A society threatened by collapse needs to adopt a kind of historical double vision. We must recognise the terminus of our current political trajectory – climate breakdown, mass immiseration, nuclear conflict – without assuming its inevitability or foreclosing alternative scenarios. In our projection of the future, what is probable must coexist with what is possible. This requires a careful synthesis of realist and utopian sensibilities. For the left, it means deflating optimism while rejecting defeatism, countering melancholia with hope and vice versa.
If there is a thinker from the last century who most clearly embodies this ambivalence, it is Herbert Marcuse: the “Father of the New Left” whose writing oscillated from dark reflections on the prison house of late capitalism to dazzling images of its transcendence. His famous depiction of the postwar settlement as a consumerist death spiral, which created the conditions for collective flourishing while thwarting any attempt to realise it, has the same tone of impotent frustration that inflects much commentary on today’s ecocidal order. Yet he also provided a framework for imagining the future as an open and contestable space – a philosophical discourse beyond the end of history. Hence the critical theorist Fredric Jameson’s enthusiastic assertion: “This is certainly the time for a Marcuse revival!”
The pace of the Marcuse publishing industry appears to confirm this point. In recent years we’ve seen several collections of scholarly essays, transcripts of lectures, book-length studies and even a graphic biography – all of which stress his contemporary relevance. The latest text of this revivalist movement is perhaps the most substantial and compelling. Written by a one-time friend and student of Marcuse, Andrew Feenberg’s The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing presents its subject as, among other things, a prophet of 21st-century environmentalism: someone who “would have felt right at home with the school strike and Extinction Rebellion”. Marcuse, Feenberg reminds us, was a trenchant critic of modern scientific rationality and the ecological destruction that it wrought. He was convinced that the domination of man was inseparable from the domination of nature, and that both must be supplanted by a new, post-capitalist ethos – which could only be theorised by venturing outside the Marxian tradition, into existentialism and Freudianism.
The origins of these ideas can be traced back to Marcuse’s early life. The eldest child of a successful Jewish textile-trader, he was born in Berlin in 1898 and received a classical gymnasium-school education before being drafted into military service at the age of 18. Having ruined his eyesight reading the major works of the French and German avant-garde, Marcuse was unable to fight on the front line and was instead stationed at the national Zeppelin Reserves, slipping out every so often to attend lectures at Berlin University. The war radicalised him despite his distance from it. By November 1918 a sailors’ revolt in Kiel had catalysed a wider insurrection against the imperial state, and he was elected to the Reinickendorf soldiers’ council, attending political meetings with the anti-military revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The following month he was dispatched to Alexanderplatz as part of a citizens’ armed security force and ordered to return the fire of counter-revolutionary snipers. “I must have been crazy,” he later said of the experience, noting his relief at returning to his studies once the uprising had been crushed.
For Marcuse, the revolution failed because German working-class consciousness was not sufficiently advanced; Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s strategy relied on a broader cultural shift that had not yet taken place. To forecast what that shift might look like, the young scholar spent the early days of the Weimar Republic hosting bibulous “existential evenings” in his family living-room, discussing the contours of a truly revolutionary subjectivity, informed by modernist poetry and theatre, with Walter Benjamin, Walter Hasenclever, Adrien Turel and occasionally Georg Lukács. After completing his doctorate on 19th-century German literature, he immersed himself in the study of Karl Marx and Friedrich Schiller, searching for a link between the critique of political economy and the realm of sensuous experience. If the former could be rooted in the latter, he contended, then perhaps one could begin to speak of a subjective basis for socialism: a communist theory of man.
[See also: The German history wars]
The breakthrough came in 1927 with the publication of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which Marcuse hailed as “a turning point in the history of philosophy” and submitted to intricate, line-by-line analysis. He sought to politicise Heidegger’s distinction between an “inauthentic” existence – in which one has an unreflective relationship to one’s own life – and “authentic” being, in which one recognises the full range of one’s existential possibilities. For Marcuse, capitalism imposed inauthenticity on most human beings by subordinating them to its abstract laws of economic motion. Authenticity, by contrast, was the capacity to see the latent potential within this historical matrix: the perception that it can be changed through praxis. If the natural and social sciences generally confined themselves to the first domain – studying things as they are – Marxism and phenomenology belonged to the second: seeing things as they could be.
Marcuse was among Heidegger’s small group of advanced students at Freiburg University, yet the pair were forced to go their separate ways in 1932. Marcuse accepted the futility of pursuing an academic career in an increasingly Nazified Germany and relocated to Geneva, taking up an invitation to work with Max Horkheimer’s Frankfurt Institute for Social Research: the neo-Marxian outfit that would soon establish the field of “critical theory”. Heidegger meanwhile became a card-carrying fascist and began peddling Führer-friendly interpretations of his doctrine. (Critics argued this position was inherent in his philosophy, while defenders framed it merely as professional opportunism.) They only crossed paths once more, a decade and a half later, when Marcuse visited his old mentor’s mountain cottage in the Black Forest and extracted a weak admission that joining the Nazi Party had been a “political error”. Yet, as Feenberg shows, Marcuse never abandoned this phenomenological inheritance. He downplayed his debt to Heideggerianism, but it continued to animate his thinking as his fame and influence increased over the following decades.
Feenberg makes this case through a close reading of Marcuse’s essay “The Foundation of Historical Materialism”, written the same year he left Germany. This was the first comprehensive review of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts following their belated discovery and publication. Its implicit argument is that the combined insights of Marx and Heidegger amount to an ontological indictment of capitalism: an analysis of the system which presents it as a negation of humanity itself. Marx starts from the premise that our relationship to nature is defined by need and dependency. But what distinguishes us from other animals is our creative capacity to transform our environment – and invest it with cultural meaning – via the activity of labour. Through this process, which he calls “objectification”, human faculties are imprinted on the artefacts we produce. The subject recognises himself in the object and is thereby reconciled with it. In pre-socialist society, however, the worker’s separation from the means of production precludes such reconciliation. Labour is estranged, circumscribed by the dictates of capital, and man no longer sees himself in his creations. Revolution therefore becomes necessary to supplant alienation with authenticity.
In this sense, capitalism can be said to contradict a fundamental human “essence”. For Feenberg, it was Marcuse’s steadfast belief in this essence – which would unite “the individual with society, human beings with nature, and subject with object” – that made him the most radical Frankfurt School philosopher: the only one to develop a genuinely revolutionary theory. Yet Marcuse was diverted from this task for much of the 1930s and 1940s: first by the Frankfurt institute’s ambitious research programme, then by the Second World War and its aftermath. Upon moving to New York in 1934 he wrote numerous essays for the institute on methods of cultural critique and the intellectual situation in Nazi Germany. Following the outbreak of war, the institute was beset by financial difficulties, and he uprooted once again to Washington DC, where he was hired by the newly established intelligence agencies, whose aim was to understand the German political climate. Marcuse was an unlikely servant of the deep state. Asked to produce a report on German Stimmung (or “morale”), he undertook a satirical “class analysis” of the term, tracking its various iterations across the country’s social hierarchy – much to the bemusement of his colleagues. Although he grew increasingly uncomfortable in the role during the early years of the Truman administration, he stayed put until 1951, conducting impressive if largely ineffectual research on postwar European politics, and attempting to resist the rising tide of anti-communism.
Marcuse returned to his investigation of human ontology with Eros and Civilisation (1955), which marked the first real diffusion of his ideas into the wider culture. To understand the creative force that Marx had identified in the 1844 Manuscripts – the capacity to reshape the external world – he looked to the Freudian drives. The pursuit of the pleasure principle, he claimed, is what defines fulfilling labour and gives meaning to our life-world: “Eros transforms being.” By extension, the criteria for a just society are aesthetic: how much sensuous satisfaction can we derive from our environment? Does it meet the standards of beauty? In this schema, which proposes an erotic unity of man and nature, socialism is modelled not on the blueprints of economic planners but on the work of art. The utopian future would turn artistic labour – whereby creators objectify and recognise themselves in their work – into labour tout court.
Eros and Civilisation reinterpreted Freud to argue that such a social order based on the pleasure principle was feasible, despite the assumption of traditional psychoanalysis that the emancipated libido would shatter social cohesion. The task, for Marcuse, was to defend the open possibilities of erotic experience against the closed and repressive society taking shape in the United States. Yet his next major work outlined the difficulty of that endeavour amid the bureaucratised culture of the early 1960s. One-Dimensional Man (1964) diagnosed consumer capitalism as a warped, oppressive realisation of this erotic dream: its degeneration into a nightmare. Mass production and welfare provision met the needs of the population, and even heightened their pleasures, within a system that impeded liberation. Eros had been released, only to be absorbed and neutralised. “The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged,” he wrote, “but through this satisfaction, the pleasure principle is reduced – deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.”
Of course, no sooner had Marcuse made this bleak assessment (which RD Laing described as “the sad and bitter song of an ageing scholar from old Germany in the New World”) than it was belied by the upheavals of 1968. When the protests broke out, Marcuse was attending a Unesco conference in Paris, accompanied by Feenberg. Unaware that a media campaign had already cast him as the “idol” of the movement, he soon found himself mobbed by hordes of journalists and disciples. Street marchers began to unfurl banners bearing the slogan “Marx, Mao, Marcuse!”. He travelled the continent giving improvised speeches to packed lecture halls, praising the “new sensibility” of the students – a spirit of liberation had smashed through the one-dimensional condition – yet warning against the kind of revolutionary overreach he had witnessed in Germany 50 years earlier.
His stardom elicited a ferocious backlash from the right. Pope Paul VI accused him of popularising an “anarchistic and nihilistic delusion”. He received death threats, along with ominous letters from the Ku Klux Klan and Minutemen. His graduate students decided to stand guard at his house throughout the night and asked a non-student friend to sit in on his lectures with a gun, “just in case”. He was ultimately forced out of his job at the University of California in order to appease Governor Ronald Reagan, who claimed he was unfit to teach.
Marcuse’s reception in some quarters of the left was also scathing. The Soviet newspaper Pravda denounced him as a “false prophet”. The American philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya argued that by assuming “the new forms of control have indeed succeeded in containing workers’ revolt”, he had accepted the illusory self-image of bourgeois society. And the Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn castigated him for retreating from the scientific analysis of late capitalism – its concrete fissures, forces, contradictions – into a naive “metaphysical humanism”. Marcuse, though, was disinclined to reply to his critics. He spent his final years criss-crossing the Atlantic: attending conferences, praising the emergent forms of feminism and ecologism, and tirelessly supporting the work of activists, until his death in 1979.
How do such appraisals hold up when evaluating his oeuvre today? For a philosopher concerned with the future, Marcuse was uniquely bad at predicting it. As late as 1939 he was confident there would be no war in Europe; he was blindsided by the student movement with which he became associated; and his description of the industrial welfare state as an unassailable fortress failed to anticipate its ruination under neoliberalism. The reasons for his poor foresight were summarised by Therborn. Rather than attempting a “positive identification of the structures of the capitalist social formation, or of the forces within it capable of transforming that social formation”, Marcuse merely juxtaposed the essence of man to the essence of advanced capitalism. To Marcuse’s detractors, this was the mistake that Hegel made and Marx corrected: seeing history as a series of abstractions rather than a complex totality. It left Marcuse unable to account for fractures within the ruling class or possible points of resistance. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, the one-dimensionality thesis seemed embarrassingly dated. Far from sating desires and expanding satisfactions, the financialised state had abandoned significant parts of its population to poverty. The production of what Marcuse called “false needs” was supplanted by an austerity regime indifferent to needs of any kind – generating an array of populist reactions from the proletarian classes whom he had summarily written off.
However, when considering Marcuse’s 21st-century relevance, the present conjuncture may not be as straightforward as the neoliberal zenith. The dogma of laissez-faire remains strong, but it faces two primary challengers: to its left, a more progressive state interventionism that aims to mitigate climate change, increase welfare provision and improve employment prospects; to its right, a poisonous nativism that pledges to protect the homeland and the nuclear family from the levelling effects of unchecked markets. The US party-political landscape is now defined by these contrasting visions, manifest in the clash between Bidenism and Trumpism. Both can be understood, in Marcuse’s terms, as an attempt to reassimilate the social groups whose libidinal investment in capitalism has been severed. If Eros is repressed under the status quo, the system’s competing successors hope to release it once again, either by exhuming social democracy or indulging the most violent forms of pleasure-seeking, or some mixture of the two.
The left, having seen its prospects fade over the past 40 years, is naturally tempted to embrace one of these alternatives. Some of its partisans have aligned themselves with the supposedly conservative cultural values of the white working class. Others have welcomed Bidenism with open arms, foregoing the horizon of socialism and satisfying themselves with social democracy. Reading Marcuse in 2023 is perhaps the best antidote to these twin poles of capitulation.
His theory of the human essence provides a critical standard by which to judge both types of post-neoliberal politics – neither of which offers a solution to alienation, nor a genuine fulfilment of the pleasure principle. It shows up the gulf between an authentic existence, based on a creative relationship with the outside world, and a condition in which that world appears strange and hostile, because it is owned and dominated by elites. Contra Therborn, there is nothing metaphysical about this concept of the essence. It emerges from lived subjective experience: the realm carefully parsed by phenomenology.
Here, Feenberg’s example of climate policy is apposite. The vogue for incentivising green capital, represented by Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, will surely help to curb emissions. But to achieve the Marcusean reconciliation of subject and object, something drastically different is needed: not the empowerment of environmentally conscious investors, but the reorientation of our economic and political structures towards participatory ecological planning. Aesthetic harmony with nature demands more than tax breaks for Tesla.
If this scale of change sounds unlikely, that is perhaps another reason for Marcuse’s timeliness. His philosophy, much like our era, is characterised by the absence of revolutionary agents. Despite his strident support for the ideals of the student revolt, he emphasised that the First World was a long way from actualising them thanks to its sophisticated means of containing dissent: “Everything can be co-opted, everything can be digested.” This was partly what gave his prose its distinctive, bittersweet cadence: he could identify the fragments of a better future that existed within the present, without overstating their ability to transform it. His critics were correct that his utopian imaginary often overshot his immediate circumstances, which he sketched somewhat impressionistically, without the rigour of a scientific socialist. He therefore struggled to pinpoint the trends and actors that could bring about a historical rupture. But Marcuse’s theory of man nonetheless exposed a chasm between the real and the possible. His contemporary legatees must keep it open.
[See also: The prophet of post-fascism]