Herbert Marcuse(1898–1979) was a German American cultural critic, philosopher, sociologist and one of the most influential members of the Frankfurt School. Late in life, he became an intellectual superstar and a celebrity figure, particularly among dissident students, with the publication of One Dimensional Man (1964), which spoke to the baby-boomer generation of their velvet-lined repression under capitalism and sold over a million copies.
Marcuse was born in Berlin into a family of assimilated, upper middle-class Jews. He was in the army during the First World War, but did not see active service. Following the war, he got involved with the Soldier’s Council but soon left it. Disillusioned with politics, he decided to focus on his studies. He completed a doctorate on the ‘Kunstlerroman’ (novels about artists) in German literature at Freiburg University. He worked in bookselling and publishing for the next six years. Then, after reading Sein und Zeit (1927), translated as Being and Time (1962), he decided to complete his habilitation under the supervision of its author Martin Heidegger. Owing to their political differences, however, this didn’t work out quite as planned. Marcuse completed the thesis, which was published as Hegel’s Ontology and the Foundations of a Theory of Historicity, 1932, but it didn’t result in him being confirmed as a professor.
Jobless and uncertain of his academic future, Marcuse was recommended to Max Horkheimer, director of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), by Edmund Husserl, via a number of intermediaries, and duly given a job, initially as a librarian. It was at this time that Marcuse first read Marx, finding there (especially in the so-called ‘early Marx’ of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)) a materialist ontology that in his view surpassed not only Heidegger, but also Hegel and Dilthey. Marcuse rejected Heidegger’s view and developed a philosophy of the present as an inhuman form of existence that could only be rectified by means of a revolution. The rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 necessitated leaving the country. Marcuse followed the Institute first to Switzerland and then to the USA, where he took up permanent residence.
During the war, Marcuse was forced to find employment outside of the Institute because of its financial difficulties, so he was unable to publish a great deal between 1942 and 1950. He did, however, manage to publish Reason and Revolution (1941), which attempted to reclaim Hegel’s philosophy for the left. His next book, published a decade after the war, Eros and Civilization (1955), is probably his most important book. It brought about the fusion of Marx and Freud that critical theory had been attempting to produce since the 1930s and in doing so launched the analytic approach known as Freudo-Marxism, which even today, continues to influence research in the humanities and social sciences. Contrary to his Frankfurt School colleague, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, Eros and Civilization argues that civilization does not depend upon the renunciation of instinct and indeed could be said to be fuelled by the instincts. Marcuse positions Eros as a unifying power that can be pitted against the fragmenting power of modernity. In many respects, Marcuse’s analyses anticipated the “libidinal” politics of various French thinkers of the 1960s, which characteristically conflated the ideas of political and sexual emancipation.
His next book is Soviet Marxism (1958) and then wrote his most famous book One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964) that focused more closely on the question of repression. This critique of advance capitalism and communism. The book looked at the loss of potential for revolution and new forms of social control in capitalist society. He argued that mass media, advertising and industrial management are attempts to quiet any oppositional activity to the dominant system of production and consumption. This elimination of negativity creates a one-dimensional universe, a place bereft of ability for critical thought. Marcuse’s popular lectures at the university were harsh critiques of American civilization. This research can be read as an extension of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industry. In 1965, in a high-profile essay published as part of book co-written with Robert Wolff and Barrington Moore, Critique of Pure Tolerance, Marcuse coined the famous concept of ‘repressive tolerance’, by which he meant that the fact that a particular state allows certain practices should not deceive us into thinking genuine freedom prevails and by the same token nor should we tolerate the repressive elements of the state. He dedicated the essay to his students at Brandeis University in a gesture of solidarity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Marcuse was very active in speaking for and to the student protest movement both in the US and in Europe.
Marcuse wrote An Essay on Liberation in 1969, in which he celebrated 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. He died of a stroke, during a visit to Berlin to speak at the Max Planck Institute at the invitation of Jurgen Habermas.