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 to sympathize with the author’s aims. (On one point at least, the critique of positivism, this sympathy extends to the method as well.)

One-Dimensional Man is several things, but above all it is a challenge to the official ideology of present-day Western society. This theme is developed by way of analysis of certain prevalent beliefs, e.g., the belief in the neutrality of science; but it also entails a critical examination of the manner in which this society actually operates (at any rate in the United States). The political and sociological chapters are heavily dependent on the work of C. Wright Mills, whose “vital importance” to Marcuse’s own analysis is duly stressed in the Introduction. The more strictly philosophical topics are developed along the lines of an argument already foreshadowed in Eros and Civilization. The criterion here is human happiness, and its denial by a repressive culture which takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. Modern technology has made us all potentially richer, and actually poorer—by eroding individual conformity, even by ruining the country-side. This state of affairs—which is held to correspond to the mounting irrationality of politics and the arms race—finds its ideological justification in what Marcuse calls “positive thinking and its neo-positivist philosophy.” A chapter is devoted to the demolition of Wittgenstein and his successors. The target here is not merely the emptiness of the fashionable philosophical jargon, and the frequently asinine character of the hair-splitting that goes on among linguistic analysts, but the divorce of factual from value judgments. For all his commitment to Marx and Freud (or Marx plus Freud), Marcuse is basically in the metaphysical tradition. His defense of philosophy against positivism turns upon the proposition that the truth about the human situation is discovered by going beyond the conceptual limits of empirical thinking.

Lastly—as a by-product of his insistent critique of the status quo upheld by the current conformism—the book also involves a consideration of what is usually called the Cold War. This last is not, in my judgment, the most successful part of the book, and there are aspects of it which will, I fear, cause some eyebrow-raising even among people well disposed to the author’s general purpose. It is not, for example, altogether clear whether he approves of the rise in living standards that has enabled the working class in advanced industrial countries to climb out of its former sub-human existence. He does not of course adhere to the usual mischievous line that this achievement has taken place at the expense of the backward countries; but it is questionable whether he appreciates how great (and how recent) an achievement it is: also that it is the pre-condition of all further political and social advance along democratic lines. Some of his observations could be read as an implied reproach to the modern working class for having ceased to be a proletariat in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. As the inhabitant of an old industrial country with a socialist movement of considerable political maturity, I am bound to say that these hints leave me cold. I do not see why the British (or any other) working class should have to apologize for having built itself a tolerable existence. It has done so by creating a vast productive apparatus and then obliging the legal owners thereof to part with a share of the profits. This collective appropriation of what Marxists call surplus-value—far beyond the bare subsistence minimum paid to the classical proletariat of early “liberal” capitalism—is the crux of the matter. And though Marcuse does not so much as mention it, it is a matter of importance to every modern socialist.

This point is connected with another weakness—as it seems to me—of Marcuse’s analysis which has some bearing upon his pessimistic view of the Cold War. He is, I think, unduly unconcerned about political forms. One understands his dislike of the reckless use made of the term “totalitarian,” but it simply will not do to eliminate it altogether (or to muddle its meaning by suggesting that it is “the way it has organized its technological base” that causes “contemporary industrial society” to develop totalitarian tendencies). If by “communism” is meant the political regime in the Soviet orbit—and what else can it mean?—then its antithesis is not “capitalism” (as it seems to be for Marcuse) but either “democracy” or “fascism,” or some other political concept. For even if it were the case that modern society is potentially totalitarian by its very nature, the fact remains that it has so far assumed this shape (if one excepts the unsuccessful fascist experiments) only on one side of the great divide. This awkward circumstance is blurred in Marcuse’s analysis. “Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism,” he writes, “but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a ‘pluralism’ of parties, newspapers, ‘countervailing powers,’ etc.” I confess that I am unable to assign any political meaning to this statement. It seems to be self-contradictory, and in its bland disregard of the “specific system of production” which underlies the Soviet regime, a trifle disingenuous as well.

The Cold War is an area in which philosophers have difficulty keeping their balance, if only because they cannot always be quite up to date with their facts. In reading Marcuse’s reflections on the subject, one is conscious of a tendency to make too much of the dialectical antithesis between the two types of society now confronting each other. The evident bi-polarity of world politics in our era promotes an inclination to think in terms of basic antagonisms. We are then all the more surprised (though the Chinese are not) when all of a sudden the USA and the USSR show a tendency to get together. A different kind of misunderstanding may arise from the way in which “peaceful coexistence” (or what passes for such) is verbalized by politicians who have to explain it to the folks at home. Because there is rivalry between the two super-powers, it is tempting to suppose that they must be getting more alike. In some ways they are, in others not. They are not, I think, moving any closer as regards living conditions. Just because Khrushchev is fond of talking about “catching up with America,” we must not make the mistake of thinking that he is actually capable of promoting such a development. The evidence is against it. Certainly few economists believe that the Soviet Union is going to catch up with the United States in this century. It may catch up in steel production; but there are many things in life—even in economic life—besides steel. There is, for example, the little matter of food and clothing. There is also the accumulated deadweight of rural backwardness, which in the USSR still affects half the population. Russia is indeed advancing fast—from a very low level. Talk of catching up with America is moonshine; it is certainly not a matter for this generation. If by 1980 the Russians have caught up with Yugoslavia (unlikely on present form), they will have done a great deal—more perhaps than can reasonably be expected. Personally I do not believe they will: I think it is going to take longer. Moreover, by the time they have got there, the West will have moved on, and the contrast between the two worlds may have become more pronounced.

Economics of course is not the whole of life, but the political and intellectual gulf between the USSR and the West (there is no point in dragging the backward countries in: comparisons would be unfair to them) is even wider than the economic. Marcuse does not, I think, quite succeed in coming to grips with the realities of political and ideological control in the Soviet orbit. For all his realism about the nature of the regime, he tends to see only different gradations of unfreedom in comparison with the more fortunate West. But the disparities are qualitative, not quantitative. The difference between limited freedom and total suppression is fundamental, as is that between limited sense and utter nonsense. “In both camps, non-operational ideas are non-behavioral and subversive,” he writes. This is arguable, but “The movement of thought is stopped at barriers which appear as the limits of Reason itself” seems rather ambiguous. We do not get a sense here that not so long ago “the movement of thought was stopped” over there by the wholesale physical liquidation of an entire generation of intellectuals.

It is not clear to this reviewer whether the author of Soviet Marxism has revised his previous unfavorable estimate of the cultural climate in the USSR. In his latest work he is anyhow concerned with the United States, and his critique of the official ideology—for it is of course an ideology, though its spokesmen claim to have no use for such constructs—is largely influenced by the work of the late C. Wright Mills. This is not a safe topic for Europeans. The outsider can only register our impression that to some American writers (for of course Mills was not the only one) there appears to be a serious danger that democracy may collapse. Whether this is actually so I have no idea. I am fairly certain it is not going to happen in Britain (or any other part of Western Europe that matters), and I fancy that much of what Marcuse has to say about the spread of political conformism, and incipient thought control via the mass media, is a specifically American phenomenon, rather than something inherent in the character of modern industrial society. One’s own impression, for what it is worth, is that Britain at any rate is both a freer and a more democratic country than it was a generation ago. I suspect that what the United States chiefly needs in this generation is not a new national ideology, but a Labor party. If unemployment creeps up, and if the Negroes go on pushing for equal rights, it may even get one by 1980. It will of course be “reformist,” and may on that account disappoint some people, but on the other hand it may turn out to be the “countervailing factor” that is currently missing. If this should happen, a lot of minor problems are going to be solved by the way.

But to get back to the confrontation between the two worlds: Mills—on whom Marcuse relies perhaps a shade too much—had some hard things to say about academic conformism and the built-in limitations of Parsonian “grand theory”; but after all he did get his ideas across, even within the Establishment. A Russian Mills (supposing such a being to be possible) would not merely be unable to get his views published: he would not find anyone to talk to. There simply is not in the USSR anything that corresponds to what we in the West (or for that matter intelligent Marxists in Poland and Hungary) mean by critical thinking. It is not merely that Western sociology is banned: there is no Marxist sociology either. In fact there is no Marxism. What passes for such is a debased Populism that employs the national-socialist “folk-and-soil” vocabulary in a manner reminiscent of the Third Reich. It is this intellectual nullity—not the incompatibility of rival philosophies—that makes debate across the hermetically sealed political frontier so difficult. For all the post-Stalin changes, the pays légal is still limited to a few hundred semi-literate apparatchiks and their hangers-on. What can “co-existence” mean in such circumstances, and what difference would it make if we all followed Marcuse’s advice and became more self-critical? The real block to understanding arises quite simply from the intellectual incapacity of the other side.

I have perhaps dwelt too long on a theme whose intrinsic importance is not so great as it looks, for one must not mix up political and philosophical considerations. Viewed from the outside, the two camps look increasingly alike to the real have nots: the tiers monde. Hence the casual fashion in which Indians, Chinese, and others speculate the chances of the USA and the USSR blowing each other to bits. This is unlikely to happen, for self-preservation is a powerful motive-force, but if by mischance it did happen, there would be precious few tears shed in the “underdeveloped” part of the world. Why then base one’s analysis on an increasingly unreal competition for global control, which each side in its heart already knows to be unattainable? The coming problems of world society are going to be pretty much the same on both sides of the divide—if there is no catastrophe: As to which no prediction is possible.

This last indeed is the gravamen of Marcuse’s charge: the world in which we live is irrational. But the irrationality is not the particular property of a society in which effective social control is not exercised from the center. In the USSR there is such control, and the reigning irrationality is even greater: largely because the official ideology has an unchallengeable monopoly, so that everything depends on a handful of politicians seeing the light, whereas in our part of the world one can still rely on the sanity of the average citizen, however ignorant and confused by the media. Moreover, it is questionable whether the nuclear sword suspended over our heads is really the true symbol of technical civilization gone mad. It is a plausible notion, and Marcuse makes the most of it, for which no one need blame him; but the idea is not self-evident to people living outside our culture. The fact is that being blown up is less disagreeable than starving to death, or watching one’s children starve: a common occurrence over large tracts of the globe. For most people it is still a question of crawling out of the sub-human existence they have led until quite recently. Our problems are not theirs, and we cannot share our worries with them. Most of these people would give their right arm for the privilege of being allowed to inhabit our comfortable madhouse, and if the whole gorgeous farce should come to a sudden and dramatic end for us, the spectators are going to cheer. I do not say that this is a reason for not worrying. There is every cause for worry, and philosophers do right to remind us that we have created a world which may come crashing down on our heads. But it is precisely this civilization, and no other, which will have to solve the problem of what Marcuse calls the “pacification of existence.” There is nothing to hope for from the backward countries, now engaged in a race to copy our follies. The society which has created the new technology will have to live or die with it, and if it wants to live, it will have to transcend its present imbecilities, of which national sovereignty and war are the greatest.

The problem of effecting this kind of transcendence in an increasingly conformist and seemingly rational society, which is progressively doing away with the class struggle in its old form, is at the core of Marcuse’s analysis. It leads him to an interesting discussion of the social changes flowing from automation and the growth of technical rationality in general. What he calls “one-dimensional” thinking is one aspect of the growing domination of technology over the individual. While I am not happy about his distinction between a “pre-technological” and “technological” era (primitive technology could be pretty crushing and brutalizing—think of Chinese canals and Egyptian pyramids!), it is undeniable that there has been a qualitative change, whereby the sheer size and complexity of the apparatus threatens to overwhelm the producers. Along with this goes a widening gap between the controllers at the top of the new hierarchy, and the “personnel” at the base.

The point for a socialist is that mechanization increasingly does away with the input of sheer human physical energy: what is commonly called labor. This has implications for theory, as well as for the political strategy of movements which have to attract white-collar support if they do not want to lose ground. (Parenthetically, this is the main problem of Communist parties in countries like France and Italy, which are only now becoming genuinely modern.) As industry develops its scientific potential, the direct exploitation of living labor becomes a marginal phenomenon, and the working class shrinks in relative size. None of this was wholly unforeseen: As Marcuse rightly points out, Marx predicted it over a century ago. He seems to have believed, though, that a state of affairs where “human labor, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth,” was not likely to come about under capitalism. The discovery that it can happen (though not under “free,” unplanned, nineteenth-century capitalism) is the new element in the situation.

This is connected with another development that has altered the traditional socialist picture, namely the steady rise in real wages, at any rate for those in regular employment. Assuming that full employment can be secured—admittedly a large assumption for the United States, though quite reasonable in Western Europe, where public planning and the “mixed economy” have come to stay—the conjunction of these factors eliminates the notion that the change-over to a truly rational order must pass through a political revolution: In fact it is likely to come about by agreement. This is so not only because economic planning is clearly rational and beneficial, but because organized labor is now strong enough to force it through by peaceful means: a possibility already envisaged by “revisionist” socialists early in this century, though for understandable reasons not before that date. Even now the division of the national “cake” takes the form of a share-out in which labor secures part of what Marx called “surplus-value”; for when things like cars and refrigerators come to be included in the “customary standard of living,” it is no longer a matter of people being on a subsistence standard. This does not mean that exploitation (in the Marxian sense) comes to an end, or that the working class becomes a “middle class” (the “middle” position is now in fact occupied by the white-collar element, with the technological intelligentsia at its core). It does mean that the working class ceases to be a “proletariat,” since it is part of the definition of this term that wage-earners are permanently held down to a mere subsistence level. Hence no socialist in an advanced country can any longer seriously contemplate the kind of political action that is still open to the poor and the exploited in the pre-industrial hinterland. There are of course still the unemployed and those racial minorities who by tacit consent are not included in the “affluent society.” But plainly this can only be a matter of time, at any rate, if democracy is allowed to do its work. And when this final integration has been achieved, who is going to man the barricades?

The relevance of this topic to Marcuse’s argument in the earlier chapters of his book has to do with his insistent stress upon the dangers inherent in what he describes as the “containment” of potential rebellion against a welfare state which is also a warfare state. “Hatred and frustration are deprived of their specific target, and the technological veil conceals the reproduction of inequality and enslavement,” as he puts it. Elsewhere he asks almost despairingly: “Is there any prospect that this chain of growing productivity and repression may be broken?” The danger, as he sees it, is that—labor having been tamed—there will be no one left to challenge the basic irrationality of the system. The latter “tends toward both total administration and total dependence on administration by ruling public and private managements, strengthening the pre-established harmony between the interest of the big public and private corporations and that of their customers and servants.”

Yet he also suggests that the system produces its own corrective. “Automation, once it became the process of material production, would revolutionize the whole society. The reification of human labor power, driven to perfection, would shatter the reified form by cutting the chain that ties the individual to the machinery—the mechanism through which his own labor enslaves him…. This would be the historical transcendence toward a new civilization.” I suppose most socialists, and possibly some liberals, would accept this, just as they would accept his remarks on the kind of rationalization that merely strengthens the hold of established authorities. Where they might differ is in being more hopeful about structural change coming about, quite peacefully and democratically, because people—specifically wage-earners and salaried people generally—quite simply want such change to happen. On the basis of European experience, this does not seem at all unlikely.

One must not be facetious about the prospect of a completely integrated and seemingly harmonious society, which yet lacks the ultimate rationality of being consciously committed to humane and peaceful purposes. It is possible—though unlikely—that a permanent consensus is going to be established which eliminates effective social protest before the threat of total destruction has been banished. Personally I doubt it. I am inclined to think that the forces making for effective “pacification” of existence will go hand in hand with those that promote real democracy. Conversely, dissatisfaction will be kept alive by the patent failure of the unregulated market economy to guarantee full employment (not to mention various cultural amenities, or the disappearance of blatant racial discrimination). Integrating the proletariat (white and colored) is a test that is going to strain democracy to its limits. The society that emerges from the successful accomplishment of this task is not going to be one that can easily be confused by the beneficiaries of an arms economy.

I have left myself no space to deal at any length with what is perhaps the most important part of Marcuse’s work: his defense of traditional philosophy against positivist scientism. Here the reviewer agrees so completely with the author that it may be sufficient to indicate the main lines of the argument. Briefly they amount to a restatement of those “value judgments” that are inherent in the very exercise of critical thinking: to reason is to commit oneself to belief in the importance of Reason, with all that follows from this. The disappearance of this dimension—where it has occurred—is truly a social menace, as well as a cultural impoverishment. By eliminating any thought of transcendence, positivism implicitly sanctions the status quo with all its built-in absurdities. The corruption of thought and language inherent in much of modern philosophy and sociology—a moral corruption as well as an intellectual one—is the subject of some of Marcuse’s most trenchant pages. They should be pondered even by those who cannot follow him in all his political judgments.

The loss of the philosophical dimension (whatever the motives that originally prompted it) leads to an absence of the historical dimension, and a consequent foreshortening of political perspectives. As Marcuse rightly says, this is not a party matter: the “old style” of political discourse is to be found in conservatives like Tocqueville and Burckhardt, and in liberals like Mill, as well as in Marx. Conversely, the jargon of contemporary scientism is subversive of all political philosophy and in the end of Reason as such. No doubt a price had to be paid in centuries past for the emancipation of science from theology and metaphysics; but the process has now got out of hand, and the threatened institution of a purely scientific world-view—along with a technological universe that has forgotten its own raison d’être—is a real danger. I merely question whether it is any more pressing in the West than in the East. The cult of “social engineering” has its “communist” counterpart, as does the humanist revolt against it.

A more basic difficulty (which can only be mentioned in passing) concerns the relation of this kind of philosophical critique to its roots in classical metaphysics. Historically, the kind of thinking that lies at the root of Hegel’s philosophy—and it is to Hegel (plus Marx) that Marcuse is ultimately working back—precedes the distinction between factual and value judgments. Both were perceived in a single act of intellectual intuition, which at the same time fixed the timeless essence of things, and therewith the criterion for distinguishing between Reality and Appearance. In the history of European thought, Hegel is the last great representative of this tradition, some elements of which survived in Marx (though not in what is usually called Marxism). It is conceivable that we have now come to the end of the counter-movement, and that the patent sterility of the prevailing positivist orthodoxy will promote a renewed attempt to unify (philosophical) theory and (political) practice: in other words, that men will once again try to realize the Good. One is bound to skeptical, though, about the notion that this can be done (even in thought) on the basis of extrapolating from historical tendencies and possibilities. It seems more likely that the first step in the new direction will take the form of a decision to have nothing further to do with History and its decrees.

This qualification is not subversive of a humanism that seeks its justification in the fulfillment of actual (material and spiritual) needs, but it does involve a reconsideration of the status of guiding principles or Ideas as (distinct from mere ideals). In an interesting chapter on “negative thinking,” Marcuse casually alludes to the “totalitarian universe of technological rationality” as “the latest transmutation of the idea of Reason.” Now an “idea” which can transmute itself into a material universe of social relations is clearly something rather different from a mere “ideology.”

In fact Marcuse traces the effective “logic of domination” in society back to its primary source—in logic itself; that is, in the primary separation of Logos from Eros, intellect from feeling, functional manipulation from Intuition of Essence to use (Santayana’s term). “Technological man” is seen to have emerged as the end product of a lengthy process which had its origin in the establishment of abstract generalization as the prevailing mode of experiencing the world. “Dialectical logic,” which implicitly corrects this one-sidedness, does so by “denying the concreteness of immediate experience.” This experience is shown to be incomplete, self-contradictory, and potentially related to a historic possibility that transcends a world “where Reason is still Unreason, and the irrational still the rational.” What “immediate experience” shows us is the need to master the realm of nature.

But there are two kinds of mastery: a repressive and a liberating one. The latter involves the reduction of misery, violence and cruelty. In Nature as well as in History, the struggle for existence is the token of scarcity, suffering and want. They are the qualities of blind matter, of the realm of immediacy in which life passively suffers its existence. This realm is gradually mediated in the course of the historical transformation of Nature…History is the negation of Nature. What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason. The metaphysical notion that Nature comes to itself in history points to the unconquered limits of Reason.

(All this is in the tradition of German Idealism and of Marx, whose scattered observations on the subject carry unmistakable echoes of a Schillerian pathos that counterposes Mind to brute creation). But is it rationality that makes us (or some of us) wince at certain spectacles? In a finely worded passage Marcuse protests against the theological notion that animals have no claim on our sympathy because they have have no “souls”:

Materialism, which is not tainted by such ideological abuse of the soul, has a more universal and realistic concept of salvation. It admits the reality of Hell only at one definite place, here on earth, and asserts that this Hell was created by Man (and by Nature). Part of this Hell is the ill-treatment of animals—the work of a human society whose rationality is still the irrational.

What lies beyond the instinctive brutality of Nature is here called Reason, though idealists are more likely to call it Spirit. Perhaps common ground can be found in saying that the “negation of Nature” which philosophy demands is at any rate not decreed by History, merely a historical possibility among others. Is it going to be realized? It is the measure of Marcuse’s achievement that he has written a book which raises this kind of question.


One-Dimensional Man March 19, 1964

One-Dimensional Man March 19, 1964