What Herbert Marcuse Got Right — and Wrong

Socialists today should learn from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: in particular, its spirit of protest, its materialist social theory, and its warnings about commodified liberation. But they should leave behind its moralism and despair about change.

Herbert Marcuse, photographed on May 18, 1979. (DPA / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Guru of the New Left

The New Left missed core aspects of Marcuse’s critical project that are worth retrieving for today.

Marcuse consistently maintained that no force other than the working class was capable of achieving the full break with one-dimensional society demanded by critical theory.

Critique

Irrationality and destructiveness. The imminent possibility of nuclear war is the shadow that hangs over all of Marcuse’s critique, from the first sentence on. (“Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?”) The prosperity and relative peace of the Trentes Glorieuses were purchased at the cost of an unending buildup toward a nuclear war that could annihilate the entire human race. Imperial ventures and the use of defense production to wastefully subsidize the private sector, keeping up profits and employment, trumped the survival of the species as a whole. This imminent destructiveness was also contained in the devastation the consumer society visited on the natural world.
Manipulation and unfreedom. Marcuse believed that some level of general material security and prosperity had been exchanged, in a devil’s bargain, for the broader demands of the socialist movement for autonomy. Workers had little decision-making power in the face of gigantic corporations, elections were organized spectacle rather than an opportunity to realize the will of the public, and the culture industry utilized techniques of mass manipulation to keep people pacified. “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing. And this mode of existence is not abrogated if the thing is animated and chooses its material and intellectual food, if it does not feel its being-a-thing, if it is a pretty, clean, mobile thing.” One-dimensionality was compliance in the guise of freedom.
Continuing poverty and exploitation. Despite the advances achieved by the working class of the period, Marcuse would emphasize the continuing poverty amid plenty that characterized the United States especially, and the vast differences between rich and poor countries. Moreover, he would insist that society was holding back the general decrease in working hours that could accompany the mechanization and automation of production.

Marcuse and Classical Marxism

One-Dimensional Man attempted to provide a materialist social theory adequate to the conditions of the time, not by abandoning Marxism but by developing the theory.

The Theory of Integration — Social Democracy as Impasse

Late capitalist society, Marcuse said, was based simultaneously on ‘an increasing standard of living and an increasing concentration of power.’

Insights and Impasses

Conclusion

2021-12-27 | News | English |