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Synthesis/Regeneration 45   (Winter 2008)

Essential Marcuse

Reason for Revolt

by Richard Burke

The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse. Edited by Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss, Boston: Beacon Books, 2007, 248 pages. Reviewed by Richard Burke

In the 1960s the writings of Herbert Marcuse played an influential role in the development of the New Left. Writings such as Eros and Civilization, One Dimensional Man and An Essay in Liberation were important for the rethinking of Marxian doctrine in light of the realities of the late 20th century, and applying it to concerns beyond the scope of orthodox Marxism. In The Essential Marcuse, Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss provide an introduction to a thinker whose ideas still remain relevant to our current situation.

Born in 1898 to a German-Jewish family, Marcuse fought in the First World War and took part in the revolution which followed in its aftermath. The failure of the revolution and the rise of fascism afterwards played a formative role in his subsequent career. Throughout his life Marcuse was haunted by the fact that while a revolutionary situation had existed, the German masses were not “ready” for socialism. After Hitler came to power Marcuse fled to Switzerland, where he joined the exiled members of the Institute for Social Research, better known as “The Frankfurt School,” which included luminaries of Western Marxist thought such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin. When the Frankfurt School relocated to the United States Marcuse joined them, eventually taking up an academic career at Brandeis University and later at the University of California, San Diego.

The work of Herbert Marcuse is that of a committed Marxist who was forced to confront the failure of Marxism while remaining true to its goal of a liberated society. His writings stress the importance of utopian visions, the revolutionary function of art, and the necessity of transcendent ideals to social criticism of the existing state of affairs. Marcuse’s writings revolve around the theme of developing a new consciousness, one which would refuse the administered and manipulated needs of capitalist society and create a more free and peaceful world.

Marcuse was one of the first to question our society’s commitment to an ever expanding productivity.

The first of the essays in the collection, “The Individual in the Great Society,” might at first glance appear to be nothing more than a historical relic of the days of L.B.J. A closer look reveals it to be both prescient and relevant to today’s political scene. Here Marcuse reveals the underlying contradictions of Johnson’s “Great Society” program: that the attempt to abolish poverty would fail in the context of capitalism and the violence necessary to sustain it.

In critiquing what would be necessary to truly attain the goals trumpeted by the Johnson administration he points out the need to eliminate the vested interests which profit from the maintenance of the capitalist system:

It would, for example, imply the establishment of a wide and efficient network of public transportation, replacing the private automobile as the main vehicle of business and leisure — the end of the motor industry as now organized... Generally, and perhaps more important, reconstruction would require the elimination of all planned obsolescence, which has become an essential prop for the system inasmuch as it insures the necessary turnover and the competitive rat race.

In the light of the environmental crisis and global warming such comments if anything gain greater force. Marcuse was one of the first to question our society’s commitment to an ever expanding productivity.

Also chillingly perceptive is Marcuse’s analysis of the violence engendered by a technologically advanced capitalism.

At the same time, however, the release is not liberation from alienated labor: the individuals must go on spending physical and mental energy in the struggle for existence, status, advantage. They must suffer, service and enjoy the apparatus which imposes upon them this necessity. The new slavery in the work world is not compensated by a new autonomy over the work world. Alienation is intensified as it becomes transparently irrational; it becomes unproductive as it sustains repressive productivity. And where the established society delivers the goods alienation reaches the point at which even the consciousness of alienation is largely repressed: individuals identify themselves with their being-for-others, their image.

Such a society generates an immense aggression which can be manipulated by the powers that be; in other words, an Enemy is required. Marcuse was of course specifically referring to the war in Vietnam, but he might as well have been writing of the war in Iraq.

In “Remarks on the Redefinition of Culture” Marcuse draws a distinction between “culture,” defined as the ideals and values of societies, and “civilization,” the technical-scientific base of social organization. In advanced industrial societies the status of science and technology has increased at the expense of the cultural values which can provide direction and value. What is more, with their subordination to purely quantitative and instrumentalist goals, scientific and technological modes of thought become easily manipulated by the established powers, while the cultural realm which can provide a basis for social criticism becomes devalued. Cultural concerns of a metaphysical, normative, and utopian nature are dismissed as irrelevant, and the basis for critical reason disarmed. Culture becomes reduced to a means of entertainment and recreation rather than a vantage point from which to critique the powers that be.

Culture becomes reduced to a means of entertainment and recreation …

The essay “Repressive Tolerance” is perhaps his most controversial and misunderstood work. Misrepresented by those on the right as an attack on free speech and by those on the left as a rationale for refusing debate and discussion, Marcuse here calls into question the freedom of speech and thought which capitalist society boasts of in order to justify itself. Originally established to protect dissenting voices, in a society where the means of communication are monopolized by vested interests and dissent marginalized, tolerance no longer possesses the liberating value it once had. It becomes nothing more than the right of the powerful to propagandize in the service of maintaining that power.

… tolerance … becomes nothing more than the right of the powerful to propagandize in the service of maintaining that power.

Playing “the devil’s advocate,” Marcuse speculated that if the established society was truly serious about its proclaimed tolerance it would actively promote the voices of those who oppose that society while suppressing reactionary opinions. The point was purely rhetorical since no society actively promotes its own dissolution, and Marcuse stressed that he was not advocating this as an actual policy. What he was championing was the “right of resistance” against oppression. In their introduction to this essay Feenberg and Leiss provide a concrete example of precisely the sort of action that follows from Marcuse’s critique of repressive tolerance:

… when radical students on his campus challenged military research in support of the war in Vietnam, university administrators appealed to academic freedom to discredit the protests and defend the right of professors to contribute to the war effort. Tolerance was demanded for research on high-altitude imaging to improve the kill ratios of bombing over North Vietnam. Marcuse’s essay gave the students arguments against this abuse of the principle of tolerance.

Two essays, “A Note on Dialectic” and “The Foundations of Historical Materialism,” outline the Hegelian/ Marxist philosophical approach which Marcuse championed. The first was his preface to the 1960 edition of his work Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Here Marcuse defends the practice of “negative thinking,” which he describes as the essence of dialectical thought: the project of critiquing things as they are in order to reveal the potentials for what they might become. The importance for him of idealist thinking is that ideals, even though they can never be fully realized, always provide a standard from which to criticize the existing state of affairs in the hope of generating revolutionary change.

The second essay, written in 1932, is an analysis of the then newly discovered Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx. In these writings we find that Marx developed his critique of capitalist political economy on the basis of philosophical speculations derived from Hegel. In particular, Marcuse draws attention to the concept of alienation, the process whereby human beings develop a sense of separation from themselves, their activity, fellow human beings, and the world of nature. Alienation dialectically creates, and is created by, the political, economic, and social forms of organization. Marcuse’s work points ultimately to a theoretical fusion between Hegelian idealism and Marxist social criticism, a position which much of the Left has, alas, yet to rise to.

In “Freedom and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” Marcuse makes a brilliantly unorthodox use of Freudian psychology, one which was echoed in his 1956 book Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Marcuse draws attention to the concept of the “Reality Principle” whereby pleasure and gratification are deferred in the interests of the struggle for existence.

… our civilization has technologically reached the point where much of our deferral of gratification is no longer necessary …

A key idea in Marcuse is that our civilization has technologically reached the point where much of our deferral of gratification is no longer necessary and the struggle for existence can largely be pacified. Capitalist society, in its greed to accumulate ever more profit, artificially prolongs this struggle through the creation and manipulation of ever more needs and wants. Through the stimulation of desire and the resulting “rat race” whereby human beings are obliged to toil simply for the perpetuation of the system instead of fostering autonomy, an immense frustration results that manifests in aggressive and destructive behavior which threatens the very existence of civilization.

The final essay in the collection, “Nature and Revolution,” comes from his 1972 book Counterrevolution and Revolt. Here Marcuse explores the revolutionary importance of Environmentalism and Feminism. In both these struggles he recognizes demands to transcend domination and exploitation. Both are a refusal to see the world reduced to objects which can be exploited and manipulated, a rejection of the consciousness which makes capitalism possible. With the development of new needs, ones which capitalism can’t fulfill, a new form of consciousness could emerge which would be the key to a revolutionary transformation of the world.

Marcuse died in 1979, yet the relevance of his work has, if anything, grown since then. For Herbert Marcuse the only hope left to humanity resided in the fact that no system of control, however powerful, could be complete. There would always be those whose consciousness would reject the system and its claims. Marcuse’s aim was to fan the sparks of that consciousness and see it spread further. Threatened by the catastrophe of global warming and environmental collapse, his message is more timely than ever. In The Essential Marcuse, Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss present us with the work of a thinker who always reminds us, in the words of the Situationist slogan, that “to revolt is justified.”

Richard Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[4 jan 08]

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