“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.