My essay that follows is the third entry in our roundtable that asks: Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? If you missed it be sure to go back and read the first entry by David Steigerwald and the second by Stephen J. Whitfield. The final essay in this roundtable by Kurt Newman is scheduled to be published Tuesday. Thanks for reading along.
In 1968, Andrew Hacker wrote a lengthy essay reviewing the writings of Herbert Marcuse— “Philosopher of the New Left”—that appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Hacker’s task was to answer the following perplexing question: Why was an avowed revolutionary Marxist the go-to thinker for so many young Americans?
On one level, Marcuse’s Freudianism spoke to the countercultural and liberation impulses of young radicals. Marcuse argued that repression—sexual and otherwise—was a product of capitalism. Or as Hacker put it: “The frustrations and repressions of their elders can be ascribed—with no little truth—to the restricting roles forced on them by their employment and environment.” So when Marcuse opened a 1967 speech he gave to a group of students in Berlin by summoning “flower power,” he truly meant it as a call to revolution. But unreconstructed Freudianism, which Marcuse mixed with reconstructed Marxism in his 1955 Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, was not the most prevailing aspect of Marcuse that made him influential to a New Left.
Marcuse was the “Philosopher of the New Left” more because he brought Marx into the Age of Affluence. This, of course, had long been the primary task of New Left intellectuals. More than a Westernized Marx that heeded Stalin’s wreckage, New Left intellectuals sought an Americanized Marx attuned to the particularities of American economic development. Against the grain of Marx’s expectations about the immiseration of the proletariat, the American working class had become wealthier.
Such a perspective rendered New Left intellectuals skeptical that conditions were ripe for socialist revolution. Unlike Marx’s nineteenth century proletariat—the embodiment of revolutionary immanence—no revolutionary class existed in the twentieth-century United States. Radical intellectuals thus believed their theoretical task was to go beyond Marx in ways that accounted for the fact that nothing about contemporary class relations revealed the contradictions in the capitalist system. Gabriel Kolko argued in 1966 that Marx’s teleology did not equip leftists with the tools necessary to grapple with the corporate organization of the modern capitalist economy. Moreover Kolko contended that Marxists had misinterpreted the economic interventions of the liberal state as having been on behalf of socialism instead of corporate capitalism. “Nothing in socialist theory,” Kolko wrote, “prepared socialists for the possibility that a class-oriented integration of the state and the economy in many key areas would rationalize and strengthen capitalism.”
Into this breach stepped Marcuse with the book that made him more famous than ever: One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, published in 1964. At its most basic level, One-Dimensional Man proposed a theory of false consciousness. An affluent American society had purchased the loyalties of the working class, making it ill-prepared to fulfill its historic revolutionary role. Such a theory was intoxicating to young radicals because it rationalized the fact that their ideas were unpopular beyond campus. Hacker wrote that it was a powerful explanation for “the ‘backlash’ working-class homeowners of Cicero, Illinois,” a reference to those working-class whites who violently protested Martin Luther King’s march for fair housing on the south side of Chicago.
Marcuse’s 1964 text was another in a long line of theories, following Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism among others, about how the particular needs of the powerful came to seem universal, and how “the whole appears to be the very embodiment of Reason.” Marcuse considered this set up “repressive” because individuals could not think for themselves and thus could not formulate alternatives to the status quo.
In such a context social theory had lost its purpose. “Social theory,” Marcuse wrote, “is concerned with the historical alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces.” But in the one-dimensional society, technological progress had defeated such alternatives by containing social contradictions, “perhaps the most singular achievement of advanced industrial society…”
As opposed to Marx’s nineteenth century, in Marcuse’s twentieth century capital and labor sought the same basic goal: maintenance of the status quo. The contradictions so transparent to Marx—contradictions that would usher in communist revolution—no longer appeared self-evident in an era of affluence and total administrative control. In this it seems, Marcuse was a consensus thinker, like many of his contemporaries (calling Richard Hofstadter). But unlike his contemporaries, consensus was a Kafkaesque nightmare for Marcuse. “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.”
The conflicts seemingly inherent in capitalism had been smoothed out in western nations. But for Marcuse this raised an important historical question: “Is this stabilization ‘temporary’ in the sense that it does not affect the roots of the conflicts which Marx found in the capitalist mode of production (contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and social productivity), or is it a transformation of the antagonistic structure itself, which resolves the contradictions by making them tolerable?” One-Dimensional Man was written on the premise that the latter held true. In Marx’s epoch the working class, Marx thought, imagined an alternative society as the flipside to their wretched existence. In Marcuse’s epoch the working class was too comfortable for such a radical imagination to take hold: “society takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable…” As such, the working class “no longer appears to be the living contradiction of the established society.”
That the working class was comfortable did not entail for Marcuse that they were right to be so. “The slaves of developed industrial civilization are sublimated slaves, but they are slaves…” The masses had no say over national politics and culture, no freedom beyond what they were told to believe. They were the objects and subjects of murderous wars across the planet.
To those in favor of anti-capitalist revolution, Marcuse’s theory was bleak. He did believe, as Marx anticipated, that the means of production (for Marcuse: technology) had advanced to the degree that it was possible to abolish drudgery for the masses. But Marcuse also cynically noted that our repression was written into our technologies, as in, each new invention was sold on the premise that we could not live without it. Such pessimism notwithstanding, Marcuse concluded One-Dimensional Man on a note of slight hope. He believed a “New Historical Subject”—one unattached to the system—might unmask one-dimensional society by virtue of its very angry protest against it. Marcuse wrote:
underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system… The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period.
Such a theory fit well with a New Left that found inspiration in the civil rights movement. But Marcuse failed to ask what would happen to his New Historical Subject once some of its representatives were fully integrated into one-dimensional society (which was, after all, the point of their protests).
As with all theories of false consciousness, Marcuse’s was elitist in that it worked from the assumption that only the Great Theorist was capable of ascertaining the Truth about what is best for other people. Hacker noted as much in his 1968 review essay, but not necessarily as a note of criticism. Hacker’s concluding sentence, where he speculated about why Marcuse had not been harassed by right-wing vigilantes, was elitist in its own right: “Marcuse’s security stems chiefly from the fact that most of our professional patriots have neither the training nor the intellect to understand the implications of his analysis.”
Hacker labeled Marcuse the “Philosopher of the New Left” out of appreciation, saying it was “no mean accomplishment” because he claimed that so many among the New Left were smart and serious thinkers. This of course goes against the grain of how we now tend to remember the New Left as anti-intellectual and narcissistic (calling Christopher Lasch).
Perhaps such an association has colored our memory of Marcuse as well?
Whether or not Marcuse remains relevant is an open question. In the first place, no theorist of capitalism from the age of affluence is going to resonate loudly in our age of austerity. The contradictions of capitalism have returned like the repressed.
But then again, the contradictions of capitalism are not readily apparent to most people. Perhaps our ever-more invasive technologies have something to do with that? Perhaps Marcuse’s thoughts on how “the technological society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques” are still worth discussing?