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 movement ‘along with Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh’, would be arriving in a volatile Frankfurt scene. Demonstrations and occupations of university buildings were a regular occurrence. Leaflets and pamphlets were issued daily. Seminars turned into political meetings and student strike committees demanded the self-organization of studies or co-control; a grouping called the ‘Spartakus department’ planned alternative courses on left radicalism, revolutionary theory—from Rosa Luxemburg to the use of cobblestones—critical economics, authority and communication, and work prospects. Students versed in critical theory were demanding that theoretical critique turn into practical political action. Theory was a brake on the movement, alleged some, as they denounced fellow students—mocked as Adornites and Habermice—for promoting theory for theory’s sake and disregarding their professors’ function as a left alibi for bourgeois society.footnote3 The Frankfurt Schülers, ‘left idiots of the authoritarian state’, had become ‘critical in theory, conformist in practice’, stated a leaflet put out by sociology students in December, and it quoted Horkheimer’s Dämmerung from 1934: ‘A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief’.footnote4 In March 1969, a pirate edition of Dämmerung appeared, and on its back cover was a photograph of the sociology department under occupation, renamed Spartakus department and festooned with a banner that quoted words from the book: ‘If socialism appears unrealizable then it is necessary to make it a reality with an even more desperate determination.’footnote5 Discussions were heated in Frankfurt. Some activists had been going further, grasping at alarmist tactics. In April 1968, Andreas Baader, Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein und Gudrun Ensslin set two Frankfurt department stores alight, ‘as a protest against the indifference to war in Vietnam’.footnote6 At the end of October 1968 they were sentenced to three years imprisonment each.

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 presented as organized amusement’, and so on—and the notice concluded that all those who agreed that the discrepancy between analysis and action is unbearable, should contact Th. W. Adorno, 6 Frankfurt am Main, Kettenhofweg 123, citing the reference ‘Antithesis’.footnote7 Adorno was incensed by the unauthorized use of his name. Two men were prosecuted and fined for offences against the press law, after Ernst Bloch had persuaded one of his students to name those responsible. But the poster had other effects. In West Berlin the call was answered by two East German students, Bernd Rabehl and Rudi Dutschke. Dutschke was to become the theoretician of student activism in West Berlin, while his counterpart in Frankfurt was Hans-Jürgen Krahl, one of Adorno’s doctoral students. In September 1967, at a German Socialist Student Alliance [Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, sds] conference in Frankfurt, a keynote paper on organization by Dutschke and Krahl asserted to need to act as ‘urban guerilleros’. The university, they said, could act as the urban guerrilla’s shelter, from where he could organize the struggle against institutions and state power. The university was to be the garrison of the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition [Außerparlamentarische Opposition, ApO].

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’.