[Crossposted from New Books in History] I have a friend who, as a young child, happened to meet Herbert Marcuse, by that time a rock-star intellectual and darling of the American student movement. Upon seeing the man, he exclaimed “Marcuse! Marcuse! You have such a beautiful head!” I don’t know how beautiful Herbert Marcuse’s head was, but I do know a lot of other interesting things about him and his Frankfurt School buddies now that I’ve read Thomas Wheatland’s wonderful The Frankfurt School in Exile (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). The story Tom tells casts the Frankfurt School in a new (and more correct) light. For one thing, Horkheimer, Adorno, and the rest really were hard-core empirical social scientists in the beginning, not “Critical Theorists” as we understand the term. They counted, measured, conducted surveys and did everything a positivist sociologist or economist would do. But, of course, that was not how they became idols of the New Left and the founders of “Critical Theory.” (Now that I think about it, almost no one ever achieves fame by doing empirical social science. See “Malcolm Gladwell” for more.) No, they–or rather Fromm, Marcuse and Habermas–got famous by telling young Americans that they were “repressed,” “alienated,” and “downtrodden” at exactly the moment they wanted to hear it, that is, the 1960s. You see, the “old” Marxism was dead; this was the “new and improved” version. In other words, they were in the right Critical-Theoretical place and at the right Critical-Theoretical time. And, as Tom points out, they were bewildered and even a bit disturbed by their fame. Despite what my friend said, Marcuse did not get a big head. Rather the opposite. He, much to his credit, told the students he didn’t want to be their guru, that he didn’t believe in gurus. But they didn’t care–they made him one anyway. Students love gurus. I loved Tom Wheatland’s book, and I encourage you to read it.
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