Bernard E. Harcourt | Angela Davis on Marcuse, Adorno, and the German SDS Student Movement

By Bernard E. Harcourt


I see this as a feminist stance. The capacity to dwell within contradictions and render them productive is an important element of feminist methodologies. I’m recognizing now that I had encountered dilemmas that required that insight in the late 1960s when I was studying with Adorno.

— Angela Davis, “Bridging Theory and Practice: An Interview with Erin Hagood and Duyminh Tran, Platypus Review 138 (July-August 2021)


In a brilliant and wide-ranging interview from 2020, Angela Davis returns to her years at the University of Frankfurt and reexamines her intellectual engagement with Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and fellow graduate students at the University of Frankfurt in the late 1960s.[1]

The encounter with Adorno and Marcuse, Davis now suggests, provides a crucial theoretical piece in the development of her abolition-feminist method. That piece was the experience of a contradiction that could not simply be resolved or overcome, but served instead productively to generate new understandings and practices—new forms of critique and praxis.

Davis mentions a number of her encounters with contradiction: first, the contradictions along gender lines about the role of women in the SNCC and over questions of Marxism that led her to join the Che-Lumumba Club in Los Angeles and the Communist Party; then, the contradictions between theory and praxis that were embodied in the different positions of Adorno and Marcuse, as well as of Adorno and his students; finally, the contradictions within the Communist Party which pushed her to join the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

The contradictions between Adorno and Marcuse were sharp—reflected well in their correspondence over the student movement in 1969—though they too could not simply be overcome or resolved. Angela Davis recounts, in her essay on “Marcuse’s Legacies,” one of her last meetings with Adorno at which “he suggested that my desire to work directly in the radical movements of that period was akin to a media studies scholar deciding to become a radio technician.”[2]

But part of the contradiction was also that, although Adorno was the figure against whom the students rebelled, Adorno was nevertheless the one who, almost alone in the German academy at the time, offered the students the critical tools to think through emancipation. Detlev Claussen explains well the feeling of oppression that he felt at the time, both within ordinary society and in the university setting. “It was a post-national-socialist climate, Nazi-lite, so to speak… The whole atmosphere was terribly oppressive, and behind its apparent naivety the ideology of ‘national community’ or Volksgemeinschaft persisted. Today the fifties are idealised, but that era was terrible. The Cold War was frightful: that narrowness that penetrated everyday life, the persecution of all remotely divergent behaviour. It was a totally conformist society. Likewise, if for some reason you disagreed, you were told to ‘get lost to the other side!’, to the German Democratic Republic. That’s the environment we grew up in,” Claussen recounts.[3]

Against this backdrop, Adorno and Horkheimer were some of the only established scholars in Germany who offered critical concepts to help the students rethink critique and praxis—especially with Adorno’s books The Jargon of Authenticity and Negative Dialectics.[4] “The meanness and narrowness of the dominant mentality was unbearable,” Claussen recalls. “When you encountered the likes of Adorno, it was as if the blindfold had been lifted.”[5]

Angela Davis experienced similar contradictions, both at Frankfurt and in the United States. Davis now ties together these experiences and anchors them in the following theoretical framework:

I did learn a great deal about working within the context of contradictions. I really appreciated Adorno’s analysis. I loved his lectures, read his works voraciously, and had conversations with my student friends in Germany about his work. On the other hand, so many of us were utterly critical of him for his failure to recognize that it was possible at that moment to bridge the gap between theory and practice.


Marcuse was actually doing this. He was doing his philosophy and working within the realm of ideas, but also participated in the radical movements of that era. He spoke at rallies, advised activists, and engaged in reflections on activism in his writings of that era. By contrast, Adorno’s position was basically that the revolution we wanted should have already happened. However, it did not happen due to major flaws in the theory. He believed that our role at that time was to deeply immerse ourselves in theory so that we could generate a theoretical framework capable of producing successful revolutionary activism.


Many of us felt that this stance did not reflect the dialectical approach on which he himself always insisted. He saw his work as dialectical. How could one divorce theories and praxis, ideas and activism in that way? In Frankfurt, we had many conversations about the value of Adorno’s work that also helped us to develop an immanent critique of his stand with respect to activism.

In the interview, Angela Davis demonstrates how this experience of contradiction nourished her later work and development of a feminist-abolitionist method:

I’m thankful for the fact that you posed the question in those terms, because I never quite thought about it that way. Your formulation of the question highlights what I now consider to be an important feminist method — working within the very tensions defined by relations of contradiction. Although I did not see myself as learning how to work within the context of contradictions, this is precisely what I was attempting to do. When I joined the Communist Party, I was extremely critical of a number of issues related to the party. However, based on the experience I had in Frankfurt, I realized that it was possible to be engaged and active while simultaneously remaining critical.

This raises, for me, the fascinating question whether we might think of Angela Davis—and more broadly, abolition feminism—as the true second generation of the Frankfurt School! (Or inversely, Adorno and Marcuse as stepping stones to abolition feminism, which incidentally we will explore with Sarah Haley at Revolution 13/13). I do not mean, in any way, to appropriate anyone by using these labels; if I sound as if I am, I apologize. I do not intend to appropriate Angela Davis for the Frankfurt School or, inversely, appropriate the Frankfurt School for Angela Davis. The really interesting question, I believe, is whether there is more continuity from the first generation of the Frankfurt School to the critique and praxis of Angela Davis (as well as of Hans-Jürgen Krahl and the SDS students), than there is to that of critical theorists who are generally identified as the second or third generation of the Frankfurt School. I don’t mean to be provocative, I am totally genuine here. Maybe we have gotten our genealogies all wrong. Maybe the spirit of the Frankfurt School went in a very different direction!

Historical Context

As Angela Davis writes in her autobiography, she went to Frankfurt after having worked with Marcuse as a senior in college at Brandeis.[6] Marcuse spontaneously created an independent tutorial for Davis after she expressed her interest in philosophy; inspired by that and an earlier summer stint in Paris and Frankfurt, Davis then spent two years on a fellowship at the university in Frankfurt, studying with Adorno, Marcuse, Oscar Negt, and others at the Institute for Social Research. It was during the time of the SDS student movement—and a roiling period of Black Panther activism state-side. Davis recounts formative experiences in Frankfurt, both theoretical, working on Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and practical, participating in the protests against American aggression in Vietnam and mass student demonstrations, including those following the infamous police killing of Ben Ohnesorge, a student, during a protest against the Shah of Iran in West Berlin in 1967.

“Frankfurt was a very intensive learning experience,” Davis recalls in her autobiography. “Stimulating lectures and seminars conducted by Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Professor Haag, Alfred Schmidt, Oscar Negt. Tackling formidable works, such as all three of Kant’s Critiques and the works of Hegel and Marx as well (in one seminar, we spent an entire semester analyzing about twenty pages of Hegel’s Logic).”[7] All the while, participating in the mass mobilization of the German students.

As Detlev Claussen recalls, the encounter with Angela Davis was also formative for him and his colleagues. Claussen remembers first meeting Davis in Adorno’s graduate seminars on Negative Dialectics, to which he had been hailed as an undergraduate by Hans-Jürgen Krahl. “That’s how our friendship, which has lasted to this day, began,” Claussen observes.[8]

Despite Adorno having agreed to supervise her doctoral dissertation, Davis felt that she needed to return to the U.S. to return to the political struggle there. “Each day it was becoming clear to me that my ability to accomplish anything was directly dependent on my ability to contribute something concrete to the struggle.”[9]

Davis would continue her graduate studies with Marcuse at the University of California in San Diego, where Marcuse had moved, and ultimately complete a brilliant dissertation on Kant, while at the same time bridging theory and praxis together through her ongoing political engagements, organizing and militating (including for the creation of a Lumumba-Zapata College, depicted in this graphic biography of Marcuse, for which Davis recently wrote the preface).[10]

The rest is history—the Board of Regents revoking her professorship at UCLA, her arrest in August 1970, her incarceration for over 16 months, and her trial and acquittal. But the ties to the Frankfurt School remained. Claussen for instance got involved, after Davis’s arrest back in California, in the campaign to free Angela Davis. “That affected me a lot personally,” Claussen recounts; “the Sozialistische Büro was willing to start a campaign in favour of Angela’s release and I was actively involved in it and I went to tour with them for a year.”[11]

Moving to the Present

Angela Davis highlights one of the more long-standing contradictions within the Left—one that still characterizes it today—namely the tension between class struggle on the one hand and anti-racism and anti-sexism on the other. This tension, somewhat alleviated but still present, corrodes the Left because it prevents many from seeing how the labor force has become increasingly women workers. “Nowadays, we are seeing an entirely different global economy,” Davis explains, “with women and girls participating in the manufacturing sector. Some of the most progressive unions have recognized that they have to change their approaches.”[12]

These changes require a reimagining of the political struggle, Davis argues, one that centers “questions of race, gender, and ability.” They call for new theoretical frameworks—something that critical theory is especially good at. Let’s close, then, with Angela Davis, speaking in 2020:[13]

This is one of the things I really appreciate about critical theory. One not only uses these conceptual methods to try to understand the world but must also constantly question the conceptual apparatus. One must ask: why am I using this tool, this concept, this particular theory, this method? How does that change the outcome of what I am trying to learn? How do changes in the material world have an impact on my theoretical framework?[14]


[1] Erin Hagood and Duyminh Tran, “Bridging theory and practice: An interview with Angela Davis,” Platypus Review 138 (July-August 2021),

[2] Angela Davis, “Marcuse’s Legacy,” in Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, ed. John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb (New York: Routledge, 2004), 43-50, 47.

[3] Jordi Maiso and Detlev Claussen, “Critical theory and lived experience: Interview with Detlev Claussen,” Radical Philosophy 2, no. 6 (Winter 2019): 63-82, 64.

[4] Maiso and Claussen, 65.

[5] Maiso and Claussen, 64.

[6] Angela Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 135.

[7] Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, 142.

[8] Maiso and Claussen, “Critical theory and lived experience: Interview with Detlev Claussen,” 65.

[9] Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, 145.

[10] Angela Davis, “Angela Davis on Protest, 1968, and Her Old Teacher, Herbert Marcuse,” Literary Hub, April 3, 2019,

[11] Maiso and Claussen, “Critical Theory and lived experience,” 75.

[12] Hagood and Tran, “Bridging theory and practice.”

[13] Hagood and Tran, “Bridging theory and practice.”

[14] Hagood and Tran, “Bridging theory and practice.”

One Comment

  1. As an undergraduate in 1968, I remember meeting Marcuse at Old Westbury College. The college was trying to recruit Marcuse away from the west coast, where he was under constant threats against his life. Marcuse said to me directly, ” I am an educational conservative and a political radical.” I did not see that as a contradiction at the time. When I asked him about Angela Davis, he said that he had no advice to give her at that moment. His engagement with movements against the war, racism and One Dimensional Man was as an exemplar of the theorist who gave legitimacy to the activists in the streets.

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