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Herbert Marcuse’s Erotic Marxism (Timothy Fuller)

Herbert Marcuse’s Erotic Marxism

Timothy Fuller

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), born in Berlin and a lifelong socialist, found his philosophical roots in Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Freud, and in the work of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. He became an American citizen and taught in a number of universities, including Columbia, Brandeis, and the University of California at San Diego. Marcuse came to prominence in American intellectual life in the 1960s when his writings were widely read by disaffected college students and faculty. Before that he was known here primarily for his scholarly work on Hegel, Reason and Revolution (1939); for Soviet Marxism (1958), a critique of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR, guardedly optimistic about the power of Marxist ideology ultimately to overcome the bureaucracy, just as critical (implicitly more critical) of the bureaucratization of the West; and for Eros and Civilization (1955), in which he proposed the arguments that brought him a moment of celebrity. He elaborated his themes in One-Dimensional Man (1964) and in An Essay on Liberation (1969). In these books and numerous occasional essays, he critiqued America directly, singling it out as the principal source of the modern malaise.
        Marcuse’s critique is fundamentally Marxist in origin and style while reflecting the mutations in Marxism produced by the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century–Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia. His position accounts for the shocks delivered to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century optimism about enlightenment and progress. Nor does he ignore Marxism’s failure to achieve a science of society with a moral content.

Method And Morality In Marxism
        Marxism today consists of two unmediated, competing elements. On the one hand, methodological Marxism, seeking to explain social change through more or less complex economic analyses, has become guarded about expectations for major transformations in the human condition and often surfaces in the form of liberal amelioration. On the other hand, moralistic Marxism takes the form of literary-aesthetic utopianism (quite at odds with classical Marxist claims for scientific socialism) and appeals principally to the alienated intelligentsia.
        The two schools of Marxism oscillated between cynicism and optimism, with each tendency defended by a judicious choice of Marxian texts. Science without moralism does not distinguish Marxists in this category from other social scientists, because it is not clear what policies, if any, necessarily follow from analysis of social trends. Social science is better at retrospective appraisals of policies than at creating them. Moralism without science distinguishes Marxists in this school at the cost of a common foundation of discussion with their opponents who do not see the world as they do and see no reason why they should. Only when Marxist social science employs the common methods of analysis within an already formed framework of expectations for the future do science and moralism coincide. To be more blunt, only when the two brands of Marxism are assumed to go together do they appear to do so.
        This leads to the unsettling situation in which Marxist dialecticians switch back and forth from indictments of social ills with which one may agree (say on poverty or apartheid) to policy recommendations that are more problematic. Marxists elide the gap between the perception of evil and the choice of responses to it, but the awareness of the reality of this gap is essential if there is to be true discourse and not simply indoctrination (consciousness-raising).

The Relation Of Analysis To Action
        Marxist dialectical reasoning emphasizes the intense relationship between analysis and prescription, which is reasonable, but disguises the contingent nature of the judgments through which different people will interpret the relationship. The actualities of politics resist the linkage of analysis to prescription even as they compel the effort to forge the links.
        Thus, Marxism is the most conspicuous example of a general tendency toward the politicization of intellectual life. The pattern is to generate guilt in order to make the guilty susceptible to (feel “liberated” by adopting) a revolutionary program; one will be tempted to accept the program not because its claims are empirically verifiable (despite the fact that they are not), but because it is offered as the means to assuage guilt about an imperfect world. Not to revolt is to deny one’s sympathy or compassion for humanity, to be insensitive.
        Morality in this context ceases to be a universal restraint on conduct. It turns instead into a project to transform the world, implying restraint only on those who resist (counterrevolutionaries) and liberation from restraint for those who know the path we must take (progressives). Morality in this sense means selectively restraining and liberating. The selecting will be done by those who perceive how the science of society and the moral requirements for the future are bound together.
        This depreciates the understanding of law as a set of rules impartially binding conduct, replacing it with a dictatorship in its exact sense–rule by decree of those who know where we must go next, and who are therefore qualified to exercise power in the historically relevant way. Once it is accepted that moral rules should be judged in light of a projected future, not in terms of our past experience of human behavior, the partisan application of rules of restraint on conduct is inevitable.
        This offense against the commonsense understanding of moral restraints can be redeemed only by realizing the vision of the future and finding it good. Committed action can be made good only if the vision is substantiated empirically. When this will happen is left indefinite, and there is no intrinsic time limit. No universally shared standard exists by which to judge success or failure.
        The scientific basis of the moral vision will be demonstrated at a date to be disclosed. To be revolutionary is to situate oneself in a permanent state of transition; the process of revolutionizing becomes an end in itself. Revolutionary success means subordinating self-conscious reflection to collective interactions in loyalty to the program and its leaders.

Marxist Vision Today
        Two overwhelming factors interfere with this aspiration. First, the embarrassment of the Soviet Union’s dictatorial socialism and the specter of Stalinism (and later of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia, etc.) loom behind every claim to “know.” The quest is then for dictation that is not a dictatorship, a restraint that is actually a liberation. One thinks of Rouseau’s formula, “forcing men to be free.” But Rousseau meant enforcing the impartial law of the land we had agreed to obey; he did not mean forcing men to submit to a conception of their character, their needs, and their wishes that they did not consent to in recognizing the rule of law. Rousseau remembered the reality of the individual, but Marxism’s radicalized version of freedom challenges the status of the individual in favor of a collective understanding of humanity. The invocation of “community” in our time inevitably carries these ambiguous implications.
        Second, the workers, whom Marx identified as the historically relevant class to transform capitalism into socialism and the classless society, have been translated instead into the bourgeoisie and adopted middle-class aspirations. In this respect, the dialectic of historical change halts in the affluent Western states, and these states, given their obvious power and success, have become the models for the non-Western world to emulate. In the most decisive sense, historical developments have failed to support Marxist predictions in their classic form. Marcuse had fewer doubts about Western supremacy than many staunch Westerners today.
        Nonetheless, Marcuse insisted on retaining his critical stance outside the established order in the hope of rekindling the embers of transformational politics. The success of the West, with most Westerners clearly supporting its current structure, redoubles the critical theorists’ determination to refuse the West, even though the demise of the current structure is neither in sight nor inevitable. That the West too shall pass away, as do all human things, is, of course, no alternative for the critical theorist. Such an alternative includes the substitution of fate or providence for the enlightened belief in progress.

Civilization, Repression, Freud
        In Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), Marcuse asserted that the height of civilization is not good for man. Repression permeates the twentieth century so subtly that much of it goes unnoticed or is even comfortable. The advent of totalitarianism and genocide mark more obviously the perversion of the original promise for science and technology. Yet at times it is hard to tell what form of repression, pleasure or pain, concerns Marcuse more.
        Marcuse appropriates and reformulates Freud’s analysis of “civilization and its discontents.” Freud argued that, in the conflict between the “pleasure principle” and the “reality principle,” the latter must prevail over the former if civilization is to form and advance. Freud’s view recalled Rousseau’s analysis in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: natural humanity is covered over by the acquired characteristics of social life. This long cultural evolution in which man became materially richer and therefore acquisitive by imagining becoming endlessly richer still, made us forget our original, spontaneous sympathy for the suffering of others. The self-interested instinct became ever more dominant. Inequalities among human beings seemed natural, even though by nature human beings are, as Rousseau saw it, equal and free from all authority. In Rousseau’s view, all domination is an acquired convention, a flight from what in natural to us.
        For Rousseau, Freud, and Marcuse, modern man suffers from an intense conflict between his nature and the repressiveness of a civilization that he cannot do without. Thus, although man has made civilization, it turns out not to be made for man. Our conquest of nature and ourselves has made us unhappy and deformed. The problem, then, is to bring into being an undeformed humanity. Marcuse asks, “Can there be a nonrepressive civilization?” He appears to think so, but much in his analysis makes the reader wonder.


Erotic Enlightenment
        Marcuse is disillusioned with industrial-technological civilization but retains his belief in enlightenment. He questions its most obvious manifestations, those fruits of technology most people use to justify it. Yet even in his call for a “great refusal” to participate in technological society, he does not mean to do away with its benefits. He intends to shift control of production and function to a new cultural elite that will help us use technology without succumbing to its depersonalizing effects.
        Eros, the inherent, universal passion of humanity to discover and appropriate what it needs to become happy, is boundless and chaotic, and must be curbed. In admitting Freud’s point, Marcuse shows that he wishes to retain the fruits of modern civilization without their costs. Before the domination of modern technology, Marcuse argues, organized society repressed us but left our fantasy lives, on the whole, free. We lived in a multidimensional world where we imagined religious hopes and literary utopias would release us from the limitations and miseries of survival. These fantasies encouraged radical criticism of existing orders and propelled historical change.
        The overwhelming affluence of modern Western societies, particularly America, has impinged upon fantasy life drastically, directing all desires toward material satisfaction. Modern technology can transform even the wildest fantasies into technical possibilities. Technocracy usurps the fantasy life of man as well as his survival needs, bringing the historical dialectic of critism and social change to a halt. Human beings are increasingly conditioned to imagine only what the technocracy provides. This event is for Marcuse the paradoxical result of centuries of utopian striving. A version of human hope has come true, but it is the wrong one.

America’s Illusion of Freedom
        The pleasure principle is allowed to surface under the control of technology. People experience unparalleled pleasures without creating chaos. The pleasure principle has been subsumed into the reality principle. To the mundane mind, this is what liberation is about. But in order for the indulgence in pleasure to be simultaneously universal and nondisruptive, it must be restricted to the shallow and vulgar, creating comfortable domination because human beings are subject to controls they have no apparent incentive to resist.
        Marcuse insists that, though people in this state believe they are free, they are actually repressed–controlled by their definitions of pleasure. He defines freedom as absence from repression. Thus Americans, who believe they are the most free, are really the least free. It dawns on the reader that, for Marcuse, absence from repression equals absence from our civilization as we know it.
        Moreover, also following Freud (and Machiavelli), Marcuse believes that civilization began in an original act of force imposed by a primordial patriarch initiating the “patricentric-acquisitive” order of organized domination. Over time, this personalized domination was transformed into depersonalized, bureaucratic structures obscuring the true origins of civilization in violent repression.

Real Freedom
        Poised beneath this organized, depersonalized, bureaucratic domination lurk “the repressed,” ready to reassert themselves at any time. Civilization is divided into the dominant and the dominated, but all in both camps are trapped within the structure emanating from the original derangement of the erotic instinct.
        Here Marcuse seeks to transcend the class struggle as classical Marxism saw it, although he still refers to the class divisions of society. But since the class divisions no longer reveal a class that is historically relevant for the future–since all classes are arrested under the domination of modern technology–he seeks liberation in what is universal, namely the sexual, pleasure-seeking tendencies in all humanity. The liberation of our pleasure-seeking impulses, given that technology has made this safe, will once again free our imaginations into “playfulness,” a refusal to take seriously the civilities and politenesses that are the outer symbols of the inner repression of modern life (see Rousseau’s similar analysis of manners in Discourse on the Origins of Inequality).
        To refuse the comforts of modern technology is the prerequisite to reinvigorating the utopian imagination so that historical change can begin again. We are bidden to unlearn the equation between comfort and happiness in order to project a new future. Nor is it necessary to show the plausibility of this future. Plausibility is a snare distracting us from the playfulness that will free us from the historical arrest that surrounds us.
        Of course, resistance to modern comforts might take another tack. It might make us mindful of the cosmic order spoken of by the old philosophers and theologians. But Marcuse (here following Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) thinks that the refutation of modernity demands going forward, nor back to the old order. Marcuse replaces religion and metaphysics with the utopian imagination catalyzed by the refusal of the contemporary worldview.
        More specifically, Marcuse rejects the “performance principle.” This refers to the emphasis in contemporary life on productivity, technical rationality, “problem-solving,” and managerialism–a world he characterizes as suffering from “surplus repression” beyond the “basic repression” which ensures the means of subsistence. The performance principle is a “will to perform” idealized as an end in itself, a necessity to overproduce in fear of confronting meaninglessness if we do anything else. We are metaphysical workaholics.
        Marcuse introduces the performance principle as the particular version of the reality principle for our time. In other words, Marcuse brings Freud and Marx together by historicizing the reality principle, asserting that our basic instincts have a history, that there is a dialectical argument between our consciousness and our biology, and that instincts can gain and lose characteristics as history evolves. History is the story of the struggle to control the definition of the reality principle. This is Marcuse’s revision of Marx’s formula that all history is the history of class struggle. Marcuse seeks two things at once. He avoids dependence on the class struggle because it is no longer dependable, and he avoids Freud’s pessimism by asserting that the reality principle itself, even though instinctual, can be altered by human effort. Thus he believes that civilization and contentment can be, contrary to Freud, reconciled.
        The unprecedented violence and destruction in the twentieth century exemplify the welling up of the repressed and the terrible power of domination. Unlike Plato in the Symposium, for whom the erotic drive ended in the ascent of the philosophic soul to contemplation of the “divine beautiful,” Marcuse, following Freud, demands not ascent (which is arduous and possibly a philosopher’s performance principle) but relaxation, an aesthetically pleasing pursuit of pleasure (“make love, not war”). To those still captive to the performance principle, this advice seems decadent and obscene. But Marcuse offers a rationale for all the current social liberation movements.They are the repressed underside of civilization coming to the surface, strenuous now in order to be tranquil later on.
        Marcuse’s philosophy is suited for an era that has lost the sense of cosmic order and the spiritedness of the Protestant ethic. Sexual perversion, for example, would be liberation from the repression of the performance principle. The “one dimensionality” of the world of pure performance can be overcome by eccentric practices that refuse to be efficient.
        Thus technology, currently the source of domination and repression, can also provide the means of liberation. Since it is labor-saving, technology should be redeployed from performance-productivity to universalizing the basic conditions of a tranquil life for the whole globe. Marcuse is not ultimately opposed to comfort. He seeks the universal socialization of comfort and thinks that his can be achieved without losing the productivity required to sustain it. Here he retains that part of Marxist utopianism asserting that the realm of productivity will always expand to support the process of universalizing comfort (more leisure time, less work time).
        Marcuse levels his most vitriolic attacks at the United States. He believes we have gone beyond the state of scarcity without assuming our duty to redistribute our wealth on a world scale. We fail because affluent materialism has produced thoughtlessness, anti-intellectualism, and “surplus consumerism” to match our “surplus repression” in the will to produce. Whether any sober analysis of the world economic situation in the 1980s would reaffirm this high optimism of the 1950s and 1960s that scarcity is over is worth pondering carefully. However that may be, it should now be clear why the counter-culture tied political liberation to sexual liberation. Marcuse, as much as anyone, elaborated the rationale for an “aesthetic politics” with its implication of communality and free love.
        However, the freedom symbolized in “letting it all hang out,” “going with the flow,” and “feel, don’t think” was highly selective. Liberation did not and does not mean there will be no restrictions on cultural expression. All activities revealing obsessive regard for the performance principle would be curtailed. In short, the consumer society would be repressed. But this repression, since it is repression of repression, would be liberation into a new aesthetic politic. Marcuse asserts in Eros and Civilization that a “general will” is needed. While this is not a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” it is likely to have affinities with it. Marcuse rejects the traditional solution of political philosophers like Plato of creating an “educational dictatorship.” He believes that a spontaneous reordering of society is possible: “Sensuous rationality contains its own moral laws” (Eros and Civilization, 228).
        Even so, it seems inevitable that an educational elite, comprising those informed by a new more adequate “aesthetic,” would be essential in order to judge what is and what is not permissible. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of how a rule of law would function to restrain such judgment, or whether it would exist. Moreover, one wonders what a “sensuous” rule of law would be since we know that law is the historical means to restrain the uncertainties of sensuous (passionate) judgments. A sensuous rationality that is a law unto itself will not wish to be detained by the inhibitions of traditional legality.

Liberation and the New Order
        In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse reviled the “global domination of corporate capitalism,” asserting that it deflected socialism from its original goals. He repeated his call for a “great refusal” and believed the revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and China signaled the overthrow of the bureaucratic structures that perverted socialist aspirations. In hindsight, one would be hard pressed to see those situations in the same light today. In 1969, the North Vietnamese had not yet demonstrated what they would do once they controlled the whole of Vietnam, and the full devastation of the Cultural Revolution in China had not yet been revealed to Western observes. Recent memoirs on repression of intellectuals in Cuba suggest a similar conclusion.
        The ghetto uprisings in the United States and the German and French students’ revolt in May 1968 seemed to Marcuse to parallel Third World events as harbingers of universal revolt against domination by Western technocracy, leading to the dawn of new freedom and a profound break with the past. Marcuse characterized the revolts as a rejection not only of the bourgeoisie but of all bureaucracy, a universal liberation from “pseudo-democracy in a Free Orwellian World.” But urban dwellers generally had more ordinary goals in mind and expected the bureaucratic structures to aid them.
        This new order would witness the “ascent of needs and satisfactions” beyond competitiveness, aggressiveness, brutality, ugliness, exploitation, and the “aggressive performances of earning a living” (An Essay on Liberation, 5). The “voluntary servitude” under “benevolent masters” would be overthrown.
       The new revolutionary “class” would comprise disaffected elements of the middle class, the wretched of the earth, students, academics, and ethnic minorities. The “technological veil” would fall, and retraining of the instincts would begin. Programming for consumption would cease, and productive work would be redirected. People would see that they have only what they think they want and, this clarified, would demand what they ought to want. The quality of life would be “dequantified,” and a new global project of world reclamation and renovation would set in. Technique would now be directed by artistic vision in “negation of the entire Establishment, its morality [and] culture” (An Essay on Liberation, 25).
        This was to be a cultural-aesthetic revolution, transcending reliance on traditional politics and violence, wherein art becomes a force of production. But this art will be uncivil, using obscenities to embarrass the powerful and desalinate the prevailing culture (this is Marcuse’s nonviolence). The dirty, long-haired, sexually frank, countercultural college student will be the vanguard of this revolution. The only explicit limitation Marcuse poses is on drugs, since they foment the false liberation of forgetfulness. This was to be an American-style Chinese Cultural Revolution as that was romantically understood in the 1960s:
       An opposition which is directed, not against a particular form of government or against particular conditions within a society, but against a given social system as a whole, cannot remain legal and lawful because it is the established legality and the established law which it opposes. The fact that the democratic process provides for the redress of grievances and for legal and lawful changes does not alter the illegality inherent in an opposition to institutionalized democracy which halts the process of change at the stage where it would destroy the existing system. (An Essay on Liberation, 66)
        We came to know it as the “New Left” and the “counterculture”–a “democratic revolution” against “institutionalized democracy.” Marcuse’s use of the adjective institutionalized is puzzling to say the least. It insinuates a deformed or sham democracy to the reader. But skeptics conclude that Marcuse’s revolution is against democratic institutions actually in place and operating. The alternative appears to be “non-insitutionalized” democracy. But what could that be? A democratic bird in the hand, one might think, is worth two in the utopian bush.
        The counterculture revolution intended to make itself intolerable to the dominant culture in order to avoid co-option into the established order, which was obviously willing to permit the counterculture to express itself. Marcuse thus spoke to “repressive tolerance.” By permitting the counterculture to speak out, the “establishment” defused its revolutionary significance (i.e., brought into question its necessity). Whether intentional manipulation of the counterculture occurred is difficult to demonstrate. The successes of this conspiracy may have lain in its being disguised from the putative conspirators themselves. The “revolution” could not have enjoyed more prominent display in the media or wider discussion in academe.
        Yet the appeal of the new aesthetic politics was limited. Most Americans were not unhappy or alienated enough to wish for a new social universe. Undoubtedly many were ignorant of the existence of an alternative social universe. But Marcuse defines the situation such that it could not have been any shallowness of the countercultural proposals, or any disloyalty to democratic institutions (institutionalized democracy), that prevented them from sweeping the country. In Marcusian terms, it was the technological veil and the repressiveness of tolerance itself that prevented the counterculture message from getting through. Nor have the veil and the tolerance lifted. Marcusian critics apparently continue to fail, while remaining free to make their case.
        Conspicuous by its absence from Marcuse’s thinking is the attribution of revolutionary centrality to traditional workers. Marcuse’s revolutionary aspirations are thoroughly post-industrial. They belong to an age of communications, information, and symbolism, and depend upon literary sophistication. One wonders how much Marx is left in his Marxism. One also wonders how the global nature of this revolutionary aspirating could ever be implemented. What this form of Marxism constitutes is the perpetuation of an antiestablishment critique whose content shifts as issues emerge and recede.
        The ad hoc nature of such a politics is consistent with its aesthetic aspirations to the “playful” and to moving with the flow of events in a manner that has no connection to the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism. As flies in the social ointment, the activists of such politics achieve what they can, a constant reminder to us all that they don’t go along, that it is possible to refuse the benefits of modernity selectively. For most Americans, however, whatever benefits Marcusian analysis might bring to light are more likely attainable through loyalty to the liberal institution that Marcuse condemns as repressive.

Timothy Fuller is professor of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

[The World And I (New York), June, 1987]


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