The Thoughts of Professor Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin in 1898. As a Jewish academic he had to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power and has been in America since 1934. At present he is a professor of political thought at the University of California.

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

Their interpretation of Marx was based on the views he had held in the 1840’s when he first became interested in politics. Marx’s approach was then still largely philosophical and, since in Germany philosophy was generally accepted 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”.

The world was to be changed, according to Marx, 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. The Frankfurt School revived it and Marcuse still basically adheres to it. It was in fact one of the themes of his first book, Reason and Revolution (1941), which defends Hegel against the charge of being a precursor 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”, he has written, “to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities”.

What influenced Marcuse in this direction of emphasising how different Socialism would be from capitalism was his reading of Marx’s Grundrisse, some thousand pages of manuscripts Marx wrote in 1857-8 but not readily accessible till the 1950’s (indeed Marcuse must be given the credit for publicising these writings in the English-speaking world). In these manuscripts Marx emphasised more than he did elsewhere the possibilities for social change opened up by the coming of potential abundance. Widespread mechanization 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 —but only of course 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 because, being based on class ownership and the profit motive, it could never allow mankind to benefit from the forced toil of their fathers.

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 civilization necessarily involved human suffering and this co-incidence has allowed Marcuse to combine the theories of Marx and Freud as in his Eros and Civilization (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 or “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. But this 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 claims 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. Modern capitalism is, in his view, just as totalitarian as fascism, the difference being that it relies on “the scientific management of instincts” rather than terror to keep the working class down. For 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 seems to be providing 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 has put Marcuse in a dilemma from which he himself has confessed he has found no way out. He still accepts 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 makeup?

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 ghettoes). Since then he has had cause to be a little more hopeful, with the growth of the student protest, black power, anti-Vietnam war, hippy and underground movements.

Marcuse has been interpreted as saying that these “outcasts and outsiders” were becoming a new revolutionary class, but he himself has 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 is fairly linked with the so-called “student revolutionaries” because he has provided a philosophical justification for almost everything they have chosen to do, from violent street confrontations with the authorities, through support for the Vietcong, to the suppression of points of view they find objectionable. Rudi Dutschke could in fact be described as a pure Marcusean.

In what is perhaps the most dangerous of his writings, an essay on Repressive Tolerance (1965) Marcuse attempts 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. He does at least concede that this would be “undemocratic” but justifies it as necessary in order to establish genuine democracy. Nor does he deny that when in elections the overwhelming majority vote for capitalism this is an accurate result. 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 has 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 writes:

“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 has never specifically advocated such a dictatorship he has never repudiated it either —as he ought to have done since it rejects the Marxist proposition that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself” and 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 is quite clear that Russia is not socialist. “Use of the term ‘socialist’ “, he writes in a footnote, “nowhere implies that this society is socialist in the sense envisaged by Marx and Engels”. But, like Trotsky, (though he is not a Trotskyist), he thinks that the existence in Russia of nationalisation and planning means that its economy has a “socialist basis” and that to establish Socialism there only requires a “political revolution” to displace the bureaucracy rather than a “full social revolution” as in the West. Marcuse also believes that the industrial development of Russia will be one of the factors that will help undermine the Western capitalist economy.

In view of this position on Russia it is not surprising to find him supporting movements such as the Vietcong and calling them “anti-capitalist forces” and “elemental socialism in action”. When he is not toying with the idea of a minority anti-repressive dictatorship, his vision of the establishment of world Socialism involves Western capitalism being undermined from outside by the success of “anti-imperialist” guerrillas and the growing strength of the Soviet bloc and 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 is typical of the assorted Trotskyists, Maoists, Gueveraists and others who are supposed to follow him (but who don’t always recognise the intellectual debt they owe him) and so is open to the same severe criticism as they are.

What is of value in his writings (if you can stomach his German professorial style) is his emphasis on the possibilities of abundance and on the end of utopia. After all, we who have often been called utopian even by leftists 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 corning about by the power of established societies (An Essay on Liberation).

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