The Baran-Marcuse Letters: “The Truth Is the Whole”


The issue that Paul Baran and my father Herbert Marcuse confronted in their correspondence1 was, I suspect, what was an ongoing 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 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 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 mass media, is not simply inadequate; it conceals the reality, suppresses the truth.

Examples as valid today as when written abound.  “[E]lectoral returns,” presented “as indications of democracy operating at an optimal level,” the meaning of the word “democracy” never questioned.  Public opinion polls, in which pollsters, by the way they frame questions, contribute to making the very public opinions that they purport to report objectively as facts.  The evaluation of decisions as good or bad, right or wrong, whereas “[i]t is always and everywhere only the question of progressive and regressive in historical terms, that is, in terms of the available material and intellectual resources, the technical means of their extraction” and thus “the historical chances of 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 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 teenager 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 who would speak of Horkheimer as “exud[ing] his shallow moralizing snobbery” would have delighted my father, although he would have only admitted it to very close friends.  I was always 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 have only written about Adorno the way he did — “I have always found Teddy’s ‘political’ utterances rather abhorrent” — to a really close and politically very sympathetic friend.

1  Posted at Monthly Review Online, and referenced at Monthly Review, vol. 65, no. 10, March 2014.

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.

Peter Marcuse, a planner and lawyer, is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City.  Read his blog at <>.