Vol 5 No 2 Summer 2021

The Two Souls of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man

Few intellectuals have been so closely identified with a social movement as Herbert Marcuse was with the transatlantic New Left in the late 1960s. In 1966, the year One-Dimensional Man was issued in paperback, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) included the book in their political education curriculum, alongside the works of C. Wright Mills, Gabriel Kolko, Paul A. Baran, and Paul Sweezy. Following its translation into German and Italian the next year, it quickly became recognized as “a primary ideological source” for young radicals in Europe.1 In the upheavals that rocked universities during the first half of 1968, Marcuse, the “prophet of the New Left,” was suddenly everywhere.2 Students in Berlin held a banner proclaiming “Marx, Mao, Marcuse!” — an alliterative slogan more elaborately formulated by demonstrators in Rome: “Marx is the prophet, Marcuse his interpreter, and Mao his sword!”3 Although dismissed by most liberal critics and increasingly denounced by a motley chorus of conservatives, left sectarians, and Soviet apparatchiks, One-Dimensional Man maintained its position as the “bible” of the New Left through the end of the decade, providing, as one American commentator noted in 1968, a “special philosophical vocabulary” that graced New Left journals “as if it were part of ordinary language.”4

This article aims to introduce and critically reevaluate One-Dimensional Man for today’s socialists. We begin with the book’s enthusiastic reception within the New Left, capturing why and how it resonated with a generation of young activists in the 1960s. Marcuse’s resolute moral and political opposition to the destructive direction of late capitalist society helped resuscitate the sense that the status quo was unsustainable and change was urgent. Unfortunately, however, some of the book’s weakest aspects — such as its offering as alternatives to the status quo various paths (cultural radicalism, new subjects of history, ultraleftism) that proved to be dead ends — were often its greatest draws for its New Left readers, something Marcuse himself understood and resisted.

In important ways, the New Left missed core aspects of Marcuse’s critical project that are worth retrieving for today. We turn to reconstructing and evaluating Marcuse’s moral and materialist analysis of late capitalism. We lay out the philosophical basis for his critique and his insistence on the breadth and depth of the moral commitments — to freedom, equality, happiness, reason, and peace — undergirding socialist politics. We then examine Marcuse’s materialist social theory, which raised critical questions about the gap between socialist theory and social conditions in “the affluent society” that resonate in our own moment. Our interpretation emphasizes the overlooked degree to which the “classical” Marxism of the Second International provides the underpinnings of One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse’s materialist analyses of working-class integration through consumerism, a rising standard of living, and the culture industry aimed to explain capitalism’s unexpected resilience and absorptive capacities.

It would ultimately be left both to Marcuse’s contemporaries Ralph Miliband and André Gorz and to today’s socialists to draw out the political implications of Marcuse’s questions and method and to formulate a socialist strategy adequate to the advanced capitalist world. Though he insisted that the basic premises of Marxist social theory remained correct — a distinct and underappreciated quality of the book — a sense of futility with the theory’s practical implications in the present, as well as fidelity to a vision of social change as total historical rupture, drew Marcuse to paint an imaginative but inadequate picture of his moment as Hegel’s proverbial “night in which all cows are black,” void of possibilities for radical social transformation.

There are, we suggest, two souls of Herbert Marcuse — on the one hand, the critical and materialist; on the other, the moralistic and defeatist — each with its own significance for today’s activists. We close by suggesting that One-Dimensional Man’s decline from its previous stardom may offer today’s Left a chance to learn from its spirit of protest, its materialist social theory, and its warnings regarding commodified liberation, while leaving firmly in the past its political Manichaeism and culturalist despair.

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