Thomas Wheatland


On his book The Frankfurt School in Exile

Cover Interview of December 02, 2009

A close-up

In the wake of 1968, Herbert Marcuse and, by extension, his former colleagues from the Frankfurt School became forever linked with the student protests of that era.  While most of the members and former members of the Horkheimer Circle had a deeply problematic relationship with the New Left, Herbert Marcuse’s enthusiastic support of the student movement solidified the connection between the Frankfurt School and student rebels.  The press of the late 1960s heralded Marcuse as the “guru” of student rebellion.  The evidence among the writings of American student leaders, however, presents a more problematic picture.

Marcuse and his critics were right about the difficulties faced by his readers in the United States.  Most were not familiar with the style of rhetoric or the Germanic modes of thought that lay behind his writings for the New Left.  At the same time, the student journals and underground newspapers from the era suggest a pattern of reception that is markedly different from what has traditionally been assumed. Herbert Marcuse, 1955

When examining materials such as New Left Notes, Ramparts, and the wide array of underground newspapers linked to the counterculture, one is struck by how infrequently Marcuse’s name or ideas appear before the dramatic events of 1968.  After the spring of 1968, when Marcuse actively sought to inspire and ally himself with the New Left, there is slightly more discussion, but still not as much as the popular press led people to believe.  To some extent, Marcuse’s thought struggled to take root within a movement that progressively embraced increasingly extreme actions and enthusiastically touted its own anti-intellectualism. 

Marcuse’s most substantial audience were graduate students and scholars sympathetic to many of the ambitions of the New Left.  Marcuse and the Frankfurt School reminded them of the importance of social theory, the power of the culture industry, and the dangers of authoritarianism.  Such admirers of the Horkheimer Circle emphasized these aspects of Critical Theory to criticize the rise of extremism that had arisen both in reaction to the student movement and within the student movement itself.

Critical Theory flourished amid the ruins of the American New Left after its shocking implosion.  This reception of Critical Theory was not in the streets, but rather in the seminar room, a place where Critical Theory has since flourished, but also receded largely from public view.