One Dimensional Man at 50

More than fifty years have passed since the publication of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (ODM) in 1964. That work shaped the first generation of critical theorists in the United States and, while no longer as popular as it once was, it continues to inspire young left intellectuals. Many of an earlier time first encountered the “Frankfurt School” through Marcuse’s citations of works by his friends and colleagues from the 1930s. Erich Fromm may have had enormous popular success but few knew of his early connection with the Institute for Social Research. As for the writings of now iconic figures like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer, they only began appearing in English translation during the 1970s.

For all practical purposes, ODM introduced critical theory to the United States. An interdisciplinary work, which merged the social sciences with philosophy and aesthetics, ODM offered a revamped version of what Antonio Gramsci originally termed “the philosophy of praxis” and — perhaps most importantly — a new critical pedagogy for a movement out of touch with its intellectual roots. Employing the critical method, it questioned old assumptions and predictions. Marcuse adapted Marxism to a new historical context marked by the New Left and an omnipresent postwar belief in “the American Century.” Thus, remaining true to the spirit of ODM calls for developing an immanent critique of its assumptions in order to meet the needs of a new epoch and a new society.

Marcuse’s classic was structured around what he called the “closing of the political universe.” Middle class suburban life appeared as the apogee of human progress in the 1950s and early 1960s. Social issues gave way to personal concerns and in Germany political engagement made way for a new self-absorbed attitude that held those with partisan commitments in cynical contempt, and that these activists should pursue their agendas “without me” (ohne mich). The Popular Front and the dramatic confrontations with fascism were a distant memory. They had been reshaped and reinterpreted by the mass media and many of the old participants themselves. Social Democracy had identified with the capitalist West, happily dispensing with its more radical heritage, while Communism was still grappling with “the ghost of Stalin” (Sartre). Structural conflict seemed a thing of the past. Both sides in the Cold War were obsessed with productivity, instrumental rationality, the domination of nature, and intellectual conformity. Stasis seemed to prevail outside of wars (mostly fought by proxy) and a certain ideological competition. Whatever the differences between blocs, however, it was clear that communism was striving for what capitalism claimed to have realized: an abundance of consumer goods and what J.K. Galbraith termed “the affluent society.”

Especially in the United States, self-satisfaction girded the prevalent belief that structural conflict was a thing of the past. Not that this was the reality: McCarthyism had launched an attack against civil liberties, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was battling the KKK, which still controlled much of the South, and 10,000,000 people remained poverty-stricken in what Michael Harrington termed “the other America.” But these entrenched trends were only background noise so far as the mainstream was concerned. In the United States, class contradictions had seemingly been resolved and turned into differences in “income distribution.” The welfare state had become part of the consensus and, where social conflict did take place, it was stripped of ideological purpose and transformed into a problem of “public administration.” Thus, Daniel Bell made it fashionable to speak about the “end of ideology” in the early 1960s.

ODM was decidedly unfashionable with its esoteric reliance on critique, utopia, and cultural radicalism. One academic publisher after another rejected Marcuse’s manuscript until Beacon Press, mostly known for printing Bibles, took a chance. The title struck a nerve, the book turned into an instant best seller, and the publisher became the home of critical theory. ODM introduced a broad public to the dialectical way of thinking developed by Hegel and the young Marx that was completely antithetical to the common wisdom as well as “scientific” socialism. Marcuse argued that class contradictions “objectively” continued to exist in “advanced industrial society” — even if they were not “subjectively” recognized as such. He also claimed that the liberal welfare state was not as benign as its uncritical advocates liked to believe and that it rested on what President Dwight D. Eisenhower admitted was a “military-industrial complex” with imperialist ambitions. ODM loosened the straightjacket of political and philosophical conformism by insisting that freedom was not reducible to increased purchasing power, the wares of the culture industry, or the escapades of an imperialist war machine.

Marcuse’s work also confronted the way in which the mainstream analyzed problems and reality. It challenged the operational preoccupations, the robotic language, and the supposedly neutral categories of instrumental rationality and analytic philosophy. Marcuse highlighted the exercise of critical reflection and the aesthetic imagination. He understood genuinely radical thinking as intertwined with the development of a “new sensibility,” a concern with happiness, and a critique of what was fast becoming a “totally administered society.” Borrowing a phrase from Andre Breton, who had served as the guiding force of surrealism, ODM embraced the “great refusal” with its rejection of mainstream philosophical assumptions and its desire to contest the “totality.”

Critical theory would treat all forms of philosophy as inherently value-laden and marked by the historical circumstances in which they emerged. The self-proclaimed concern with neutrality was nothing more than expression of ideology by another name. Positivism and behaviorism, for example, were bent upon excluding subjective interests from the supposedly analytic (objective and value-free) use of language and instrumental rationality. The point was to highlight the operational value of philosophy. These philosophical outlooks had long targets of the Frankfurt School and, in keeping with its tradition, Marcuse undermined their claims of “neutrality” by insisting that they affirmed the status quo through their expulsion of what actually were ethical concerns and existential desires from social inquiry. Their ahistorical character naturalized reality and thus demonstrated their unconscious reification of society.

“Critical” theory had originally been juxtaposed against “traditional” theory when the term was first coined in 1938. The new interdisciplinary approach was explicit in its transformative purpose, its historical character, and its unfinished understanding of freedom. ODM was intent upon opening the closed political universe, highlighting new agents of change, questioning the prevailing consensus, and sparking the imagination of an ideologically dulled yet exploited working class. In the first instance this involved confronting the “culture industry” which, in its quest for profits and the broadest audience possible, tends towards seeking the lowest common denominator for its products. The culture industry thus presents the simple, the clear, the unambiguous, and the tried and true. Unconcerned with critical reflection, let alone radical politics, these cultural commodities are inherently “affirmative” of the status quo. Even cynical and hard-bitten crime dramas, let alone saccharine sitcoms, fulfill this aim by rejecting utopian sentiments and insisting that human nature is deeply corrupt and that the brutal existing order is all that there is or can be. The culture industry almost naturally threatens what Hegel called the “unhappy consciousness,” the motor of freedom and negation, which longs for the new and projects an emancipated social order. Triumphant in advanced industrial society is the “happy consciousness” that excludes meaningful critique and any prospects for developing a “new sensibility.”

ODM reflected the aesthetic impulse of the New Left, if not its musical and cinematic tastes, by castigating affirmative culture and the logic of its production. The integrative power of the culture industry led Marcuse to privilege the role of what considered “marginal groups” that had been victims of exploitation and prejudice: women, people of color, young intellectuals, and the colonized. Their marginality to the functioning of the culture industry is precisely what enabled them to serve as revolutionary “catalysts” for the working class while inspired by a new sensibility disgusted with the exercise of cruelty, patriarchal values, environmental devastation, prejudice, exploitation, and war. ODM presented this as part of an always-unfinished struggle for a very different world. Therein lies its radicalism.

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ODM crystallized a host of themes and influences from Marcuse’s earlier writings ranging from critical aesthetics and alienation to history and historicity to meta-psychology and the dialectical character of freedom. Often forgotten amid the controversy engendered by ODM is the intellectual quality of Marcuse’s scholarly work and his exceptional talents as an essayist. His reviews of The Paris Manuscripts of 1844 (1932) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1939) provide seminal interpretations of these classics. Marcuse’s own early experimental attempts to link Marx and Heidegger by grounding history in “historicity” shaped the perspective on alienation taken in ODM where it appears not merely as a function of the production process but an existential experience that impoverishes the interior. Other early essays collected in Negations (1968) like “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1937) and “On Hedonism” (1938) evinced a deep erudition even as the target under attack and the new concern with happiness that Marcuse would articulate in various works including ODM. His later fusion of Schiller and Freud with Marx and Heidegger resulted in Eros and Civilization (1955) — arguably the most important and utopian work of modernity — along with the emergence of categories like the “pacification of existence” and the “new sensibility.”

The culture industry is perhaps the most famous category of critical theory. It originated in essays by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer from the 1930s as well as, most notably, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) by Horkheimer and Adorno. But the concept first gained notoriety through ODM. That art was being transformed into a commodity was nothing new, little more than an extension of the logic employed by Marx in the first volume of Das Kapital (1867). But the claim that art had lost its uniqueness, its transcendence, its utopian quality, and its ability to foster critical reflection gave the old arguments a new twist. Art now really was nothing more than just another commodity. The culture industry would sell anything and turn anything into a fad. Even returning to the classics was impeded by the use of Beethoven or Mozart in advertisements or the transformation of great paintings into posters decorating every other wall in a university dorm. Nor did politics matter. No work of art was immune from the integrative and sanitizing power of the culture industry.

Marcuse sought to infuse a seemingly moribund radicalism degraded by the culture industry with new social priorities and, through Schiller, a new sense of utopian purpose. The former appropriated the “play impulse,” “lightness,” and the primacy of form from the latter’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794). Just as Schiller’s highlighting of aesthetics served to preserve the emancipatory impulse from becoming identified with the bloody politics of the French Revolution, and the ultimate triumph of the Restoration, Marcuse privileged the cultural moment and the utopian alternative in order to prevent liberation from becoming identified with “advanced industrial society.” Marcuse employed this term in the subtitle of ODM. Its implication was clear: critical theory was meant to target not only capitalist society but “actually existing socialism” and any other production process built upon the “alienation” of labor.

ODM confronted this reality with an unfinished notion of freedom that always remains to be specified and redefined. That understanding of freedom kept the book from falling into the trap of an unrelieved “cultural pessimism.” Reason for Marcuse is not neutral (as positivists and behaviorists would have it) but inherently value-laden, historical, and critical of all attempts to conflate freedom with given institutions. The reliance on philosophical idealism in ODM is rooted in an earlier work: Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941). It remains one of the great and still salient interpretations of Hegel’s thought. Rejecting the still popular view of his philosophy as authoritarian, if not a precursor of fascism, Marcuse stressed Hegel’s emphasis upon “negation,” its confrontation with necessity; its imperative to uncover still unacknowledged forms of alienation, its attack on dogmatism, and its view of history as the province of “social theory” rather than “science. Reason and Revolution confirms the rueful claim of Carl Schmitt, the staunch conservative and fascist thinker, that “on the day that Hitler took power Hegel died.”

Marcuse saw Hegel as paving the way for the new materialist understanding of alienation along with the utopian impulse of the young Marx. Insofar as alienation taints every aspect of advanced industrial society, if we really are living in what Hegel (and then Marx) termed an “inverted world,” then freedom should appear not merely as an insight into necessity but as the negation of the totality and as what I elsewhere termed an “anthropological break” from a totally administered society. Only in that way is it possible to enrich the existential realm of experience impoverished by alienation. This, in turn, is the justification for introducing the idea of a “new sensibility” and radicalizing E.P. Thompson’s claim that the New Left was the first mass movement to place culture at the forefront of the radical enterprise.

Much has been made of the influence (or lack of it) exhibited by ODM. But this much is clear: “Marginal” groups were the catalytic agents for the European strike wave of 1968, and their discourse was decidedly more radical than the explicitly liberal Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Much of the New Left was also concerned with what are today termed “post-materialist” issues such as animal rights, personal relations, child rearing, sexuality, and the environment. Infused by what Paul Ricoeur termed a “hermeneutic suspicion” of power, these groups also evinced an almost visceral hatred of war, racism, and inequality. Exaggerated claims about the emergence of a “new man,” or attempts to romanticize the ‘60s, only obscure what was important. The New Left expanded the boundaries of taste, challenged the “culture industry,” helped bring empower previously disenfranchised groups, changed what was permissible, and gave education a critical thrust. Marcuse aided the efforts of what conservatives still condemn as “the adversary culture.” ODM heightened the material level of culture, offered an immanent critique of an outworn discourse, and challenged radicals to provide what is so sorely missing today: a politics inspired by the ability to imagine a different world.

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ODM remains a classic work that, as Hegel put the matter, “comprehends its epoch in thought.” But this is now a different epoch. Marcuse saw a reactionary change coming and the conservative attack upon the “movement” in Counter-Revolution and Revolt (1972). His last book, The Aesthetic Dimension (1977) highlighted the need for critical theory to focus on the “non-identity” between subject and object, the individual and society, and the decidedly non-activist aesthetic views of Theodor Adorno. But this has tended to make critical theory self-indulgent, unnecessarily esoteric, metaphysical, and blind to the workings of institutional power. Critical theory, in short, has become academic precisely when it needs to confront a changed political world.

The closed political universe has re-opened. The old consensus is gone. There is hardly a single important liberal left in the Republican Party and its agenda has basically been set by the Tea Party. Supporters of free markets square off against advocates of state intervention. Ideological cleavages have emerged. The totally administered society has come apart amid the catastrophic policies associated with war in the Middle East and a gigantic economic collapse in 2007. The happy consciousness is no longer quite so omnipresent. Even during the 1960s it was evident that critical television (as in the case of, say, All in the Family) provoked real controversy and it is hard to deny that saccharine sitcoms have humanized gays and lesbians for a broader public. Douglas Kellner was correct when he talked of the culture industry as a “contested terrain” and, today, old assumptions about culture and aesthetics require radical revision given the rise of “virtual reality” and a new cyber world.

Once marginal groups are also no longer marginal. Outbreaks of the old racist or sexist or homophobic style and rhetoric, admittedly, still occur. Police still shoot black youths, religious zealots still thunder against homosexuality, and provincial chauvinists still fear the immigrant and the Arab. But there is a sense in which all of this is anachronistic. As I suggested in The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (2014), traditional targets of discrimination now come under attack in a more “politically correct” manner. Criticisms of the welfare state are no longer peppered with references to single mothers and “welfare queens” but rather the rhetoric of the free market, individual “responsibility,” and warnings that the country is heading down what Friedrich Hayek termed the “road to serfdom.” Curtailing the voting rights and the political clout of poor people of color is now justified in terms of formalities and fear of fraud — even though there is barely a hint of electoral fraud. The assault on gay marriage and women in the workplace now takes place in the name of tradition while supposed fear of moral decline and loss of religious values anchor the opposition to evolution, multi-cultural education, and critical thinking.

Transformative politics today requires knowledge about how the production process works, how marginal groups have been integrated, and how to strengthen solidarity in a new age. Class contradictions that were dormant have become manifest. Dealing with them, of course, is another matter. But, then, the Left has made things too easy for itself. Romantic anti-capitalism has become entrenched, especially among those radicals who still feed off the cultural style and political assumptions of the 1960s after more than half a century. Old targets of formal prejudice now have their bureaucratic lobbying organizations. Each privileges its clientele against others and employs fragmenting ideologies to justify the morality of the separate deal. Political thinking divorced from the logic of power is always apolitical. The success of the Tea Party as against the collapse of Occupy Wall Street should prove instructive. Imagination has its place but that is also true of realism and the need for class ideals to shift economic priorities, protect civil liberties, and foster a new cosmopolitan sensibility. This means that imagining the possible must supplant abstract visions of an anthropological break and that the indeterminate negation of ODM requires greater specificity. To put it another way, articulating the clear alternative should be a substitute for the great refusal.

Whether Marcuse would have agreed with these suggestions is another story. But they are the kind of discussions that occur too rarely and that, I think, he would have enjoyed. They indicate the preconditions for fighting one-dimensional thinking and the temptations of one-dimensional man in a new age. Indeed, wherever the fight for freedom will arise in the future, it will surely draw inspiration from the transformative promise of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.


Dedicated to Douglas Kellner


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1