Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse's years at UCSD

Angel of the Apocalypse

She and several other students asked a nonstudent friend if he would sit in Marcuse’s large survey courses with a gun, “just in case.”
  • She and several other students asked a nonstudent friend if he would sit in Marcuse’s large survey courses with a gun, “just in case.”
  • Tom Voss

On June 11, 1968, the San Diego Union published an editorial under the headline “This Is an Order!” demanding an investigation of seventy-year-old UCSD philosophy professor and avowed Marxist Herbert Marcuse. The editorial did not suggest who should investigate this “professor of Left Wing philosophy” or what such an inquiry might encompass, but it lit off a controversy that pitted local citizenry against the UCSD administration, faculty, and students for the next eight months.

San Diego Union, June 11, 1968

Marcuse’s politics were little different from other left-liberal men of his generation. He supported the civil rights movement and opposed the war in Vietnam, CIA and military recruiters on campuses, and Defense Department-funded university grants. All told, he was far less active in civil rights and antiwar movements than other men his age, such as Benjamin Spock and two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling, who were were highly visible in newspapers and on television news.

Marcuse believed that contemporary society is unfree and by its very nature repressive. The worker, whom Karl Marx had expected to be the agent of revolution, was in Marcuse's analysis so fat on consumer goods and so lulled by comfort that he had become part of the problem, rather than a means to its solution. In his 1964 work, One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse warned that “liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. Free election of the masters does not abolish the masters of the slaves.” In his view, only the “excluded” — students, artists, Third World peoples, and U.S. racial minorities — appeared to have revolutionary potential. Yet Marcuse was not pro-Soviet, nor was he ever a member of the Communist Party. His 1958 book Soviet Marxism deplored the brutality of Marxism as it developed under Stalin, and Pravda in turn denounced him as one of the “werewolves” who were attempting to “decommunize Marxism.”

To those who did not know him well, Marcuse seemed a rather typical German academic: formally polite, almost diffident. He did not call students and peers by their first names, nor were acquaintances invited to call him “Herbert.” Born in Berlin of upper-middle-class Jewish parents in 1898, he later became a student of philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and was an early member of the Frankfurt School, a group of left-wing intellectuals who hoped to take philosophical speculation out of the academy and give it practical application. Leaving Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1932, Marcuse immigrated to the United States. In 1940 he became a U.S. citizen, and during World War II, he worked as a political analyst in the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. He later worked for the State Department, and between 1951 and 1954, a period during which his first wife became ill and died, he held positions at Harvard and Columbia universities. He was teaching full-time at Brandeis University during the Sixties when he emerged as a vocal government critic, speaking out against the war in Southeast Asia and racism here at home. Marcuse’s increasing outspokenness allegedly displeased the Brandeis administration, and in 1963, when Marcuse turned sixty-five and reached retirement age, the university was willing to offer him only an annually renewable contract.

That same year at the fledgling UCSD campus, the philosophy department, with three faculty members, and the literature department, with a faculty of four, were founded. The following year, the philosophy department sponsored a symposium called “Marxism Today,” and Marcuse was one of four invited speakers. Although it would not be until 1965 that Marcuse would gain popular recognition among student radicals, he was well known in academic circles as a social and political theorist, a critic of postindustrial society, and a committed but non-dogmatic Marxist. Out of the symposium event, Marcuse was invited to teach in the UCSD philosophy department. He was past sixty-five when the offer of a three-year “postretirement appointment” came, but UCSD also offered him the possibility of contract renewal after the three years were up. He accepted.

Bill Leiss, who now teaches in the philosophy department of Simon-Fraser University in British Columbia and Ricky Sherover were both graduate students at Brandeis in the early Sixties who followed Marcuse to UCSD in 1965 to become his teaching assistants. (In 1976, three years after the death of Marcuse’s second wife, Sherover and Marcuse married. They remained together until Marcuse died in West Germany in 1979. Sherover now teaches part-time in the Bay Area and leads workshops titled “Unlearning Racism”)

Ron Perrin also came to UCSD that year as a graduate student to study under Marcuse. Today Perrin, who teaches political science at the University of Montana in Missoula, remembers his decision to come to San Diego. It was as simple as reading One-Dimensional Man. “[The book] showed me that philosophy could become practical in a social, instead of only a personal, way,” he says. “It was exactly what I needed at that time.” When Perrin learned Marcuse would be at UCSD, his mind was made up. So was John Burke’s. Now an academic counselor in the University of Washington’s economics department, Burke had also heard that Marcuse would be teaching here, and he, too, enrolled in graduate studies in 1965.

When Bill Leiss arrived on the UCSD campus from Brandeis, he perceived it to be “a very curious place, founded around science departments, dominated by eminent scientists, and tied into the military establishment through research contracts. And here was this philosophy department that deliberately went out and recruited Marcuse.” Ricky Sherover was more startled by her first impressions of Southern California students. “First of all,” she says, “there were all these sorts of longhaired students that I thought were hippies. But they weren’t. They were surfers. And it was the only college I had ever been in where male students came to class wearing a bathing suit and nothing on top.... There was a real culture clash.”

Leiss and Sherover were Marcuse’s teaching assistants for an undergraduate course called “The Present Age” that was part of a two-year program designed to give a historical view of the humanities and familiarize students with contemporary thinkers. These courses, which attracted 200 to 300 students, met twice a week for Marcuse’s lectures and once a week in small discussion sections with a teaching assistant. Marcuse lectured from sketchy notes, striding back and forth as he talked, and encouraged student questions and participation. He never assigned his own books, declined to refer to them in discussion, and shrank from seeking to influence critical reflection through his own ideas. Only once, capitulating to student pressure, did he offer a course on Karl Marx. Nor did he encourage his graduate students to write theses or dissertations on Marx. Ron Perrin notes that while Marcuse never said, “You can’t write on Marx,” he discouraged students from doing so, perhaps for fear that a student whose dissertation concentrated on Marx would have trouble getting a job.

That first year, Ricky Sherover and other UCSD graduate students became concerned about rising U.S. troop build-ups in Vietnam, and she involved herself in “educating the undergraduates in political issues.” In October of 1965, during the first of the International Days of Protest, when Vietnam rallies were held around the world, local students organized what she believes was one of UCSD’s first political protests. Only a small group showed up, and Marcuse addressed them. Also that fall, teaching assistant Bill Leiss was elected president of the newly organized Students of the Independent Left, whose membership was made up of approximately one hundred students, many of them graduate students from the philosophy and literature departments. Leiss says that SIL intended to distinguish itself from Students for a Democratic Society and “all the other crazy leftists. We really were the Marcuse organization in the sense that we deliberately intended to be nondogmatic” SIL became known for its literature table in Revelle Plaza, from which it would later drape a North Vietnamese flag, and its magazine, Alternatives, of which six issues were published. SIL also leafleted outside the Selective Service office in downtown San Diego, and John Burke remembers that its members were often harassed. But in San Diego, Burke believes, friction between town and gown was inevitable. “We used to call the area the Eleventh Naval District. The navy was the city, and we thought of it that way." That friction was increased, Burke suggests, by the difficulty many San Diegans had in understanding the value and purpose of liberal arts disciplines. “They could understand the need for oceanography or physics or chemistry, but not philosophy or literature."

Philosophy professors rarely attract public notice. Had the time been different, and the place, no doubt Marcuse would have continued on through his three-year appointment at UCSD and likely been reappointed several more times. His health was robust, his mind vital. He met his classes regularly and, during summers and academic breaks, traveled abroad, speaking at conferences and visiting friends. He read continually, and although he was partial to classical music, he bowed to student enthusiasm and bought Bob Dylan and Joan Baez albums. He described himself as a romantic. He wept when he saw Love Story. A lover of animals, Marcuse kept small stuffed toy animals arranged around his bedroom and pictures of animals on his kitchen walls. He walked every day along the beach at La Jolla Shores. And until 1968, San Diego County citizens took little notice of Marcuse and the students associated with him.

The year 1968 was not a very good one. It wasn't good if you were young, and in 1968, fifty-one percent of the U.S. population was younger than twenty-seven. It wasn’t good if you were old, which in the Sixties, seemed to mean anyone over thirty. And other rifts widened between left and right, conservative and radical, white and black. On January 23, the USS Pueblo, a navy intelligence ship, was seized by North Korean patrol boats. On January 30, the Viet Cong launched the first of a cluster of heavy attacks against South Vietnamese cities and bases. Within twenty-four hours, they were able to occupy the U.S. embassy in Saigon for six hours. The next day. President Lyndon Johnson declared he would not seek re-election. On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a white sniper in Memphis, and federal troops were called out to quell riots in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. On April 11, the day that President Johnson signed the civil rights bill prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale or rental of U.S. housing, Rudi (“Red Rudi") Dutschke, a West German graduate student in philosophy and leader of that nation’s Socialist German Student Organization, was shot in the head during a student demonstration. On April 24, students occupied Columbia University’s administration building, and six days later. New York City police forcibly removed them from five university buildings. On May Day, militant leftist students of the University of Paris, some carrying banners that read “Mao, Marx, et Marcuse!” occupied a lecture hall. Two weeks later, on May 13, hundreds of thousands of French workers and students joined in a nationwide, twenty-four-hour strike. On June 5, after winning the California Democratic primary, Robert Kennedy was gunned down.

During that long, violent spring of 1968, leftist student leaders around the world began to quote Marcuse and claim his ideas as inspiration to their movements. By June worldwide media had dubbed Marcuse the “Father of the New Left” and “Angel of the Apocalypse.” Ramparts magazine noted, “When the improbable student rebellions of West Berlin, Morningside Heights, and the Sorbonne broke out this spring, all agreed that Herbert Marcuse was the Marx of the children of the new bourgeoisie.”

During the early summer of 1968, California Governor Ronald Reagan sent letters to trustees and regents of all of the state’s colleges and universities deploring the “climate of violence” created by the campuses. “A sick campus community in California in many ways is responsible for a sick community around those campuses,” he wrote.

In mid-May Marcuse and his wife traveled to Germany and France, where he had been invited to speak at an academic conference. While in Berlin, the Marcuses visited the gravely wounded Rudi Dutschke in his hospital room. Soon after their visit, the Bonn Advertiser quoted a “well-informed” but unnamed source who claimed that Marcuse had invited the West German student radical to bring his wife and son to San Diego. Furthermore, according to the Advertiser, Marcuse had offered Dutschke a teaching assistantship at UCSD. The story was picked up by Newsweek, the New York Times, and the San Diego Union, which was sufficiently provoked to write its “This Is an Order!” editorial calling for an “investigation.” Even before the Marcuses returned to La Jolla, a barrage of mail — addressed to him, to UCSD administrators, and to the university’s newly appointed chancellor, William McGill — had begun to arrive. “There were lots of threats” and “insulting, vicious letters,” remembers Ricky Sherover.

In New York City on his way home, Marcuse spoke to reporters about the matter. Yes, he and his wife had visited with Rudi Dutschke; they had suggested that when Dutschke had recuperated, perhaps he, his wife, and young son might like to visit San Diego. No, he had not invited Dutschke to attend or teach at UCSD; indeed, alluding to the political climate of the U.S., Marcuse had discouraged Dutschke from coming to the U.S. to study at all.

On July 1, Marcuse received a scrawled letter. “Marcuse, You are a very dirty Communist dog. We give you seventy-two hours to live [sic] United States. Seventy-two hours more, Marcuse, and we kill you ” The signature read “Ku Klux Klan,” and Ricky Sherover insisted that the professor take the threat seriously. She wanted to call the FBI. “Not from my office,” Marcuse told her. Later in the day, Marcuse learned that a woman had called the telephone company, identified herself as Mrs. Marcuse, and had ordered service shut off. Marcuse now began to realize the gravity of the threat. That night, while he finished grading final exams, students in cars patrolled the neighborhood around his home, and around the house itself, they stood armed with guns. For Marcuse’s wife, the ordeal was especially rough. The following day, when a Saturday Evening Post writer came to Marcuse's office to interview him for a story, she burst in crying, “You must let me see the contents of your pockets!” And it was at her insistence that the couple left for a northern California vacation as soon as Marcuse’s course grades were turned in.

William McGill had been named to the UCSD chancellorship on June 21, 1968. A month later, George Fisher, commander of San Diego Post 6 of the American Legion, wrote him. Details of the correspondence are recorded in McGill’s The Year of the Monkey, a chronicle of his two years as head of the troubled campus. Noting that Marcuse was an “admitted Marxist,” Fisher urged McGill not to renew the three-year teaching appointment, which was at its end. “In fact,” wrote McGill, “in the Legion’s view, every effort should be made to revoke Marcuse's current contract. They offered to raise money to ‘buy up’ his contract if no other method could be found.” McGill wrote back to Fisher, “The university is bound by a commitment to Professor Marcuse ... which governs his services to the university during the 1968-69 academic year. I intend to see that this commitment is kept.”

In early August, again at Mrs. Marcuse’s urging, the couple left for Europe, and at UCSD, a rumor made the rounds: perhaps they would stay abroad. But Marcuse insisted he would return in the fall. “Quite a few students came to this place because of me,” he told a reporter, “and as far as I can, I will not let them down.”

In his absence, events quickened. On August 9, a specially called session of the UCSD faculty senate drew 112 faculty members to vote on the adoption of a statement drawn up by the campus Committee on Academic Freedom. The statement assured Marcuse of faculty support “against the current attempts to silence him” and won by a vote of 109-3. It was printed the next day by the San Diego Union beneath a headline that read “Academic Senate Supports Marcuse." One day later, thirty-two American Legion posts in San Diego County approved their own resolution demanding that Marcuse's contract be terminated and offering $20,000 to buy it out. The Legion resolution also addressed itself to the regents, asking that as overseers of the University of California, they act to remove Marcuse.

The Legion resolution made news worldwide. In Italy Marcuse told a reporter for the International Herald Tribune, “The attack on me is only a part of a concerted attack on the university as such. You know this is one of the most reactionary communities in the United States, and they don't want a free university. They don't want a university that tolerates radical opinion.” A few days later, in France, Marcuse talked with staff members of the French magazine L'Express. About the developing crisis in San Diego he said, “My own situation is precarious, and I am very curious to Find out whether I will be able to retain my position at the university.”

In San Diego, controversy about the Marcuse appointment continued in the letters columns of the Union. More angry missives and hate mail addressed to Marcuse, McGill, and the UCSD administration began to arrive in the university mail room. A fairly typical letter to the editor of the Union was that written by an E.H.R. from Santee. The letter noted that Marcuse “is one of the greatest demagogs of all time” and urged that “all thinking citizens who believe that Marcuse’s freedom of speech should be exercised to his heart’s content elsewhere than in our tax-supported University can make known their views to the Board of Regents.”

Two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling, who had, like Marcuse, been the recipient of a “post-retirement” faculty appointment at UCSD, had generated some concern among his colleagues in early 1968. Pauling was an active, outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam, and fearful that the university regents might refuse to renew his appointment on political grounds, several UCSD faculty members devised what McGill in his book characterized as a “scheme.” Their plan was to submit a resolution to the regents, delegating the regents’ authority on post-retirement appointments to the president of the UC system with the understanding that he would in turn delegate it to the university chancellors. “Since the chancellors already had such authority for regular faculty appointments,” wrote McGill, “it was a perfectly reasonable step to take.” The regents passed the resolution in May, just a month before the furor erupted over Marcuse.

Now the matter of Marcuse’s reappointment fell directly to the new chancellor, and McGill recognized the difficulty. In The Year of the Monkey, he recalled his dilemma: “If we reappointed Marcuse, there would be an explosion in the community. If we failed to reappoint him, there would be an explosion on campus.” As his first move to resolve the matter, McGill, with the help of the chairman of the UCSD faculty senate, set in motion the organization of a “blue-ribbon faculty committee” that would be charged with conducting a formal inquiry into Marcuse's “current academic competence and his intellectual honesty” and to evaluate the philosophy department’s recommendation that his appointment be extended.

On the regents' agenda for their September meeting, to be held at UCLA, were two volatile issues: the Marcuse reappointment and discussion of Social Analysis 139X. The latter, a course titled “Dehumanization and Regeneration in the American Social Order,” grew out of demands made by Berkeley’s student-led Free Speech Movement. Convicted felon Eldridge Cleaver, author of the autobiography Soul on Ice and Black Panther information minister, had been hired to give ten lectures during a thirteen-week course planned for the upcoming academic year.

On September 18, one day before the regents were due to gather in Los Angeles and hold their initial discussion of the Cleaver matter, a Union editorial noted, “The public trust is not being discharged when a world-infamous Marxist uses the facilities and prestige of the University of California to preach everything contrary to the American tradition, heritage, and Constitution.... Regents would not meet their responsibility if they permit Eldridge Cleaver, rapist, revolutionist, and advocate of militant violence, to lecture at Berkeley and Irvine campuses.” Thus “world-infamous” Marcuse and convicted rapist Cleaver became inextricably paired in the public mind.

Marcuse had his champions. The Nation, a liberal weekly, made his reappointment a nationwide cause célèbre. Pointing out that Marcuse “had been accused by papers of the conservative Copley chain of ‘fomenting dissent,* ” the magazine went on to explain, “Dissent is a serious offense in San Diego County, which counts among its chief sources of revenue defense plants, no less than twenty-one military bases, and retired military personnel. The Navy-Marine payroll alone dumps $1.2 million a day into the San Diego economy.” Closer to home, the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in a pointed move elected Marcuse its president, and at UCSD, faculty supporters continued to parlay with the administration in an effort to assure the contract renewal. Even among UCSD faculty who disagreed with Marcuse's politics, the majority remained steadfast in his defense. And although he didn't know it, some of his students, in their resolve to defend his life if necessary, went to a shooting range and began target practice.

“Articles in the Union would depict Marcuse as leading or inciting students,” says former student John Burke, “but this was just not true. He was not a major influence in student organizing. If he were consulted, he would give advice or information, observations or opinions. He would be supportive. But the media image that was created of Marcuse fomenting or inciting, that is just entirely false. There was no incitement. There didn’t need to be. The situation called for action, and people were active. Marcuse did not have to do anything. He used to say, if my words are enough to disrupt society, then society is in bad shape.’”

The committee of six faculty members organized to investigate Marcuse began its work early in October. During that same month, Eldridge Cleaver, at the invitation of UCSD students, spoke to 4000 people in the UCSD gymnasium, leading them in the chant, “Fuck Ronald Reagan.” His appearance set off another spate of irate letters to the editor, to McGill, and to the UCSD administration.

Threats against Marcuse continued through the fall. His students took turns standing guard at the door while he lectured. In the large survey courses, any person wanting to enter who was not registered in the class was searched, says Ricky Sherover, adding, “A minor scandal erupted when some dignitary wanted to come in, and I sent him to get a permission slip. We didn't know who he was, and we weren’t taking any chances.” Sherover also learned to shoot, meeting for target practice every Saturday afternoon, and she and several other students asked a nonstudent friend if he would sit in Marcuse’s large survey courses with a gun, “just in case.” He did.

In The Year of the Monkey, former Chancellor McGill tells of a visit by Marcuse to McGill’s office in early November. Marcuse asked him when the reappointment would be decided. “It is not for myself that I raise this. Inge, my wife, keeps asking me where I will be working next year, and I do not know what to tell her,” McGill reports. The chancellor advised Marcuse that he would make his decision shortly after the new year and would notify him without delay. Marcuse thanked McGill and apologized for the trouble he was causing.

On November 22, the regents were to reconvene, this time in the same gymnasium where Cleaver had spoken a month before. Several hundred students and faculty, including Marcuse, stood silently outside as the board members, including Governor Reagan, filed in. A hundred more students watched from the balcony while a vote was taken to determine the status of Social Analysis 139X. The vote limited guest lecturers to a single appearance in credit courses and removed Social Analysis 139X as a credit course. Most of the students walked out and rallied in Revelle Plaza. Among those who made speeches was Marcuse, who declared that because of the regents’ action, he would disassociate himself from all the administrative committees on which he served.

After Christmas break, events again moved rapidly. The faculty committee investigating Marcuse made its report on February 3, 1969. McGill records that “the gist of their report was that among professional philosophers Marcuse was not held in especially high regard. Among sociologists and political theorists, however, estimates of Marcuse’s standing tended to run substantially higher. In the judgment of the committee, Marcuse’s primary value to UCSD was as an unusually gifted and popular teacher. The committee recommended reappointment.’’

McGill held a press conference on February 16 to announce the positive findings of the committee and his approval of Marcuse’s reappointment for another year. However, adding that “the campus feels that many of its difficulties in the Marcuse case arose from the lack of a clear policy on post-retirement appointments,” McGill also announced that beginning in June of 1970, the university would terminate all existing commitments to professors past the usual retirement age and replace those agreements with a “policy of expected retirement at a specified age.” Asked by a reporter if he had signed Marcuse’s formal letter of appointment, McGill said no. He had written to Marcuse that he would be reappointed, but out of courtesy for the regents, he would not sign the formal papers until he had discussed the issue at the next board meeting, scheduled for the following Thursday and Friday on the Berkeley campus. McGill’s announcement shared the front page of the February 17 issue of the Union with headlines noting that San Francisco State College’s administration building had been rocked by its second bombing in four days.

The next day, February 18, two stories were prominent on the Union's front page. One story reported that in Berkeley, “demonstrators emptied two University of California cafeterias of diners and employees with tear gas, fired four cherry bombs, and shattered windows in a series of marches around the campus yesterday.” The second noted that “Assemblyman John Stull, R-Leucadia, yesterday sought dismissal of UCSD Chancellor William McGill for rehiring Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse." On the editorial page, the lead editorial decried McGill's action in rehiring Marcuse, “the guru of the world's revolutionary socialistic left.” Moreover, it continued, McGill had compounded his mistake with the new retirement policy, a policy that could force retirement of “eminent scholars and genuine scientists." The editorial ended by suggesting that the regents veto McGill's decision to retain Marcuse and “seriously reconsider the delegation of the broad powers of hiring they have extended to chancellors.”

With two days to go before the board of regents meeting, one hundred UCSD students, including Ricky Sherover, and a half-dozen faculty members went to the chancellor’s office to demand that he sign Marcuse's reappointment letter immediately. McGill explained again that he intended to sign the letter but not until he had reviewed his actions with the regents. If the regents overturned his decision, McGill told the crowd, then he would resign.

On late Friday afternoon, the final day of the meeting, the San Francisco Police Department’s Tactical Force stood guard while the regents went into executive session to consider McGill's decision on Marcuse’s reappointment. According to McGill's account in The Year of the Monkey, Governor Reagan spoke angrily and suggested that the power to make post-retirement appointments be returned to the regents. A telegram in support of McGill's decision was read; it had been signed by thirty-seven prominent San Diegans, including Jonas Salk, Clinton McKinnon, Richard Silberman, Arthur Jessop, Malin Burnham, Hamilton Marston, and Frank Hope, Jr. Although moderate voices prevailed, the regents approved a statement of record, which noted that “a substantial number of them [the regents] strongly disapproved” McGill's reappointment decision. McGill immediately signed the formal letter notifying Marcuse of his 1969-1970 contract.

In June, 1970, the contract expired, and Marcuse was seventy-two. By then seventy had become the mandatory retirement age; UCSD, however, allowed Marcuse to keep his office in the Humanities Building and to continue to teach informally.

Looking back on the political activism of the period. Bill Leiss says in tones that can only be described as elegiac, “It was a brief episode that was the result of very specific conditions. When it was finished, there was no trace of it. It was as if it never happened.” Ron Perrin, however, offers another summary of those years. By 1970 he was teaching at Montana State University. He met Marcuse one day that year in San Francisco, and as the two men walked along together, Perrin reminisced about the late Sixties at UCSD. “The heroic age,” Marcuse said to Perrin. “That was the heroic age. You will see never see another age like it ”

“Don't tell me that," Perrin replied.

“No,” Marcuse insisted, “you won’t. These things only happen once in a lifetime.”

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