On Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse
Herbert Marcuse; drawing by David Levine

At the end of One Dimensional Man Marcuse saw only one chance of revolutionary protest, and that was “nothing but a chance.” The chance was that “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and unemployable” might turn to radical action. This would involve a meeting of “the most advanced consciousness of humanity and its most exploited force.” But the “critical theory” of society expounded by Marcuse can give us no grounds for predicting that this will happen; indeed it is of the essence of his critical theory that it cannot predict. So Marcuse in 1964.

In 1969 in An Essay on Liberation,* which professes to develop further the ideas of Eros and Civilization and of One Dimensional Man, the perspective has changed. Utopia is actually at hand, its possibilities inherent in the technology of the advanced societies. What then prevents its presence? Not just forms of political organization. The rational reorganization of society and the establishment of genuine collective control by the working class would not abolish domination. We cannot take as our political maxim “To each according to his needs” because what stands in the way of Utopia are precisely the needs which men possess at the moment. These needs must undergo a “qualitative change” if men are to be liberated. Marcuse now aspires to provide a biological basis for his theory. His biology is in fact as speculative as his metaphysics, and Marcuse explicitly disavows any scientific basis for his speculations. This does not however lead him to be less than dogmatic in his mode of assertion:

Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected—it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior; the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society.

This view is used as the basis for a political theory in which the implied elitism of One Dimensional Man is made fully explicit. Human nature is infinitely malleable. The human nature of those who inhabit advanced industrial societies has been so molded that their very needs and aspirations have become conformist—except for a minority, which includes Marcuse. The majority cannot voice their true needs, for they cannot perceive or feel them. The minority must therefore voice their needs for them; this active minority must rescue the necessarily passive majority. This passive majority includes the working class, even the new technically skilled working class. “This ‘new working class,’ by virtue of its position, could disrupt, reorganize, and redirect the mode and relationships of production. However, they have neither the interest nor the vital need to do so: they are well integrated and well rewarded.”…

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