U.S. Intellectual History Blog

ISN’T MARCUSE STILL RIGHT?

This guest post by by Stephen J. Whitfield, the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University, is the second entry in our roundtable that asks, perhaps answers, perhaps refutes the premise of the question: Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? If you missed it be sure to go back and read the first entry by David Steigerwald: Marcuse in the Age of Choice. Essays to follow will be by me and Kurt Newman. Enjoy. Andrew

MarcuseThe question that this symposium poses is loaded, and therefore invites questions of its own.  The presumption is that the analytical judgment of Herbert Marcuse had been correct in the past, as though a thinker whose work spans over five decades somehow had never managed to change his mind.  Were that true, his status as a major thinker would be open to serious doubt.  The way that this question is posed implies a continuity and consistency of thought that is, on its face, implausible; the writings of no one of any consequence could pass such a test.

Any reasonable answer must therefore specify which facet of Herbert Marcuse is under the retrospective interrogation of this symposium.  Would that be the interpreter of Hegel (Reason and Revolution)?  Or the critic of the neo-Freudian revisionists like Erich Fromm?  Would that Marcuse be the analyst of the impact of ideology on the evolution of the U.S.S.R. (Soviet Marxism)?  Or would he be primarily the tenacious adversary of an all-encompassing, inhibiting industrial capitalism (One-Dimensional Man)?  Was Pope Paul VI on target in explicitly blaming Marcuse (as well as Freud) for promoting the “disgusting and unbridled” manifestations of eroticism, misleadingly “cloaked as liberty,” as well as “animal, barbarous and subhuman degradations”? [1]  (Other observers called these phenomena the sexual revolution.)  Or was Marcuse the indispensable visionary of the sublime, foreseeing an age when play will take the place of work and when art will become the most commonly gratifying of human aspirations?

Many entrees can undoubtedly be found into his intellectual legacy and its pertinence to the present; and this champion of political and psychic liberation should not be held to too high a standard of soundness of judgment.  After all, his life did not exactly fit snugly into an historical era of stability and predictability.  His opinions, his emphases were bound to shift somewhat, as circumstances dictated.  The most famous example of his ambivalence occurred in the 1960s, when Marcuse oscillated between pessimism (because modern social systems can neutralize dissidence) and optimism (because young radicals and their allies among the outcasts were taking to the streets).  Though this symposium poses a question that is admirably succinct, it is also misleading.  No thinker is either right or wrong.  What matters is being right about what matters, or at least being more right than wrong.  Voices of posterity can legitimately differ in making such judgment, but that is the sort of call that makes the vocation of intellectual history so labor-intensive.  Because the reputation of Herbert Marcuse is indelibly associated with one tumultuous decade, it made his thought timely.  But is it, in our current century, timeless as well?

These brief remarks focus on his hostility to capitalism, a stance that emerged most fully in One-Dimensional Man.  His lifetime was certainly punctuated with plenty of evidence of the limits of the system of private enterprise.  The year that he completed his Habilitationsschrift (which was normally the certification for a teaching career in German universities) was 1932, when the Great Depression could scarcely seem to have sunk any lower.  He died a year before Ronald Reagan was elected President, but when the gap between rich and poor in the United States had already begun to widen.  The extent of the commitment that Marcuse harbored toward Marxism continues to engender debate among scholars.  But he is not known for having abandoned a faith in socialism as the alternative to an economic system that he deemed irrational and unjust.

Yet it is odd to discover how little Marcuse had to say on the actual operations of capitalism–its “laws” and its methods, its aims and its claims.  He did not even try to demonstrate how entrepreneurs, industrialists and financiers enhance their social influence through the mechanisms of the state.  Not even the baleful effect of capitalism upon the lives of workers and consumers, for instance, was something that he showed any keen interest in exposing through the marshaling of evidence.  Marcuse published nothing comparable to The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, or to The Road to Wigan Pier (which are also works that convey an indignation that his own writings generally banked).  Empiricism was admittedly never his strong suit, and rare is the reader who would admire Marcuse’s instinct to go for the jugular.  Indeed so abstract is the text of One-Dimensional Man that it fails to mention any titan of American industry or other malefactor of great wealth, or even any practicing politician who is presumably deployed as a consigliere of the ruling class.  By contrast the book does cite his own former teacher, Martin Heidegger, as well as other philosophers, like Willard V. O. Quine, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein and (most often) Hegel and Marx.  The animus against capitalism therefore seemed to be too obvious to need to be justified.  If his curiosity about the nitty-gritty of capitalism was in fact surprisingly limited, then perhaps the exegetical shift to other features of the dialectics of liberation can be more easily explained, as he moved–before and after One-Dimensional Man–away from economics and even politics and toward psychology and finally aesthetics.

In his aptitude for theory and his disdain for positivism, Marcuse remained at least as much a German (or a European) as he was an American; and he wrote a book about the Soviet Union that obliged him to learn Russian.  Yet he evidently saw no meaningful distinctions in the way that modern nations organized their capitalist economies, and his apparent conception of a fundamental homogeneity reinforced the abstractness that can make reading Marcuse such a chore.  His analysis of capitalism ignored the imperative of the sustained comparative method.  Were his objections to the American version of free enterprise valid for the Scandinavian nations, or for the Federal Republic of Germany, or for Switzerland (where he found refuge in 1933-34)?  An assured answer is difficult to summon.  To be sure the contrast between the shamelessly buccaneering capitalism of, say, the Gilded Age and the political economy forged under the New Deal can be overstated.  But the coalition that Franklin D. Roosevelt forged and appealed to, the fierce opposition that he aroused among the representatives of concentrated wealth (and “I welcome their hatred,” FDR combatively proclaimed in 1936), surely made a difference–even if, for Marcuse, it made it worse, because the labor movement got domesticated; and the successes of reform blunted the prospect of more radical change.  That the working conditions of millions of Americans became less onerous, that the foothold of their families became less precarious, and that a systemic transformation of the nation was not going to happen anyway, makes Marcuse’s perverse hostility to gradualism wrong, morally.

Moreover, the subtitle of his most famous book referred to “advanced industrial society.”  Was that a code word for “capitalism”?  In the postwar era, did Marcuse need a euphemism for a term that Communists and fellow travelers were so notorious for adopting?  (Even the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Keith Funston, felt the need in the Fifties for a softening adjective, and came up with “people’s capitalism.”)  Marcuse condemned the allure of advertising, the eclipse of a radical proletarian defiance of the hegemony of the market, and of the pointlessness of consumer choices.  So did he really mean to include, among those industrialized nations, examples like the German Democratic Republic and the U. S. S. R. itself?  If so, perhaps his real grievance was directed against the domination of administration itself.  After all, Theodore Roszak’s echt-Sixties instance of intellectual history praised Marcuse “as one of the shrewdest critics of the subtle technocratic regimentation which now bids fair to encompass the whole of our world-wide industrial order.” [2]  But then the particular faults of capitalism needed to have been more fully specified.

Was it in crisis?  Marcuse was cautious about underscoring the immediacy with which capitalism was in trouble.  At least he did not commit the folly of foretelling its imminent doom; indeed he insisted upon the resilience and tenacity of an economic system so formidable that it seemed to foreclose other options.  Marcuse himself once recalled with bemusement the audacity of an economist of the Frankfurt School, Henryk Grossmann, to predict to the exact year when the market economy would implode. [3]  On the one hand, Marcuse held the advanced industrial system to be seductively powerful.  On the other hand, he took for granted the need for the capitalist version of the administered society to be eliminated or transcended.  Reason required a far more hopeful vision.  In arguing for political action to make the Great Refusal operable, Marcuse tended to assert his convictions rather than try to validate them.  Prolepsis is not an apt way to characterize the reasoning that animates his books, which are evidently aimed at readers who are already susceptible to the indictment that the author has brought against the system.

But from the perspective of half a century after the peak of Marcuse’s influence, such a characteristic positioning seems especially inadequate, and even feckless.  It has become clear that capitalism shows no signs of collapsing.  Since the end of the Sixties, the choices that the polity has faced have been confined to versions of capitalism.  It has demonstrated its resilience, its success in crushing any serious practicable rivals.  Look again at the cast of characters whom One-Dimensional Man expects to be the agents of revolutionary change: “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted,” and even in “the unemployed and the unemployable.” [4]  To this rather baggy list of those without stakes in an “advanced industrial society,” Marcuse added some oppositionists who were marked neither by homogeneity nor unity: the middle-class white youth who had formed the New Left in Europe as well as in the United States; the black underclass in the ghettoes; the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; the Cuban revolutionaries.  To imagine these diffuse (and long-defused) cadres as capable of causing capitalism–whether it is called neo-liberalism or globalization–to grind to a halt seems downright quaint.  To advocate emancipation from capitalism itself, as Marcuse did–as opposed to seeking to correct its particular (and all-too-obvious) shortcomings–is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history.  Two years after Marcuse’s death, when François Mitterand was elected to the presidency of the Fifth Republic, he emphatically referred to the policies of his socialist government (which included Communists) as fully compatible with the market.

Such mixed economies have facilitated an unprecedented extension of abundance, within reach of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the planet’s inhabitants in the twenty-first century.  But Marcuse missed the significance of one consequence, which is the conspicuous emergence of the problem of inequality.  Beginning around the time of his death, the gap has grown separating rich and poor in the United States, a process that has split off the very rich from the middle class as well.  The utterly indecent gaps in income and especially in wealth have become chasms, and threaten both democracy and dignity.  (By weakening aggregate demand, blatant inequality retards economic growth as well.)  Consideration of such divisions is absent from even in his best-known works, which are therefore bound to seem remote from the dilemma that a restored Gilded Age poses.  Such conditions therefore make the circulation of terms like “repressive de-sublimation” and “total administration” seem extrinsic to the character of the American political economy, and thus have the effect of marginalizing the intellectual patrimony of Herbert Marcuse.

[1] Vatican Bulletin, October 1, 1969, quoted in “Pontiff Assails Eroticism Again,” New York Times, October 2, 1969, 23.

[2] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), 87, 110.

[3] Bryan Magee, Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 50.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 256.

One Thought on this Post

  1. “That the working conditions of millions of Americans became less onerous, that the foothold of their families became less precarious, and that a systemic transformation of the nation was not going to happen anyway, makes Marcuse’s perverse hostility to gradualism wrong, morally.”

    I appreciated this; first, I largely agree (let’s say, 85 percent) but, moreover, I can’t remember the last time I saw an *explicitly* moral argument made in academic writing not also explicitly addressed to a radical audience. So thanks.

Comments are closed.