Marcuse: professor behind 1960s rebellion

Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) was a Jewish academic who left Germany when the Nazis came to power and lived in America from 1934. He then became professor of political thought at the University of California.

For a short while after the first world war, Marcuse was a member of the German Social Democratic Party but left after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. He became an unattached left-winger with hopes and sympathies pro-Russia. In the 1930’s, in Germany and then later in America, he was associated with a group of left-wing thinkers known as the Frankfurt School. They called their highly philosophical and Hegelian version of Marxism “The critical theory of society”.

Their interpretation was based on views Marx held in the 1840’s when he first became interested in politics. Marx’s approach was then still largely philosophical. Because in Germany philosophy was generally acknowledged to have reached its peak with the theories of Hegel, Marx was a Hegelian. His criticism of orthodox Hegelian philosophy was that it made the world of abstract ideals more real than the world of material things. The rational world which philosophy sought, Marx said, was not to be found by passive contemplation, but by practical activity. As he later put it,

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it”.

According to Marx, the world was to be changed in order to achieve this “rational reality” (which he eventually identified with Socialism) by the activity of the most down-trodden and most suffering section of society, the proletariat.

Marx later went beyond this conception of the socialist revolution in which the working class figured merely as the instrument of philosophy. However, The Frankfurt School revived it and Marcuse essentially adhered to it. It was in fact one of the themes of his first book, “Reason and Revolution” (1941), in which he defends Hegel against the charge of being a pre-cursor of fascism. Much of Marcuse’s theorising has been about the role of “the critical theory” in a period when its instrument, the working class, is not (or, as he believes, is no longer) revolutionary. His view is that its adherents should keep alive the idea of an alternative society even if this means appearing to be utopian.

“It is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities.”

What influenced Marcuse in this emphasis upon how different Socialism would be from capitalism was his reading of Marx’s “Grundrisse” (1857–8). This lengthy work was not readily accessible until the 1950’s and Marcuse must be given credit for publicising these writings in the English-speaking world.

In these manuscripts, Marx emphasised the possibilities for social change opened up by the coming of potential abundance. Widespread mechanisation and the application of science to industry, he argued, made it possible to reduce the working day and free people to engage in the activities of their choice. Marx held that this could only be achieved on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production. Capitalism’s historic role was to develop productivity by forcing people to produce an ever greater surplus over and above their immediate needs; a surplus which could be used to build up the stock of means of production. This done, capitalism became historically obsolete.

Marx was, in effect, saying that soul-destroying toil had been necessary to develop productivity to the point where toil could be abolished. Now Freud had said that the growth of civilisation necessarily involved human suffering and this coincidence has allowed Marcuse to combine the theories of Marx and Freud as in his “Eros and Civilisation” (1955), which many regard as his best book. Freud argued, at least in his later writings, that men had a given amount of “instinctual energy” which was divided between a life instinct, called Eros, and a death instinct. Civilisation had arisen, he said, when the life instincts which drove men to seek pleasure were “repressed” and the instinctual energy behind them diverted to work. This repression was imposed by external necessity—men had to submit to unpleasant toil because in the prevailing conditions of scarcity this was the only way they could obtain the things they needed to stay alive. Thus civilisation was based on the repression of men’s life instincts and, Freud added, had to be.

Marcuse takes up the argument from here. He agrees that, in conditions of scarcity, civilisation had to be based on repression but adds that not even then was all repression natural (i.e. caused by natural scarcity). Some repression was, he argued, social (i.e. caused by the way this scarcity was organised). This extra, “surplus-repression” was imposed on the producers by the ruling classes of history. Further, Marcuse goes on, scarcity has now been conquered and abundance is possible. Automation means that unpleasant toil can be abolished, or at least very much reduced, so that men’s repressed life instincts can be liberated and a world of pleasure established. Existing repression, in other words, is no longer imposed by nature but by society which, in the interests of a ruling class, artificially preserves scarcity and forces most men to be mere instruments of production.

This is an interesting view (and a neat answer to those who say that Freud proved Socialism impossible), but whether it is valid depends on the validity of Freud’s theory of instincts. This theory is, in fact, pure speculation. Nobody has yet discovered in the human organism anything resembling the “instinctual energy” whose laws of transformation the theory is supposed to describe. So there is no way of telling whether Marcuse is any more right than others; like Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm who in significantly different ways have tried to combine Marx and Freud. The safest attitude to take is that all theories based on Freud, including Marcuse’s, are as yet only unverified suggestions.

Nevertheless, Marcuse still claimed that Freud “discovered the mechanism of social and political control in the depth dimension of instinctual drives and satisfactions”. How this alleged discovery has been put to effective use by the ruling class is the basic theme of “One-dimensional Man” (1964).

This book has been described as “the most subversive book published in the United States this century”. This is an exaggeration since a large part of it, including the title, must be incomprehensible to those unacquainted with the theories of Hegel. Hegel held that everything was in the process of developing into something else. A thing therefore had two dimensions; what it was at any given time (its positive side) and what it could become (its negative side). One-dimensional thought only sees what is and not what can and ought to be. Applied to social and political thinking it produces a man who sees no alternative to the present system. Marcuse argues that this “one dimensional man” has been deliberately created by the ruling class’s use of Freudian insights to brainwash the working class. In his view, modern capitalism is just as totalitarian as fascism. The difference is that it relies on “the scientific management of instincts”, rather than terror, to keep the working class down. This because technical progress has not only made possible a non-repressive society of abundance, but has also provided the means for manipulating the masses into accepting and being satisfied with the present system.

In offering a psychological explanation for the continuing working class support for capitalism and hostility to socialist ideas, Marcuse seemed to have provided an answer to a problem which has long concerned socialists — Why haven’t the working class become socialist when socialism is so obviously in their best interest? On the other hand, plausible as this sort of explanation might be, it does challenge the view that material interests are ultimately decisive in the actions of classes. For it is saying that psychology can be used to make workers permanently ignore their material interests. Marcuse, remember, is saying not simply that the workers have been taught to accept capitalism (which is quite true), but that their psychological and even biological nature has been changed so that they now really “need” capitalism. This unMarxist view put Marcuse in a dilemma from which he himself confessed to find no way out. He accepted that, in the end, only a socialist working class majority can establish socialism. But how can this majority ever come into being if the working class have been brainwashed into needing capitalism as part of their psychological make-up?

At the time he wrote “One-dimensional Man”, Marcuse was pessimistic. In his typical philosophical manner he wrote, “The chance is that, in this period, the historical extremes may meet again—the most advanced consciousness of humanity and its most exploited force”, and added, “It is nothing but a chance.” (“The most exploited force”, by the way, was no longer the working class as a whole but the poverty-stricken victims of racial discrimination in the ghettos). He subsequently had cause to be a little more hopeful, with the growth of the student protest, black power, anti-Vietnam war, hippie and underground movements.

Marcuse has been interpreted as saying that these “outcasts and outsiders” were becoming a new revolutionary class, but he himself explicitly repudiated this view. All he seems to have meant was that their rebellion would be one of the factors which could contribute to the downfall of capitalism.

All the same, Marcuse was fairly linked with the so-called “student revolutionaries” because he provided a philosophical justification for almost everything they chose to do, from violent street confrontations with the authorities, through support for the Vietcong, to the suppression of points of view they find objectionable. In what is perhaps the most dangerous of his writings, an essay on “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), Marcuse attempted to justify the denial of freedom of speech, the press, assembly and organisation to

“groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race or religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”

The views he lists are objectionable and should be opposed but Marcuse is saying more than this: that they should not be allowed to be expressed. Although he does at least concede that this would be “undemocratic” he justifies this censorship as necessary in order to establish genuine democracy. Nor does he deny that it is an accurate result when the overwhelming majority vote for capitalism in elections. What he claims is that a genuine political democracy can only be said to exist when those who vote are free agents and that the workers who vote for capitalism are not free agents because they have unknowingly been brainwashed.

Marcuse’s conclusion that the enlightened minority are therefore justified in acting in an undemocratic manner is highly dangerous. In fact it led him to toy with the idea that the minority should even try to seize power and impose a temporary dictatorship during which the working class could be “unbrainwashed” so as to become capable of establishing socialism.

In “An Essay on Liberation” (1969) he wrote:

“True, such government, initially, would not have the endorsement of the majority ‘inherited’ from the previous government—but once the chain of the past governments is broken, the majority would be in a state of flux and, released from the past management, free to judge the new government in terms of the new common interest.”

and, in a talk given to Berlin students in 1967 (published in Five Lectures):

“You can of course say, and I say it to myself often enough, if this is all true, how can we imagine these new concepts even arising here and now in living human beings if the entire society is against such an emergence of new needs. This is the question with which we have to deal. At the same time it amounts to the question of whether the emergence of these new needs can be conceived at all as a radical development out of existing ones, or whether instead, in order to set free these needs, a dictatorship appears necessary, which in any case would be very different from the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat: namely, a dictatorship, a counter-administration, that eliminates the horrors spread by the established administration. This is one of the things that most disquiets me and that we should seriously discuss.”

Although Marcuse never specifically advocated such a dictatorship he never repudiated it either. Such a view rejects the Marxist proposition that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. It revives an old-fashioned revolutionary idea which when tried, as in Russia after 1917, has led to the self-styled enlightened minority becoming a new ruling class. But then Marcuse’s views on Russia are ambiguous too. It is possible to detect in “Soviet Marxism” (1958) a sympathy with the Bolsheviks’ policy of seizing power first without majority support for socialism and then trying to educate the people to socialism. Though he was quite clear that Russia was not socialist. He wrote in a footnote, “Use of the term ‘socialist’ nowhere implies that this society is socialist in the sense envisaged by Marx and Engels.”

Though he was not a Trotskyist, like Trotsky however, Marcuse thought that the existence in Soviet Russia of nationalisation and planning meant that its economy had a “socialist basis” and that to establish socialism, only a “political revolution” displacing bureaucracy was required, rather than a “full social revolution” as in the West.

Marcuse also believed that the industrial development of Russia would be one of the factors that would help undermine the Western capitalist economy. In view of this position on Russia it is not surprising that he supported movements such as the Vietcong, calling them “anti-capitalist forces” and “elemental socialism in action”. When he was not toying with the idea of a minority anti-repressive dictatorship, his vision of the establishment of world socialism involved western capitalism being undermined both from outside by the success of “anti-imperialist” guerrillas and the growing strength of the Soviet bloc and also from within by movements such as those of black people, students and hippies. The socialist revolution in the West would then allow a political revolution to put Russia back on the socialist road.

In all this Marcuse was typical of the assorted Trotskyists, Maoists, Gueveraists and others who were supposed to follow him but who do not always recognise the intellectual debt they owe him. What is of value in his writings is his emphasis on the possibilities of abundance and on the end of utopia. After all, the WSM has often been called utopian even by leftists and can fully agree with Marcuse when he says:

“What is denounced as utopian is no longer that which has no place and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of established societies.” (An Essay on Liberation).