Accidental Hero: Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” at 50

(Image: Beacon Press)(Image: Beacon Press)Having declared that the United States was becoming “fascist” the morning after Bobby Kennedy’s murder in June 1968, my activist professor father moved us to Canada, where I began college the next fall. My political-theory reading list included Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man, and I also took a freshman seminar in which we read Hegel and Marx. (I didn’t understand a word of Phenomenology of Mind, but my professor gave us Canadian beer, which made me think I did!)

Marcuse urged “new sensibilities” not to postpone liberation to a distant future, rejecting Old-Left discipline and submission.

It quickly became clear to me that these books, along with Feminine Mystique, Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Other America, were changing the world. The idea that books could do that changed my own life as I groped my way toward what Russell Jacoby, a fellow traveler, much later called the role of public intellectual.

The journal Telos, started by the SUNY-Buffalo philosophy graduate student Paul Piccone in 1968, helped us younger foot soldiers of the New Left make sense of the Frankfurt School, existential phenomenology, Lukacs and Gramsci. Telos sought to be the theoretical self-consciousness of the New Left, departing from the late-1960s spontaneity of Weatherman and the Panthers. As I moved through my undergraduate and graduate years in Toronto, I gravitated to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, including Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse.

Marcuse spoke loudest to me, perhaps because he, alone among the Frankfurters who spent WWII in American exile, remained in the United States after the war ended, teaching and writing with sympathies for the New Left. Whereas Adorno disdained the counter-culture, Marcuse developed a ground-up critical theory with Situationist overtones in his 1969 An Essay on Liberation. In this exuberant manifesto, Marcuse urged “new sensibilities” not to postpone liberation to a distant future, rejecting Old-Left discipline and submission. This represented a significant alternative to Soviet Marxism and to the US authoritarian state, which justified the massive incursion in Vietnam with reference to falling dominoes.

His basic argument is that false consciousness, Marx’s concept, has deepened in post-WWII capitalism, diverting people from their alienation and manifesting in false needs.

“The new sensibility has become, by this very token, praxis: it emerges in the struggle against violence and exploitation where this struggle is waged for essentially new ways and forms of life: negation of the entire Establishment, its morality, culture; affirmation of the right to build a society in which the abolition of poverty and toil terminates in a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence and thereby the Form of the society itself.”

It is now 50 years after One-Dimensional Man, an obscure philosophical account of political conformity and quiescence that required a significant background in European theory, became an unlikely central text of the sixties. The book was begun in the 1950s, as Marcuse noted in Eros and Civilization, his 1955 book linking Freud and Marx. He took stock of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned at a time when the US was just emerging from McCarthyism and it was better to be dead than red.

His basic argument is that false consciousness, Marx’s concept, has deepened in post-WWII capitalism, diverting people from their alienation and manifesting in false needs. Shopping both soothes the soul and produces profit as we shift from saving to spending in what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “affluent society.” One-dimensional thought is episodic and sticks to the surfaces of things. It is short news cycle thinking, jumping from the missing Malaysian airliner to nude photos hacked off celebrity cellphones. One-dimensional thought accepts the status quo, even loving fate (Nietzsche), a deepening of false consciousness achieved through the various culture industries of radio, television, film and now the internet. We pierce such thought by imagining utopia, ever the desideratum of left thought beginning with Marx’s early writings in which he anticipates self-creative work or praxis.

Marcuse, like SDS and SNCC, urged a grassroots left that refused to sacrifice short-term liberty for long-term change, agreeing with Karl Korsch, that the dictatorship of the proletariat should not become a dictatorship over the proletariat.

In the ’50s, as today, there were few utopians anywhere. Buddy Holly was born only three years before Tom Hayden, suggesting that history is open to multiple indeterminate possibilities. Our fate seems to be soul-sucking labor, debt and leisure spent shopping and surfing. As Hayden wrote in his autobiography Reunion, “I miss the sixties and always will.”

Marcuse offers no guarantees; his History does not necessarily have a happy ending:

One-Dimensional Man will vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: 1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; 2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society . . . Both tendencies are there, side by side.”

After Marx died in 1883, the challenge for western-European Marxists, such as the Frankfurt School and Lukacs, was to explain why a crisis-prone capitalism survived Marx’s 1867 (Capital: Volume One) expectation of its demise. Marx did not foresee capital’s resilience because he couldn’t have anticipated state intervention in the economy (FDR’s first hundred days creating the template of the welfare state) or cultural intervention in alleviating psychic crisis addressed by Horkheimer and Adorno in their 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment.

And so we, in the 1960s, read Marcuse as a utopian, a socialist and eco-feminist dreamer, perfectly appropriate to a New Left springing not from the Communist Manifesto, but from Hayden’s “SDS Port Huron Statement,” which called for a left based not on tight vanguard discipline, but on participatory democracy. In an interview, Hayden described the division of labor between himself and Dick Flacks, a red-diaper sociologist and his close friend in Ann Arbor who knew his Marx: “I was the New, and Flacks was the Left!” Marcuse, like SDS and SNCC, urged a grassroots left that refused to sacrifice short-term liberty for long-term change, agreeing with Karl Korsch, that the dictatorship of the proletariat should not become a dictatorship over the proletariat.

ODM‘s publication year, 1964, also saw Freedom Summer in Mississippi, organized by Bob Moses, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing the Vietnam War to escalate. The good mixed with the bad, as race and war both united and divided people. Movement gains were met by state, military and police pushback, which caused the white and black New Lefts to become more militant after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Civil rights became black power, and SDS was eventually taken over by the Weathermen. Stokely Carmichael organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and, soon thereafter, the northern Black Panther Party for Self-Defense borrowed Lowndes’ iconic image of the panther as its logo. That pivotal year also gave us the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, an early blip on the political radar of the conservative revolution to follow.

Assessing the legacy of the ’60s, Todd Gitlin concludes that the right won the White House, while the left won the English Department. I add that the ’60s were a decade of death, from the American south to South Vietnam. Many of the dead have been forgotten or were never known, such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, before Selma, or the 11 young men from my South Eugene High School, who died in Vietnam. Jacoby in his 1987 Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe tracks the retreat of people like himself (and all of us who work in critical theory) from activist scholarship to academic obscurantism, writing for tenure instead of composing manifestos and broad-brush narratives of social injustice. Jacoby is appropriately self-critical as we movement cadres, after the ’60s, decamped to university life, making career hay by parsing Derrida’s cryptic code instead of writing directly about domination and liberation.

Marcuse in ODM urged the Great Refusal, a break with conventional thinking about politics, economics, the self.

By 1972, when Marcuse issued Counter-revolution and Revolt, he had recanted his earlier optimism about how the New Left could avoid Old-Left authoritarianism. Five years after Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights Act and the publication of ODM, the decade wound down with the December 1969 police murder of young Chicago Panther Fred Hampton. This occurred two months after Weather’s Chicago Days of Rage, responding to the police riot at the August 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. For Marcuse, bombing for peace merely mirrors the murders and terror of the martial state, “bringing the war home” at the cost of innocent lives such as Medgar Evers, the three Mississippi civil-rights workers during Freedom Summer, the four girls blown up in the Birmingham church, and even Weatherpeople themselves in the 1970 Manhattan townhouse explosion, triggered mistakenly by amateur bomb makers.

The right organized itself during the ’60s to push back civil rights gains, political legislation, the upsurge of liberation movements – including the liberation of imagination called for by Marcuse. Goldwater was followed by Reagan’s anti-Berkeley governorship; Nixon; Hoover and the FBI’s COINTELPRO targeting New Left radicals; and then the occupancy of the White House by Reagan and the Bushes. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party skewed rightward as Bill Clinton and later Democrats opposed welfare; supported capital punishment; wrapped themselves in the flag; pursued military adventurism; and worshipped. By now, the second decade of the 2000s recalls the political stasis of the 1950s, from which the social movements of the ’60s broke.

Marcuse in ODM urged the Great Refusal, a break with conventional thinking about politics, economics, the self. His book ignited the imagination and sparked revolt, even as he drew upon recondite European theory reaching back to Hegel and Marx. I took my freshman course on them well before the internet. Hegel in the Phenomenology might have been describing the internet and social media where he characterized idealist reason as “the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken,” whereas Marx in the Manifesto anticipated laptop capitalism wherein “all that is solid melts into air.”

[U]nderneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders . . . They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions.

What I termed fast capitalism at the dawn of the internet in the late 1980s has become flash capitalism, with high-frequency trading of the kind described by Michael Lewis in his recent Flash Boys. Marcuse would have appreciated the irony that political discourse has been so coopted that the hard right, fresh from vanquishing ’60s social movements and then dismantling the welfare state and cutting corporate taxes, has branded the centrist Obama as a socialist – the same Obama who helped save capitalism from itself in the 2008 Great Recession, supporting the bailout begun by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and ignoring the NSA’s massive surveillance. One wonders whether the SDS’s Paul Potter, at the first antiwar rally in Washington DC in 1965, had read Marcuse when he urged the fledgling movement to “name the system” that perpetuates war, racism and class conflict, recognizing that one cannot take words and the world at face value, an insight deriving from ODM. Like Marcuse, Potter was asking people to theorize – to grasp the big picture.

Marcuse’s book mattered at a time when it and other kindred texts were assigned in college classes and the Port Huron Statement was mimeographed and passed around, annotated and dog-eared. Can books matter now that they are not matter but pixelated? Is it impossible for manifestos to stay invisible on the internet or do all writings – blogs perhaps – sink deep into the Sargasso Sea of forgotten websites? Resistance does not disappear, as we trace a line from Seattle 1999 to the Arab Spring 2010 to Occupy in 2011.

Unlike doctrinaire Marxists who insist that the proletariat drive social change, Marcuse’s collective subject includes all “outcasts and outsiders,” anticipating civil rights, the women’s movement and even Occupy:

“[U]nderneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system.”

Marcuse, an accidental hero, tutored a generation of young radicals, who, after the ’60s, gained a toehold in tenure by writing university press books for hundreds, not millions, of readers. The occasional left treatise becomes a best seller, such as Hardt and Negri’s Empire or Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. One-Dimensional Man belongs on that list of unlikely blockbusters. The title has even become a brand, with hagiographic Marcuse conferences, and a band, a fate that wouldn’t surprise critical theory! But the book did more than populate collegiate reading lists; it mobilized a generation to think critically and politically about their lives.