Herbert Marcuse (German: [maʀˈkuːzə]; July 19, 1898 – July 29, 1979) was a German-American philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist, associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Born in Berlin, Marcuse studied at the universities of Berlin and then at Freiburg, where he received his Ph.D. He was a prominent figure in the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research – what later became known as the Frankfurt School. He was married to Sophie Wertheim (1924–1951), Inge Neumann (1955–1972), and Erica Sherover (1976–1979). In his written works, he criticized capitalism, modern technology, historical materialism and entertainment culture, arguing that they represent new forms of social control.
After his studies, in the late 1960s and the 1970s he became known as the preeminent theorist of the New Left and the student movements of Germany, France, and the United States. Between 1943 and 1950, Marcuse worked in U.S. Government Service, which helped form the basis of his book Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (1958). Celebrated as the "Father of the New Left", his best known works are Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964). His Marxist scholarship inspired many radical intellectuals and political activists in the 1960s and 1970s, both in the United States and internationally.
Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin, to Carl Marcuse and Gertrud Kreslawsky. His family was Jewish. In 1916 he was drafted into the German Army, but only worked in horse stables in Berlin during World War I. He then became a member of a Soldiers' Council that participated in the aborted socialist Spartacist uprising. He completed his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Freiburg in 1922 on the German Künstlerroman after which he moved back to Berlin, where he worked in publishing. In 1924 he married Sophie Wertheim, a mathematician. He returned to Freiburg in 1928 to study with Edmund Husserl and write a Habilitation with Martin Heidegger, which was published in 1932 as Hegel's Ontology and Theory of Historicity (Hegels Ontologie und die Theorie der Geschichtlichkeit). This study was written in the context of the Hegel renaissance that was taking place in Europe with an emphasis on Hegel's ontology of life and history, idealist theory of spirit and dialectic. With his academic career blocked by the rise of the Third Reich, in 1933 Marcuse joined the Institut Für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), popularly known as the Frankfurt School, in 1932. He went almost at once into exile with them, first briefly in Geneva, then in the United States. Unlike some others, Marcuse did not return to Germany after the war, and when he visited Frankfurt in 1956, the young Jürgen Habermas was surprised to discover that he was a key member of the Institute.
In 1933, Marcuse published his first major review, of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In this review, Marcuse revised the interpretation of Marxism, from the standpoint of the works of the early Marx. This review helped the world see that Marcuse was becoming one of the most promising theorists of his generation.
While a member of the Institute of Social Research, Marcuse developed a model for critical social theory, created a theory of the new stage of state and monopoly capitalism, described the relationships between philosophy, social theory, and cultural criticism, and provided an analysis and critique of German fascism. Marcuse worked closely with critical theorists while at the Institute.
Emigration to the United States
After emigrating from Germany in 1933, Marcuse immigrated to the United States in 1934, where he became a citizen in 1940. Although he never returned to Germany to live, he remained one of the major theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, along with Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (among others). In 1940 he published Reason and Revolution, a dialectical work studying G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx.
World War II
During World War II, Marcuse first worked for the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) on anti-Nazi propaganda projects. In 1943, he transferred to the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Directed by the Harvard historian William L. Langer, the Research and Analysis Branch was in fact the biggest American research institution in the first half of the twentieth century. At its zenith between 1943 and 1945, it comprised over twelve hundred employees, four hundred of whom were stationed abroad. In many respects, it was the site where post–World War II American social science was born, with protégés of some of the most esteemed American university professors, as well as a large contingent of European intellectual émigrés, in its ranks.
These men comprised the "theoretical brain trust" of the American war machine, which, according to its founder, William J. Donovan, would function as a "final clearinghouse" for the secret services—that is, as a structure that, although not engaged in determining war strategy or tactics, would be able to assemble, organize, analyze, and filter the immense flow of military information directed toward Washington, thanks to the unique capacity of the specialists on hand to interpret the relevant sources.
In March 1943, Marcuse joined his fellow Frankfurt School scholar Franz Neumann in R8cA's Central European Section as senior analyst and rapidly established himself as "the leading analyst on Germany.
After the dissolution of the OSS in 1945, Marcuse was employed by the U.S. Department of State as head of the Central European section, retiring after the death of his first wife in 1951.
In 1952, Marcuse began a teaching career as a political theorist, first at Columbia University, then at Harvard University. Marcuse worked at Brandeis University from 1958 to 1965, then at the University of California, San Diego until his retirement. It was during his time at Brandeis University that he wrote his most famous work, One-Dimensional Man (1964).
He was a friend and collaborator of the political sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr. and of the political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, and also a friend of the Columbia University sociology professor C. Wright Mills, one of the founders of the New Left movement.
In the post-war period, Marcuse rejected the theory of class struggle and the Marxist concern with labor, instead claiming, according to Leszek Kołakowski, that since "all questions of material existence have been solved, moral commands and prohibitions are no longer relevant". He regarded the realization of man's erotic nature as the true liberation of humanity, which inspired the utopias of Jerry Rubin and others.
Marcuse's critiques of capitalist society (especially his 1955 synthesis of Marx and Freud, Eros and Civilization, and his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man) resonated with the concerns of the student movement in the 1960s. Because of his willingness to speak at student protests, Marcuse soon became known as "the father of the New Left in the United States", a term he strongly disliked and disavowed. His work heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. He had many speaking engagements in the US and Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s. He became a close friend and inspirer of the French philosopher André Gorz.
Marcuse defended the arrested East German dissident Rudolf Bahro (author of Die Alternative: Zur Kritik des real existierenden Sozialismus [trans., The Alternative in Eastern Europe]), discussing in a 1979 essay Bahro's theories of "change from within".
The New Left and radical politics
Many radical scholars and activists were influenced by Marcuse, such as Norman O. Brown, Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, Abbie Hoffman, Rudi Dutschke, and Robert M. Young. (See the List of Scholars and Activists link, below.) Among those who critiqued him from the left were Marxist-humanist Raya Dunayevskaya, fellow German emigre Paul Mattick, both of whom subjected One-Dimensional Man to a Marxist critique, and Noam Chomsky, who knew and liked Marcuse "but thought very little of his work." Marcuse's 1965 essay "Repressive Tolerance", in which he claimed capitalist democracies can have totalitarian aspects, has been criticized by conservatives. Marcuse argues that genuine tolerance does not permit support for "repression", since doing so ensures that marginalized voices will remain unheard. He characterizes tolerance of repressive speech as "inauthentic." Instead, he advocates a form of tolerance that is intolerant of right wing political movements:
Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.
Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.
Marcuse later expressed his radical ideas through three pieces of writing. He wrote An Essay on Liberation in 1969 celebrating liberation movements such as those in Vietnam, which inspired many radicals. In 1972 he wrote Counterrevolution and Revolt, which argues that the hopes of the 1960s were facing a counterrevolution from the right, and advocated a council communist approach to revolution.
After Brandeis denied the renewal of his teaching contract in 1965, Marcuse devoted the rest of his life to teaching, writing and giving lectures around the world. His efforts brought him attention from the media, which claimed that he openly advocated violence, although he often clarified that only "violence of defense" could be appropriate, not "violence of aggression." He continued to promote Marxian theory, with some of his students helping to spread his ideas. He published his final work The Aesthetic Dimension in 1979 on the role of high art in the process of what he termed "emancipation" from bourgeois society.
Marriage and death
Marcuse married three times. His first wife was mathematician Sophie Wertman (1901–1951), with whom he had a son, Peter (born 1928). Herbert's second marriage was to Inge Neumann (1910–1972), the widow of his close friend Franz Neumann (1900–1954). His third wife was Erica Sherover (1938–1988), a former graduate student and forty years his junior, whom he married in 1976. His son Peter Marcuse is currently professor emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University. His granddaughter is the novelist Irene Marcuse and his grandson, Harold Marcuse, is currently a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
On July 29, 1979, ten days after his eighty-first birthday, Marcuse died after having suffered a stroke during a visit to Germany. He had spoken at the Frankfurt Römerberggespräche, and was on his way to the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World in Starnberg, on invitation from second-generation Frankfurt School theorist Jürgen Habermas. In 2003, after his ashes were rediscovered in the United States, they were buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery in Berlin.
Philosophy and views
His famous concept repressive desublimation refers to his argument that postwar mass culture, with its profusion of sexual provocations, serves to reinforce political repression. If people are preoccupied with inauthentic sexual stimulation, their political energy will be "desublimated"; instead of acting constructively to change the world, they remain repressed and uncritical. Marcuse advanced the prewar thinking of critical theory toward a critical account of the "one-dimensional" nature of bourgeois life in Europe and America. His thinking could, therefore, also be considered an advance of the concerns of earlier liberal critics like David Riesman.
Two aspects of Marcuse's work are of particular importance, firstly, his use of language more familiar from the critique of Soviet or Nazi regimes to characterize developments in the advanced industrial world; and secondly, his grounding of critical theory in a particular use of psychoanalytic thought. Both of these features of his thinking have often been misunderstood and have given rise to critiques of his work that miss the point of his targets.
Marcuse's early "Heideggerian Marxism"
During his years in Freiburg, Marcuse wrote a series of essays that explored the possibility of synthesizing Marxism and Heidegger's fundamental ontology, as begun in the latter's work Being and Time (1927). This early interest in Heidegger followed Marcuse's demand for "concrete philosophy", which, he declared in 1928, "concerns itself with the truth of contemporaneous human existence". These words were directed against the neo-Kantianism of the mainstream, and against both the revisionist and orthodox Marxist alternatives, in which the subjectivity of the individual played little role. Though Marcuse quickly distanced himself from Heidegger following Heidegger's endorsement of Nazism, it has been suggested by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas that an understanding of Marcuse's later thinking demands an appreciation of his early Heideggerian influence.
Marcuse and capitalism
Marcuse’s analysis of capitalism derives partially from one of Karl Marx’s main concepts: Objectification, which under capitalism becomes Alienation. Marx believed that capitalism was exploiting humans; that by producing objects, laborers became alienated and this ultimately dehumanized them to functional objects. Marcuse took this belief and expanded it. He argued that capitalism and industrialization pushed laborers so hard that they began to see themselves as extensions of the objects they were producing. At the beginning of One-Dimensional Man Marcuse writes, "The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment," meaning that under capitalism (in consumer society) humans become extensions of the commodities that they buy, thus making commodities extensions of people's minds and bodies. Affluent mass technological societies, it argued, were totally controlled and manipulated. In societies based upon mass production and mass distribution, the individual worker had become merely a consumer of its commodities and entire commodity way of life. Modern Capitalism had created false needs and false consciousness geared to consumption of commodities: it locked one-dimensional man into the one-dimensional society which produced the need for people to recognize themselves in their commodities and find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced. Most important of all, the pressure of consumerism had led to the total integration of the working class into the capitalist system. Its political parties and trade unions had become thoroughly bureaucratized and the power of negative thinking or critical reflection had rapidly declined. The working class was no longer a potentially subversive force capable of bringing about revolutionary change. As a result, rather than looking to the workers as the revolutionary vanguard, Marcuse put his faith in an alliance between radical intellectuals and those groups not yet integrated into one-dimensional society, the socially marginalized, the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other race and other colours, the unemployed and the unemployable. These were the people whose standards of living demanded the ending of intolerable conditions and institutions and whose resistance to one-dimensional society would not be diverted by the system. Their opposition was revolutionary even if their consciousness was not.
Leszek Kołakowski described Marcuse's views as essentially anti-Marxist, in that they ignored Marx's critique of Hegel and discarded the historical theory of class struggle entirely in favor of an inverted Freudian reading of human history where all social rules could and should be discarded to create a "New World of Happiness". Kołakowski concluded that Marcuse's ideal society "is to be ruled despotically by an enlightened group [who] have realized in themselves the unity of Logos and Eros, and thrown off the vexatious authority of logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences."
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre asserted that almost all of Marcuse's key positions are false and that his generalizations were based upon the total absence of any account of contemporary social structure. Featherstone criticized his portrayal of modern consumerism: it falsely assumed that consumers were completely passive, uncritically responding to corporate advertising.
Herbert Marcuse has appealed to students of the New Left through his emphasis on the power of critical thought and his vision of total human emancipation and a non-repressive civilization. He supported students he felt were subject to the pressures of a commodifying system, and has been regarded as an inspirational intellectual leader. He is also considered among the most influential of the Frankfurt School critical theorists on North American culture, due to his studies on student and counter-cultural movements on the 1960s. The legacy of the 1960s, of which Marcuse was a vital part, lives on, and the Great Refusal is still practiced by oppositional groups and individuals who refuse to conform to existing oppression and domination.