Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Marcuse, ’New Left’ philosopher, dies

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 31, August 20, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Herbert Marcuse, the radical philosopher whose anti-working class views misdirected a sector of the 1960s youth revolt, died on July 29 in Starnberg, West Germany. He was 81 years old.

Marcuse became a widely known and highly controversial figure during the mass revolts of the 1960s. The mass media tagged him as the “father of the new left” and many right-wing politicians tried to deprive him of his university posts as an “apostle of violence.” He also came into conflict with the Moscow revisionists who called him an “anti-Soviet werewolf” and accused him of being a CIA agent.

In his personal life, however, Marcuse saw himself mainly as a professor of philosophy and a writer. In the main, he was not directly involved in mass activity.

When he was a young student, Marcuse took part in the activities of the German Social-Democratic Party’s left wing, but left the organization in 1919 in disgust with its leaders’ complicity in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Later he took part in the opposition to Hitler’s rise to power and had to flee Germany in 1933 as a result.

Marcuse came to the U.S. in the late 1930s to teach at Columbia University. During World War II, he worked with the Army’s Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. While the immediate task of the OSS was to develop an intelligence network against Hitler inside Germany, its basic purpose was to defend U.S. imperialist interests in the war.

After the war, Marcuse became a research fellow at Columbia’s Russian Institute, which produced studies of the Soviet Union for the State Department and the CIA. Marcuse’s anticommunist book, Soviet Marxism, was written during this period.

By the late 1950s, however, Marcuse became increasingly critical of U.S. society, especially of what he called its “totalitarian” features which would lead to fascism. In the 1960s he opposed U.S. aggression in Vietnam and took part in demonstrations and teach-ins against it. He also supported the right of armed self-defense for the Afro-American people, which earned him the wraith of the bourgeoisie.

But despite his progressive stand on certain issues, Marcuse was never a revolutionary or a Marxist- Leninist. In fact, he had devoted a good part of his life to an effort to revise Marxism with a mixture of Hegelian and Freudian Idealism. He was a key figure in what is known as the “Frankfurt School of Marxism,” a revisionist “back-to-Hegel” trend started in Germany in the early 1930s. It argued that with the growth of monopoly, capitalism had extended the “despotism of factory organization” into a practically unshakeable hegemony in all aspects of life. This pessimistically precluded revolutionary activity, except for the development of “critical theory,” mainly in the area of culture.

It was this combination of ideas that made Marcuse influential among many young students and intellectuals active in the 1960s. As a teacher, Marcuse would gather a circle of students around him and train them as a sort of cadre of the “Frankfurt School.” In turn, they would take these ideas into the mass movement.

What were the anti-Marxist features of Marcuse’s outlook? First, he saw the goal of human history as being what he described as “non-repressive civilization.” This, he placed in sharp contrast to the “established domination” of “advanced industrial society,” a term he used to describe both capitalism and socialism.

These views placed Marcuse in the anarchist tradition, with its opposition to the dictatorship of the proletariat and its aim of abolishing all forms of authority, regardless of historical conditions or which class was served. He added his own twist, however, with his view of the “dialectic” of advanced technology, to which he attached decisive importance.

“Automation,” he stated in Eros and Civilization, “threatens to render possible the reversal of the relation between free time and working time on which the established civilization rests: the possibility of working time becoming marginal and free time becoming full time. The result would be a radical transvaluation of values.”

This to Marcuse was the positive side of the technological dialectic. It promised to liberate humanity from toil and scarcity, to transform “work” in the “realm of necessity” into “play” in the “realm of freedom.”

Marx, too, talked about these ideas, but within the context of a future classless society where communism had won out in the whole world and the productive forces were greatly expanded everywhere. But Marcuse stressed the importance of “utopian thinking” and practices in the present, which led him to praise the “hippie” and “counter-culture” trends in the 1960s.

Marcuse’s utopianism, however, was basically a byproduct of a more fundamental pessimism. For he gave the greatest weight to the “negative” or “dark” side of technology, especially in his most widely read book, One-Dimensional Man. Here he analyzed how modern technology had reached far beyond simply increasing the forces of production. According to Marcuse, it “revolutionized” as well the “means of destruction” in military power and the “means of domination” in the mass media and culture.

Especially in the technique of mass culture, Marcuse saw the greatest threat to human freedom. He believed it brought people’s “free time” as well as their “working time” under the domination of commodity relations, turning them into passive spectators and consumers rather than active creators of culture.

But it was Marcuse who was actually one dimensional in his thinking. For instance, he believed the majority of the working class could be permanently bought-off by the products of “affluence and consumerism.”

At best, the workers would only make “quantitative” demands for more money rather than “qualitative demands” for a new and free society. Revolutionary change, he added, could not come from the workers, but rather from forces “external” to capitalism, such as youth who had “dropped out” or minority nationalities who had been “forced out.”

Marcuse both overestimated capitalism and underestimated the working class. The present economic crisis shows how capitalism is not able to “deliver the goods,” but is now preparing for war and austerity. Likewise the masses are hardly pacified, displaying a greater mistrust and lack of confidence in the government than has been seen in many years.

Marcuse did recognize that sections of the people would protest against their conditions. He believed, however, that they would be kept in check by what he termed “repressive tolerance.” This is a technique used by the ruling class when it permits or “tolerates,” a certain degree of mass protest against the lack of democracy in order for it to turn around and make use of these protests to “prove” that “democracy” really exists. Thus the repressive apparatus would be strengthened.

Many new-leftists in the 1960s used this analysis of Marcuse’s to counter the claim of university authorities that military recruiters had the same “right of free speech” as antiwar protesters to carry out their activities on campus. The radical students insisted that there could be no “tolerance” of fascism, imperialist war or lynch mobs.

But Marcuse’s views were also used by terrorist groups, such as the. Weatherman organization, to argue that mass protest was fruitless. Imperialism could only be brought down militarily by the liberation armies of the third world and by small-armed bands carrying out sabotage and disruption from within.

Likewise Marcuse’s views about “qualitative demands” and the role of the intelligentsia in preserving the “capacity for reason” served as an underpinning of the “new-working-class” theory. This opportunist viewpoint redefined the working class to include the college-educated intelligentsia, then declared that the “old” sector of “blue-collar“ workers were hopelessly backward, while the “new” sector of the class – namely the intellectuals – were the “vanguard” of social change. This view was prevalent in SDS for a time and is still held by some social-democratic groups today. Marcuse himself, in fact, was a sponsor of the “left” social-democratic newspaper, In These Times.

Marcuse was also often accused of being an advocate of the so-called “sexual revolution,” including the supposedly “liberating” effects of promiscuity, pornography and the sexual content of mass culture. Actually, he was strongly opposed to these trends; which he criticized with his theory of “repressive desublimation.” By turning people’s natural sexuality into a commodity, he argued, capitalism actually repressed their capacity for loving relationships and replaced it with perversions that became increasingly brutal. He associated this perversity with the rise of fascist trends and viewed its encouragement by the ruling class as a form of social control.

Marcuse was at his best as a critic of bourgeois culture and philosophy. Revolutionaries could learn from his work even though he was not a revolutionary. In his basic political theory and stand, however, he promoted opportunism, particularly as a spokesman for the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and their worship of spontaneity.

As the spontaneous upsurge of the 1960s declined, so did Marcuse’s influence. Many young activists today have never heard of him. But with a new upsurge among youth and students on the horizon, some of his theories could become prevalent again.