In Defense of Herbert Marcuse

For journalist Matt Taibbi, Herbert Marcuse is a pseudo-intellectual at fault for much of what ails the contemporary left. But the real Marcuse was a serious thinker who remained committed to socialism and working-class struggle. In our moment of political defeat, his works like One-Dimensional Man are well worth revisiting.

Herbert Marcuse should be read, debated, and respected for his contributions, not subject to lazy condemnation.

After the defeat of the Bernie Sanders insurgency and Jeremy Corbyn, things can feel hopeless on the Anglophone left. It is hard to avoid feeling that we’ll suffer even more defeats in the decades to come.

Now is a time for strategic reflection, and also for theory. Looking for answers, I’ve been drawing more on thought from the Frankfurt School, particularly Herbert Marcuse, much as the late Mark Fisher did in Acid Communism.

I think more people should, too, which is why I owe the journalist Matt Taibbi some thanks. His recent misreading of Marcuse — “Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual” — offers a good opportunity to think about the real Marcuse’s intellectual contribution and relevance today.

If Frankfurt School thinker Walter Benjamin comes across at points as a hapless dreamer and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer as agitated and curmudgeonly elitists, Herbert Marcuse seems like a kind of estranged, slightly cooler relative of his aloof colleagues. While both Adorno and Horkheimer returned to postwar Germany to help rebuild, Marcuse stayed in the United States. For Adorno and Horkheimer, their move eventually meant coming up against students who wanted to upend industrial bourgeois society, and who they sternly warned of the dangers of hoping for too much. Marcuse, in contrast, became a kind of awkward and rather stiff granddaddy to the ’60s movement, rubbing shoulders and exchanging strategies with figures like Angela Davis and Tom Hayden.

Marcuse’s involvement in the New Left, which shifted the Left’s focus from the workplace and its relations to the body, race, and sexuality, is seen by many as helping to blunt the worker movement by directing anti-capitalism to the soft targets of racial and gender politics. But this is to miss the point of Marcuse’s interest in these movements, as Taibbi does in his recent attack on the German thinker. In the text, Taibbi cites a passage from the close of Marcuse’s best-selling 1967 book One-Dimensional Man, in which Marcuse envisages the “Great Refusal” (Marcuse’s term for an anti-capitalist movement) as coming from: “Those who form the human base of the social pyramid — the outsiders and the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the persecuted colored races, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions.”

Following this cherry-picked citation, Taibbi rejects the passage as opportunism:

I’d have more sympathy for this point of view were it not so obvious that Marcuse’s embrace of the “persecuted colored races” was opportunistic afterthought. His real endgame is absolutist rule by our intellectual betters. Explaining that “the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge,” he goes on to prove that the broad main of people are not so capable. They lack the discernment to know the “objective truth which can be discovered,” to separate correct from incorrect, among other things because too many incorrect opinions are allowed to circulate.

Yet reading One-Dimensional Man and knowing Marcuse’s history, it is hard to see how Taibbi formulates this line of attack. Far from Marcuse doubting the working class, he sees the great mass of the excluded as being able to reject capitalist society’s offer of security and potential riches, as they are not anyhow party to the live-to-work system of capital.

Here, Marcuse basically sees capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction. In his formulation, capitalism deludes people into feeling that it meets their desires, by convincing them to settle for less than they really want. This occurs as means of “sublimation,” or channeling of desire into “safe” outcomes. This is where Marcuse basically admixes Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, what Taibbi, citing “a friend,” calls a “spectacularly bad synthesis.”

Now, for Marcuse, the satiation of what are basically imposed desires results in a never-before-seen level of promiscuity in postwar United States, that appears to satisfy people’s carnal needs, while actually offering up inferior, mechanized sex. As Marcuse explains in a passage from One-Dimensional Man:

Compare love-making in a meadow and in an automobile, on a lovers’ walk outside the town walls and on a Manhattan street. In the former cases, the environment partakes of and invites libidinal cathexis and tends to be eroticized. Libido transcends beyond the immediate erotogenic zones — a process of non repressive sublimation. In contrast, a mechanized environment seems to block such self-transcendence of libido. Impelled in the striving to extend the field of erotic gratification, libido becomes less “polymorphous,” less capable of eroticism beyond localized sexuality, and the latter is intensified. Thus diminishing erotic and intensifying sexual energy, the technological reality limits the scope of sublimation.

In short, the process of “sublimation,” which in Freudian terms safely dispenses with desires that might otherwise challenge the status quo, is so far dulled that the scope of human creative endeavor is greatly hampered. Industrial capitalist society, while ostensibly offering free choices, plays the trick of both satiating desire and limiting desire’s creative potential. As Marcuse argues:

The environment from which the individual could obtain pleasure — which he could cathect as gratifying almost as an extended zone of the body — has been rigidly reduced. Consequently, the “universe” of libidinous cathexis is likewise reduced. The effect is a localization and contraction of libido, the reduction of erotic to sexual experience and satisfaction.

However, for Marcuse, the encouragement of promiscuity as a means to divert people from creative and potentially revolutionary ambition had its limitations. The sublimation of creative desire through the offering of cheap movie titillation and consumer goods was not enough to contain a generation of students and workers who began to question the military-industrial complex following Vietnam. At the same time, while the dream of modern suburbia seemed to be leading into a general sense of apathy, it also created an excluded class of migrants who, being outside the false manufactured system, had every interest in overthrowing capitalism. If the excluded class had met with the student movement and the rank and file stirring among the organized working class, there may have been an opportunity for the Great Refusal to ignite and radically undermine capitalism.

As it is, this moment never came about, though Marcuse’s thought assumes a new relevance today, as capitalism’s fostering and satiation of second-rate desire. At that point, however, a mass protest movement that channels unfettered desire into street rebellion is again plausible. That’s not to say revolution is imminent, but when, in the coming months, a generation of college students cheated of campus life and graduates cheated of workplace socialization emerge from lockdown alongside millions of newly unemployed persons, it’s hard to imagine the lid being kept on a level of collective dissatisfaction unseen since the return of troops after World War II.

Indeed, if in Freudian terms “sublimation” is a mechanism whereby desire is channeled into creative activity, we are going to see, at some point in 2021 or 2022, an explosion of hitherto repressed desire concomitant with a reduction in meme, podcast, and YouTube output. Creative expression, until now expressed online, will find new outlets as physical art-making in support of new social movements. This aligns with Marcuse’s identification toward the end of One-Dimensional Man of an “aesthetic dimension” necessary to the Great Refusal. As Fisher stated in his introduction to Acid Communism:

Marcuse argued that, in actuality, the “traditional images of artistic alienation” associated with Romanticism do not belong to the past. Instead, he said, in . . . formulation, they “recall and preserve in memory belongs to the future: images of a gratification that would destroy the society that suppresses it.

Marcuse’s dedication to the sublimated creative expression of excluded people gives the lie to another of Taibbi’s critiques, namely that Marcuse rejected free speech out of academic snobbery. Taibbi seizes upon Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” in which the German philosopher argues for the repression of ideas 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.”

Taibbi, as previously mentioned, sees this as not a route to liberation but a smoke screen for “absolutist rule by our intellectual betters.” And, to be fair, Marcuse’s stance can clearly be seen as prefiguring the cancel culture that seeks to censure people who transgress the lines of political dialogue drawn up by the identitarian liberal left. However, Marcuse was clear that the boundaries of acceptable thought should be marshaled by “everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously.”

It follows, then, that he would certainly be opposed to the baying mobs of Twitter, as much as he would be opposed to the monopolies of the social media giants.

In any case, the charge that Marcuse wished to elevate academia at the expense of the working class is itself groundless. Indeed, Marcuse and the Frankfurt School came down from the Marxist lineage of thought that saw capitalism as offering a hitherto unimagined potential for emancipation that simply needed hijacking by the masses. The Frankfurt School wished to send capitalism in the right direction toward a genuine socialism (and not the tyrannical kind, as very clearly stated in many of their texts), rather than seeing it develop into the fascism they escaped. It is this that informed Marcuse’s support of the feminist, antiwar, and civil rights movements of the 1960s, signaling a desire to elevate the oppressed of all backgrounds in order to overturn the status quo.

It was surely clear to Marcuse that this would mean the overturning of the academic class itself over time. Indeed, the legacy of the 1960s counterculture movement makes it unlikely that a white septuagenarian German academic will ever again have such a prominent position at the helm of a multiracial movement for race, gender, and sexual liberation. The next countercultural movement may be made up precisely of (again) “the outsiders and the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the persecuted colored races, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions,” and Marcuse will have played a part in making this possible.

Among those of us on the socialist left, Marcuse is a figure who should be read, debated, and respected for his contributions, not subject to lazy condemnation.