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The Critical Trio

Adorno, Horkheim, Marcuse, and the world they unmade.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By JAMES SEATON
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What’s the good of all that, since the politically liberated blacks are choosing the same dismal values and lifestyles of the white workers, seduced by the opportunities to consume shoddy goods and wallow in the degrading excitements of the popular art?

Hook’s response was to ask, “Which situation would you prefer: one in which the blacks had no political freedom to vote or to choose the cultural values they pleased, or one in which they had these freedoms but chose unwisely?” According to Hook, after a pause, Marcuse replied, “Well, since I have already gone out on a limb, I may as well go all the way. I would prefer that the blacks did not have the right to choose wrongly.” Referring to this answer in his 1987 autobiography, Hook commented, “For this and other reasons, Marcuse never became the darling of the black American students.” The exception, of course, was Marcuse’s star pupil, Angela Davis, who wrote in a 2005 essay that “the overarching themes of Marcuse’s thought are as relevant today on the cusp of the twenty-first century as they were when his scholarship and political interventions were most widely celebrated.”

Wheatland rejects the notion that Marcuse was “the guru of student rebellion.” Indeed, according to Wheatland, Marcuse was “more influenced by the New Left than the New Left was influenced by him.” One of the major differences between orthodox Marxism and the critical theory of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse “was the idea that ‘late capitalism’ was far more stable and entrenched than traditional Marxists had ever thought.” In coming to believe that the student radicals could somehow trigger a revolution, Marcuse took what Wheatland calls “a leap of faith” that neither Horkheimer nor Adorno was willing to make.

Like Marcuse, Horkheimer in the ’60s broke with some of the key ideas of critical theory formulated in the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike Marcuse, Horkheimer was not moved by a rekindling of revolutionary fervor but by a reconsideration of the events of a lifetime. In retrospect, the staying power of “late capitalism” in general and the United States in particular had turned out to be not such a bad thing. As Wheatland puts it, “Having witnessed the role played by the United States during World War II and the Cold War, Horkheimer took the view that the country had twice saved Europe collectively and him personally from totalitarianism.” 

Adorno was less sympathetic to the United States but no more willing than Horkheimer to join Marcuse in making common cause with protesters who condemned America for war crimes in Vietnam while ignoring or condoning Communist atrocities. In a 1969 letter, Adorno insisted that if Marcuse was determined to protest, “then you should not only protest against the horror of napalm bombs but also against the unspeakable Chinese-style tortures that the Vietcong carry out permanently.”

Marcuse, however, was not interested in any moral calculus that weighed the actions of right and left on the same scale. Already, in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse had argued for a “liberating tolerance” whose distinguishing characteristic would be “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” According to Wheatland, “Repressive Tolerance” had more impact on the New Left than anything else Marcuse wrote, including One-Dimensional Man. In it, Marcuse condemned the legal violence of the police or army as “regressive,” but made no such criticism of violence aimed against the established order. In Wheatland’s view, Marcuse sent a mixed message to the protesters: On the one hand, “he denied his support for violence in speeches and interviews throughout the late 1960s and 1970s,” but the “nightmare vision” of American society presented in “Repressive Tolerance,” One-Dimensional Man, and his other theoretical writings “implicitly encouraged many within the student movement to pursue more dramatic and dangerous actions.” If reform was impossible, and yet radical change was a necessity, any and all measures were justified, as long as they were “oppositional.” Wheatland argues, “By demonizing the System, Marcuse sought to convince all of their victimhood and to legitimate all acts of opposition.”

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