Eros and Civilization. Herbert Marcuse 1955


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 fulltime 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.

The sacrifice has paid off well: in the technically advanced areas of civilization, the conquest of nature is practically complete, and more needs of a greater number of people are fulfilled than ever before. Neither the mechanization and standardization of life, nor the mental impoverishment, nor the growing destructiveness of present-day progress provides sufficient ground for questioning the “principle” which has governed the progress of Western civilization. The continual increase of productivity makes constantly more realistic the promise of an even better life for all.

However, intensified progress seems to be bound up with intensified unfreedom. Throughout the world of industrial civilization, the domination of man by man is growing in scope and efficiency. Nor does this trend appear as an incidental, transitory regression on the road to progress. Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars, and atom bombs are no “relapse into barbarism,” but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology, and domination. And the most effective subjugation and destruction of man by man takes place at the height of civilization, when the material and intellectual attainments of mankind seem to allow the creation of a truly free world.

These negative aspects of present-day culture may well indicate the obsolescence of established institutions and the emergence of new forms of civilization: repressiveness is perhaps the more vigorously maintained the more unnecessary it becomes. If it must indeed belong to the essence of civilization as such, then Freud’s question as to the price of civilization would be meaningless — for there would be no alternative.

But Freud’s own theory provides reasons for rejecting his identification of civilization with repression. On the ground of his own theoretical achievements, the discussion of the problem must be reopened. Does the interrelation between freedom and repression, productivity and destruction, domination and progress, really constitute the principle of civilization? Or does this interrelation result only from a specific historical organization of human existence? In Freudian terms, is the conflict between pleasure principle and reality principle irreconcilable to such a degree that it necessitates the repressive transformation of man’s instinctual structure? Or does it allow the concept of a non-repressive civilization, based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations?

The notion of a non-repressive civilization will be discussed not as an abstract and utopian speculation. We believe that the discussion is justified on two concrete and realistic grounds: first, Freud’s theoretical conception itself seems to refute his consistent denial of the historical possibility of a non-repressive civilization, and, second, the very achievements of repressive civilization seem to create the preconditions for the gradual abolition of repression. To elucidate these grounds, we shall try to reinterpret Freud’s theoretical conception in terms of its own socio-historical content.

This procedure implies opposition to the revisionist Neo-Freudian schools. In contrast to the revisionists, I believe that Freud’s theory is in its very substance “sociological,” and that no new cultural or sociological orientation is needed to reveal this substance. Freud’s “biologism” is social theory in a depth dimension that has been consistently flattened out by the Neo-Freudian schools. In shifting the emphasis from the unconscious to the conscious, from the biological to the cultural factors, they cut off the roots of society in the instincts and instead take society at the level on which it confronts the individual as his readymade “environment,” without questioning its origin and legitimacy. The Neo-Freudian analysis of this environment thus succumbs to the mystification of societal relations, and their critique moves only within the firmly sanctioned and well-protected sphere of established institutions. Consequently, the Neo-Freudian critique remains in a strict sense ideological: it has no conceptual basis outside the established system; most of its critical ideas and values are those provided by the system. Idealistic morality and religion celebrate their happy resurrection: the fact that they are embellished with the vocabulary of the very psychology that originally refuted their claim ill conceals their identity with officially desired and advertised attitudes. Moreover, we believe that the most concrete insights into the historical structure of civilization are contained precisely in the concepts that the revisionists reject. Almost the entire Freudian metapsychology, his late theory of the instincts, his reconstruction of the prehistory of mankind belong to these concepts. Freud himself treated them as mere working hypotheses, helpful in elucidating certain obscurities, in establishing tentative links between theoretically unconnected insights — always open to correction, and to be discarded if they no longer facilitated the progress of psychoanalytic theory and practice. In the post-Freudian development of psychoanalysis, this metapsychology has been almost entirely eliminated. As psychoanalysis has become socially and scientifically respectable, it has freed itself from compromising speculations. Compromising they were, indeed, in more than one sense: not only did they transcend the realm of clinical observation and therapeutic usefulness, but also they interpreted man in terms far more offensive to social taboos than Freud’s earlier “pan-sexualism” — terms that revealed the explosive basis of civilization. The subsequent discussion will try to apply the tabooed insights of psychoanalysis (tabooed even in psychoanalysis itself) to an interpretation of the basic trends of civilization.

The purpose of this essay is to contribute to the philosophy of psychoanalysis — not to psychoanalysis itself. It moves exclusively in the field of theory, and it keeps outside the technical discipline which psychoanalysis has become. Freud developed a theory of man, a “psycho-logy” in the strict sense. With this theory, Freud placed himself in the great tradition of philosophy and under philosophical criteria. Our concern is not with a corrected or improved interpretation of Freudian concepts but with their philosophical and sociological implications. Freud conscientiously distinguished his philosophy from his science; the Neo-Freudians have denied most of the former. On therapeutic grounds, such a denial may be perfectly justified. However, no therapeutic argument should hamper the development of a theoretical construction which aims, not at curing individual sickness, but at diagnosing the general disorder.


A few preliminary explanations of terms are necessary:

“Civilization” is used interchangeably with “culture” — as in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

“Repression,” and “repressive” are used in the nontechnical sense to designate both conscious and unconscious, external and internal processes of restraint, constraint, and suppression.

“Instinct,” in accordance with Freud’s notion of Trieb, refers to primary “drives” of the human organism which are subject to historical modification; they find mental as well as somatic representation.