Refusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man

Refusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man

Herbert Marcuse in Newton, Massachusetts, 1955 (Wikimedia Commons)

One-Dimensional Man was published just half a century ago, catapulting a rather obscure professor in his sixties to international fame. In less than five years, over 100,000 copies of the book would be sold in the United States alone, with translations extending the influence of Herbert Marcuse into sixteen foreign languages. He addressed packed auditoriums all over the United States and Europe. At a student-occupied university in France, young rebels put on a kind of teach-in they called a “journée marcusienne.” In Paris, Marcuse met with Nguyen Than Le, North Vietnam’s chief delegate to the peace talks with the United States. At the University of Rome, students brandished placards proclaiming their allegiance to Marx, Mao and Marcuse. Before the sixties had ended, he was commonly designated as the unofficial faculty advisor to the New Left.

Marcuse’s impact went well beyond the precincts of radical politics. In 1969, Pope Paul VI condemned him by name, blaming Marcuse—along with Sigmund Freud—for promoting the “disgusting and unbridled” manifestations of eroticism and the “animal, barbarous and subhuman degradations” commonly known as the sexual revolution. The hostility that Marcuse aroused was ideologically ecumenical. In Pravda, Soviet journalist Yuri Zhukov denounced him as a “false prophet,” while the apartheid regime in South Africa blocked the importation of all his books.

Back in the United States, leading intellectuals treated him with respect and, sometimes, admiration. In his best-selling 1969 book lauding The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak praised Marcuse as “one of the shrewdest critics of the subtle technocratic regimentation which now bids fair to encompass the whole of our world-wide industrial order.” Lionel Trilling and Alasdair MacIntyre subjected his work to long and careful critiques. His ideas were analyzed (or at least described) in magazines as different as Fortune and Playboy. For the New York Review of Books, David Levine slyly drew and quartered Marcuse, who is shown making an ad-man’s pitch for a box (as though it were cereal or detergent) labeled “Rev.”

Hawking a revolution—what he called “the Great Refusal”—made Marcuse symbolic of the political ethos of the sixties, but his politics were better explained by his experience of living in Weimar Germany. The sense that radical transformation was needed in Weimar Germany was an almost rational response to the economic flameout and moral degradation that followed defeat in the military slaughter that began a century ago. The neo-Marxist Institute for Social Research (also known as the Frankfurt School) was born in that era to diagnose the social circumstances that would soon bring the Nazis to power. In adhering to the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was haunted by the failure of the left to effectively pit the appeal of socialism against the rise of fascism, and he also blamed republican institutions for their complicity in that process of political collapse. One-Dimensional Man was published exactly three decades after Marcuse reached the United States, but it accuses the presumably benign democracies of the postwar West of foreclosing more valuable and humane political options. The Frankfurt School had addressed not only the economic and social ordeal that industrialism had fostered, but also the ideas that were formulated to defend the disparities of class and status. One-Dimensional Man tried to show how ideology concealed the grip of domination and the reality of alienation. This meant that any sort of protest had to begin with a recognition of how spiritually impoverished and politically barren life—even in prosperous America—had become. Marcuse assigned himself the task of telling his readers how little autonomy they really enjoyed, that their economic security was in fact a form of servitude to irrational and impersonal forces designed to maximize productivity at the expense of pleasure.

In the sixties this argument clicked. To be sure, the reason for his iconic impact was somewhat mysterious, even as One-Dimensional Man was flying off the shelves. Marcuse’s main intellectual forbears were not the dreamers and visionaries who populated the heritage of the American left and gave it moral authority. (He was born, after all, into an assimilated Jewish middle-class family in Wilhelmine Berlin.) Marcuse’s debts were instead charged to the formidable figures of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. His text fails to mention any actual American industrialist or practicing politician, but he does cite Heidegger, Quine, Ryle, and Wittgenstein. No one could accuse Marcuse’s work of being “under-theorized.”

To the demands that such thinkers made upon young readers should be added the difficulties of Marcuse’s style. It was hardly his fault that he wrote in an acquired language, though that alone does not account for the density and opacity of his prose. In 1938, when the refugee sage Martin Buber delivered his inaugural lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one listener remarked: “Clearly, he has learned our language. Now he is as obscure in Hebrew as in German.”

Perhaps Marcuse benefited from the presumption in some quarters that a ponderous style is synonymous with wisdom. He learned English well enough to adopt a bureaucratic prose suitable to service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, and, for the rest of the 1940s, in the Eastern European section of the Department of State. The duties of officialdom in Washington, D.C. did not obliterate his allegiance to socialism; Marcuse was a contributor to Dissent in the 1950s, the decade when his systemic—and soon-to-be-resonant—opposition to “advanced industrial society” was fully gestating.

However closely or accurately New Leftists and others might have read One-Dimensional Man, as well as Marcuse’s subsequent works, he was once taken very seriously. He helped to define the zeitgeist in a way that needs to be understood, if not resurrected. But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?

To be sure, his reputation has not faded into utter oblivion. An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.

In 1987, the social critic Russell Jacoby traced a downward trajectory in the vitality and scope of the American intelligentsia, yet his The Last Intellectuals mentions Marcuse only briefly. Eight years later, One-Dimensional Man did not make the Times Literary Supplement list of the hundred most influential books published since the end of the Second World War. Nor did the TLS cite any of Marcuse’s other works—not even what he regarded as his “most important book,” Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955), the volume that had presumably irritated Pope Paul VI.

Marcuse’s stature has shrunk even as scholarly interest in other exemplary figures of the Frankfurt School has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Each of them dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Yet they have recently been the subjects of massive biographies, which make the case for their continuing salience in grasping the implications of modernity itself. Marcuse is associated with the crisis of Marxism, however, in a way that they are not. The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change. Even though Marcuse’s dissertation topic had addressed the way that novelists portray artists (the Künstlerroman), his death roughly coincided with the emergence of cultural studies, which marked an abrupt shift in academic fashion.

But his own politics appeared problematic as well. No one personified the international scale of the New Left better than Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the unofficial leader of the French revolt of 1968. In the spring of 2008, he visited the Brandeis campus to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the near disintegration of the Fifth Republic, where he summarized the failures as well as successes of the 1960s by mentioning Martin Heidegger’s two most famous students in the Weimar Republic. “We read too much Marcuse,” Cohn-Bendit told me, “when instead we should have been reading Arendt.”

Once the domination of technocracy was overcome, Marcuse believed, the people would be free to discover their authentic needs.

That lament for a generation invites more than one interpretation. One is the danger Arendt identifies in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951): how can the mob profess to represent the masses, when the latter’s anomie and helplessness can make it easily susceptible to ideological righteousness? The chaos resulting from the decomposition of the bourgeois order can lead, she argued, to cruelties unprecedented even by standards of ancient despotism. Marcuse was far less committed to the status quo and far more willing to foresee that the eclipse of the liberal state might be positive, a way to discover and explore the instinctual life of freedom. Power to the people would enable them to snap open the notorious “mind-forg’d manacles” that had so horrified William Blake. Once the domination of technocracy was overcome, Marcuse believed, the people would be free to discover their authentic needs. What the people really wanted could not be reduced to the balloting in the Electoral College, or to other civic institutions that presumably recorded and validated public opinion. Yet there is something rather unsavory about Marcuse telling his readers (and their fellow citizens) that they are trapped in the coils of ersatz satisfactions and values, a condition that the author is smart enough to realize.

In 1964 he looked for the agents of change among those without stakes in an “advanced industrial society.” Three decades after the German proletariat had failed to stop Nazism, Marcuse’s revolutionary faith was limited. It was invested in “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted,” and even in “the unemployed and the unemployable.” To this rather baggy list, he would add oppositionists who were marked neither by homogeneity nor unity: the middle-class white youth who formed the New Left in Europe as well as the United States; the black underclass in the ghettoes; the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; and the Cuban revolutionaries. Marcuse praised them all for subscribing to what he called “the Great Refusal.” Scarcely a decade after the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had topped the non-fiction best-seller list with The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), Marcuse invoked the virtues of negative thinking, as a counterweight to “the most efficient system of domination,” which was how he described democracy.

Perhaps that is why his influence even on the left has faded so strikingly. Democracy is something that social democrats and progressives have generally wanted to strengthen, rather than impugn. Nor did other legatees of Critical Theory (like Adorno and Horkheimer, who themselves returned to Frankfurt) share his general support of the New Left. In fact Marcuse resisted the temptation to completely endorse campus radicalism and gingerly opposed direct assaults on the legitimacy of the university, such as the takeover of Columbia University in 1968. He realized that the academy constituted something of an enclave of political criticism, however hesitantly expressed, rather than an example of what required demolition in spasms of revolutionary frenzy.

Most devastating for his reputation as a seer, however, was his failure to anticipate the significance of the reaction to the sixties that the right would soon advance and benefit from.

Most devastating for his reputation as a seer, however, was his failure to anticipate the significance of the reaction to the sixties that the right would soon advance and benefit from. Two years after Marcuse’s death, Ronald Reagan would take his first oath of office. But just as noteworthy has been the rise, which Marcuse did not foresee, of the New Right in Europe. He had certainly grasped the significance of the failure of the working class to follow the Marxist script. But he may not have anticipated how effectively politicians like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Jörg Haider of Austria’s Freedom Party would appeal to voters in that class.

A failure to foresee Thermidor may have stemmed merely from the habit—common to our species—of being surprised by the future. But a limitation of Marcuse’s own sensibility can be held accountable as well. To put it simply, he was not good at appreciating the force of political orientations other than his own. Nor did he manage to exhibit empathy for other philosophical perspectives. As Alasdair MacIntyre complained, Marcuse did not conscientiously seek to meet objections to his ideas or to duke it out with serious adversaries. A major exception might be the debate that he inaugurated with Erich Fromm. Conducted in the pages of Dissent soon after its founding, this brilliant exchange considered the applicability of Freudianism to social criticism. On the other hand, Fromm’s “revisionism” did not require Marcuse to work up much of a sweat. Fromm too had belonged to the Frankfurt School, subscribed to socialism and drew his primary intellectual inspiration from both Marx and Freud.

By taking it for granted that capitalism needed to be eliminated or transcended, Marcuse tended to assert rather than to argue. Prolepsis does not characterize the reasoning that animates his books, which seemed to be aimed at readers who are already convinced of the indictment the author brings against the system. But such a position would become inadequate, even feckless, when it became clear that capitalism showed no signs of collapsing. Since the end of the 1960s, choices have been confined—more clearly than ever before—to versions of capitalism. Marcuse underestimated its resilience, its success in sweeping away any serious rivals in the course of the half-century since his major influence was registered.

A final explanation for the historical repudiation of Herbert Marcuse confronts the very books that secured his reputation: Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. Certainly their subjects are quite different. The effort to trace the radical implications of Freud inspired the earlier volume, and the relevance of Marx to advanced industrial society marked the work that was published in 1964. The site of one book was the bedroom, of the other the boardroom. Nor are Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man entirely consistent.

For example, Eros and Civilization envisions technology as a catalyst of emancipation, freeing humanity from drudgery and permitting a polymorphous sexuality to pervade utopia. The latter book repudiates technocratic bureaucracy, however, and condemns the exploitation of nature that scientific progress is supposed to achieve. In 1955, Marcuse imagined the triumph of play over work, of emotional fulfillment over economic performance, of Eros as a viable rival to Thanatos. But in 1964 the capacity of capitalism to channel instinctual energy into psychologically satisfying expressions, while suppressing its disruptive power, seemed far too effective to be overcome.

Eros and Civilization appeared when conformist claims were transcendent, in a decade that, in America, began with legal sanctions against Communists, when civil service employment was denied to homosexuals and when patriarchy and domesticity defined the family. Yet Marcuse presented a radical gateway for the pursuit of happiness and the enhancement of freedom. One-Dimensional Man was published two years after the Students for a Democratic Society issued the Port Huron Statement and one year after the publication of The Feminine Mystique. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act accelerated the formal decomposition of white supremacy, and Dr. Strangelove exposed the portentous instability of nuclear deterrence.

Yet surprisingly the tone of One-Dimensional Man is pessimistic. History seemed to be moving on the side of the “omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives,” of the “unfreedom” that the author ascribed to the nation that three decades earlier had given him refuge. Each book happens to go against the grain of the conventional yet defensible view of these decades.

They nevertheless shared a crucial assumption, which is that the West had achieved a permanent level of prosperity. Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man both claim that industrial capitalism had eliminated the constant threat of scarcity and destitution, so that both the psychic requirement of sublimation and economic demand for productivity were almost inevitably to become superfluous. Abundance was making both repression and regimentation obsolete. The vocation of post-Freudian and neo-Marxist radicalism therefore entailed the prospect of erasing the residues of puritan morality as well as the constraints of the Protestant ethic. Capitalism could stimulate impulses toward beauty and pleasure, but Marcuse denied that such drives could be genuinely satisfied. The task he assigned himself was to show that the price that humanity must pay for happiness and autonomy was unnecessary.

In fact, Marcuse considered freedom the predicate of happiness; he doubted that anyone could be truly happy without experiencing the exhilaration of liberty. Anyone can see what is wrong with the dystopia described in a postwar novel like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), because the inhabitants are not free. It is harder to see what is wrong with another futuristic fiction of the postwar era, like B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), which makes freedom not only illusory but incompatible with happiness.

It was honorable of Marcuse to try to imagine how the fullest expression of personality, or plenitude, might extinguish the misery that was long deemed an essential feature of the human condition. Eros and Civilization is not only, as he claimed, his most significant book; it also merits consideration as his best, neither obviously dated nor vexingly inaccessible. Its speculative daring does not rely upon the frayed remains of Freudian psychology but upon reconfiguring its insights. He ignored the scientific and clinical controversies that swirled around psychoanalysis, and could not have been expected to anticipate the feminist objections it would instigate. Instead Marcuse imagined how Freud’s critique of the consequences of repression might be converted into an emancipatory project, with the psyche released from the weight of society. Self-denial isn’t “natural,” Marcuse claimed; it is merely historical. Eros and Civilization is thrilling to read because it conveys a philosophical need to peer over the horizon, to conjecture how the formation of a life without material restraints might somehow be made meaningful.

Marcuse was correct to highlight the unprecedented extension of affluence, within reach of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the planet’s inhabitants in the twenty-first century. But he did not predict what has become the growing gap that separates rich and poor in the United States, and that has split off the very rich from the middle class as well. The possibility of such divisions reappearing in a fully capitalist world is absent even in his best-known works, which are bound to seem remote from the political dilemmas posed by a restored Gilded Age.

Think of the difference between Charles A. Reich, whose 1970 best-seller, The Greening of America, envisioned a historical transformation into the bliss of Consciousness III, and Robert B. Reich, who has exposed over the past few decades the excruciating problem of middle-class stagnation, while the concentration of wealth at the top has reached staggering levels bereft of social or economic justification. The Walton family, for instance, is the nation’s most affluent (sitting on an estimated $150 billion); and yet the company that has enriched Sam Walton’s heirs refuses to pay a living wage to many of its employees.

Such conditions therefore make the circulation of terms like “repressive de-sublimation” and “total administration” seem extrinsic to the current crisis—and criticism—of the American political economy. Insofar as the most pressing challenge that confronts the left today is how to enlist the political will to address the injustice of economic inequality, the intellectual and moral legacy of Herbert Marcuse won’t be due for a revival anytime soon.


Stephen J. Whitfield teaches American Studies at Brandeis University and is the author of Into the Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism, among other works.

For another perspective on Marcuse, see Nick Thorkelson’s comic “The Fifty-Year-Old One-Dimensional Man” on our blog.