Dave Widgery

Goodbye Comrade M

(September 1979)

Obituary of Herbert Marcuse, Socialist Review, No.14, September 1979, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

London July 1967: The Roundhouse when it was still an engine shed; Anti-psychiatrists on acid, Stokely Carmichael glinted with black pride, Paul Goodman cruising and various heads, Marxists, layabouts and hippies ... banks of them, listening.

Herbert Marcuse rises to give his lecture; gaunt, a bit haughty, grey face veiled with lines, ‘I am very happy to see so many flowers here and this is why I want to remind you that flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction’. Much marxist mirth and hippy discomfort; a genuinely Hegelian joke. But made by a man who had resigned from the German SPD almost fifty years earlier over that Party’s complicity in the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

A man whose obstinate Marxism overarched the century and plunged back into the closing years of his life into delighted and defiant solidarity with the revolutionaries of black America, the students of Berlin and the peasant army of North Vietnam. And a man who ended his ’67 oration with what should, against his reputation, be considered his motto: ‘No illusions, but even more, no defeatism’.

Marcuse is known by some marxists solely as a man who thought the working class were finished as an agent of social change and most liberals as the brains behind the student revolt. He was neither.

It is true that his tone was more often of intelligent pessimism rather than irresponsible optimism. He can be hard to follow because he is always striving to write what he means rather than find sentiments that fit his vocabulary. But his preoccupations in the intellectually dark decades of the 1940s and 1950s were to be curiously prophetic, as if his intellectual life had been a planned preparation for what was to happen in North America in the late 1960s.

The central concern of Marcuse’s early writing was the relationship with marxism and Hegel’s thought, the problem that so concerned Lenin. But between 1933 and ‘41 he published over a hundred articles and reviews for the Frankfurt School’s journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung and it was from a project on sexuality and the rise of National Socialism terror sponsored by the Institute-in-Exile that his 1955 Eros and Civilisation arose.

The book broke nearly fifteen years of near-silence, an era in which marxists who had escaped the catastrophe of Europe were obliged to face the virtual annihilation of the revolutionary Left in Russia, Germany and Spain. Yet despite its Aesopian language and the fact that just about everyone from Auden to Fromm were also searching for a Freud-Marx synthesis, (mostly abolishing the latter in the name of the former), Eros and Civilisation is a unique and passionate vision of a non-repressive order where sex is dethroned from the genitals, the elders and the men, rescued from sadism and masochism, and returned to life and work ... echoing not only Marx but Fourier and Morris.

Marcuse’s next two books. Soviet Marxism and One Dimensional Man are exuberant books too, despite their measured, difficult prose. The former is concerned mainly with a philosophical critique of Stalinism, one of the weaker elements in orthodox Trotskyist theory, the latter with capitalism’s [text unclear in original] bamboozle and neutralise the forces historically destined to abolish it. Here history has shown Marcuse and many of the descendents of Frankfurt to his right to be static and superficial about modern class consciousness. But the force of Marcuse in the early 1960s lay not in his political predictions, which were wrong, but his blistering attack on the brain police, on the state of unfreedom known as ‘normality’ and the moral squalor of the affluent society.

This was Marcuse’s great refusal; it was the philosophical No that preceded the revolutionary Yes. Writing of a close colleague Fritz Neumann, Marcuse said ‘In his last years, he tried to find the answer to the terrible question of why human freedom and happiness declined at the stage of mature civilisation when the objective conditions for their realisation were greater than ever before.’ Marcuse did this and more, he witnessed and joined with those forces which were the human answers to that terrible question, the 3D replies to the one dimensional men.

Marcuse’s short, last book Counterrevolution and Revolt is, in my view, his finest, a passionate return to the ranks of the struggling, a fraternal embrace for the Women’s Liberation Movement, a polemic on revolutionary art. Most of all a new insistence on the role of the organised and the committed ‘bending’ the objective tendencies which make for socialism -bending them now; today and tomorrow and the days after tomorrow ...’

Marcuse outlasted the Roundhouse flower people but I think he would have appreciated that in the week of his death there was a punk record in the Top Ten [text unclear in original] theoretical work in five words: ‘Babylon is burning with anxiety’.


Last updated on 29.11.2004