Marcuse, Herbert (1898–1979)

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MARCUSE, HERBERT (1898–1979)


German-born American political philosopher.

Few scholars exemplified the fashionable late-twentieth-century notion of the "public intellectual" as clearly as the German-born critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. Born in Berlin at the turn of the century, Marcuse was a student of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and trained in classical German philosophy before breaking with his teacher on political grounds. Marcuse went on to become an eminent scholar of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and his Reason and Revolution (1941) helped revitalize interest in Hegelian Marxism and introduced the theory of alienation to North America. Marcuse played an important role in the intellectual cross-fertilization stimulated by German refugees in America during the Nazi era and was at the center of some of the most heated intellectual debates of the twentieth century.

A German philosopher and intellectual to the core, Marcuse lived in the United States for the most intellectually productive years of his life. Marcuse was a member of what came to be known as the "critical theory" group of the Frankfurt School, along with Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and Erich Fromm. A scholar and teacher at Brandeis University and the University of California at San Diego, Marcuse played a central role in the popularization of critical theory in America as well as being a major influence on the political movement of the New Left of the 1960s.

Marcuse was a controversial figure. For conservatives, Marcuse was one of the sources of the extremism and anti-Americanism that they argued characterized the New Left movement of the 1960s. As governor of California, the American conservative icon Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) spearheaded efforts to get Marcuse fired from his position at the University of California. In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom captures the neoconservative critique of Marcuse with his bizarre attempt to link Marcuse, the Woodstock music festival of 1969, Heidegger's Nazism, and the alleged "Nietzscheanization of the American Left."

Marcuse also had his critics on the left. In a famous debate in the pages of the radical intellectual journal Dissent in the mid-1950s, the critical theorist Erich Fromm accused Marcuse of nihilism and of misreading Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). By the 1980s and 1990s, Marcuse's call for a revolution from the margins of the society was sometimes invoked as part of the problem for a Left that some believed had marginalized itself during the "days of rage" of the late 1960s.

Nonetheless, Marcuse was hardly the extremist radical portrayed by his most virulent critics, and some of his ideas do seem to capture some important contemporary trends. Surely there is something perverse about the cultural industries today, as we are exposed to "extreme makeovers," unreal "reality TV," and "shock and awe" televised war. And Marcuse was surely right that the old Freudian emphasis on sexual repression does not capture the extent to which contemporary societies are saturated with sexual images that create unrealistic and ultimately repressive expectations for what sexual freedom might look like. While Marcuse was wrong that the problems of scarcity and class inequality are essentially solved in modern Western societies, this error was one shared by some of the most thoughtful intellectuals of his time. And Marcuse was an early supporter of the political and cultural demands of gay and lesbian liberation movements, which achieved a degree of success in the late twentieth century.

Far from being someone who helped "close the American mind," Marcuse was an exceptional teacher of a critical version of the Western philosophical tradition and helped link these traditional humanist ideas to the social movements of the 1960s. He was mentor to a large number of political and intellectual radicals who themselves produced important intellectual work and engaged the world in radical and constructive ways. Marcuse's defense of gay rights, black liberation, feminism, and anticolonialism made important contributions to mid-twentieth-century intellectual life. And Eros and Civilization (1955) was an important influence in the development of feminist psychoanalysis, later developed by such scholars as Jessica Benjamin and Nancy Chodorow.

A brilliant philosopher and a controversial interpreter of Freud, Marcuse exhibited courage, principles, and imagination alongside questionable intellectual and political judgments. Marcuse's Hegelian-influenced recovery of the humanist principles and ideas of the early Marx pointed the way to the retrieval of certain elements of the Marxist tradition in the years after the debacle of Stalinism and Soviet communism. While Marcuse was ultimately more influential in his adopted home of the United States than in Germany itself, his cultural politics helped shape the emergence of German Green "postmaterialist" politics, his critique of positivism continues to be discussed, and his emphasis on the politics of the "margins" helped stimulate the "new social movements" literature of the 1970s and 1980s within European and then American sociology. The Frankfurt School focus on the culture industries and the politics of the irrational must be central to any serious contemporary radical intellectual agenda as well as retaining value for scholarship on politics and culture today. Thus Marcuse is likely to remain an important if contested resource for radical intellectuals well into the twenty-first century.

See alsoAdorno, Theodor; Frankfurt School; Fromm, Erich .


Primary Sources

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. New York, 1941.

——. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston, 1955.

——. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston, 1964.

Secondary Sources

Kellner, Douglas. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

Stirk, Peter M. R. Critical Theory, Politics, and Society: An Introduction. London, 2000.

Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Neil McLaughlin