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Definition: Marcuse, Herbert from Key Terms in Literary Theory

German American Marxist philosopher (1898–1979) and member of the Frankfurt School who remained in the United States after World War II and whose writings influenced the American New Left in the 1960s, especially regarding sexual liberation. Major works in English include Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), One-Dimensional Man (1964), Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (1968), An Essay on Liberation (1969), Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), and The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1978).

Summary Article: Marcuse, Herbert
From The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), a German philosopher and social theorist, was one of the leading figures in Marxist intellectual circles in the twentieth century. His intellectual and political odyssey constitutes an important chapter in the tradition and development of Marxist thought and in intellectual history generally, resulting in a body of work characterized by strikingly original multidisciplinary research that engages philosophy, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, and critical theory. This remarkable odyssey featured an early philosophical apprenticeship to Martin Heidegger, later membership in the Institute for Social Research where he studied and theorized alongside other Frankfurt School theorists such as T. W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1933, Marcuse left Germany to escape Nazi persecution, eventually settling in the United States, where he pursued a career that included positions in the Office of Secret Services and the State Department (motivated by his desire, as a Jew who fled Europe, to fight fascism) as well as academic stints at Columbia University, Brandeis University, and the University of California at La Jolla, where in the 1960s and 1970s he became a major influence on and defender of the New Left in both the United States and Europe, achieving a world renown that has since waned. His rise to intellectual and political eminence was due in part to his incisive ability to rethink Marxism and to synthetically engage Marx and Freud in the post-World War II socioeconomic environment, characterized by both abundance and the rise of a technocratic structure that ushered in the viability of imagining an end to poverty at the same as it posed the threat of a repressive society of total control.

In this latter regard, Marcuse's 1955 work Eros and Civilization might be considered the centerpiece of his intellectual production, although his earlier work in the Hegelian Marxist tradition, such as Reason and Revolution (1941), should not be discounted. In what is subtitled “a philosophical inquiry into Freud,” Marcuse emphatically articulates his hallmark utopian Marxist vision and elaborates his comprehension and working through of the concept and problem of alienation that Marx theorized in his early writings and which captivated and arguably began to center Marcuse's philosophical imagination as early as 1933, when he published his first major review of Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which had just been published. Reason and Revolution constitutes Marcuse's response to and Marxist synthesis of the entire oeuvre of Freudian thought, even as he is powerfully influenced by Freud, as evidenced by what must be understood as his radical appropriation of psychoanalysis. Marcuse challenges the central thesis of Civilization and Its Discontents, in which Freud argues that civilization necessarily entails repression and hence our discontent, as the maintenance of safety and order requires that we subordinate the pleasure principle, which drives us to recognize and satisfy our desires, to the reality principle, which pushes us to delay gratification and restrain antisocial desires. In particular, Freud argues that work is necessarily repressive and requires subordination of the pleasure principle. Against this analysis, Marcuse highlights the prospects for a non-repressive civilization characterized by libidinally gratifying and disalienated labor, open sexuality, and generally a society and culture committed to achieving freedom and happiness. Moreover, it is within Freud's own thought that Marcuse identifies the theoretical justifications and premises for a nonrepressive society, as he argues that Freud's theory suggested that the unconscious contained evidence of an instinctual drive toward happiness and freedom, which we see evidenced in aesthetic practice, philosophy, daydreams, and other dimensions of culture.

Marcuse effectively presents Freud's theory of normative human psychosexual development as an ideological narrative that accommodates people's alienation from themselves and their libidinal potentials so that their erotic and more generally creative energies can be instrumentalized in the capitalist system of labor exploitation. Reworking Freud, Marcuse argues that the reductive relocation of sexuality to the genital zones, which Freud theorizes as a normal stage in psychosexual development and which Marcuse sees as partializing what was once our more fully erotic bodies characterized by a “polymorphous perversity,” achieves from the perspective of capitalist instrumentality “the socially necessary desexualization of the body: the libido becomes concentrated in one part of the body, leaving most of the rest free for use as the instrument of labor” (1955: 48). This condition of polymorphous perversity becomes for Marcuse evidence of the creative whole self from which we have been alienated and which we need to recover from its repressed state.

This infantile state of polymorphous perversity indexes a state for Marcuse that needs not only to be recovered but also, of crucial importance, to be remembered. As critics such as Fredric Jameson and Martin Jay have highlighted in their studies of Marcuse's thought, the importance and role of memory, or anamnesia, cannot be overstated. While Freud more strenuously focuses on the recovery of repressed traumatic memories so that they can be dealt with responsibly in the present, Marcuse reminds us that the unconscious also contains past moments of gratification and of fulfillment of our potentials that we can recover as figures of the possibilities and promises that we have been taught to repress in civilization but which can be projected as a utopian goal. Importantly, for Marcuse, this state of fulfillment or happiness can be restored or achieved only through its externalization in an organization and set of institutions for the social whole. It is in this sense that memory functions for Marcuse as a primary energy for social revolution, and here we also see the abiding influence of Heidegger on his thinking about alienation, as he always retained Heidegger's sense that something crucial had been forgotten in modernity. For Marcuse, that forgetting is the symptom of our alienation from ourselves, from others, and from our world; and remembrance of these crucial aspects of being and world is key to overcoming alienation.

This latter notion that happiness must be achieved through creating the socioeconomic conditions that make human fulfillment and disalienation possible becomes a central feature of his utopian Marxism in such later works as One Dimensional Man (1964). During this time, Marcuse theorized largely from within the United States’ postwar society, characterized increasingly by abundance and affluence. While on an individual basis immediate desires might be more easily satisfied in such a society, the fulfillment of these individual desires did not address the more fundamental source of unhappiness, the abiding condition of alienation that was symptomatic of capitalist social institutions and organizations of labor. For Marcuse, however, the ability to gratify immediate individual desires more readily actually siphoned off revolutionary energies, hindering movements for liberation. Thus, for Marcuse, liberation from affluence became a guiding objective for revolutionary activity aimed at creating a disalienated society.

SEE ALSO: Adorno, Theodor; Alienation; Benjamin, Walter; Critical Theory/Frankfurt School; Freud, Sigmund; Jameson, Fredric; Psychoanalysis (since 1966); Psychoanalysis (to 1966)

  • Bokina, J.; Lukes, T. J. (eds.) (1994). Marcuse: From the New Left to the Next Left. University of Kansas Press Lawrence.
  • Jameson, F. (1971). Marxism and Form. Princeton University Press Princeton.
  • Jay, M. (1984). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Kellner, D. (1984). Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Macmillan London.
  • Marcuse, H. (1941). Reason and Revolution. Oxford University Press New York.
  • Marcuse, H. (1955). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Beacon Boston.
  • Marcuse, H. (1964). One Dimensional Man. Beacon Boston.
  • Marcuse, H. (1968). Negations. Beacon Boston.
  • Marcuse, H. (1969). An Essay on Liberation. Beacon Boston.
  • Marcuse, H. (1972). Counterrevolution and Revolt. Beacon Boston.
  • Marcuse, H. (1978). The Aesthetic Dimension. Beacon Boston.
    © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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