Saturday, November 22, 2014

Stephen Whitfield - Refusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man

No one personified the international scale of the New Left better than Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the unofficial leader of the French revolt of 1968. In the spring of 2008, he visited the Brandeis campus to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the near disintegration of the Fifth Republic, where he summarized the failures as well as successes of the 1960s by mentioning Martin Heidegger’s two most famous students in the Weimar Republic. “We read too much Marcuse,” Cohn-Bendit told me, “when instead we should have been reading Arendt.

A failure to foresee Thermidor may have stemmed merely from the habit—common to our species—of being surprised by the future. But a limitation of Marcuse’s own sensibility can be held accountable as well. To put it simply, he was not good at appreciating the force of political orientations other than his own. Nor did he manage to exhibit empathy for other philosophical perspectives. 

Marcuse imagined how Freud’s critique of the consequences of repression might be converted into an emancipatory project, with the psyche released from the weight of society. Self-denial isn’t “natural,” Marcuse claimed; it is merely historical. Eros and Civilization is thrilling to read because it conveys a philosophical need to peer over the horizon, to conjecture how the formation of a life without material restraints might somehow be made meaningful.

One-Dimensional Man was published just half a century ago, catapulting a rather obscure professor in his sixties to international fame. In less than five years, over 100,000 copies of the book would be sold in the United States alone, with translations extending the influence of Herbert Marcuse into sixteen foreign languages. He addressed packed auditoriums all over the United States and Europe. At a student-occupied university in France, young rebels put on a kind of teach-in they called a “journée marcusienne.” In Paris, Marcuse met with Nguyen Than Le, North Vietnam’s chief delegate to the peace talks with the United States. At the University of Rome, students brandished placards proclaiming their allegiance to Marx, Mao and Marcuse. Before the sixties had ended, he was commonly designated as the unofficial faculty advisor to the New Left.
Marcuse’s impact went well beyond the precincts of radical politics. In 1969, Pope Paul VI condemned him by name, blaming Marcuse—along with Sigmund Freud—for promoting the “disgusting and unbridled” manifestations of eroticism and the “animal, barbarous and subhuman degradations” commonly known as the sexual revolution. The hostility that Marcuse aroused was ideologically ecumenical. InPravda, Soviet journalist Yuri Zhukov denounced him as a “false prophet,” while the apartheid regime in South Africa blocked the importation of all his books.
Back in the United States, leading intellectuals treated him with respect and, sometimes, admiration. In his best-selling 1969 book lauding The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak praised Marcuse as “one of the shrewdest critics of the subtle technocratic regimentation which now bids fair to encompass the whole of our world-wide industrial order.” Lionel Trilling and Alasdair MacIntyre subjected his work to long and careful critiques. His ideas were analyzed (or at least described) in magazines as different as Fortune and Playboy. For the New York Review of Books, David Levine slyly drew and quartered Marcuse, who is shown making an ad-man’s pitch for a box (as though it were cereal or detergent) labeled “Rev.”
Hawking a revolution—what he called “the Great Refusal”—made Marcuse symbolic of the political ethos of the sixties, but his politics were better explained by his experience of living in Weimar Germany. The sense that radical transformation was needed in Weimar Germany was an almost rational response to the economic flameout and moral degradation that followed defeat in the military slaughter that began a century ago. The neo-Marxist Institute for Social Research (also known as the Frankfurt School) was born in that era to diagnose the social circumstances that would soon bring the Nazis to power. 
In adhering to the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was haunted by the failure of the left to effectively pit the appeal of socialism against the rise of fascism, and he also blamed republican institutions for their complicity in that process of political collapse. One-Dimensional Man was published exactly three decades after Marcuse reached the United States, but it accuses the presumably benign democracies of the postwar West of foreclosing more valuable and humane political options.
 The Frankfurt School had addressed not only the economic and social ordeal that industrialism had fostered, but also the ideas that were formulated to defend the disparities of class and status. One-Dimensional Man tried to show how ideology concealed the grip of domination and the reality of alienation. This meant that any sort of protest had to begin with a recognition of how spiritually impoverished and politically barren life—even in prosperous America—had become. Marcuse assigned himself the task of telling his readers how little autonomy they really enjoyed, that their economic security was in fact a form of servitude to irrational and impersonal forces designed to maximize productivity at the expense of pleasure.
In the sixties this argument clicked. To be sure, the reason for his iconic impact was somewhat mysterious, even as One-Dimensional Man was flying off the shelves. Marcuse’s main intellectual forbears were not the dreamers and visionaries who populated the heritage of the American left and gave it moral authority. (He was born, after all, into an assimilated Jewish middle-class family in Wilhelmine Berlin.) Marcuse’s debts were instead charged to the formidable figures of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. His text fails to mention any actual American industrialist or practicing politician, but he does cite Heidegger, Quine, Ryle, and Wittgenstein. No one could accuse Marcuse’s work of being “under-theorized.”
To the demands that such thinkers made upon young readers should be added the difficulties of Marcuse’s style. It was hardly his fault that he wrote in an acquired language, though that alone does not account for the density and opacity of his prose. In 1938, when the refugee sage Martin Buber delivered his inaugural lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one listener remarked: “Clearly, he has learned our language. Now he is as obscure in Hebrew as in German.”
Perhaps Marcuse benefited from the presumption in some quarters that a ponderous style is synonymous with wisdom. He learned English well enough to adopt a bureaucratic prose suitable to service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, and, for the rest of the 1940s, in the Eastern European section of the Department of State. The duties of officialdom in Washington, D.C. did not obliterate his allegiance to socialism; Marcuse was a contributor to Dissent in the 1950s, the decade when his systemic—and soon-to-be-resonant—opposition to “advanced industrial society” was fully gestating.
However closely or accurately New Leftists and others might have read One-Dimensional Man, as well as Marcuse’s subsequent works, he was once taken very seriously. He helped to define the zeitgeist in a way that needs to be understood, if not resurrected. But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?
To be sure, his reputation has not faded into utter oblivion. An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.
In 1987, the social critic Russell Jacoby traced a downward trajectory in the vitality and scope of the American intelligentsia, yet his The Last Intellectuals mentions Marcuse only briefly. Eight years later, One-Dimensional Man did not make the Times Literary Supplement list of the hundred most influential books published since the end of the Second World War. Nor did the TLS cite any of Marcuse’s other works—not even what he regarded as his “most important book,” Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955), the volume that had presumably irritated Pope Paul VI.
Marcuse’s stature has shrunk even as scholarly interest in other exemplary figures of the Frankfurt School has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Each of them dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Yet they have recently been the subjects of massive biographies, which make the case for their continuing salience in grasping the implications of modernity itself. 
Marcuse is associated with the crisis of Marxism, however, in a way that they are not. The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change. Even though Marcuse’s dissertation topic had addressed the way that novelists portray artists (theKünstlerroman), his death roughly coincided with the emergence of cultural studies, which marked an abrupt shift in academic fashion.
But his own politics appeared problematic as well. No one personified the international scale of the New Left better than Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the unofficial leader of the French revolt of 1968. In the spring of 2008, he visited the Brandeis campus to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the near disintegration of the Fifth Republic, where he summarized the failures as well as successes of the 1960s by mentioning Martin Heidegger’s two most famous students in the Weimar Republic. “We read too much Marcuse,” Cohn-Bendit told me, “when instead we should have been reading Arendt.”.. read more: