Resistance: How—Not Whether—to Act
July 30, 2020 5:46 PM Subscribe
In a series of letters sent between Frankfurt and San Diego during the tumult of the late 1960s, German intellectuals Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse debated protest tactics, "left fascism," and the use of force to maintain social order. A half century later, their arguments still resonate amid the unrest sweeping the United States.
These letters between Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse were translated by Esther Leslie
and originally published as “Correspondence on the German Student Movement
” [paywall] in New Left Review, issue 233.
The social and political unrest of the late 1960s, particularly the progressive activism of student movements, was a worldwide phenomenon. In April 1968, hundreds of Columbia University students occupied campus buildings to protest the construction of a segregated gym in Harlem, among other grievances. Then in May, thousands of anticapitalist French students took to the streets after demands for reforms to the Sorbonne’s outmoded social and academic policies were met with police violence, their action culminating in a general strike that included about a fifth of the country and paralyzed the national economy. That same month, in Germany, the radical Socialist German Student Union (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or SDS), which had been accused a year earlier of “left fascism” by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, occupied Goethe University in Frankfurt—a sign above the school’s main entrance proclaimed it “KARL MARX UNIVERSITÄT.” On Bloody Thursday in May 1969, police fired tear gas and bullets at protesters opposing UC Berkeley’s attempted seizure of what is now People’s Park, killing one person and injuring hundreds. The roles and purposes of ostensibly democratic social institutions, and with them the legitimacy of the use of force to resist or protect those institutions, were called into question.
It was in this context that the following exchange of letters occurred between Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Both men were giants of the Frankfurt School, the German body of theoreticians whose research and critiques of capitalism remain influential among scholars, philosophers, and cultural critics. The United States and California loomed large in these thinkers’ minds as the supreme manifestation of capital.