Probably the most prominent "New Leftist" in American academia during the 1960s and 70s, Herbert Marcuse was born on this date in 1898 to prosperous Jewish parents in Berlin, and served in the German Army in World War I. He looked on approvingly as the rule of Wilhelm II was replaced by a Social Democratic government, although he grew disillusioned with its progress in light of the murders of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
In 1922 he received his doctorate in literature from the University of Freiburg, and after working in a Berlin bookshop for a time, he returned to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. There he began to weave together strands of Marxist thought with existentialist and phenomenological themes, asserting that socialist principles ought to inspire individual liberty, not just collective freedom from capitalist exploitation. He found particular inspiration in Marx's previously unpublished "1844 Manuscripts," in which Marx described a form of psychological alienation as a key ailment within capitalist society.
In 1933, Marcuse formed the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, with the aim of developing a "critical social theory" to articulate arguments at the nexus of Marxist economic analysis, social theory and cultural criticism. The Nazis were particularly affronted by this, and by the following year, Marcuse fled to the U.S., where he would house the Institute at Columbia University. In 1941, he published his first major work, Reason and Revolution, in which he argued that Hegel's philosophy of state did not provide a rationale for German fascism. In the same year, Marcuse joined the U.S. Office of Secret Services, eventually working as head of the Central European bureau of the Department of State by the end of World War II, submitting a report on the cultural aspects of Nazism ("Presentation of the Enemy") and authoring a civil handbook on de-nazification before leaving the government in 1951.
He obtained a chair at Brandeis and began his most productive period as a philosopher. In Eros and Civilization (1955), he synthesized Marx and Freud (less suspiciously than Wilhelm Reich had tried to) and postulated a non-repressive society in which self-fulfillment could be naturally cultivated through libidinous play, non-alienating labor and open sexuality; the book became a touchstone for 1960s New Left intellectuals. He became the first leftist to openly criticize the politically paralyzing Marxist dogma of the Soviet Union in Soviet Marxism (1958), staking out his position as a social Marxist. In One Dimensional Man (1964), he elaborated on his social Marxism, showing how advanced industrial societies create false needs, integrating individuals into an unbreakable cycle of production and consumption and eradicating dissent through industrial management, advertising and a corrupted mass media; with the seductive power of capitalist toys, luxuries and affiliations, according to Marcuse the revolutionary potential of the working class had been eradicated and the allegedly impending "capitalist crisis" predicted by orthodox Marxists had been averted.
He retired from Brandeis in 1965, and became the sole elder statesman of a youth-oriented radical movement while teaching classes at UC San Diego -- the tall, charismatic, white-haired European, smelling of fine cigars and driving a used Peugeot, the only mature inductee of long-haired peace and liberation movements. His "Essay on Liberation" (1969) celebrated the current campus causes, from opposition to the Vietnam War to the general liberation of the "hippie" movement, while Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) offered a more darkly realistic assessment of the potential success of such movements in light of the "counterrevolution" of the right-wing establishment. His final book, The Aesthetic Dimension (1979), he saw art as an essential component of emancipation, celebrating "bourgeois" art for its indictment of bourgeois society and criticizing the typical Marxist aesthetics that promoted a sterile notion of "proletarian culture." He died on July 29, 1979 on a visit to Starnberg, Germany.
Marcuse's work is now often considered marginal within 20th century American philosophy, although the availability of unpublished material seems poised to reveal Marcuse as a multi-dimensional critic of the intermingling forces of economy, culture and technology, one whose conclusions perhaps offer greater hope than the despairingly deterministic views of his French counterparts such as Baudrillard and Ellul.
Categories: Philosophy, Marxism, Freud