Refusing Whitfield and Rethinking Marcuse: 50 Years After One Dimensional Man and Other Things

It has been my view for some time now that academic discourse and inquiry should be a communal enterprise. There is no room or time for the hyper competitiveness that we see between some individual scholars as each seeks to elevate him or herself above the other for academic prestige. In my mind, scholars should see themselves as part of a community of inquirers seeking to understand and improve the human condition. For this reason, I have put forth every effort to avoid getting into polemics with my fellow scholars. However, there comes a time when too much is at stake to avoid a moment of intellectual combat. There are times when it does no one any good for one to remain silent while egregious errors are committed by a fellow intellectual traveler.


It is for this reason that I must now break my silence regarding an article published in the fall of 2014 in Dissent by Professor Stephen Whitfield. Whitfield’s article “Refusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man seems to be a response to a conference on One-Dimensional Man held at Brandeis University in the fall of 2014. Whitfield was one of the presenters there. Whitfield’s article should be refused not because it is anti-Marcuse, but instead, because almost every paragraph gets it wrong. In this article I will examine Whitfield’s article almost paragraph by paragraph to show that it is way under researched and completely misguided. At the end of the day I hope that the reader will see that contrary to Whitfield’s view, Marcuse is still very relevant or at least worth careful study. I cannot lay out detailed arguments about the relevance of Marcuse in the space of this paper. That will have to wait for another time. The point of this article is to address the completely misguided claims by Whitfield so that the reader will be encouraged to read Marcuse for him or herself.

The first three paragraphs of Whitfield’s article are introductory and not problematic. The problems start in the fourth paragraph and continue spiral out of control for the remainder of the seven page article. Whitfield attempts to explain Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Man and Marcuse’s call for a Great Refusal by contextualizing Marcuse’s political orientation. This is done in such a way that it is clear that Whitfield is attempting to conceal through his own one-dimensional thinking the real fundamental social and political problems in the US at the time that Marcuse was writing. Whitfield claims that Marcuse’s politics can be “better explained by his experience of living in Weimar Germany.” [P. 2] He writes: “The sense that radical transformation was needed in Weimar Germany was an almost rational response to the economic flameout and moral degradation that followed defeat in the military slaughter that began a century ago.” [p. 2] Whitfield goes on to situate the development of the entire Frankfurt School in this context.

It is correct to be sensitive to the social/political context that gave birth to the critical theory of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. However, the social/political context that gave birth to Marcuse and the Frankfurt School was not just Weimar Germany, it was advanced industrial, capitalist society. This would include the US. Whitfield seems to be under the impression that critical theory only applied to the situation in Weimar Germany. Somehow the US was more morally advanced with its sexism, homophobia, racism and segregation, exploitation, poverty, flaunting of military might, etc.

The last sentence of the fourth paragraph is quite astonishing. Whitfield writes: “Marcuse assigned himself the task of telling his readers how little autonomy they really enjoyed, that their economic security was in fact a form of servitude to irrational and impersonal forces designed to maximize productivity at the expense of pleasure.” [ . 2] Is Whitfield implying that all persons in the US and other advanced nations have or had “economic security”? Isn’t Marcuse’s critique based on the fact that so few people have economic security? Today, even a greater portion of the human population suffers from economic insecurity. This has been established by quite a few recent economic studies, most visible of which is Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century just published last spring. The project launched by Marcuse and the Frankfurt School was based on a question about the social, political, cultural, and psychological mechanisms that make people complicit in their economic insecurity. “Why is there very little resistance to the system that creates economic insecurity for so many people?” Further, Marcuse was very aware of the way in which a certain degree of autonomy could be used to prohibit the development of greater autonomy. The question remains, “how autonomous can people who are economically insecure be?”

Some of the issues that Whitfield raises indicate that he has some interest in encouraging people to refuse Marcuse by discrediting Marcuse. He tends to focus on things that seem completely irrelevant. He mentions that Marcuse’s intellectual influences do not include dreamers and visionaries who populated the American left. Marcuse also does not mention any American industrialist or politician. Instead, Marcuse cites Heidegger, Quine, Wittgenstein, Hegel and Marx. Well, Marcuse was a philosopher, and given the nature of his analysis he did not have to mention such persons.

The next attack is on the heavily theoretical nature of Marcuse’s work and the difficulty of its prose. Whitfield says that no one can claim that Marcuse’s work is under-theorized. This is true. What Whitfield leaves out is the degree to which Marcuse was influenced by actual events unfolding in America and other parts of the world. It was Marcuse’s political engagement and his relationship with student activists that influenced much of his theorizing. Marcuse exhibited a sensitivity to social and political conditions that was lacking among his Frankfurt School colleagues. For example; it was Angela Davis who made Marcuse aware of the urgency of the black struggle for liberation. The tone of Whitfield’s article seems to suggest that things were not all that bad in the US when Marcuse was writing. The result is that he has to ignore the black struggle for liberation all together, much like the Frankfurt School (excluding Marcuse). Although Marcuse did not deal with race directly, in his work he was sensitive to the multiplicity of liberation struggles around him.

It is widely known among scholars of critical theory that Angela Davis was Marcuse’s student. What is less known or considered is the degree to which he was her student. Angela Davis was studying with Adorno in Frankfurt when the Civil Rights movement reached a peak. She was torn between her desire to pursue her academic work in Frankfurt and her desire to participate in the struggle of her people in the US. Adorno was not sympathetic to Davis’ desire to return to the US to help black people in their struggle. It was Marcuse who supported her decision to return to the US and engage in the liberation struggle. So, Davis continued her academic work with Marcuse in California. In a letter written by Marcuse to Angela Davis in 1970 Marcuse talks about what he learned from Davis. This is a very informative letter. I cannot go into the details in the space of this paper. Simply put, Marcuse admits that it was Davis who made him advance his own thinking regarding the philosophical idea of freedom as well as the unity of theory and practice.   Marcuse also discusses the importance of Davis’ activism in several interviews. He mentions the importance of Davis’ work for the liberation of black and all people. Again and again he explains the importance of the unity of theory and practice as well as the struggle to bring to fruition the philosophical idea of freedom.

Another example of Whitfield’s attempt to undermine the legitimacy of Marcuse’s critique of advanced industrial society is the following statement: “Perhaps Marcuse benefited from the presumption in some quarters that a ponderous style is synonymous with wisdom.” [p. 2] This sounds like Marcuse gained popularity through some kind of linguistic trickery. The implication is that there is no wisdom or truth in Marcuse’s analysis, only the appearance of wisdom or truth through ponderous linguistic expression. If this is true, then almost all philosophers and a wide range of other theorists should be able to rise to Marcuse’s former level of popularity. Also, Marcuse was a philosopher not a novelists or sports writer. Later on in the article Whitfield mentions the fact that Marcuse’s popularity was eclipsed by his colleagues Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. No one’s style is more ponderous than Adorno’s. For some reason Whitfield is not bothered by this. He seems to just use the more recent popularity of Adorno and Benjamin to discredit Marcuse. There are also many people who find Marcuse’s writing much more assessable than Adorno’s.

It is not clear whether Whitfield’s attempt to discredit Marcuse is based on what he may perceive as the inadequacy of Marcuse’s arguments in One-Dimensional Man or on Marcuse’s fall from fame. It seems to be more of the latter since none of Marcuse’s actual arguments are discussed. Whitfield asks: “But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?” [p. 3] After raising this irrelevant question, Whitfield does recognize that there have been recent efforts to revive and rethink Marcuse’s work. With respect to one of these efforts he says the following: “An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.” [p. 3]

This statement indicates that Whitfield knows that the IHMS exists, but it does not indicate that he knows anything about the society or academic journals. It seems to me that most work produced by academics are reviewed in specialized journals. I know that Marcuse’s own work in the 1960s transcended specialized journals. But again, Whitfield entire assessment of Marcuse seems to be based on the popularity of Marcuse’s work and not it’s content. It should not surprise anyone that a book about one-dimensional man is not that popular in a one-dimensional society. Further, there are members of the IHMS who have published quite extensively in a wide range of journals and have published books on a wide range of topics.

Regarding the IHMS, this group was formed in 2005 with 25-30 members. Today it has hundreds of members from all over the world. In 2011 there were at least 300 presenters and close to 1,300 persons who participated in the conference altogether. The participants in the 2011 conference came from all over the US and over 20 other countries. In 2013 there were hundreds of participants at the IHMS meeting at the University of Kentucky with people from more than a dozen countries. Dissertations on Marcuse are being written all over the world. Members of the IHMS are being invited on a regular basis now to lecture on Marcuse all over the US and other parts of the world. There has been an increase in sessions on Marcuse at various conferences throughout the world. It is very clear that interest in Marcuse is on the rise. The question of the centrality of this work to academic discourse remains to be seen since this revival is rather recent. However, we still need Whitfield to explain to us exactly what it means to be central to academic discourse. It seems that Whitfield has read the writing on the wall and has become aware that there is new interest in Marcuse’s work. Perhaps the purpose of his article is to nip this return to Marcuse in the bud. It will be hard to convince people who have carefully read Marcuse that he is no longer relevant.

It must also be stated that the mission of the IHMS is not based on some sense of nostalgia since so many of its members were not children of the 1960s. Many of us younger scholars have recently turned to Marcuse because we have found his work to be philosophically, politically, and prophetically relevant today. His is not a philosophy of the past but of the present as we have shown in some of our own work. Further, our goal is not simply a resurrection of Marcuse. We are not Marcuse’s disciples, but, critical interlocutors. For this reason, we have attempted to put Marcuse in conversation with other recent thinkers, even using some of them as a corrective to Marcuse. In my own work I have put Marcuse in conversation with, Axel Honneth, Habermas, Rawls, Derrida, Foucault, Alain Locke, H.G. Gadamer and others. The 2011 conference at the University of Pennsylvania was entitled “Critical Refusals”. The purpose of this title was to expand Marcuse’s notion of the Great Refusal” to include a wide range of contemporary social/political, and philosophical struggles. At this conference there were sessions on gender, critical race theory, queer theory, poverty, sustainability, environmentalism, etc.

As mentioned before, Whitfield seems to celebrate the decline of Marcuse’s popularity and the rise of Benjamin and Adorno. He asserts that Benjamin and Adorno “dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones.” This claim is false and it discloses Whitfield’s lack of familiarity with the work of Benjamin and Adorno, as well as Marcuse’s. Even though it seems that the critique of culture is primary for Benjamin and Adorno, it is clear from their writings that the cultural critique is motivated by political questions and problems. Here, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse are all on the same page. Whitfield neglects to mention Marcuse’s very important works on culture, and that his first and last writings were on aesthetics. All three of these critical theorists were following the lead of Antonio Gramsci in recognizing that an analysis of the economic and the political demanded an analysis of culture. In this way all three thinkers overcame the impasse produced by the base/superstructure dichotomy in the work of Marx. They recognized a dialectical relationship between the economic base and the political and cultural superstructure. The critique of culture by Adorno and Benjamin is very radical and can be read side by side with Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. From time to time Marcuse would mention the closeness between himself, Benjamin, and Adorno concerning the critique of culture. He cites Benjamin once and Adorno several times in One-Dimensional Man.

Whitfield attempts to make a distinction between the works of Benjamin and Adorno and those of Marcuse by claiming that Marcuse’s work is associated with the crisis of Marxism. His claim is true but problematic in two ways. First, the entire Frankfurt School is associated with the crisis of Marxism. This is made clear by the many histories of the Frankfurt School as well as by volumes on individual members of the Frankfurt School. Secondly, Whitfield has a very narrow view of what the crisis of Marxism is. He writes: The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change.” [p. 3] The above passage does point to a crisis of Marxism, however, it is a crisis of only one branch of Marxism. Marcuse and the Frankfurt School represent a whole different branch of Marxism which was called by Maurice Merleau-Ponty “Western Marxism”. This is a tradition of Marxism that includes, Karl Korch, Georg Lukács, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, the Frankfurt School and many others.

The second problem with the above claim by Whitfield is that he ignores another side of the crisis of Marxism, that is, the Marxist analysis of advanced society omits several important struggles for social change that go beyond the boundary of the economic struggle. This problem has been the focus of second, third, and fourth generation critical theorists. Here, Marcuse is on board with a lot of contemporary theorists. Many recent theorists have tried to expand the most important insights of Marxism so as to include an analysis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

In his ongoing attempt to discredit Marcuse, Whitfield uses every available weapon. He mentions a visit to Brandeis in 2008 by Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the 40th anniversary of the near disintegration of the Fifth Republic. Whitfield reports that Cohn-Bendit said to him that in the 60s they read too much Marcuse when they should have been reading Hannah Arendt. Whitfield is correct to assert that the lament of that generation invites more than one interpretation. However, there were multiple interpretations. I too recommend reading Arendt but not to merely discredit Marcuse. Reading Arendt and Marcuse together can be very fruitful. It is not an either/or call. A reading of Marcuse and Arendt together can be very rewarding and it is the subject of a new book by Chris Holman entitled Politics as Radical Creation: Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt on Political Performativity. This is the kind of work that a new generation of Marcuse scholars is doing. Whitfield seems to be unaware of this recent scholarship.

On page four of Whitfield’s article he makes a couple of claims that signifies a complete misunderstanding of Marcuse’s entire project. He makes the claim that Marcuse’s revolutionary faith was limited after the proletariat failed to stop Nazism. His support for this claim lies in the list of potential revolutionary candidates to whom Marcuse refers in his works. Whitefield writes that Marcuse’s revolutionary faith:

“was invested in “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted,” and even in “the unemployed and unemployable.” To this baggy list, he would add oppositionists who were marked neither by homogeneity nor unity: the middle-class white youth who formed the New Left in Europe as well as the United States; the black underclass in the ghettoes; the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; and the Cuban revolutionaries. [p 4]

One has to ask what is the point here? It is clear from Whitfield’s own statements that Marcuse’s revolutionary faith was not limited, it was expanded. This is one of the unique things about Marcuse’s version of critical theory, and it is what distinguishes him from the pessimism of Adorno and Horkheimer. There is a large and growing body on Marcuse’s never ending search for revolutionary subjectivity.   Marcuse never gives up on the proletariat but expands the concept of the working class. He also sees other social struggles as legitimate sites of struggle and necessary for social transformation. Marcuse’s new position on the proletariat was made clear by him is many essays and books.   Also, Marcuse had developed several good arguments as to why the groups listed in the above quote should be taken seriously as catalysts groups for social change. All of these groups had in some way been victimized by capitalism and other forms of social domination.

In the same paragraph from which the above quote is taken, Whitfield says the following:

Scarcely a decade after the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had topped the non-fiction best-seller list with The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), Marcuse invoked the virtues of negative thinking, as a counterweight to “the most efficient system of domination,” which was how he described democracy. [p. 4]

This passage just might be the clearest indication of Whitfield’s tremendous misunderstanding of Marcuse’s project. First, there is no need for a critical theorist to ask why compare Marcuse to Norman Vincent Peale. This is very problematic in itself and would take too much time to address. Secondly, what Marcuse called “negative thinking” is really two-dimensional thinking, or dialectical thinking. Marcuse’s clearest description of his notion of negative thinking is in the 1960 Preface to his second book on Hegel entitled Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Simply put, negative thinking is in a Hegelian sense the negation of a negation which makes a positive. Hence, it is Marcuse, not Norman Vincent Peale who is the champion of positive thinking. Marcuse believed that the capitalist system as well as other forms of oppression and repression that existed in our society negated critical consciousness as well as freedom. Negative thinking negates this original negation. This type of thinking sees in the present oppressive order the potential for liberation. For example, we have the capacity at this very moment to end world hunger. However, the distribution of resources makes poverty and hunger an ongoing reality. It is one-dimensional thinking, the view that the present facts are absolute and eternal that prevents us from actualizing the real potential that we have to end world hunger. This idea permeates almost all of Marcuse’s writings, even Eros and Civilization which Whitfield referred to earlier in his article.

Whitfield also misunderstands Marcuse’s view of democracy. Marcuse is not anti-democracy but pro-democracy. However, according to Marcuse, we do not yet have a democracy. In 1968 Marcuse participated in a panel discussion on democracy in New York. In that discussion Marcuse said that democracy may have a future but it does not have a present. He had already claimed in One-Dimensional Man that the ability to vote does not abolish the masters or the slaves. His point is that democracy is not reducible to merely voting. This view has been backed by a huge literature on democracy by philosophers and political scientist.   Later in this discussion Marcuse lays out some of the necessary conditions for democracy.

Most disturbing is Whitfield’s tendency to twist language or invoke terms that for him legitimates his position. This allows him to make claims with no argument or appeal to Marcuse’s texts. He writes:

Most devastating for his reputation as a seer, however, was his failure to anticipate the significance of the reaction to the sixties that the right would soon advance and benefit from. [p. 4]

Whitfield goes on to mention that two years after Marcuse’s death Ronald Reagan became President of the US. Again, this view is based on a complete disregard for Marcuse’s project. I assume that when Whitfield refers to Marcuse as a seer, he has in mind many of Marcuse’s followers. However, we must remember that Marcuse never saw himself as a seer. So, the failure is not his, he was only a critical theorist. However, Marcuse was very much aware of reactive forces on the right. To some degree, the theme of One-Dimensional Man is that capitalism has a way of adapting to emancipatory movements. Further, Whitfield completely ignores Marcuse’s warnings in Counter Revolution and Revolt. As a dialectical thinker, Marcuse was always aware of the development of reactionary forces in tandem with liberatory forces.

In the interest of space I have to skip over a few other errors in Whitfield’s article. I think that by now there is not much use in addressing every flaw. More than enough has been said to legitimate refusing Whitfield. However, there are a couple more things that should be mentioned. On page five of his article, Whitfield contrast One-Dimensional Man with Eros and Civilization. His purpose is to show that there is an inconsistency between the two books. This is not true. The two books represent two sides of a dialectic where at one moment Marcuse focuses on the possibility for liberation wherein the other is focused on the development of reactionary forces that may subdue emancipatory forces. Whitfield is also confused about the inspirational sources for both books. He writes:

The effort to trace the radical implications of Freud inspired the earlier volume, and the relevance of Marx to advanced industrial society marked the work that was published in 1964. The site of one book was the bedroom, of the other the boardroom. Nor are Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man consistent. [p. 5]

The influence of Marx and Freud is present in both books. One of the main attractions of Freud was that he provided Marcuse and the Frankfurt School with the tools for understanding why persons who would benefit most from social change may be the first to resist it. Even in One-Dimensional Man Marcuse uses Freud to go beyond Freud. He discusses the way in which the Freudian notion of introjection has been surpassed by a form of mimesis wherein the victims of capitalist society actually identify with and mimic the values of their oppressors. Eros and Civilization is more Marxist than it appears. First, at the time that Marcuse wrote Eros and Civilization the Frankfurt School was under observation by the US government. They intentionally avoided Marxist language. In fact, the term critical theory was invented by Marcuse and Horkheimer to avoid the label of neo-Marxism. More strikingly, there are elements of Marx’s Grundrisse throughout Eros and Civilization. Marcuse’s discussion of machines and technology as well as his discussion of scarcity and the hierarchical distribution of scarcity are all drawn from Marx’s discussion of technology and machinery in the Grundrisse.

To sum up, Whitfield portrays Marcuse as pessimistic. This view is refuted simply by Marcuse’s never ending search for emancipatory possibilities. To look for such possibilities beyond the proletariat is not pessimism but a form a social awareness that discloses the multiple forms of oppression in our society and the multiple forms of struggle against it. Further, in thinking that the “Civil Rights Act accelerated the formal decomposition of white supremacy,” Whitfield shows that he has not followed recent race relations. It is true that things are a lot better. However, white supremacy has many new ways of asserting itself. The literature on this as well as the everyday examples are enormous. Whitfield also mentions the feminist response to Marcuse. He sees this response as negative, and indeed, some of it was. However, he fails to discuss Marcuse’s own support of feminism and the feminist who have been influenced by Marcuse. Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman is an example of recent feminist work inspired by Marcuse. Marcuse himself wrote essays on feminism and often discussed the women’s Liberation Movement in interviews. For Marcuse, women became one of the catalyst groups who may bring about social transformation and a better society.

Whitfield basically claims that Marcuse’s critical theory did not anticipate recent developments in capitalism. Hence, “the intellectual and moral legacy of Herbert Marcuse won’t be due for a revival anytime soon.” [p.7] This position is puzzling. What was One-Dimensional Man about if not about the ability of the system to adapt and maintain itself?

Marcuse’s critique of capitalism is as relevant today as it ever was. The recent book by economist Thomas Piketty in an odd way supports the need for a Marcuse revival. Using empirical data, Piketty shows that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing and that this trend may very well continue. However, Piketty’s book is just a report and not a critique. In an attempt to avoid being labeled Marxist, Piketty seems to report the facts without a critique of the social conditions by which these facts are produced and maintained. This book has become a best seller not because Piketty is saying anything new, but because what Marxist have been saying for 200 years is finally given some legitimacy by one of our High Priest of our society (the economist). Marcuse and the Frankfurt School were concerned with the way in which economic inequalities seemed to be accepted by the victims of such inequality. Piketty’s book does not provide the kind of critique that we get in One-Dimensional Man but it provides recent empirical data on which a book like One-Dimensional Man can be written or re-read.

Finally, regarding contemporary Marcuse scholars, we have no interest in reviving Marcuse because we view him as a seer. The IHMS is composed of a wide range of scholars who are concerned about contemporary struggle for social justice. We find it necessary to use all of the theoretical, intellectual, and political tools available. Marcuse is just one. We have no desire to be disciples of anyone. Marcuse himself did not seek discipleship from anyone but only critical engagement. The published work and conference presentations by members of the IHMS signify an interest in bringing Marcuse to the conversation with many other important contemporary theorists. Whitfield’s article seems to confuse contemporary Marcuse scholars with people who are merely seeking a political savior. Some of us have actually written against this form of political and intellectual messianism. Today’s Marcuse scholar seeks not to mimic Marcuse nor to blindly follow him, but rather, to critically engage and rethink the important theoretical and emancipatory tools that Marcuse and others have provided us with. Marcuse’s decline in popularity over the last few decades is irrelevant. The content of his work may still hold valuable resources for critically engaging and transforming our society. Refusing Marcuse would have to be based on something other than his decline in popularity. It must be based on a very careful reading and analysis of his work. There is no evidence of this in Whitfield’s article.


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