Resistance: How—Not Whether—to Act

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.

Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse
“I still believe that our cause (which is not only ours) is better taken up by the rebellious students than by the police, and, here in California, that is demonstrated to me almost daily,” wrote Herbert Marcuse (right) to his colleague Theodor Adorno (left).

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.

Adorno had coauthored (with Max Horkheimer) the seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment while in exile in Los Angeles during World War II. The book describes perceived differences between Chrysler and General Motors automobiles and between the films of Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as “fundamentally illusory” and argues that they “perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice.” Adorno later returned to Germany. Marcuse, meanwhile, had come to the United States in the mid-1930s to pursue his work, holding positions at Columbia, Harvard, and Brandeis—where Angela Davis was one of his students— before joining the philosophy department at UC San Diego. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940 and remained here until his death in 1979.

In an exchange just months before Adorno’s death and in the midst of the “Hong Kong flu” pandemic of 1968, Adorno, writing from Frankfurt, and Marcuse, writing from San Diego, discussed the student movements that had taken hold in Germany, California, and around the world; the use of force by and against protesters; the appropriate time to summon the police; and the possibility (or lack thereof) of “left fascism.”

Often a hotbed of radical politics, California was at the center of Adorno and Marcuse’s correspondence. As an emerging generation turned its attention to the repressive, violent, and regressive tendencies of the culture it stood to inherit, the question became how—not whether—to act.


Dear Herbert…

Things have been terrible again here. [An] SDS group led by [student activist Hans-Jürgen] Krahl occupied a room in the Institute [for Social Research, in Frankfurt] and refused to leave, despite three requests. We had to call the police, who then arrested all those who they found in the room; the situation is dreadful in itself, but Friedeburg, Habermas and I were there, as it happened, and were able to guard against the use of physical force. Now there is a whole lot of lamentation, even though Krahl only organized the whole stunt in order to get taken into custody, and thereby hold together the disintegrating Frankfurt SDS group—which he has indeed achieved in the meantime. The propaganda is presenting things entirely back to front, as if it were we who grasped at repressive measures, and not the students who yelled at us that we should shut our traps and say nothing about what happened. This is just to put you in the picture, in case rumours and rather colourful accounts should filter through to you.…

I am in quite good health, apart from a chronic lack of proper rest. And we survived the winter—which has taken on such a frightful form again in the last few days—without catching Hong Kong flu.


Dear Teddy…

If the alternative is the police or left-wing students, then I am with the students—with one crucial exception, namely, if my life is threatened or if violence is threatened against my person and my friends, and that threat is a serious one. Occupation of rooms (apart from my own apartment) without such a threat of violence would not be a reason for me to call the police. I would have left them sitting there and left it to somebody else to call the police. I still believe that our cause (which is not only ours) is better taken up by the rebellious students than by the police, and, here in California, that is demonstrated to me almost daily (and not only in California). And I would even take on board a disruption of “business as usual,” if the conflict is serious enough for that.…

We know (and they know) that the situation is not a revolutionary one, not even a pre- revolutionary one. But this same situation is so terrible, so suffocating and demeaning, that rebellion against it forces a biological, physiological reaction: one can bear it no longer, one is suffocating and one has to let some air in. And this fresh air is not that of a “left fascism” (contradictio in adjecto!). It is the air that we (at least I) also want to breathe some day, and it is certainly not the air of the establishment. I discuss things with the students and I attack them if, in my opinion, they are being stupid, playing into the hands of the other side, but I would probably not call to my aid worse, more awful weapons against their bad ones. And I would despair about myself (us) if I (we) would appear to be on the side of a world that supports mass murder in Vietnam, or says nothing about it, and which makes a hell of any realms that are outside the reach of its own repressive power.


The police should not be—to use the jargon of the ApO [Außerparlamentarische Opposition, a protest movement that was part of the larger German student movement]—abstractly demonized. I can only reiterate that they treated the students far more leniently than the students treated me: that simply beggared description. I disagree with you on the question of when the police should be called. Recently, in a faculty discussion, Mr. Cohn-Bendit told me that I only had the right to call the police if blows were about to rain down on me; I replied that, by then, it would probably be too late.…

The strongest point that you make is the idea that the situation could be so terrible that one would have to attempt to break out of it, even if one recognizes the objective impossibility. I take that argument seriously. But I think that it is mistaken. We withstood in our time, you no less than me, a much more dreadful situation—that of the murder of the Jews, without proceeding to praxis; simply because it was blocked for us. I think that clarity about the streak of coldness in one’s self is a matter for self-contemplation. To put it bluntly: I think that you are deluding yourself in being unable to go on without participating in the student stunts, because of what is occurring in Vietnam or Biafra.


It is indeed true that the police should “not be abstractly demonized.” And, of course, I too would call the police in certain situations. Recently, with reference to the university (and nowhere else), I formulated it in the following way: “If there is a real threat of physical injury to persons, and of the destruction of material and facilities serving the educational function of the university.” On the other hand, I believe that, in certain situations, occupation of buildings and disruption of lectures are legitimate forms of political protest. For example: in the University of California, after the breaking up of the demonstration in May in Berkeley that was brutal beyond belief. [Marcuse is likely referring to Bloody Thursday.]


Thank you very much for both your letters. I will respond as well as I am able, though I find myself in a phase of extreme depression, whose cause is in no way psychological, and which does not really favour my capacity to express myself. Therefore, above all else, I beg your patience, even should I repeat myself. Just so you might get a sense of the atmosphere here, I will let you know that my lectures have been disrupted for a second time, and this time without even providing the pretence of an excuse.…

You would not have been able to act any differently in our position; the case cited by you, “if there is a real threat of physical injury to persons, and of the destruction of material and facilities serving the educational function of the university” was exactly applicable here. What you call their hostility towards the Institute stems simply from the fact that we reacted in accordance with the provocation.


I certainly do believe that the student movement does have the prospect of “effecting a social intervention.” I am thinking here mainly of the United States, but also France (my stay in Paris reinforced that once again) and South America. Of course, the causes that set off the process are all very different, but, unlike Habermas, it seems to me that, despite all the differences, the driving motivation aims for the same goal. And this goal is now a protest against capitalism, which cuts to the roots of its existence, against its henchmen in the Third World, its culture, its morality. Of course, I never voiced the nonsensical opinion that the student movement is itself revolutionary. But it is the strongest, perhaps the only, catalyst for the internal collapse of the system of domination today. The student movement in the United States has indeed intervened effectively as just such a catalyst: in the development of political consciousness, in the agitation in the ghettos, in the radical alienation from the system of layers who were formerly integrated, and, most importantly, in the mobilization of further circles of the populace against American imperialism (I really can see no reason to be allergic to the use of this concept). All that may not amount to very much, but there is no revolutionary situation in the most advanced industrialized countries, and the degree of integration simply delimits new, very unorthodox forms of radical opposition. As is almost always the case, the rulers have a more accurate assessment of the meaning of the student opposition than it has itself: in the United States repression is most urgently organized against schools and universities—when co-optation does not help, the police do.…

The students know all too well the objective limits of their protest—they do not need us to point it out to them, but perhaps they need us to help them get beyond these limits. The use of force, the “practitioners of violence,” all that is on the other side, in the opponents’ camp, and we should be wary of taking over its categories and using them to label the protest movement. And the dictatorship after the collapse? We should have the theoretical courage not to identify the violence of liberation with the violence of repression, all subsumed under the general category of dictatorship. Terrible as it is, the Vietnamese peasant who shoots his landlord who has tortured and exploited him for decades is not doing the same thing as the landlord who shoots the rebelling slaves.

These letters between Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse were translated by Esther Leslie and originally published as “Correspondence on the German Student Movement” in New Left Review, issue 233.

Sam Schuman was Alta's 2020 Summer intern.
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