The Threat of History

The 1950s are disappearing from view, almost from memory. They turn out to have been an interlude between two periods of social strain and corresponding unrest. The Cold War may be getting less dangerous, but there is no let-up politically, and as for the “end of ideology,” we shall soon have seen the end of that illusion! Western society turns out to be less “affluent” than we had supposed, and whatever the degree of material comfort it has secured for itself, there is a hungry colored world on its threshold: waiting to be helped, threatening to break out in destructive rebellion against the privileged minority who (in Afro-Asian eyes may already have come to include the Russians).

These stresses, and the intellectual problems to which they give rise, are reflected in Professor Marcuse’s new book, whose somewhat puzzling title should not mislead anyone into mistaking it for yet another essay on Alienation. There is no extended discussion of this fashionable theme, though it is never far from the surface. The author is at home in sociology, and ready enough to particularize. An eloquent tract for the times, his work is also a stimulating piece of socio-political analysis. Since in what follows I am going to be critical, I had better begin by saying that it is an important book: both for the sake of its theme and because it comes to grip with fundamentals, in a manner likely to stir the academic community to its shallow depths. Contemptuous of the accepted fossilized departmentalism, Marcuse ranges from metaphysics to politics and back again. Conventional wisdom suggests that philosophy is irrelevant to the conduct of public affairs. On Marcuse’s showing, it is rather the thinking epitomized in this belief that stands in the way of insight. Here is an author who defines his theme in the grand manner, and yet is sensitively aware of the mechanical grind that makes up the life of the average citizen. If there is no “misplaced concreteness” in these tightly reasoned arguments, there is no evasion of empirical reality either. The analysis of abstract concepts, and the discussion of political problems, come together—as they should in the work of a Marxist.

For it is a Marxist analysis that is offered here, though several light-years removed from what this term signifies east of what it is perhaps no longer fashionable to call the Iron Curtain. The proper terms of comparison are suggested by names like Sartre, Lefebvre, Adorno, perhaps the early Lukacs. This is a tradition which hitherto has had little impact in the English-speaking world, though in Britain (where the reviewer has come to feel at home) it is now associated with the New Left. As a contribution to the American discussion of neo-Marxism, or democratic socialism, or whatever one wants to call it, Marcuse’s book has the value of a portent. Here it is merely proposed to discuss its main thesis, and if the following observations are largely critical, this is not because the reviewer fails…

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