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.
posted by Lexica (3 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I think we'll always have this kind of argument. Some people are more wedded to the current order or peace than others, it could be because they think it's good, or because they think it's terrible but fear that any change to it would be even worse. Either way they might think that protesters go too far even if they're otherwise sympathetic to their goals. Think to the fight for civil rights in the USA and King's quote about peace not being the absence of tension but the presence of justice. People are going to try to hold onto that peace even if its doing them harm. At least until they see the necessity of breaking it and making a new, more real peace.

Each of those letters was written one month after the previous one. I wonder how much of the gap was travel time and how much was the writers thinking about what they wanted to say or getting caught up in other things, like protesters disrupting their lectures.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:14 PM on July 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

Adorno comes off so badly here, and his reaction to the student protests immediately reminds one of the debates over cancel culture. It's hard to see the threat he saw in those protests, it's hard to align them with his complaint that "it is mixed with a dram of madness, in which the totalitarian resides teleologically," especially when it was the students getting teargassed, and not the other way around. There's a chapter on the protests in Grand Hotel Abyss, and reading it, I came away with the impression that the protests essentially killed Adorno. The interruptions of lectures, the targeting by the protestors once he'd sided against them, seemed too much for him to bear. But why?
posted by mittens at 6:35 AM on July 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

But why?

I think the line "they are not revolutionary" is important for understanding why Adorno reacted to the protests the way he did.

He'd spent his whole life theorizing how capital was this all-encompassing thing, this totality that basically ground down everything that was right and good about being human. Also it wasn't just theory to him but was bound up in his feelings about fascism and the Holocaust, which I think pretty much traumatized him for life, though he was never in the camps. He thought capitalism was a very near thing to fascism, and reading his work, sometimes it seems like he barely saw any distinction between them at all. (And, in light of recent events, I'm not even sure he was wrong there.)

That understanding of the totalizing force of capital was what his lectures were about, so he saw them as an essential part of understanding and hopefully eventually finding some way out of capitalism. Meanwhile, here are these students, who he doesn't see as revolutionary in the way that he wants, and they're interrupting this (to him) essential work.

I agree that he comes off badly--Marcuse's point that rebelling against the intolerable is necessary even when it isn't "properly" revolutionary seems obvious to me. But in light of his life and work as a whole, I don't think it's hard to see how he got to his position.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 7:49 AM on July 31, 2020 [18 favorites]

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