Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse
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Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse

Intelligent Education

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Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse

Intelligent Education

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A comprehensive study guide offering in-depth explanation, essay, and test prep for selected works by Herbert Marcuse, a famous western philosopher. Titles in this study guide include A Critique of Pure Tolerance, An Essay on Liberation, Counterrevolution and Revolt, Eros and Civilization, and One Dimensional Man. As a sociologist, philosopher, and political theorist of the twentieth-century, his theories launched the New Left movement in the Western world. Moreover, he addressed forms of social control and theorized liberation techniques. This Bright Notes Study Guide explores the context and history of Herbert Marcuse's classic work, helping students to thoroughly explore the reasons they have stood the literary test of time. Each Bright Notes Study Guide contains: - Introductions to the Author and the Work - Character Summaries - Plot Guides - Section and Chapter Overviews - Test Essay and Study Q&As The Bright Notes Study Guide series offers an in-depth tour of more than 275 classic works of literature, exploring characters, critical commentary, historical background, plots, and themes. This set of study guides encourages readers to dig deeper in their understanding by including essay questions and answers as well as topics for further research.

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Study Guides
What is the consequence of Marcuse’s belief that the working class has failed in its Hegelian mission? How much of Marcusean thought is “extrapolation” of Marx and Freud, how much stems from Bakunin, and how much is Marcuse? What can be considered fallacious in his “reconciliation” of Freud and Marx? Why, as Marcuse sees it, must a new form of “liberating tolerance” discriminate against the Right in favor of the Left?
These are a few of the many difficult questions explored in this Critical Commentary. But it will have little meaning for you unless you are already familiar with at least one - preferably more - of Marcuse’s major works. Dr. Arthur Mitchell assumes throughout his critique that it will prompt you to refer back continually to your original texts. All five of the Marcuse books that Doctor Mitchell analyzes are published by Beacon Press, under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in Boston. Marcuse’s most popular works are usually available in Beacon paperbacks.
-The Editors
In one incisive passage, Paul Valery, a poet born in the last century but exposed to the wars and technology of this one, has expressed the meaning of our modern dilemma. “Once destiny was an honest game which followed certain conventions, with a limited number of cards and values. Now the player realizes in amazement that the hand of the future contains cards never seen before and that the rules of the game are modified by each play.”
And the name of the game is survival. In a world that alters as we walk in it: where the years of a man’s life measure not some small moderation of what he learned in childhood, but volcanic upheaval; where H-bombs and ecological disasters play tag with our lives, we are no longer permitted to wonder what may happen in the future. We must consider instead alternative futures which we can help to happen or avert.
Except for a handful of dissenters such as the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, most of our modern soothsayers embrace technology and all its works. The life and death alternatives to which they direct our attention center around the issues of control: who will direct the uses of technology and to what ends? The future becomes a projection of things as they are, except for stricter curbs on pollution and other anti-social side-effects of technological progress.
Thus it was that Herbert Marcuse arrested attention when he burst upon the scene loosing his Freudian and Marxist thunderbolts at the industrial Establishment, while loudly naysaying the irrational, one-dimensional mentality of technological society itself. The problem, Marcuse tells us, is not how to say “yes” to industrialism while disguising its more hideous blemishes with the plastic surgery of reform; that kind of cosmetic radicalism merely strengthens the system’s repressive character. To create a truly liberated society we must say “no” to the entire structure of enslavement: free ourselves from our obsession with technological progress and its spurious rewards. The social philosopher must concern himself not with analyzing and devising palliatives for what is, but with proclaiming what should be.
While the emphasis varies from book to book, every major Marcusean work from Eros and Civilization in 1956 to Counterrevolution and Revolt in 1972 endlessly repeats his three primary themes:
(1) Through all the long history of humanity, Eros, our pleasure-oriented Life Instinct, has been repressed in favor of burdensome toil; otherwise civilized man would have long since perished for want of food, clothing and shelter. Today, with these basic needs vanquished forever by the advent of abundance, a work-free, liberated society is ours for the asking.
(2) But if utopia beckons, getting there is not so easy. For the Establishment, vested interests who seek only to perpetuate their profit and power, have clouded our vision with cleverly designed smoke screens. Partly by corrupting us with their flashy consumers’ goods, partly by manipulating us with their ubiquitous media, they have turned us into one-dimensional cardboard cut-out figures who would never even dream of tearing the old repressive society out by its roots.
(3) However, the sensitive individual can still stage his own personal revolt: his own “Great Refusal.” Saying “no” to the false allures of the consumer-oriented technology, he can turn inward -liberating himself by pursuing a new life-style more closely attuned to Eros.
These themes will unfold themselves in detail as we proceed from chapter to chapter of this guide. But for proper perspective we shall first briefly outline the argument of each book we shall touch upon - giving pride of place and space to Marcuse’s two central works: Eros, Civilization, and One-Dimensional Man.
Billed as “a philosophical inquiry into Freud” Eros and Civilization (E&C) concerns itself mostly with refuting Freud’s gloomy conclusion that civilization, being necessarily grounded on permanent repression of the human instincts, makes unhappiness inevitable. Having established the point to his own satisfaction, Marcuse then sketches the outlines of a non-repressive society based on gratification of libidinal energy.
Freud - and Marcuse after him - first postulates a “man in nature” unencumbered by guilt or inhibition whose life is ruled by the wayward impulses of the id, a seething caldron of instincts located in the deepest recesses of the human personality. The id, whose primitive, demonic forces are inaccessible to the conscious mind, relentlessly seeks gratification of its every impulse, regardless of the pressures of external reality. As Freud has it, basically two kinds of drives seek expression: the erotic life-impulses (Eros) and the self-destructive ones (Thanatos).
Faced by the struggle for existence in a world of scarcity and want, “natural man” learns that he cannot live in isolation. But if left free to gratify his own mindless desires, man’s basic instincts would destroy all possibility of social cooperation. And Eros uncontrolled is no less deadly than Thanatos - both press for gratifications that society can grant only at its own peril.
Freudian Dilemma. No community can endure in a world too poor to support life for its members unless all pitch in and contribute. In short, human energies must “be directed away from sexual activities and aggression and on to their work.”
Plainly, Freud and Marcuse agree, the pressures that split man from his own nature trace back to the problems of survival in an insecure world. Some of the demands of the id must be renounced; the satisfaction of others delayed as the individual addresses himself to the work he must perform as a responsible member of the community. Civilization, Freud argues, has one primary task: to defend man against his own nature and in so doing to defend itself.
And there’s the rub. In a society whose members expend most of their energy on work, sensual gratification must be constantly deferred. This repression of our instinctual drives represents the irreversible price we must pay for the material security civilization provides. Because no sublimated expression of libidinal energy-neither in art, religion nor science-can possibly satisfy the dark, insatiable demands of the id, we are doomed to eternal discontent.
Here is where Freud and Marcuse part company. “The sacrifice has paid off well,” Marcuse argues. By taming our elemental passions in favor of toil, we have reached a point where we can satisfy more needs for more people than ever before. Today, he adds triumphantly, “the very achievements of repressive civilization” have created the pre-conditions for the non-repressive society he sees on the horizon. (E&C, p. 5)
Just as splitting the atom has, as a practical matter, made war obsolete, the cybernetics revolution - marked by the marriage of electronic brain and automatic machine-makes work and scarcity obsolete. And now that the burden of devoting the greater part of our lives to the struggle against material want no longer weighs heavily upon us, the rationale for repression evaporates. We must stretch our minds to take account of that startling fact if we are to adapt our thinking successfully to its dictates.
The new reality. That man can now wipe out poverty and want makes the values based on the work ethic irrelevant in the same way as the culture and values based on a hunting society became irrelevant when men moved to the agricultural stage.
With material want technically outmoded, neither habits of industry nor renunciation of pleasure rank any longer among the higher virtues. Yet we still have not shrugged off our bondage to the logic of technology that now dominates us.
This exemplifies the great failing of technological man, Marcuse tells us. In his relentless drive to master nature, man has subjugated his instinctual needs all too well. He has become afraid to let go, afraid to enjoy his own sensuous nature. But in an age of abundance, Marcuse admonishes, repression is dysfunctional; there need be no limits to freedom. And he offers a vision of a new, non-repressive society dedicated to Eros: to the pursuit of joy without fear.
Here his major thesis unfolds. In this non-repressive culture man will find “a new starting point”; achieve “a new relation between instincts and reason”; and the body will become “an instrument of pleasure.” (E&C, pp. xiv, 197, 201)
“Cheerless Optimist.” Eros and Civilization seems to be an optimistic work, sketching as it does the real possibilities of a liberated utopia shaped in accordance with our Life Instincts. Yet upon reflection one finds it tinged with the same bleak pessimism that informs One-Dimensional Man. Nor is this surprising when we consider that Marcuse fastens onto Freud’s most cheerless moments to sustain his own most optimistic ones.
Consider two typical examples. In the first, Marcuse deals with the problem explicitly. In the second, the pessimism is implicit in the underlying theory.
So far we have focused on repression as the precondition to fulfilling the work requirements of civilization. But even granting that the compulsion to work no longer holds, Freud would insist that society must still repress man’s demonic instincts. “Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love,” he writes. “A powerful measure of desire for aggression must be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.... Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities” of war and conquest “will have to bow his head humbly before the truth that man’s...tendency to aggression...constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture.” (Civilization and its Discontents, pp. 61 and 64)
Since Marcuse takes Freud’s instinct psychology whole, he is hard put to counter this threat to his non-repressive utopia. In the end, he falls back upon the mystical notion of a “new biology” which will end the dominion of the instinctual structure as we now know it. (But more on this later.)
Moving on to the second point, we must remember that Marcuse’s optimism turns on the expectation that people will surely rebel against the constraints now imposed upon them once the prospect of a non-repressive society becomes clear. Yet take what happens when we follow the Freudian father-son mythology
The Oedipal Pattern. None of us, says Freud, can escape the compulsions of the Oedipal situation which requires a son to kill his father before he can be free. Symbolically speaking, that is - he doesn’t really kill the old man. But the son must renounce the ideas he gets from his father - only then does he give birth to his own. Or as Goethe once put it: “We must earn for ourselves that which we have inherited.”
That’s what the Oedipal myth is all about: a process of earning for ourselves - striking down the fathers in the process. Carried over to the social sphere, this bears the promise of rebellion against the Establishment. So far so good for Marcuse.
But as the Freudian “dialectic of civilization” has it, all revolutions founder on a fault biologically rooted in the revolutionaries themselves. For if rebellion initially expresses the desire to be free, counterrevolution inevitably asserts itself in the instinctual drive to reestablish the slain fathers, to reinstall domination.
However that may be, Marcuse soon falls prey to a more profound despair triggered by the discovery that in the industrial West we have all been brainwashed: programmed to love the chains that bind us. As we shall see, this becomes the dominant theme of One-Dimensional Man.
Since 1955, each of Marcuse’s major works proceeds on two levels: Freudian and Marxist. On the surface, E&C seemingly breaks the mold - concerning itself exclusively with a Freudian analysis of social history. But if Marx is never mentioned by name, his spirit haunts every page. In one typical example, a Marcusean concept - “surplus repression” - deliberately evokes echoes of the Marxian “surplus value.”
And everywhere the sociological bias of Marx is cunningly interwoven into Freud’s psychological tapestry.
With One-Dimensional Man (O-D M) the evangelical tone of E&C vanishes. Marcuse’s optimism always sickly at best, rolls over and dies. His mood is lugubrious, his conclusions despairing. Given the destructive tendencies of today’s industrial civilization - the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the perfection of waste, the spread of pollution - we are doomed to extinction, Marcuse warns, unless we tear down the old repressive culture and build a new, liberated one in its place. But alas, if a non-repressive society is now feasible in theory, all chance of achieving it has evaporated in practice. For the Establishment, by sharing some of the spoils with us, has snuffed out the spirit of rebellion. With this spirit dead, man becomes “one-dimensional.”
Marcuse does not mean that we now lead flat, emotionally empty lives. He does mean this: Once when people were squeezed too hard they knew they suffered an injustice. Ripe for rebellion they listened to the radical visionary who opened up the prospect of a better world. In the end, you had revolution - of the American, French or Russian brand.
Man Truly Enslaved. But one-dimensional man won’t even listen to the rebellious voice. He “knows” he’s living in the best of all possible worlds, so why change it? No “transcendence,” no “negation” for him.
With the dimension of negative thinking missing, we arrive at the most lamentable feature of our time: people no longer even entertain the notion that a new and better form of social organization can be achieved. The occasional rebel...

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Citation styles for Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse
APA 6 Citation
Education, I. (2020). Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse (1st ed.). Dexterity. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Education, Intelligent. (2020) 2020. Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse. 1st ed. Dexterity.
Harvard Citation
Education, I. (2020) Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse. 1st edn. Dexterity. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Education, Intelligent. Study Guide to the Theories of Herbert Marcuse. 1st ed. Dexterity, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.