Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Eric Scheper

Herbert Marcuse: The Ideologue as Paid Agent of U.S. Imperialism


First Published: Literature & Ideology, No. 6, 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Herbert Marcuse’s reputation as a “revolutionary” rests primarily on two books: Eros and Civilization (1955; Vintage Books paperback, 1962) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) (a third one should also be mentioned: An Essay on Liberation [1969]). Since these books have had a minor influence on the American youth, especially in turning them from revolution to drugs, their basic arguments need to be exposed for their reactionary and pro-U.S. imperialist ideology. Marcuse spent about ten years in the 1940’s in the Office of Strategic Services and in the Office of Intelligence Research, Department of State, after receiving his education in anti-communism in the Universities of Berlin and Freiburg as well as the notorious anti-communist Institute of Social Research, now in Frankfurt, West Germany.

There is nothing original or fresh about Marcuse’s theories: they are the repetition of ideas which had been developed by various reactionaries in the twentieth century in response to the rise of revolutionary movements under the leadership of the working class and its ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. The sole purpose of reactionary ideology now is to confuse people about the basis of change, development and motion, the role of consciousness in history, and the relation of the superstructure to its economic base. By using his pseudo-philosophical and shallow jargon. Marcuse strives in vain to convince people that there is no such thing as U. S. imperialism and that man’s real problem is the repression of instincts imposed upon him by civilization itself. He relies heavily upon Freud’s theories for his “revolutionary” insights.

Marcuse states his thesis in the opening paragraph of his introduction to Eros and Civilization:

Sigmund Freud’s proposition that civilization is based on the permanent subjugation of the human instincts has been taken for granted. His question whether the suffering thereby inflicted upon individuals has been worth the benefits of culture has not been taken too seriously–the less so since Freud himself considered the process to be inevitable and irreversible. Free gratification of man’s instinctual needs is incompatible with civilized society: renunciation and delay in satisfaction are the prerequisites of progress. “Happiness,” said Freud, “is no cultural value.” Happiness must be subordinated to the discipline of work as full-time occupation, to the discipline of monogamic reproduction, to the established system of law and order. The methodical sacrifice of libido, its rigidly enforced deflection to socially useful activities and expressions, is culture.

It follows from this critique that repression is an historical phenomenon and that man’s struggle against repression is endless and futile:

The effective subjugation of the instincts to repressive controls is imposed not by nature but by man. The primal father, as the archetype of domination, initiates the chain reaction of enslavement, rebellion, and reinforced domination which marks the history of civilization. But ever since the first, prehistoric restoration of domination following the first rebellion, repression from without has been supported by repression from within: the unfree individual introjects his masters and their commands into his own mental apparatus. The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions. It is this mental dynamic which Freud unfolds as the dynamic of civilization.

Marcuse goes on to quote Freud’s remark that society’s, motive in enforcing the decisive modification of the instinctual structure is thus “economic; since it has not means enough to support life for its members without work on their part, it must see to it that the number of these members is restricted and their energies directed away from sexual activities on to their work.”

These long passages from Eros and Civilization should make it clear why a paid agent of U.S. imperialism would find it worth his time and money to defend Freud and to offer an “instinctual” theory of man’s repression. What is the basis of change, development and motion in history? It is the struggle between Eros and Civilization, according to Marcuse. It is class struggle, struggle for production and scientific experimentation, according to the revolutionary ideology of the working and oppressed people. “If absence from repression is the archetype of freedom, then civilization is the struggle against freedom,” says Marcuse in Eros and Civilization. Man does not produce his consciousness in the course of producing his means of subsistence; the Freudian man resents having to engage in productive activities because they interfere with his instinctual desire for self-gratification. Freud had written in Civilization and Its Discontents:

It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposed precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This cultural “frustration” dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings. As we already know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle.

The political ambition which emerges out of this analysis is that man should employ automation to bring into being a non-repressive society. In his “Preface to the Vintage Edition” of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse explicitly states the reactionary outlook of a Freudian like himself:

I emphasized from the beginning of my book that, in the contemporary period, psychological categories become political categories to the degree to which the private, individual psyche becomes the more or less willing receptacle of socially desirable and socially necessary aspirations, feelings, drives, and satisfactions. The individual, and with him the rights and liberties of the individual, is something that has still to be created, and that can be created only through the development of qualitatively different social relations and institutions.

What is the political significance of this Freudian analysis of history put forward by a paid agent of U. S. imperialism? First of all, it denies the very existence of U.S. imperialism. If there is no U.S. imperialism, what can the working and oppressed people be fighting against? Ergo, all revolutionaries all over the world must be agents of some communist conspiracy. If there is anything wrong with American society, it is this: “The conflict between this society’s great technical instruments and scientific resources on the one hand and the waste and destructiveness on the other just cannot go on.” Marcuse here is one of the early “prophets” of ecology. Another outstanding characteristic of Marcuse’s Freudian interpretation is that it postulates a metaphysical or mystical “primal father” as “the archetype of domination.” and this is supposed to be the historical beginning of oppression in the world. All reactionary idealists assume that man did not develop through a revolutionary process of “one splitting into two,” and that man appeared on this planet complete with instincts, the pleasure principle and the misfortune of having to produce his own means of subsistence. The conflict between the instinctual struggle for freedom and the restraints of civilization takes the political form of a withdrawal from public life and a hope that machines will bring about the day when man will not have to work at all and will have the opportunity to exercise his desire for self-gratification. Marcuse appeals to those petty-bourgeois youth who do not want to change the world and who want to believe that there are no possibilities of changing the situation at present or in the future.

In his One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse announces that U.S. imperialism is a society without opposition or internal contradiction. This discovery of Marcuse’s that there is no internal contradiction in American society is supposed to be a “revolutionary” and earth-shaking one. Marcuse notes the disappearance of contradiction between classes in this passage:

At its origins in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it elaborated the first concepts of the alternatives, the critique of industrial society attained concreteness in a historical mediation between theory and practice, values and facts, needs and goals. This historical mediation occurred in the consciousness and in the political action of the two great classes which faced each other in the society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In the capitalist world, they are still the basic classes. However, the capitalist development has altered the structure and function of these two classes in such a way that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation. An overriding interest in the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo unites the former antagonists in the most advanced areas of contemporary society. And to the degree to which technical progress assures the growth and cohesion of communist society, the very idea of qualitative change recedes before the realistic notions of a non-explosive evolution.

The simplest way to defend a repressive and decadent system is to argue that it does not exist. “A non-explosive evolution” is being wished for and insisted upon by every kind of reactionary. If there is no antagonistic contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, there can be no possibility of change and development.

Marcuse’s method of analysis belongs to the ancient and well-tested tradition of obscurantist and fascist logic. He fabricates facts to “validate” a pro-U.S. imperialist theory. The immediate needs of class struggle demand that U.S. imperialists parade a variety of “experts” in magazines and books, who wear a mask of concern for the disintegration taking place in imperialist society and also predict on the basis of their professorial authority that no disintegration is in fact taking place. Marcuse remarks about the possibilities of change:

Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about change.

Close attention should be paid here to “what is being done” and “what is being prevented.” The possibility of this consciousness bringing about the downfall of imperialism is nil, as Marcuse points out:

In the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives. The productivity and growth potential of this system stabilize the society and contain technical progress within the framework of domination. Technological rationality has become political rationality.

This means that U.S. imperialism is indestructible and invincible.

Marcuse’s principal thesis in One-Dimensional Man is that the real source of anguish, misery and suffering in imperialist society is man’s insatiable desire for self-gratification as well as the disappearance of what he calls a “two-dimensional” culture:

Today’s novel feature is the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality. This liquidation of two-dimensional culture takes place not through the denial and rejection of the “cultural values,” but through their wholesale incorporation into the established order, through their reproduction and display on a massive scale.

This passage cannot be understood without some grasp of Marcuse’s reactionary and idealistic theory of culture.

First of all, it should not be forgotten that Marcuse is an idealist of the eclectic type who is anxious to catch at any philosophical straw which would prolong the life of U.S. imperialism. In fact, nobody can be both an agent of U.S. imperialists as well as a follower of materialist philosophy; in Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941). Marcuse accuses the fascist Gentile of not being an idealist:

Gentile discards the fundamental principle of all idealism, namely, that there is an antagonism and strain between truth and fact, between thought or mind and reality. His whole theory is based upon the immediate identity of these polar elements, whereas Hegel’s point had been that there is no such immediate identity but only the dialectical process of achieving it.

This shows that Marcuse’s reactionary theories have their origin in reactionary idealism which postulates that man’s social being is determined by his thinking and that mind is primary and matter secondary.

According to Marcuse, culture does not belong to the superstructure of an economic base and does not serve and protect that base. Culture is rather a repository of ideal and transcendent values and acts as an agent of social change and development. Culture in this sense forms a second and higher dimension of social reality and is therefore something superior to that reality. A society in which culture is allowed to stand in an antagonistic or idealistic relationship to social reality is a two-dimensional society, and a society in which culture gets incorporated into the established order is a one-dimensional society. Marcuse criticizes U.S. imperialist society for being a one-dimensional society without any possibilities of change.

The political usefulness of this theory for U.S. imperialism is immense. It does away with the materiality of the phenomena of social change and development (Marcuse’s transcendent culture is in some mysterious sense innate as well as a gift of God). This theory recognizes the basis of change and development not in the contradiction inherent in a society but in an external cause. Culture as an external cause of social change and development is innate and God-given. This means that no revolution can be possible in the United States because there is no transcendent culture, and anyone who calls for a revolution must be an agent of a foreign power. Marcuse’s argument is a mystical and obscurantist one in that he finds it favourable to U.S. imperialism not to specify what his “transcendent culture” is. The political function of books like One-Dimensional Man is to assure the U.S. monopoly capitalist class that their system is the best one in the world, even if it does not and cannot ensure self-gratification. “If somebody really believes that my opinions can seriously endanger society,” Marcuse has justly demand acceptance of its principles and institutions, and reduce the opposition to the discussion and promotion of alternative policies within the status quo. In this respect, it seems to make little difference whether the increasing satisfaction of needs is accomplished by an authoritarian or a non-authoritarian system. Under the conditions of a rising standard of living, non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless, and the more so when it entails tangible economic and political disadvantages and threatens the smooth operation of the whole. Indeed, at least in so far as the necessities of life are involved, there seems to be no reason why the production and distribution of goods and services should proceed through the competitive concurrence of individual liberties.

This passage is a U.S. monopoly capitalist’s dream of the future and prepares the material conditions for the widespread oppression of any opposition to U.S. imperialism internally or externally. Marcuse’s society without opposition is an ideological argument for a society without a revolutionary communist movement in the United States under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. The U.S. imperialist ideologues theorize that “a state of lower productivity” which was the basis for revolutionary movements has been brought to an end by the “technological revolution”; therefore U.S. monopoly capitalists cannot allow anybody to talk about the seizure of state power by the proletariat. Marcuse’s theory calls for total repression of individual liberties, for he thinks that “independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition” are redundant in an advanced industrial society; this argument exonerates fascist atrocities in U.S.A. Marcuse holds that the loss of rights and liberties in advanced industrial nations points to “a higher stage of this society,” a stage during which nobody needs any liberties or rights.

To make sure that nobody misunderstands Marcuse’s counter-revolutionary analysis of social, cultural and political problems, he stresses that no good can come from any opposition to U.S. imperialism by what he calls the ”substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable.” He continues:

Nothing indicates that it will be a good end. The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog, and their armed forces sufficiently trained and equipped to take care of emergency situations. However, the spectre is there again, inside and outside the frontiers of the advanced societies. The facile historical parallel with the barbarians threatening the empire of civilization prejudges the issue; the second period of barbarism may well be the continued empire of civilization itself.

The reactionary role of Freudian theories of this type is to create the irrational and non-historical fear among people that their greatest enemy is civilization and that it would be beneficial to mankind if they were to return to some kind of “global” tribalism which would permit the U.S. imperialists to rule the world. Once one conceives of civilization itself as “barbarism,” one may tend to lose any fear of the fascist hordes in the U.S. imperialist-controlled states.

A fascist repression of any kind of political opposition to U.S. imperialism is the primary result of Marcuse’s ideological argument. Another consequence of his analysis is that people should avail themselves of the benefits of a corporate-sensate culture which caters to the individual’s desire for self-gratification, instead of opposing it. Then he warns his readers that what is wrong with industrial society is something that cannot be corrected at all:

Institutionalized desublimation thus appears to be an aspect of the “conquest of transcendence” achieved by the one-dimensional society. Just as this society tends to reduce, and even absorb opposition (the qualitative difference!) in the realm of politics and higher culture, so it does in the instinctual sphere. The result is the atrophy of the mental organs for grasping the contradictions and the alternatives and, in the one remaining dimension of technological rationality, the Happy Consciousness comes to prevail.

Marcuse provides the ideological premise for this type of life in Eros and Civilization:

Men do not live their own lives, but perform pre-established functions. While they work, they do not fulfill their own needs and faculties but work in alienation. Work has now become general, and so have the restrictions placed upon the libido: labor time, which is the largest part of the individual’s life time, is painful time, for alienated labor is absence of [erotic] gratification, negation of the pleasure principle. Libido is diverted for socially useful performances in which the individual works for himself only insofar as he works for the apparatus engaged in activities that mostly do not coincide with his own faculties and desires.

This passage appeals to some reactionary petty-bourgeois individuals who do not want to betray their class background and who do not wish to see that the internal contradictions of their own lives cannot be resolved without the destruction of U.S. imperialism.

In order to attract these petty-bourgeois individuals to the cause of counter-revolution, Marcuse has developed a theory of the “liberation of man,” a theory which directly serves the interests of U.S. imperialism. He labels it “the Great Refusal” in An Essay on Liberation:

This alternative is not so much a different road to socialism as an emergence of different goals and values, different aspirations in the men and women who resist and deny the massive exploitative power of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and liberal realizations.

“An emergence of different goals and values”: where do these goals and values emerge from? Marcuse locates the origin of these goals and values in “the demands of the life instincts” in the same essay:

For freedom indeed depends largely on technical progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition: in order to become vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility–the demands of the life instincts. Then one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil.

Marcuse’s new man is considered by him to be equipped with “a different sensitivity as well as consciousness; men who would speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses. ...”

What view of change, development and motion in history does one get from “the demands of the life instincts”? After acknowledging that instincts give “the life processes a definite ’direction’ (Richtung), in terms of ’life-principles,’” Marcuse notes in Eros and Civilization the following characteristic features of change and development in advanced industrial societies:

(1) The very progress of civilization under the performance principle has attained a level of productivity at which the social demands upon instinctual energy to be spent in alienated labor could be consistently reduced. Consequently, the continued repressive organization of the instincts seems to be necessitated less by the “struggle for existence” than by the interest in prolonging this struggle–by the interest in domination.

(2) The representative philosophy of Western civilization has developed a concept of reason which contains the domineering features of the performance principle. However, the same philosophy ends in the vision of a higher form of reason which is the very negation of these features–namely, receptivity, contemplation, enjoyment. Behind the definition of the subject in terms of the ever transcending and productive activity of the ego lies the image of the redemption of the ego: the coming to rest of all transcendence in a mode of being that has absorbed all becoming, that is for and with-itself in all otherness.

It is true that both of these points are wrong but they have been concocted for a political purpose. Hence the important thing is not to expose Marcuse for his “intellectual errors” but to condemn and repudiate the political role of these reactionary formulations of his.

What can a bourgeois intellectual do to serve U.S. imperialism? He employs his “academic expertism” to manufacture theories which try to explain political and social features of class struggle between U.S. imperialism and the working and oppressed people in such a way as to argue that the basis of change and development in society is not class struggle, that man’s life is guided by the “demands of the life instincts.” that the productive machinery of U.S. imperialism promises to deliver everybody from the curse of work, and that “the higher historical truth would pertain to the system which offers the greater chance of pacification” (One-Dimensional Man). Marcuse touches upon every aspect of class struggle in order to “prove” that the problems of the decadent and parasitic U.S. imperialism do not originate from the contradictions inherent within the system. It is for this reason that periodicals like the Guardian, which serve U.S. imperialism, also praise and idolize paid agents of U.S. imperialism (in an article published on June 8, 1968):

[Marcuse’s] penetrating analysis of the relationship between erotic repression and the nature of all dominating repressive civilization is key to understanding the broad range and profound depth of the new revolt. His ’One-Dimensional Man’ is the most sophisticated analysis of oppression in advanced capitalism thus far produced.