker. They were virtually all children of the assimilated German-Jewish middle class–including Adorno, who was born Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, the son of a successful Jewish wine merchant, Wiesengrund, and an Italian Catholic mother, Adorno. (He later abridged his name to T.W. Adorno.) Like Lukács, they wrote little about economics and much about literature, philosophy, psychology and art. Adorno himself studied composition and music with Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Fully a third of his voluminous writings concern music. The Frankfurt thinkers offered a high-octane Marxist theory that took up everything from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to the Los Angeles Times‘s astrology column. For years the world hardly noticed, but by the 1960s their radical critique of society had found an audience.

For Americans, Marcuse proved the most popular of the Frankfurt figures at the time. Unlike Adorno, he remained in the United States after the war; he was also the most accessible, charismatic and political of the group. The titles of his first books indicate his sweep and straightforwardness–Reason and Revolution and Eros and Civilization. Some New Left intellectuals embraced Marcuse, who returned their embrace. One of his students at Brandeis abandoned her studies to join the black revolution. Angela Davis made headlines as an alleged accomplice to the jailhouse escape of the Soledad Brothers, for which she was pursued by the FBI, arrested and later acquitted of the charges. All of this added to the radical luster of Marcuse, who found himself hounded by conservative groups in San Diego, where he taught at the time.

Meanwhile, German students had discovered Adorno, and the re-established Frankfurt School. Yet the rapport between Adorno and the German students proved difficult. Perhaps because Adorno was reserved and the German students demanding, certain activists turned on him at the height of the 1960s. They attacked him as a bourgeois sellout; they interrupted his classes and “occupied” the Frankfurt School building. He in turn assailed their tactics and their lazy use of the term “fascism.” Disturbed by the conflict and exhausted from work, Adorno died in 1969 of a heart attack. He was 65.

Adorno had entreated Marcuse to come to Frankfurt to help mend the breach with the students. But if Adorno once stood in the shadow of Marcuse, today it is the reverse. While a few studies of Marcuse have appeared, and his collected papers are being published, a tidal wave of publishing engulfs Adorno. His German publisher, the distinguished Suhrkamp Verlag, has issued ten books on or by Adorno in the last two years alone. His collected works number twenty fat volumes. His lectures, notes and sketches now finding their way into print come to almost thirty volumes; and they do not include his letters, at least another six books. In sum, Adorno’s writings consist of fifty-six volumes, a number dwarfed by the books about him. Lorenz Jäger’s is one of three biographies of Adorno that have recently appeared.

Why the hoopla? The short answer is that 2003 was Adorno’s centenary. The long answer is his sheer intelligence and scope. When Thomas Mann enlisted him to help on the musical sections of his novel Doctor Faustus, he called him “uncompromisingly, tragically brilliant, operating on the highest level.” Referring to Adorno by his nickname, Marcuse himself used to insist that “Teddie, you know, was a genius.” Adorno, moreover, was the furthest thing from a publish-or-perish academic churning out indifferent prose. His writings do not consist of belabored arguments but of polemics, firecrackers and aperçus. His sentences often sizzle. “Kafka scrutinizes the smudges left behind in the deluxe edition of the book of life by the fingers of power,” he writes in his breathtaking essay on Kafka in the collection Prisms. The opening sentences of Prisms capture the mix of high culture and low materialism that drives his critics to distraction and his supporters to adoration:

To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words “cultural criticism” (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like “automobile,” they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent.

Next to Adorno’s linguistic and conceptual pyrotechnics, Marcuse appears almost drab, which might explain the ebbing interest in his work. Yet Marcuse is not drab, and the reasons for his eclipse by Adorno may lie elsewhere. Thomas Mann compared Adorno to Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt associate who died in 1940 fleeing the Nazis. The number of studies of Benjamin, like those of Adorno, has soared. Academic critics brighten their gray pages with citations of him. Yet it may not only be the depth of Benjamin’s work that inspires glossing but its esotericism. Cynics are not the only ones to observe that the academic industry demands opaque texts. Benjamin fills the bill, as Adorno does occasionally. Marcuse generally does not. Plain writing affords too few toeholds for academic climbers. Consider, for example, the fate of the great American critic Edmund Wilson, the same generation as Marcuse. He has virtually disappeared as an object of professional study or interest–perhaps for the same reason as Marcuse. For academic critics, he is too lucid.

Unfortunately, The New Left and the 1960s, the third volume of Marcuse’s collected papers, almost confirms academic prejudice; it does seem a bit flat. Nor does it help that Marcuse’s loyal editor, Douglas Kellner, uses as the book’s introduction an unedited–and previously published–talk by Angela Davis. (“At this point in my remarks I would like to make some comments about my own development.”) The volume contains speeches, interviews and short essays of Marcuse on student protest, the war in Vietnam, violence and women’s liberation–plus some mysterious choices, such as a statement by the philosopher’s colleagues congratulating him on his 70th birthday.

The selections breathe of another time, when the left presented a real opposition. Simply the notion that Marcuse could address a vast and political crowd with a “philosophical speech” suggests the divide between then and now. Marcuse brought a forceful clarity to the leftist table, a classical Marxism willing to confront new realities. Several of his recurring points are worth remembering today. One is his acknowledgment of periodic retreat and confusion. “The Left is split! The Left has always been split! Only the Right, which has no ideas to fight for, is united!” Another is the kindred belief that the left cannot confine itself to economic analyses. “We must finally relearn what we forgot…that humanitarian and moral arguments are not merely deceitful ideology. Rather, they can and must become central social forces. If we exclude them from our argumentation at the start, we impoverish ourselves.” A third is his unapologetic admission that the left–at least for the moment–stands not simply against the established political order but against the majority that supports it. The student movement of the 1960s, he stated, “is an opposition against the majority of the population.” Finally, Marcuse affirmed that a new society requires not simply new structures but new individuals who viscerally need peace and beauty.

The editors of a 1967 volume honoring Marcuse rejected Adorno’s submission; it was apparently too abstract or dense. To be sure, Adorno’s work often requires a commitment that Americans might not brook. As the historian Martin Jay noted in his book on Adorno, the Frankfurt philosopher would be “appalled at a book of this kind devoted to him.” Adorno scorned summaries and shortcuts. Yet the contrary idea, that Adorno is involuted or unreadable, must be equally rejected. Versions of this notion circulate among professors who offer it as an excuse for their own fractured prose. When a semi-serious “Bad Writing Contest” awarded first prize to the feminist theorist Judith Butler, she responded by citing Adorno in her defense. The professoriate often confounds unreadability and profundity. Adorno himself stood at the furthest remove from jargon. “Precisely the writer,” he noted in his haunting book of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, “most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style.” Moreover, hardly a specialist professor spurning the unschooled, Adorno devoted much time and energy to journalistic activities and delivered more than 160 lectures on German radio. By the time of his death he was a well-known figure in print and radio.

In a little more than 200 pages of text Lorenz Jäger, an editor at the well-regarded Frankfurt daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, gives an overview of Adorno’s life. There is much to like in this book. Jäger deftly sketches out the background, the friends and some major themes of Adorno’s work. There is more to dislike. Jäger deplores Adorno’s politics and intellectual project; he wants to show that Adorno mined a depleted field–neo-Marxism–and that at his best he represented a laudable German philosophy that worshiped nature. On other subjects Adorno was wrong or misleading. Jäger plots Adorno’s intellectual coordinates in order to dispatch him. In Jäger’s summary, the more Adorno’s Marxist ideas proved implausible, the more they sought to explain. By the time of his death, Adorno’s “theory was already exhausted.” The movements of art, modernism, philosophy and social theory rendered Adorno “outdated.” If this is so, why does Adorno attract more and more attention?

Jäger drums up every line by or about Adorno that casts him in a bad light. For instance, he cites a sentence from Adorno’s diary jottings–certainly not written to be published–that seems to suggest coldness when he visited his aging mother after a long absence. Part of the sentence reads, “I have to thank her for everything in nature but do not feel it as such.” For Jäger this cloudy sentence clearly damns Adorno. Its “importance…can scarcely be overstated,” he writes. The opposite–its importance can scarcely be understated–would be more accurate.

Jäger’s larger mission is to nail Adorno as a Marxist, pro-Soviet and even anti-German and anti-Christian thinker. Some idea of Jäger’s own political sympathies can be gauged from his comments on Ernst von Salomon, author of the post-World War II German bestseller The Questionnaire, a satirical attack on the Allied de-Nazification program. Jäger describes von Salomon as someone who “leaned to the right.” This is a curious description of a rabid nationalist who was jailed for abetting the assassination of the Jewish Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922. In fact, Jäger appears to share von Salomon’s post-World War II politics. He raises several issues, which German nationalists have either invented or trumpeted, such as the mistreatment of German POWs by American and French forces and the starvation of the German population by the Allies after the war. Scholars have discredited both assertions. For Jäger both are indisputable. “It is beyond doubt that the famine suffered by the Germans in the immediate post-war period was the result of a deliberate policy.”

These topics only enter Adorno’s work peripherally–in his psychoanalytic reflections of public opinion–but Jäger wants to paint him as an apologist for Allied brutality. To do so, Jäger dances on the edge of revanchism. He writes that POWs held by the Allies “were fed and accommodated…such that people were soon drawing open comparisons with the Nazi camps.” Who are these “people”? Jäger’s careful footnoting ceases. He is upset that Adorno discounts the remarks of one POW, a declared Nazi, who claims that “no one in a concentration camp” can have “experienced anything worse than what they [the Americans] did to us.” Jäger ratifies this dubious observation as “common knowledge.” Among whom or on what basis? Jäger is mum.

In his articles and studies of postwar Germany Adorno addressed the selective memory of the Nazi past as well as the rationalization for past crimes that draws up “a balance sheet of guilt,” as if the Allied bombing of Dresden “compensated” for Auschwitz. Adorno might be writing of Jäger, who indeed accuses Adorno of belittling the Dresden bombing. In the related and more famous book on the “authoritarian personality,” Adorno and his colleagues sought to ferret out psychological dispositions, even the “potentially fascistic” individual, by eliciting responses to thirty-eight leading statements. By analyzing the responses, they hoped to sketch out a personality type prone to authoritarianism and racism. Two sentences from The Authoritarian Personality stated, “Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life”; and “What this country needs is fewer laws and agencies, and more courageous, tireless, devoted leaders whom the people can put their faith in.” On their own these propositions are hardly incriminating, but by analyzing longer discussions provoked by these statements Adorno adumbrated what he judged to be an authoritarian personality.

Jäger will have none of this. He considers The Authoritarian Personality a left-wing “Inquisition” of conservative and middle-class values. Jäger distorts Adorno’s analysis by pretending that one of the statements (“there will always be wars and conflicts”) trumps the others, and that Adorno would classify as a warmonger anyone who affirms the reality of war. “From now on, the patriotic and anti-Communist average American was to be regarded as a potential fascist…Adorno was engaged here in politically orchestrated sociological research.” Of course, by the time Jäger reaches the 1960s he is pleased that the rebellious sons turn upon the father. For Jäger, Adorno “prepared the ground” for the notorious Commune One, a Berlin group that sought to destroy “the bourgeois family by carnevalistic means.”

His resentful politics and eagerness to indict Adorno vitiate Jäger’s “political biography.” Fortunately, two other biographies soon to appear in English do Adorno more justice, the encyclopedic Adorno by Stefan Müller-Doohm and the graceful Theodor W. Adorno: A Last Genius by Detlev Claussen. But Jäger’s book seems written to validate Adorno’s suspicion of biography as a mode to circumvent thinking. His prologue closes with the remark that “none of us can escape from the circumstances of our birth,” as if the fact that we are all born in a particular time and place proves our ideas must disappear with death. Jäger endeavors to demonstrate this, at least in regard to Adorno, but the truth lies elsewhere. The work that endures also transcends circumstances. Adorno’s work is a case in point. The uninitiated need only peruse the aphorisms of Minima Moralia or the essays in Prisms or Critical Models to encounter ideas that have lost none of their power.

Adorno’s final writings addressed this very issue. “What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought.” This sentence comes from Adorno’s “Resignation,” a defense of untrammeled thinking that would be better titled “Against Resignation.” In their commitment to a critical thought that resists false optimism and quick solutions, Adorno and Marcuse converge. Marcuse called himself a “hopeless philosopher.” Yet he asserted that critical thinking harbors its own promise. To be sure, some of Marcuse’s political pieces belong to a past era; and for all his brilliance, Adorno sometimes misses the mark, but in an age of retreat, their writings aid resistance to the politics of deceit and brutality. “Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway,” Adorno wrote. Whoever believes as much, he noted, “has not resigned.” Amen.