One-Dimensional Man

One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse (1964)

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Most people remember Herbert Marcuse as a Marxist polemicist and protagonist of the 1960s US student protest movement. Nobody who holds this presbyopic view can fully appreciate the message of this book, let alone understand its universal popularity and appeal. Marcuse was undoubtedly a left wing philosopher, but he was also an inveterate romantic. As a young man he obtained a PhD at the University of Freiberg, his chosen subject being the German Kunstlerroman, or ‘artist’s novel’. This was a popular genre when Marcuse was young and the aesthetic movement at its zenith. Books of this sort were an inspiration for Marcuse, because they told the story of the meteoric rise of talented young men from nonentity to greatness. Most were written in English, like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, but Marcuse chose German examples of the repertoire, including Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The social message carried by these autobiographical tales formed the foundation stone of his life’s crusade. People could always change, and change for the better. That was the import of his final book, The Aesthetic Dimension, which expressed the Utopian conviction and hope that art would uplift the world by imbuing it with beauty and joy. Marcuse was at heart

a romantic rather than a revolutionary.

Like other German intellectuals of his day (including Karl Marx), he was heavily influenced by the writings of Hegel, who believed that everything was in a state of flux, changing from one form to another. Every individual has the opportunity, and duty, to take control of that transformation process. Marcuse himself was always ready to change, and adapt to the trials that Lady Luck placed in his path. For a while after graduation he taught at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, better known internationally as the Frankfurt School. This institution was a rarity, in that it was a Marxist orientated research centre attached to the prestigious University of Frankfurt. When Hitler rose to power in 1933 the Frankfurt School, and its predominantly Jewish professors and tutors, left for Geneva.  Marcuse quit the school at this time and found refuge in America, where he worked for a while for the US government on anti-Nazi propaganda campaigns and de-Nazification programmes. But he still found time to write Reason and Revolution, a work which compared and contrasted the writing of Hegel and Marx. His interest in Freud, and his fear that people were being sexually exploited in Western societies, stirred him to write Eros and Civilization, which examined Freud’s theories in the light of recent changes in Western culture.

Throughout his life Marcuse was above all else an honest man, and totally consistent in his beliefs. He wanted to give power to the people, which is why he unfailingly opposed all oppressive, authoritarian regimes.  His studies at the Frankfurt School had developed his support for the teachings of Marx. Yet he was as ready to challenge the totalitarian application of Marxist principals by Stalin and Mao Tse-tung as he was to oppose German fascism and capitalist monopolies. He recognised that Marx had made a cardinal mistake in predicting a working class revolution. Capitalism, far from making the working classes poorer and more oppressed as he had foretold, had in fact made them freer and more affluent than ever before. In reality, it was the socialist states that experienced lower standards of economic growth, poorer living standards and greater oppression, censorship and genocide risks for outspoken critics.

With the end of the Second World War, Marcuse was no longer needed by the US government, so he resumed his teaching career as a political theorist. But he wasn’t an easy man to accommodate in the American academic scene, because he was now a vociferous left-wing critic of capitalist society, and found it far easier to relate to students than to his fellow faculty members. For a while he held an appointment at Columbia University, but after falling from grace at that establishment he moved first to Harvard and then to Brandeis University. When Brandeis refused to renew his contract he travelled west and took a post at the University of California.  It was here, in this more liberated environment, that he became an iconic leader of the 1960s student protest movement. He led their marches, spoke at their rallies, and wrote the One-Dimensional Man, which was in many ways the text book of their grass roots revolution. The work had a profound influence on both the popular culture of the time and also on the scholarly, socialist debate. Capitalist democracies were capable of turning into totalitarian regimes, he warned. Genuine democracy shouldn’t tolerate any form of repression, since this prevented the hearing of the voice of marginalized minorities. This powerful advocacy brought him to the attention of the media, which helped increase his influence. We are becoming robots, mere tools of the machinery we create, he thundered. ‘The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment,’ he wrote at the start of The One-Dimensional Man. The consumerist society, with the aid of a powerful advertising industry, was creating false needs. Instead of pursuing beauty, culture, contentment and friendship, we were obsessed with buying more material goods. As a result of this ‘one-dimensional’ approach, our ability to oppose and criticise the capitalist ethos had withered away. People had become slaves of the capitalist system. They worked from dawn to dusk, not to satisfy their real needs, but to satisfy the spurious ‘needs’ demanded by a consumerist society to buy more, consume more and spend more. In the process people were losing, not only their freedom, but also their essential humanity. According to Marcuse, the only way to counter this apathy and social repression is to stage a ‘great refusal’, a concerted form of non-violent anarchy. Being an optimist, Marcuse looked around and felt he could already note the first rumblings of his refusenik campaign; in the student riots, black power marches, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and non-conformist hippie life styles.

The book is heady stuff, but it makes a number of telling points, and I’m inclined to agree with Douglas Kellner who claims in his biography Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis in Marxism that it was one of the most important books of the 1960s and one of the most subversive of the entire twentieth century.

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