One-Dimensional Pessimism

One-Dimensional Pessimism

Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man appeared four years ago. Since then, it has been widely, and on the whole, favorably reviewed, read, and discussed. Accepted by many as the long-awaited work that “tells it like it is,” Marcuse’s essay has assumed near-canonical status among some of the most serious and thoughtful of the New Left. An incisive and original discussion of community organizing in Studies on the Left led off by announcing that One-Dimensional Man was to be assumed as the theoretical underpinning for the detailed and specific analysis which followed—though the philosopher’s theory could be taken to be sometimes downright incompatible with the authors’ practice. In New Left Notes, the SDS internal journal, Marcuse’s special philosophical vocabulary appears as unproblematically as if it were part of ordinary language. Marcuse’s reputation in Europe is tremendous, as attested to by a news item in the New York Times last summer which described the tumultuous reception he received from crowds of Berlin students. Recently a weighty Festschrift for Marcuse appeared, and in March a front-page review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section proclaimed him as “the foremost philosopher of the New Left.” Even in the “bourgeois” press, Marcuse has made it.

Clearly the work has wide appeal. But in my view it is a great disappointment. Given the real and pressing needs of theory-hungry American radicalism and the danger of overvaluing any attempt, especially one which seems to be deeply rooted in profound if obscure philosophical traditions, it is worthwhile even at this time to try to account for both the appeal and the disappointment. One-Dimensional Man is an attempt to give a “total” analysis of our society, encompassing all major aspects of thought and action. It claims to unmask hopes for any significant possibilities of change from within the system. The note of pessimism struck is so profound that to be critical is to appear superficial, unaware of the despair which must accompany true insight. An example can serve to show how the tone of the book can evoke such feelings. At one point, Marcuse inserts a quote from Ionesco, without comment, though clearly with approval.


Lima