Blog #51 The Baran-Marcuse letters – Not Just the Facts, in Critical Social Science

Blog #51 – The Baran-Marcuse letters – Not Just the Facts, in Critical Social Science

The issue that Paul Baran and my father confronted in their correspondence[1] was, I suspect, what was an on-going and troublesome theme for them both, analytically and politically. It was a paradox that my father often formulated as: “You need new men and women to make a revolution, but you need a revolution to make new men and women.” It stems from a very fundamental insight: the large gap between the objective and the subjective condition for basic social change, in which the gap reflects the way in which the social is absorbed into the personal. In Baran’s formulation, it results from the fact that the “autonomous individual’s…own” thinking and feeling was also in the past somehow socially constituted…” Somehow. But how? The question led, I think, both to my father’s concern with Freud and to Baran’s with the cultural, both asserting a link to Marx. It parallels “somehow” the contradiction between “fact” as immediately perceived/experienced and essence, as “fact” understood in its social and historical context. It parallels in other ways the tension between the actual and the potential that the actual occludes, the demands of Eros and the demands of civilization, the one dimension and the other dimensions. intelligence vs. reason.[2]

Baran insisted, and my father agreed, that “the truth is in the whole.”[3]It was a revolutionary view, they held, and “broke with the fetishism and reification, with the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, prevalent in the social sciences, a pseudo-empiricism which… tended to make the objectivity of the social sciences a vehicle of apologetics and a defense of the status quo.”

Facts, I would read the point to to mean, are only “true” when understood in their “dialectal relationship between the particular conditions and facts, on the one side, and the whole social order, on the other.”[4] Henri Lefebvre makes the same point: “Appearance and reality […] are not separated like oil and water in a vessel, but rather amalgamated like water and wine. To separate them, we must analyze them in the most ‘classic’ sense of the word: the elements of the mixture must be isolated.” To claim that pure description of the “facts” is an objective presentation of reality turns what should be wine into water. The superficiality of, e.g., the current mas media, is not simply inadequate; it conceals the reality, suppresses the truth.

Examples as valid today as when written, abound. “election returns,” presented “as indications of democracy operating at an optimal level, the meaning of the word ‘democracy” never questioned. Public opinion polls, in which pollster by the way they frame questions, contribute to making the very public opinions that purport objectively to report as facts; the evaluation of decisions as good or bad, right or wrong, “whereas it is everywhere and only their question progressive and regressive in historical terms, that is, in terms of the available material and intellectual resources, the technical of their extract…”and thus “the greater rationality in the sense of human welfare.”[5] That rationality can be judged on the basis of the facts, fully understood, but the facts do not themselves provide the answers. Facts are “mute.”

These points are not self-evident, and provoke a level of thought and questioning which is very rare today, but much needed. There’s much still to be learned from this correspondence of half a century ago.


[A personal note: I only met Baran once, during the war, when my father was with the OSS, as I believe Baran was also. I was maybe 12 at the time. Baran had come over to our house to talk to my father, and they stayed up a long time. I asked my father later why Baran had come, and he told me Baran wanted to talk about whether capitalism was ultimately bad for the capitalists as well as for the workers, and I gather they had agreed it was. My father was working on Eros and Civilization at the time (on the side, not at OSS!), and I assume that was the context. They really respected each other.

[I was only a teen-ager then, but I remember whenever he mentioned Baran’s name at the dinner table it was always with a real smile. Reading the letter exchange with Baran from two decades later, I can see why: Anyone that would speak of Horkheimer as he “exudes his shallow moralizing snobbery” would understandably have delighted my father, although he would only have admitted it to very close friends. Always was lectured to be on my very best behavior whenever we visited with Horkheimer and his wife in California, and Baran’s description rings true. And my father would only have written, about Adorno, “I have always found Teddy’s “political” utterances rather abhorrent“ to a really close and politically very sympathetic friend..]

Peter Marcuse                                                             December 22, 2013

[1] A slightly different version is posted at, and referenced at Monthly Review, vol. 65, no. 10, March 2014, p. 20

[2] With a riff on “the high-IQ imbecile.” Supra, P. 43

[3] See “Marcuse on Baran,” ,Monthly Review, supra, p. 22.

[4] Supra, p. 2.

[5] Supra., p. 25.


Author: pmarcuse

2010: Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. March 2022: Peter Marcuse passed away, age 93, in March 2022.

7 thoughts on “Blog #51 The Baran-Marcuse letters – Not Just the Facts, in Critical Social Science”

  1. Dear Peter,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you and some of your family/relatives at the International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference in Philadelphia back in October of 2011, and am also a subscriber to your blog. I am a sociologist and critical theorist who, for a long time, has been very interested in the “gap” between people’s existing consciousness of, and attitudes/concerns about global social and political issues (e.g. nuclear weapons proliferation, AIDS, terrorism and, most recently, global warming and consequent climate change), and the type(s) of consciousness/understanding/awareness of such issues that are necessary in order for them to engage collectively on these issues.

    So I read with interest your new post below. It piqued my interest sufficiently to want to read the actual correspondence, but on going to the source to which your first footnote refers (i.e. Monthly Review Online) and searching for your post there, I am coming up empty (i.e. “no results”). Can you help? If an electronic version of that correspondence no longer exists on that web site, do you have a copy of it that you could email directly to me? If not, is there anywhere else I could obtain a copy (other than going to the local library to read the hard-copy journal version)?

    With regards and many thanks,

    Michael J. Sukhov

  2. But I am more pursued by the truth-real, in the ideas of simulation and seduction (baudrillard) Is it not true that ultimately the real is so hidden by the truth, through signs symbols, language, architectures, materiality, the only truth is this amlgamated truth. Perhaps a revolutionary order finds it difficult to exist because it’s essence (true) is always compromised or distilled in empty signifiers, something which occupies space, and language. Both. Would really like to hear more about this from you. Thanks.

  3. Peter:
    This is fascinating. Please tell us more. Apparently reality is not what it used to be!
    Dsve Johnson

  4. We go through our world so thoroughly saturated with the ideology of individualism that we easily forget that there really is no such thing as a freestanding autonomous individual; that, however paradoxical it may sound, nothing is more profoundly a product of the group than the identify or identification of the individual. Human eggs have been fertilized in test tubes, for sure, but no human being, that I know of has ever yet to be grown to maturity in a laboratory. A human being is a human being only in the context of a human society; that is, in cooperation with other human beings. In the end, isn’t everything under the sun socially constituted?

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