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The Philosopher of Utopia

R. Burke

Herbert Marcuse was so far in advance of his time that in many ways the world-left has yet to catch up with his legacy. He glimpsed the implications of women’s rights, environmentalism, and sexual liberation for a new kind of socialism at a time in which these concerns were largely downplayed and ignored by the socialist movement. In an era that valorized productivity and economic growth, Marcuse criticized the imperative for endlessly increasing production and demanded that progress be measured by more qualitative goals. Approaching the 40thanniversary of his death we contemplate a world in which the legitimacy of the neoliberal consensus is crumbling, an environmental crisis threatening civilization and human survival looms, and an increasing number of younger people are becoming socialists. An auspicious time for Nick Thorkelson to publish Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, a Graphic Biography.

Thorkelson begins his biography of Marcuse at the anti-war demonstration in Oakland in the spring of 1965. The philosopher and his friends had joined the demonstration. Thorkelson comments that at the time “Marcuse could have passed through the crowd virtually unnoticed.” Three years later he had become world famous. When he arrived in Paris in May 1968 for a UNESCO conference he was recognized and invited to address students who were occupying their university. For a time, Marcuse was as famous to the 1960’s counterculture as a rock star!

The author gives us a glimpse of Marcuse’s background and upbringing. Born in Germany in 1898 of Jewish parentage, He grew up in a neighborhood of highly assimilated German Jews. So assimilated in fact that in later life he recalled a mother calling to her children, “Siegfried! Brunhilde! Its time to come in for Shabbat!” Living a privileged life his major interest was the reading of literature and philosophy.

World War One changed that. Drafted into the army he found himself increasingly sympathetic to socialist ideas. In 1919, after the war’s end, he took part in the revolution in Berlin where he became a soldier’s council delegate and was sent to the barricades to participate in the armed defense of the uprising against right wing militias. 

The treachery of the German Social-Democratic party, which had hired the right-wing Freikorps to murder Rosa Luxemburg, led the young Marcuse to quit the party in disillusionment. While he was sympathetic to the Spartacists, who had renamed themselves communists, the fact they seemed mainly concerned with defending the Soviet Union alienated him. He resumed his studies of literature and philosophy, becoming influenced by the Western Marxist philosopher George Lukacs, and his seminal work History and Class Consciousness. This led to a deeper engagement with the works of Hegel and Marx. Particularly influential to Marcuse was Lukacs’ concept of reification, whereby oppression is rationalized by confusing human social relations for actual things with a supposedly independent existence. The neoliberal celebration of the ‘free market’ is one contemporary example of reification. Markets are depicted as things with a life of their own, rather than the products of human social relations. He would also fall under the spell of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, becoming his student in 1928.

A major turning point for Marcuse was his discovery of Karl Marx’s newly published Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.This work had been unknown to Marxists until the 1920’s, and Marcuse was one of the first to review it. Particularly important for him was the concept of alienated labor (Thorkelson uses the term ‘estranged labor’). This is “the reduction of all the world’s possibilities to narrow categories of potential gain,” creating “an alien world that confronts us as a hostile power.” Human beings become reduced to being mere tools of capitalism, servants of the economic system and its’ continued functioning, wage-slaves for the accumulation of profit.

By 1932 Marcuse had become employed by the Frankfurt School for Social Research, joining with luminaries of Marxist thought such as Theodor Adorno, Paul Baran, Erich Fromm and Max Horkhiemer. Then Hitler came to power in Germany.  Marcuse and his wife Sophie were forced to flee to Switzerland, where the other members of the Frankfurt School joined them. Here Marcuse was shaken by the news that his former mentor, Heidegger, had joined the Nazi party. 

Eventually the Frankfurt School ended up in the United States, where Marcuse would write what some consider his most important book Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Marcuse wrote Reason and Revolutionin order to counter the claim being made by many thinkers at that time that Hegel was a forerunner of the Nazi’s.Marcuse instead shows him instead to be a forerunner of socialism. In Marcuse’s view of Hegel’s philosophy reason, in recognizing a world of oppression that was not living up to its potentials for freedom, necessarily leads to revolution. This idea of society repressing its own potentials for eliminating suffering and violence would become for him a point of reference for critical analysis.

When the US entered World War Two, Marcuse joined the OSS as a way to contribute to the defeat of Fascism. After the war Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Germany to re-establish the Frankfurt School. By this time their work had become highly pessimistic as a result of their experiences of exile. Marcuse however stayed in the US, moving from the OSS to the State department. After the death of his first wife, Sophie, he returned to academia. He would later remarry, his second wife being Inge Neumann, who had recently divorced Franz Neumann, a fellow Frankfurt School colleague. It is at this time that he published a book that would later lead to him becoming one of the intellectual ‘superstars’ of the 1960’s Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud.

In Eros and CivilizationMarcuse’s explored Freud’s insight that in conditions of scarcity the repression of instincts is necessary in order to ensure the survival of civilization. The problem being that “we don’t just repress our anti-social instincts, we repress everything that makes us human. We repress Eros.” Technological development however, has led to the possibility of a radical reduction of working hours. Capitalist rationality decrees instead that these potentials, which could lead to a society of greater leisure and sensuous enjoyment, be used instead for the endless growth of productivity for profit. Marcuse concluded that a prerequisite for liberation was the reduction of working hours. 

Eros and Civilizationwas followed, in 1958, by his study Soviet Marxism: a Critical Analysis. According to Thorkelson this book “managed to piss off cold war partisans east and west.” In Soviet MarxismMarcuse critiques the Soviet system “for allowing development to push aside socialism’s liberatory promise.” While guardedly optimistic about the possibility for the Soviet system’s reform, he also recognized the degree to which cold war hostilities were used to justify continued repression.

By the 1960’s, while teaching at Brandeis, Marcuse became a mentor to many up and coming young radicals, including Angela Davis, who wrote the foreword to this book. In 1965 he published One-Dimensional Man: a Study in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Whereas Eros and Civilizationhad taken a more optimistic and utopian view of the potentials of modern society, One-Dimensional Man was its dialectical opposite, concentrating on the totalitarian features of capitalist society and the ways in which it repressed its potentials for liberation. “We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, of the perfection of waste,” Marcuse charged. Here he took aim at the way in which consumerism functioned to keep society submissive to capitalism. “The most effective form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of false needs that perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.” The one-dimensional man of Marcuse’s title had sold out the possibility of greater freedom for the chance to own more and more things. In doing so he had voluntarily chosen to submit himself to a political-economic system that reduced him to a mere instrument of productivity.

Forced out from his teaching position at Brandeis because of his radical views he took a new job at the University of California, San Diego. It was then, as Thorkelson puts it, that Marcuse became ‘the reluctant guru’ of the New Left, becoming more involved with political activism. His experiences in France in May 1968 led to the publication of An Essay in Liberation, in which he restated the utopian optimism of his earlier works.

In the 1970’s a period of reaction to the utopian dreams of the ‘60’s had set in. This was reflected in books such as Counterrevolution and Revolt. While he criticized the 60’s counterculture for its “failure of nerve” he also recognized hopeful developments such as the women’s movement, managing to reject both illusion and despair. Marcuse’s second wife Inge died in 1973. Afterwards he married Erica Sherover, a former student. His final book, The Aesthetic Dimension, critically analyzed art as “the unassailable refuge of freedom.” Here Marcuse drew attention to how art, even non-political art, displayed potentials for a liberated society. 

Two years later, he died on a trip to Germany in 1979.

Herbert Marcuse Philosopher of Utopia: a Graphic Biographyis a delightful, easy-to-read introduction to the ideas of one of the most revolutionary thinkers of the 20thcentury. Somehow Thorkelson manages to present Marcuse’s ideas for the uninitiated without oversimplifying them. The book was co-edited by Paul Buhle, who over the last few years has engaged in editing and writing a series of graphic guides as a means of introducing socialist ideas to a wider audience. Perhaps if we are lucky we will also see a graphic guide to the Situationist International, or a graphic biography of Guy Debord soon. Hopefully this book will stimulate further interest in, and study of the writings of Herbert Marcuse. It is long past time for the world-left to catch up with him!

Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, A Graphic Biography

By Nick Thorkelson, edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew T. Lamas, foreword by Angela Davis.

ISBN 9780872867857

City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2019

120 pages


Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis.