Introduction: Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Contemporary Civilization

  • Douglas Kellner
Part of the Contemporary Social Theory book series


During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse was more widely discussed than any other living philosopher. His criticisms of advanced industrial society and defence of radical politics achieved world-wide impact, and he was acclaimed ‘father of the New Left’.1 Almost alone among contemporary philosophers, Marcuse’s ideas became topics of debate not only in scholarly journals, but in the popular press as well. For instance, an author in the Saturday Evening Post wrote that: ‘Like rock ‘n’ roll and some of the mind-expanding drugs and those movies in which beginning-middle-end come in reverse or spiral or other or no patterns, Marcuse is a stimulant to fantasy and action, not the architect of a system. He is a writer of anthems and manifestos, not the organiser of reality. Thoughtful students are temporary people, bound for elsewhere — an elsewhere that they cannot clearly define. Marcuse tells them that this voyage is freedom, and that in the world to come the perpetual student will be the whole man.’2 Summing up this phenomenon, Paul Breines writes:

Almost overnight the unknown dialectician became, in Fortune’s phrase, the ‘improbable guru of surrealist politics’ and simultaneously evoked the wrath of authorities and authoritarians everywhere. Indeed, it is one of the unique achievements of Marcuse’s work that it has unified California’s right-wing elders, Pravda, liberals such as Irving Howe and Nathan Glazer, the French Communist Party, and, most recently, the Pope in a single chorus of reprobation against the supposed pied piper who has corrupted the minds, morals and manners of the young.3


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Reflecting on Marcuse’s role in the New Left after his death, Ronald Aronson writes: ‘In the 1960’s Marcuse legitimized us. As we broke with the conventional authorities — the parents — all around us, no matter how minimally we understood his words, we found a message of confirmation from this caring but severe figure. One-Dimensional Man expressed how negative, how oppressive was this society that seemed so positive. It broke with the American end-of-ideology smugness intellectually as the Civil Rights movement broke with it politically. Marcuse gave philosophical and historical validation to our inarticulate yet explosive demand for a totally different vision. He made available to us a genuinely alternative intellectual culture, style of thought, and reservoir of ideas and writings’ (from ‘Herbert Marcuse. A Heritage to Build on’, Moving on (Fall 1979) p. 10).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Herbert Gold, ‘California Left. Mao, Marx et Marcuse!’, Saturday Evening Post, 19 October, 1968 p. 59.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Paul Breines, in Critical Interruptions, ed. Paul Breines (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970) p. ix.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Marshall Berman, Partisan Review, XXXI (Fall 1964) p. 617.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On ‘Marcuse as Teacher’, see William Leiss, John David Ober and Erica Sherover in. The Critical Spirit, ed. Kurt H. Wolff and Barrington Moore, Jr (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967) pp. 421–6.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Aptly describing Marcuse’s absorption into the 1960s culture, Martin Jay writes: ‘Through what the French, in a delightful phrase, call ‘la drug-storisation de Marcuse’, he has himself become something of a commodity. No article on the New Left is complete without a ritual mention of his name; no discussion of the ‘counter culture’ dares ignore his message of liberation’. See ‘The Metapolitics of Utopianism’, Dissent, vol. XVII, 4 (1970) p. 342.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The ‘crisis of Marxism’ has been analysed by various Marxist (and non-Marxist) thinkers throughout the century. See the discussion by Karl Korsch in Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory, ed. Douglas Kellner (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1977) and the discussion of various theories of the crisis of Marxism in Alvin W. Gouldner, The Two Marxisms (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Alasdair MacIntyre calls Marcuse a ‘pre-Marxist’ thinker, while various Soviet critics, Maurice Cranston, Hans Holz and others call Marcuse ‘anti-Marxist’ or ‘anarchist’. See Alasdair MacIntyre, Herbert Marcuse: An Exposition and a Polemic (New York: Viking, 1970);Google Scholar
  9. Robert Steigerwald, Herbert Marcuses Dritter Weg (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1969);Google Scholar
  10. Maurice Cranston, ‘Herbert Marcuse’, Encounter 32, 3 (1969) pp. 38–50;Google Scholar
  11. Hans Heinz Holz, Utopie und Anarchismus. Zur Kritik der kritischen Theorie Herbert Marcuses (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1968). Morton Schoolman claims that ‘Max Weber has certainly made the greatest single contribution to Marcuse’s effort’, claiming that Weber’s works, and not Marx, were the decisive theoretical influence on Marcuse. See The Imaginary Witness (New York: Free Press, 1980) pp. 137 and 179ff. Throughout this work, I shall criticize such interpretations by making clear the Marxian roots, methodology, framework and political intentions of Marcuse’s enterprise.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    See Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917 (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).Google Scholar
  13. On the Second International’s schisms in the First World War, see Hartfield Krause, USPD. Zur Geschichte der Unabhängigen Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975).Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Interview with Herbert Marcuse, 28 December 1978 in La Jolla, California.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Marcuse, 5L, pp. 102–3.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    For a similar criticism, see Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason (London: New Left Books, 1975). By ‘orthodox Marxism’ I mean the version of Marxism dominant in the Social Democratic and later Communist parties. Orthodox Marxism, in this usage, is a political-sociological concept which refers to the version of Marxism institutionalized in a political movement, or organization, which dominates its party journals, speeches and textbooks. Such official Marxism is usually dogmatic and rigid, although orthodoxy may change in response to political exigencies. The orthodox Marxism dominant in Marcuse’s early period was that of Social Democrats like Bernstein, Kautsky and Hilferding, and then Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky. As Karl Korsch pointed out in 1930, these versions of Marxism shared certain premises concerning Marxism as a theory of the laws of society and history (‘scientific socialism’), which often took the form of historical determinism. Moreover, orthodox Marxism generally takes the base-superstructure distinction as the key to historical materialism, often leading to economic reductionism. It places a primary emphasis on politics and economics while playing down the importance of culture, philosophy and the subjective dimension, and contains, with some exceptions, hostility towards Hegel and dialectics.Google Scholar
  17. See Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1970) pp. 98ff. On the critiques of orthodox Marxism by Lukács and Korsch, see, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  18. On the critiques of orthodox Marxism by Lukács and Korsch, see, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    Herbert Marcuse, in Men of Ideas, ed. Bryan Magee (London: BBC Publications, 1978). The end of the interview returns to this theme: MAGEE: I’d like to end our discussion by putting to you one or two of the criticisms most commonly made of your work. The most important of all is one that I’ve put to you already: that you are clinging to the thought-categories of a theory which has been falsified, namely Marxism, and that you consequently persist in seeing and describing everything as other than it is. The world you talk about simply is not the one we see around us. It exists only in your thought-structures. Is there anything more you would like to say in answer to that criticism? MARCUSE: I do not believe that Marxian theory has been falsified. The deviation of facts from theory can be explained by the latter itself—by the internal development of its concepts. MAGEE: If all the defects you acknowledge in Marxism do not cause you to abandon it, what would? MARCUSE: Marxian theory would be falsified when the conflict between our ever-increasing social wealth and its destructive use were to be solved within the framework of Capitalism; when the poisoning of the life environment were to be eliminated; when capital could expand in a peaceful way; when the gap between rich and poor were being continuously reduced; when technical progress were to be made to serve the growth of human freedom — and all this, I repeat, within the framework of Capitalism.Google Scholar
  20. For a similar defence of what is still valid in Marxism, see Marcuse’s ‘The Obsolescence of Marxism’, in Marx and the Western World, ed. Nicholas Lobkowics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967) pp. 409–18, discussed below in 8.3.Google Scholar
  21. 14.
    The first studies of Marcuse either grossly oversimplify his thought, reduce it to an easily digestible cultural commodity, or, on the other hand, abruptly dismiss it in polemics that are often politically motivated. They include Robert Marks, The Meaning of Marcuse (New York: Ballantine, 1970)Google Scholar
  22. MacIntyre, Herbert Marcuse: An Exposition; and the right-wing polemic by Eliseo Vivas, Critique of Marcuse (New York: Delta, 1972).Google Scholar
  23. See the impassioned critiques of these and other early books on Marcuse by Paul Piccone in Telos, 3 (Spring 1969) pp. 150–8Google Scholar
  24. Russell Jacoby in Telos, 5 (Spring 1970) pp. 188–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Robin Blackburn in Telos, 6 (Fall 1970) pp. 348–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 15.
    This is true of the best late 1960s/early 1970s studies of Marcuse, such as the articles collected in Jürgen Habermas (ed.) Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968);Google Scholar
  27. Holz, Utopie und Anarchismus; and John Fry, Marcuse — Dilemma and Liberation (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1974). These works — and most of the early articles on Marcuse — focused on One-Dimensional Man or his defence of revolutionary violence just when Marcuse was altering his perspectives on advanced capitalism and social change. See the discussion in Chapter 9.Google Scholar
  28. 16.
    The best studies of Marcuse have focused on his relation to Freud and include Sidney Lipshires, Herbert Marcuse: From Marx to Freud and Beyond (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman, 1974).Google Scholar
  29. Gad Horowitz, Repression. Basic and Surplus Repression in Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud, Reich and Marcuse (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1977). See my annotated bibliography for further comments on the Marcuse literature.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Douglas Kellner 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas Kellner
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Texas at AustinUSA

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