On 12 January 1969, Herbert Marcuse wrote to Theodor Adorno announcing a June visit to Frankfurt. He wanted to give a lecture. He requested that the meeting be small and intimate, and solicited an official invitation, so that he could get leave from the University of California. This was to be the beginning of a summer in Europe, lecturing in Italy, and all-importantly, swimming. That there were tensions between the two old acquaintances was evident from Adorno’s hand-written comments on the letter. He suspected that the need for water, and hence the need to avoid Adorno’s holiday home in Zermatt, was an excuse masking Inge Marcuse’s concern that the Frankfurt theorists would be a bad influence on her husband. Adorno eagerly noted ‘At least he is starting to notice it!’ in the margin when Marcuse conceded that irrational tendencies plagued the student movement and that, because of the issues raised by black politics, the American situation was more complicated and dangerous.footnote1 An additional scribbling on the letter, for Horkheimer’s eyes, echoed the idea that there should be no great fuss and ‘official circus’ around Marcuse’s Frankfurt speech. Exposing his nervousness about the Institute providing a platform for the celebrated supporter of the revolutionary student movement, Adorno toyed with the idea of withdrawing the invitation.footnote2
Marcuse, heralded in the blurb for the mass-circulation paperback One Dimensional Man as the prophet of the student revolutionary
The tensions between the professors at the Institute for Social Research and student activists had been building since May 1964, when Adorno instituted legal proceedings against some pranksters, members of the situationist-inspired group Subversive Aktion. They had pinned up ‘Wanted’ notices in university areas, comprised of a montage of Adorno quotes—‘There can be no covenant with this world; we belong to it only to the extent that we rebel against it’, ‘All are unfree under the illusion of being free’, ‘Theft of free time is
A series of protests, involving the boycott of lessons, had been underway since early December 1968. Activists in the sds were challenging an attempt to reduce the period of study and other university reforms. Sociology students, mainly sds, formed the core of the protests. On 31 January 1969, Krahl and a group of students headed for the sociology department, intending to occupy. Finding it locked, the students transferred to the Institute for Social Research to co-ordinate their strike activities. Adorno and Friedeburg called the police and 76 students were arrested. As Krahl was forced through a cordon of police, he screamed at Adorno and Friedeburg ‘Scheißkritische Theoretiker’. He was the only occupier not released that evening. That event and its repercussions dominate the letters that Marcuse and Adorno exchanged over the next eight months.
The next day, some of the students ran amok in Café Kranzler, demanding Krahl’s release. Adorno did not have to resort to street tactics to put his points across. There were countless interviews on why critical theory did not lead directly to political practice, and the radio stations broadcast his lectures, such as ‘Resignation’ and ‘Critique of Positivism’, while Stern illustrated a photograph of the University rector raising a chair to defend himself against students with a quote from Adorno: ‘I proposed a theoretical model for thought. How could I suspect that people would want to realize it with Molotov-cocktails?’. Marcuse, for his part, was more inclined to give interviews with headlines such as ‘Student Protest is Non-Violent Next to the Society Itself’.