Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 1. 1969.
The Prophet Unmasked
The Prophet Unmasked
Herbert Marcuse has been put forward by the Western press as the "prophet" of student and worker revolution in the West. Peter Sedgwick, writing for "The Black Dwarf", has other ideas.
Herbert Marcuse is social philosopher with a long Left-wing history; he was one of the founding members of Liebnecht's and Luxemburg's Spartakusbund in 1918, was active in the pre-war Marxist Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and since moving to live in the United States after the rise of Nazism has produced fascinating and important work on the development of Marxist thought and on the problems of contemporary culture.
He is now being cited, in virtually every review of the theoretical foundations of present-day student radicalism, as a major critical influence of our time. Indeed, "the three M's" —Marx, Marcuse and Mao−are reported to form the intellectual trinity which inspires the activism of Italy's insurgent students. It is said also that his influence is powerful in his old homeland of Germany, among the SDS. Having read Marcuses work attentively over a number of years, I find it hard to trace any very precise connections between his most characteristic ideas and anything that is being written, said or done on the international Left nowadays. However, I will make the attempt, in the hope that those who have a clearer idea of the present radical movement and its theoretical origins will correct and supplement these remarks.
Marcuse's output in the English language can be divided into three phases, which overlap somewhat. The first consists of his Reason and Revolution (1942) and Soviet Marxism (1958) which analyse respectively the rise (from Hegel to Marx) and the decline (from Lenin to Khrushchev) of those critical, subversive social ideas which are traditionally grouped under the heading of Marxism (later "Marxism-Leninism"). These are important books both for the historian of social ideas and for any revolutionary who wants to trace the shifts in the meaning of concepts, over entire epochs, which can make or break a radical theory of society. They imply no specific practical or tactical payoff in terms of action; I mention this not as a criticism of the work, but to indicate the difficulty in establishing a lineage from the present movement to Marcuse.
The second set of writings is concerned with the forms of intellectual domination and repression which are said by Marcuse to be prevalent in advanced capitalist society. During his first twenty years of sojourning in the United States, Marcuse became impressed by the virtual absence of any substantial movement of social criticism and concluded that capitalism had entered a new totalitarian stage of development, in which all sources of opposition to the system became exhausted and superseded. He first presented this view in a long postscript to the second edition of Reason and Revolution, in 1955. According to him, the introduction of automation into industry marked a fundamental change in the relations of production. With growing productivity and consumption, the needs of the masses had become sated, and were indeed now simply manipulated and administered by the system. "The economic and cultural co-ordination of the labouring classes" was now complete; individuals had become transformed into "total objects of society". All opposition to the status quo was "pacified, co-ordinated and liquidated", and any critical consciousness that remained was only "the dangerous prerogative of outsiders".
Marcuse says much the same thing, at greater length, in his book One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964. Here he goes much further, alleging that a drastic change in the terms of human thought has now taken place in the West. Critical and radical ideas have now become impossible to formulate within the realm of disclosure that is accepted as rational by our society. Every conceivable activity of the human spirit—artistic, philosophical, scientific, or simply playful−contributes to the maintenance of "the whole", the repressive structure of capitalism. Science is counter-revolutionary because it seeks to control nature, and hence human nature. Art, however radical in form or content, can only function as an entertainment for the conformist and well-off. Ordinary and academic language are alike permeated by a sort of Orwellian "Newspeak" which denies not only any possibility, but also any meaning, to concepts which transcend the existing order of things. Marcuse reserves some of his severest strictures for sexual permissiveness and laxity, which are apparently diverting the masses from the knowledge of their oppression, and depleting them of the energy that should be sublimated into revolutionary forms of creativity. (This last theme, of what Marcuse calls "repressive desublimation", is argued more fully in his Eros and Civilisation, published in 1954.)
The last few sentences may sound like a grotesque caricature of Marcuse's case. They are, however, a summary of what he actually states, not as risks, as chances, as tendencies that might be overcome by struggle, but as over-riding determining laws of human consciousness in our era of advanced technology.
The laws of the system being unbreakable, and unrelievedly hideous, revolt is possible only for minorities in a marginal or exterior relationship to the main social process. The critical "outsiders" of the Reason and Revolution appendix would seem to be lonely stoics like Marcuse himself, writing in the depressive shadow of the Joe MacCarthy era; in One-Dimensional Man they include the lowliest, most oppressed groups in American society, the inmates of slums, ghettoes, prisons, menial institutions, etc. Their rebellion is at this time seen by Marcuse as an elemental, almost hopeless outburst of "outcasts", the new paupers who have replaced the labour movement that has grown too fat to fight. As marginal minorities, they cannot be expected to win against the main tendencies of the engulfing "whole" and Marcuse does not expect them to. His interpretation of the Black freedom movement of course does little justice to its organisation, articulacy and confidence.
Marcuse's views in this period were presented at a conference of European Marxist scholars in Korcula, Yugoslavia, in the summer of 1964. They were challenged there by a number of the participants, including Serge Mallet, an industrial sociologist who is a leading member of the French PSU. Mallet's reply pointed out the very shaky character of Marcuse's theory that automation produces an acquiescent working class. Automatic industries are often peculiarly risk-prone in view of their high capital costs and their unusual dependence on a secure market over a long term. Mallet has for some years been arguing that "the new working class" of the more automated industries would acquire wider, more political horizons extending beyond wage-demands, and "were being further and further towards a head-on confrontation with the lechno-bureaucratics structure of control of the economy". These words from Mallet's parer (International Socialist Journal, April 1965) seem remarkably prophetic in view of the French events this year.
It is quite possible that a fully automated sector of industry, equipped with transfer machines and numerical control apparatus, would generate a "middle-class" type of consciousness among its operators, who would work with a great deal of individual responsibility and largely apart from a group of mates. This, however, could only apply to a tiny proportion of the work-force even in an advanced capitalist society. Semi-automated industry, with its relentless industrial rhythms, occupies many thousands of workers in a typical Western economy. In France it was these sectors (cars and aircraft) that proved to be in the vanguard of militancy, responding rapidly to the "student spark". Highly mechanised industries in Britain (from cars to computerised banks) have also been associated with a level of consciousness whose militancy may be dispersed and fragmented, but is still very far from Marcuse's vision of the machine-dominated worker.
The climatic struggle in France and its less spectacular daily counterpart in Britain also puts paid to the idea, common to many radical thinkers apart from Marcuse, that the industrial struggle over wages can only radicalise workers when they are fighting at a subsistence level of income. Questions of power and control in industry and in society, especially as the State attempts to become an arbiter of wage levels, are inseparably linked to workers' demands for money. The struggle in France was fought by the workers both in terms of wages and in terms of power. The Left has gained among the working class both by exposing the incompetence and timidity of the CP-CGT apparatus as wage-bargainers and by campaigning around a broader perspective of control. The CFDT now outnumbers the CGT in membership as a result of playing this double tactic; how far either the CFDT or the PSU themselves can offer more than a rhetoric and a style is still of course an open question.
Marcuse's third phase is marked only in a few pieces of writing, and is doubtless still evolving. He has now acknowledged that organised radical movements are actually, functioning outside the margin of the outcasts; paradoxically, their development in the crucial late Fifties and early Sixties eluded him while he was developing his most pessimistic position. In a recent interview published in New Left Review he has, with many hedgings and hesitations, affirmed the necessity and the possibility of revolution in the West, laying particular emphasis on the explosive contradictions set up in the United States by the Vietnam war. The progress of revolution now seems to him to depend on the forging of a link between guerilla struggle in the Third World and the rebellious youth movements of the "affluent society"; and in Europe "the political revitalisation of the working-class movement on an international scale" is a perspective worth thinking and fighting towards. Others of course have said as much, with more consistency; and even so guarded a statement is an unconfessed recantation of the thousands of words that Marcuse has written to the contrary.
Marcuse's article "Repressive Tolerance", published in 1965 as one of the outstanding set of essays by three American scholars, entitled A Critique of Pure Tolerance, displays fully the ambiguities of his most recent stance. It is in part a superb attack on the conventional liberal wisdom of political pluralism, which sees society as an open forum for equally matched contending views. It is also a first-rate defence of revolutionary violence and of rationality in history. The rationality, however, stops when Marcuse starts to argue once again that present-day society consists of "manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot. as their own, the opinions of their masters," except for "such enclaves as the inlelligentsia." Now that "society has entered the phase of total administration and indoctrination", Marcuse advocates "the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups 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." Since human needs are completely programmed and perverted by the mass media, the efforts to counteract man's dehumanisation "must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness. To be sure this is censorship, even precensorship, but openly directed against the more or less hidden censorship that permeates the free media."
Who is to conduct this expropriation of the media and the ban on civil rights? Not the capitalist State—Marcuse rightly sees the uselessness of appealing to official society to commit suicide. Not the masses either—these helpless parrots who have undergone "moronization". Marcuse's appeal is explicitly to the small oppositional enclaves. It is a programme of sporadic putschism to be conducted by them indiscriminately against all official institutions, parties and media.
This campaign, implemented by that fortunate minority that Marcuse is prepared to admit as "rational beings", will lead to "the democratic educational dictatorship of free men", which in the present society is "a small number indeed."
Marcuse looks back, for justification of this open appeal to meritocracy, to the arguments of that classic snob of liberal leader elitism. John Stuart Mill, for whom the exercise of tolerance was "to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties". For Mill this definition would exclude children, minors and "barbarians". For Marcuse it would exclude everybody except those who agree with his own highly idiosyncratic interpretation of society and history, since the distinclion between what is progressive and what is reactionary is "not a matter of value-preference but of rational criteria." Consequently if you disagree with Marcuse you are irrational and hence unfit to be tolerated.
Marcuse explicitly attacks the criterion of "clear and present danger" which both in liberal and in Marxist theory has offered the sole grounds for withdrawing basic civil rights from groups and individuals. (Even Stalinism, it may be noted, paid hypocrisy's tribute to this criterion in its manufacture of conspiracies and plots; for unless they could be displayed to the public as offering "clear and present danger" dissidents could not be suppressed and exterminated.) In Marcuse's view "the whole post-facist period is one of clear and present danger". This statement is adequate for him to clear the distinction between the violence of revolutionary masses in a period of civil war and the putschism of educated elite groups who decide for themselves what the moronised masses may read or organise for.
Having developed a mechanistic and elitist few of society in a period where he wrote [unclear: off] possibilities for revolutionary action, Marcuse is now trying to graft radical proposals [unclear: upon] unreconstructed social vision. I [unclear: hope] I am right in my conclusion that Marcuse's politics, whatever the [unclear: commentators] to the contrary, have actually no influence upon the theory and the tactics of the movements that we have today. If we have [unclear: Mar] amongst us, it would be interesting to hear their views. Reactionary as these might be, they would deserve at least our tolerance.