Adorno and Marcuse in 1969: the separation of theory and practice

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Peter-Erwin Jansen and Sarah Kleeb at Critical Refusals: the 4th biennial conference of the International Marcuse Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, October 27, 2011.


The last letters between longtime colleagues and friends Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse in 1969, in which they debated the difficulties of their perspectives in the face of the 1960s New Left, help to situate Frankfurt School Critical Theory’s Marxism and its continued legacy. On the one hand, Adorno is notorious for calling the police on student demonstrators. But Adorno insisted nonetheless that Marx was not “obsolete” and socialism remained possible, if not immediately. On the other hand, Marcuse’s lectures of the time, such as “The End of Utopia” (1967), his interview in New Left Review on “The Question of Revolution” (1967), and his December 4, 1968 speech “On the New Left” (in Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse vol. 3, ed. Douglas Kellner [New York: Routledge, 2005], 122–127) made important concessions to the historical moment, against which Adorno sought to warn, in his final writings, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and “Resignation,” which were developed directly from his correspondence with Marcuse. Responding to Adorno, Marcuse acknowledged the fatal mixture, “Rational and irrational, indeed counter-revolutionary demands are inextricably combined.” Marcuse thought that prominent New Left activists like “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit, who tried to scandalize Marcuse for his past work for the U.S. government during WWII, were isolated and ultimately minor figures. But Adorno grasped the significance of the kind of action advocated by those like Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke, especially in their self-conception, an “intransigence” of ethical posturing rather than self-recognition. As Adorno put it to Marcuse, “[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow.” Adorno and Marcuse’s prognoses on the 1960s New Left thus forecast on-going problems faced by political practice and theory with emancipatory intent, casting subsequent history into critical relief.

Theory and practice: the historical moment of the 1960s

Adorno and Marcuse differed in their estimations of the New Left, but this difference is misunderstood if it is taken to be between opposing and supporting the student and other protests of the 1960s. Rather, the difference between Adorno and Marcuse was in their estimation of the historical moment. Where Marcuse found a potential prelude to a future rather than an actual reinvigoration of the Left, let alone possible revolution, in the 1960s, Adorno was more critical of the direction of the New Left. Marcuse was also critical of the New Left, but accommodated it more than Adorno did. While Adorno might be mistaken for the more pessimistic of the two, it was actually Marcuse’s pessimism with respect to current and future prospects for Marxism that facilitated his greater optimism towards the New Left.

The late divergence of Marcuse from Adorno took place in the context of the turn in the New Left in 1969. Adorno grasped a waning of the moment and lowering of horizons that brought forth desperation from the students, whereas Marcuse thought that future prospects remained open. The separation of theory from practice was both the background for and the result of the turn in the New Left by 1969. Where Marcuse tried to theoretically discern the potential, however obscure, in the New Left, Adorno prioritized a critical approach, and emphasized not merely the lack of theoretical self-awareness, but also the lack of political practices that could lead out of the crisis of the New Left by 1969.

Adorno emphasized the historical affinity of the late New Left moment with that of the crisis of the Old Left in the late 1930s. Adorno thought that history was repeating itself. Adorno maintained the need for a critical-theoretical approach that could sustain such historical consciousness. By contrast, Marcuse emphasized the potentially new historical situation of the 1960s, and, for Marcuse, this included the changed character of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Frankfurt Institute for Social Research itself. Marcuse thought that the Institute had become politically compromised such that its essential character differed fundamentally in the 1960s from the 1930s: it was part of the established order. Adorno pled for recognizing continuity, especially in his own thinking.

In addressing the difference between Adorno and Marcuse, it is important not to neglect other differences that informed and impinged upon their conflict. On the one hand, there were the student protesters, whose perspectives were quite different from either Marcuse’s or Adorno’s. On the other hand, there was Horkheimer’s rejection of the New Left, which was different from Adorno’s critique of it. The actual character of Adorno’s critique of the New Left is lost if his perspective is assimilated to Horkheimer’s.

This affected the quality of Adorno’s correspondence with Marcuse in 1969, the documentary record of their disagreement. Marcuse called out Horkheimer’s statements in the press, and Adorno responded to Marcuse in defense of Horkheimer. But Adorno’s defense of Horkheimer’s statements, especially against their misrepresentation, did not mean that Adorno’s perspective was the same as Horkheimer’s or that he entirely agreed with him.

There were more than two sides, for or against the New Left. Neither Adorno nor Marcuse was either for or against the New Left: both supported the student and other protesters in certain respects, while both remained critical. Indeed, it was precisely such black-and-white thinking, either/or, for-or-against, that both Marcuse and Adorno thought was characteristic of prevailing authoritarianism in society, from which the New Left was not exempt. In this respect, Habermas’s pejorative characterization of the New Left as harboring “red fascist” tendencies spoke to the underlying continuity between the 1930s and the 1960s, which Adorno was keen to point out, and Marcuse did not deny, but only downplayed its importance in the moment.

The issue of Stalinism loomed in estimating the character of the New Left, for both Adorno and Marcuse. “Red fascism” was a term in the aftermath of the 1930s for characterizing precisely the problem of Stalinism. Marcuse thought the problem of Stalinism had waned in importance with respect to the politics of the New Left, whereas Adorno thought that it remained, as bad if not worse than ever. This is the crucial respect in which Adorno’s thought differed from Horkheimer’s (and perhaps also from Habermas’s): Adorno did not regard the problem of Stalinism as having increased since the 1930s, whereas Horkheimer did. Horkheimer’s perspective may thus be characterized as sharing features of the trajectories of other post-WWII Marxists, towards “Cold War” liberalism and social democracy.

The difference between Adorno and Horkheimer that can become obscured regarding the disagreement with Marcuse traces back to the beginning of WWII, and the debate in the Institute about Friedrich Pollock’s “state capitalism” thesis. While Pollock was addressing Nazi Germany, this approach has also been regarded as characterizing Stalinism in the Soviet Union. At the time, Adorno differed from his colleagues, averring, in a rather orthodox Marxist way, that even Nazi Germany must be regarded as remaining “contradictory.” This would also apply to the Soviet Union. The question was the character of that contradiction. In what way did such new historical phenomena as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the New Deal U.S., still exhibit the contradiction of capital in Marx’s terms, in however historically transformed ways?

Marcuse’s revision of Marx

The issue of the contradiction of capital from a Marxist perspective arose for the 1960s New Left: In what ways had Marx and Marxist politics potentially become obsolete? Prior to his disagreements with Adorno in 1969 regarding the New Left, in 1967 Marcuse had delivered a speech on “The End of Utopia” in which he took issue with Marx’s conception of emancipation from capital. He began with the following broadside against Marx:

I believe that even Marx was still too tied to the notion of a continuum of progress, that even his idea of socialism may not yet represent, or no longer represent, the determinate negation of capitalism it was supposed to. That is, today the notion of the end of utopia implies the necessity of at least discussing a new definition of socialism. The discussion would be based on the question whether decisive elements of the Marxian concept of socialism do not belong to a now obsolete stage in the development of the forces of production. This obsolescence is expressed most clearly, in my opinion, in the distinction between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity[,] according to which the realm of freedom can be conceived of and can exist only beyond the realm of necessity. This division implies that the realm of necessity remains so in the sense of a realm of alienated labor, which means, as Marx says, that the only thing that can happen within it is for labor to be organized as rationally as possible and reduced as much as possible. But it remains labor in and of the realm of necessity and thereby unfree. I believe that one of the new possibilities, which gives an indication of the qualitative difference between the free and the unfree society, is that of letting the realm of freedom appear within the realm of necessity — in labor and not only beyond labor.

This echoed a concern in Marcuse’s prior book, Eros and Civilization, which he republished with a new Preface in the late 1960s. There, Marcuse appropriated Schiller’s account of the “play drive:” work was to become play. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse contemplated the possibility of a “work instinct,” or a need to labor that could be transformed in a more benign direction rather than being enlisted in combination with the “death drive,” as under capitalism. Upon its initial release, Horkheimer and Adorno had passed on publishing Marcuse’s book in Germany, without comment.

In what ways was “work” still necessary? The problem with Marcuse’s critique of Marx’s supposed obsolescence was that it mischaracterized Marx’s account of necessity in capital. For Marx, capital exhibited precisely a false necessity to labor. It was the “false” character of necessity that Marx understood to be “alienation” in capital. Alienation was not the result of necessity, but a “false,” or self-contradictory necessity. Capital was not motivated by the material need for labor, but rather its social need, which had become potentially obsolete and thus “false.”

A commonplace misunderstanding, owing to vulgar “socialist” sloganeering, such as calling for “production for human needs not profit,” is that capitalism is motivated by profit-seeking. For Marx, capital may be facilitated by profit-seeking, and thus enlist the greed of capitalists, but this is for capital’s, that is, society’s own self-alienated ends, namely, the preservation of value in the system. Where capitalism was supposed to be a means to serve the ends of humanity, humanity became the means for serving the ends of capital. But this is something that workers, in struggling against their own exploitation, also motivate. Marx’s point was that the value of labor had become self-contradictory and self-undermining in the post-Industrial Revolution society of capital: workers’ struggle for the value of their labor was self-contradictory and self-undermining. This was for Marx the “contradiction of capital:” labor was socially necessary only in a self-contradictory sense, in that workers can only acquire their needs through earning a wage, while human labor and thus the workers themselves become increasingly superfluous in the social system. This was why Marx articulated freedom and necessity in the way he did, not because he assumed the material necessity of human labor as the basis for society.

Marcuse and the New Left: changes in capitalism?

Marcuse, on the other hand, did assume such a necessity, if not materially, then socially and politically, in the sense of the necessary dignity of humanity that the surplus population of the Third World contradicted by the superfluity of their labor, which contrasted starkly, and with a politically invidious effect, against the abundance of the more industrially developed countries.

Thus, also in 1967, Marcuse gave an interview for the journal New Left Review titled “The Question of Revolution,” in which he stated that “the conception of freedom by which revolutionaries and revolutions were inspired is suppressed in the developed industrialized countries with their rising standard of living.” This was no mere matter of redistribution of goods at a global scale, but a turning away from work for material abundance and accumulation.

Furthermore, Marcuse made much of the brute oppression and stark life-and death struggle of the people of Vietnam and others in the Third World as a salutary factor for emancipatory politics: “the revolutionary concept of freedom coincides with the necessity to defend naked existence: in Vietnam as much as in the slums and ghettos of the rich countries.” By characterizing the military campaigns of the North Vietnamese Communist regime and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam in terms of a defense of naked existence, Marcuse evacuated politics, with the result of eliminating any potential basis for a critique of these struggles, and crudely instrumentalizing the horror of their realities. Similarly, Adorno’s student Oskar Negt had characterized the war in Vietnam as “the abstract presence of the Third World in the metropolis.”

The German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke, in his 1968 essay on “Historical Conditions for the International Fight for Emancipation,” wrote of the war in Vietnam as “an intellectual productive force in the process of the development of an awareness of the antinomies of the present-day world.” Dutschke went so far as to say that it was “through lectures, discussions, films, and demonstrations” that “Vietnam became a living issue for us,” thereby blurring contemplative imagery and brute realities.

Adorno’s recovery of Marx: labor in capital

Adorno questioned the direct connection between the anti-imperialist politics of the Vietnamese Communists and the discontents of the students. In his 1969 essay on “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (included as the last selection, one of the two “Dialectical Epilegomena” to Critical Models: Catchwords, the last collection of essays he edited for publication), Adorno remarked that “it would be difficult to argue that Vietnam is robbing anyone of sleep, especially since any opponent of colonial wars knows that the Vietcong for their part practice Chinese methods of torture,” repeating language he had used in one of his last letters to Marcuse questioning Marcuse’s less-than-critical support for late-’60s student radicalism.

The center of Adorno’s “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” was the argument that the separation of theory and practice was “progressive,” that is, emancipatory. Adorno contrasted Marx with “Romantic socialism,” which considered the division of labor and not the self-contradiction of the value-form of labor in capital, as the source of alienation.

The recently translated conversation between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956, “Towards a New Manifesto,” about the impossibility of critical theory divorced from political practice, begins by addressing labor as “mediation.” Here, Adorno and Horkheimer addressed labor’s “ideological” function in advanced capitalism, that its social necessity is both “true” and “false.” For instance, Adorno says that if socialism means, at least at first, an equitable division of labor such that he must work as an “elevator attendant” for a couple of hours each day, he wouldn’t mind. In a fragmentary reflection from 1945, Adorno wrote of the “law of labor” under which contemporary reality is constrained and distorted: not the law of “capital,” but the law of labor (quoted in Detlev Claussen, Adorno: One Last Genius [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008], 48).

Andrew Feenberg has pointed out in Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation the specter of Marcuse haunting them. But only Horkheimer mentioned Marcuse, trying to chastise Adorno’s political speculations. Adorno didn’t take the bait: evidently, he didn’t mind the association with Marcuse. Adorno’s differences with Marcuse developed as a function of the New Left. But Adorno’s disagreement with Marcuse was over the character of capitalism, not the New Left.

Coda: Beyond labor?

The difference today, more than 40 years after Marcuse and Adorno’s conflict over the New Left in 1969, is precisely the way capitalism has developed since then. Today, while in certain respects like the 1960s, the question of the possibility of a society beyond the compulsion to labor looms, however differently. This is why Adorno’s recovery of Marx, rebutting Marcuse’s late doubts about historical Marxism, can still speak meaningfully and critically today. The problem with capitalism today is not overabundance in consumer goods, as Marcuse along with other New Leftists thought, but rather the continued compulsion to labor that distresses society. This is why, in contrast to Marcuse, and with Adorno and Marx, we must still consider emancipation to lie beyond and not in labor.

Adorno’s recovery of Marx’s original conception of “alienation” is important, not because the issues Marcuse raised were wrong, but rather because Marcuse’s perspective is liable to be assimilated to political perspectives, after the New Left, with which Marcuse himself would not have agreed. Marcuse’s assumptions about capitalism remain esoteric and hidden, taking too much for granted that remains invisible to his readers, whereas by contrast Adorno is explicit enough to earn his work’s rejection by the post-New Left politics whose problems he sought to critique. The basis of Marcuse’s apparent amenability to the New Left and its aftermath, however, is falsely assumed. | §

3 Responses to “Adorno and Marcuse in 1969: the separation of theory and practice”

  1. Marq Dyeth says:

    The stance of the Platypus Affiliated Societies regarding Karl Korsch’s The Crisis of Marxism seems to be that there is a fundamental problem in Marxists’ inability to productively yoke their theoretical sophistication to their practical effectiveness. Also with Adorno, (to the very small extant that I can understand Adorno,) the main complaint is that the New Left’s theory is inadequate to support its practice. Hence confusion, ‘action-ism,’ and disarray.

    Well, this may be true, but then is it not a little contradictory to so fervently not follow the conclusions of your own analysis? If theory is disjointed from practice, how else but through practice can you test out the method for putting them back together again?

    Put another way, Lenin is not remembered primarily as a philosopher, but as an activist (his philosophy of science, in, for example Materialism and Empirio-criticism is really unbelievably bad.) All of his interventions (Left Communism, State and Revolution) were written as part of the active and concrete political struggles of the time, in which he was also a participant.

    Doesn’t working something out immanently in order to overcome it necessarily imply some kind of political action? Or is this to be a variant on Althusser’s “theoretical practice?”

    I think that Platypus has correctly diagnosed this problem. But, like the man said, Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

  2. We in Platypus do have a practice, which is to host and curate conversations on the topics of the meaning of the Left, anticapitalism, socialism and Marxism, in which we seek to provoke political activists to reflect critically on why they pursue what they aim to do and how they go about doing it. We don’t consider what we are doing to be the solution, but rather only a part of it, an essential but otherwise neglected element of what needs to be done. The problem is the separation of theory and practice such that (according to Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy”) the “umbilical cord” between them has been broken. But the point is not the unification of practice with theory, but rather restoring their more productive relation, a problem that we approach in a certain way. At this point in our activities, we are still exploring the resources for doing so.

  3. Marq Dyeth says:

    Apologies, Chris. I differ with your politics in particular ways, but it was unprincipled (snarky?) to imply that you and yours are not doing anything.

    Here’s to new things, and to the coming to fruition of old ones.

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