Herbert Marcuse 1969

Interview with Pierrre Viansson-Ponte

Source: Le Monde, Paris, June 1969
Transcribed: by Harrison Fluss 2012;
Translated: by Anne Fremantle.

Q. You have been bracketed with Marx and Mao. When people talk of the “Three M’s” what is your reaction?

Marcuse I do not understand. Marx? I have studied his work deeply. But Mao? Certainly today every Marxist who is not a communist of strict obedience is a Maoist. I have always thought there was an alternative, and in my books I have not kept to the old Marxist ideology. Socialist societies as they are set up today do not seem to me what I call “qualitatively different” from other capitalist societies. They allow one type of domination to exist instead of another; that is all. True socialism is something else again. I am convinced that it is possible from now on to construct a truly socialist society without going through a Stalinist type period. A socialist society must be founded on true solidarity, on true cooperation: the Cuban revolution seems to me to be moving in that direction. As for “Che,” he was the symbol of it, very far from the Stalinist bureaucrats, very near to socialist man.

Q. Are you only trying to explain the world we live in, or are you trying to change it?

Marcuse That is a big question. Every real explanation must lead to the search for a transformation, and there is evidently an interior relation between the explanation and the transformation. For myself, it is true that for a long time now I have not been a militant activist. I write, I teach, I give lectures, I talk to the students: these are normal activities of an intellectual in the United States because in that country the situation is in no sense revolutionary, it is not even pre-revolutionary. Therefore an intellectual’s duty is first of all a mission of radical education. We are, in America, entering into a new “period of illumination.”

Q. And in Europe?

Marcuse In Europe, the situation is different because there politics are still largely determined by the working class. Also, there are big differences between one country and another: West Germany is very close to the American “model,” Italy is fairly close. France is much further away. I know Rudi Dutschke and his friends well, and the boys of the SDS, the left-wing student organisation. He is very kind, very sensitive, not at all a demagogue. And he is someone who has done a lot of work and thought a lot; for him and his comrades, the link between theory and action is solidly established. It is said that they took months to forge it. This is not true: they took eight years. In France, have your angry students also worked? Have they also established solid ideological bases? I do not have the impression that they have.

Q. Have you sometimes the feeling of having been overtaken by those who proclaim your theses?

Marcuse Perhaps. If they are violent, it is because they are desperate. And despair power effective political action. Take the inhabitants of the black ghettos in the US; they set fire to their own areas, they burn their own houses. This is not a revolutionary action, but it is an act of despair, and a political act. Moreover, in the USA, the uneasiness is not limited to students. The students are not in revolt against a poor and badly organized society, but against a quite rich society quite well organized in its luxury and waste, while 25% of the population live in the poverty of the ghettoes. Their revolt is not directed against the misery which this society provokes, but against its benefits. This is a new phenomenon, belonging only to what is called “the opulent society.” In Germany, the process is the same. In France, I do not think it is, because French society is not yet an affluent society.

Q. What do you think about what has been called, by analogy with “Black Power,” “Student Power”?

Marcuse That slogan seems dangerous to me. Everywhere, always, the great majority of students is conservative, even reactionary. Therefore “Student Power,” if it were democratic, would be conservative, even reactionary. “Student Power” means that the left in no way opposes the University administration, but opposes the students themselves. Otherwise it would be necessary for it to outflank the democratic process. There is here a fundamental contradiction.

Q. What is, in your opinion, the basic reason for these violent student demonstrations in so many countries?

Marcuse For American and West German students, whom I know better, it is a requirement that is not merely intellectual, but “instinctual.” They want an entirely different kind of existence. They reject a life that is simply a struggle for existence, they refuse to enter what the English call the Establishment, because they think it is no longer necessary. They feel their whole life will be overwhelmed by the requirements of the industrial society and exclusively in the interests of big business, the military, and the politicians. Take the hippies. Their rebellion is directed against puritan morality, against American society where one washes ten times a day, and at the same time burns and kills in Vietnam purely and simply. So they methodically protest against this hypocrisy by keeping their hair long, growing beards, not washing and refusing to go to war. To them the contradictions are blinding. But, as with the students, this is true only of a very small minority. The students know that society absorbs opposition and offers the irrational as rational. They feel more or less clearly that the “one dimensional” man has lost his power of negation, his possibility of saying no. So they refuse to let themselves become integrated in this society.

Q. What reply would you give to students if they came to you and asked whether their manifestations make sense and could help to transform society?

Marcuse I would tell them first that one cannot expect anything but big manifestations like those which are taking place pretty well everywhere, even in France, in a situation which is not even pre – or counterrevolutionary. But I am not a defeatist, ever. In the US, the growing opposition to the Vietnam war has already succeeded in provoking, at least in part, change in American policy. One must not have illusions; but one must not be a defeatist, either. It is useless to expect, in such a confrontation, that the masses should join the movement and participate in the process. Something of the kind can be seen, it seems to me, in the present student revolts. Yet they are completely spontaneous revolts. In the United States there is no coordination, no organization acting on a national scale , not even on a nation wide scale, and one is very far from any kind of international organization. This kind of revolt certainly does not lead to the creation of a revolutionary force. But it converges with the movements of the “Third World” and with activity in the ghettoes. It is a powerful force for disintegration.