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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.

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