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The Temptation of Herbert Marcuse


HerbertMarcuse has been called the philosopher of the New Left. If this title is warranted—and I believe it is—then we have in the New Left not only a rejection of American society, but a rejection of the traditions of Western civilization. What is remarkable, however, is that the New Left can disrupt colleges and universities, the guardians of civilization, and frequently be assured of apologists within those very colleges and universities. Herbert Marcuse is not one of their apologists so much as one of their teachers. What lures many of these innocents and not-so-innocents to his teaching is its utopianism. This utopianism appears to provide an attractive alternative to American society. It is seemingly based on a solid and comprehensive critique of contemporaryliberalism and the conservative vestiges of nineteenth-century liberalism. It condemns not only economic but intellectual and moral laissez-faire. And yet, as we shall see, this new utopianism is itself rooted in the underlying principle of modern liberalism, a principle which Marcuse develops to its ultimate logical conclusion and, in so doing, poses a threat to the very existence of civilized society.

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1 Eros and Civilization (New York, 1955), hereafter cited as EC.

2 One Dimensional Man (Boston, 1964), hereafter cited as ODM.

3 ”Repressive Tolerance,” in Wolff Robert P. et al. , A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, 1965), pp. 81117, hereafter cited as RT.

4 Note, however, that Emile was educated to become, eventually, a citizen and statesman, one living in a closed society. Marcuse has radicalized and depoliticized Rousseau's teaching, denying the fundamental tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of a good political order.

5 Not to be identified with a ”pluralistic” society whose political institutions are virtually fixed.

6 To judge from One Dimensional Man, Marcuse seems unaware of the fact that the school of ordinary language is critical of logical positivism, in particular, of its emotivist or noncognitivist theory of moral judgment. See, for example, Kerner George C., The Revolution in Ethical Theory (New York, 1966). But what is at issue here is not the adequacy of Marcuse's scholarship so much as the political character and tendencies of his teaching. Hence, in what follows, I deliberately ignore the differences between logical positivism and ordinary language, although I agree with Marcuse that both deny transcendental values.

7 On the other hand, to teach that all values are theoretically equal is to provide “justification” for tyranny no less than for liberal democracy. But the question of tyranny will be considered later.

8 It is not clear whether Marcuse really accepts Freud's hypothesis regarding the origin of society in the primal horde (EC 14–17, et seq.). Indeed, his interpretation of Freud reveals that he is much closer to Marx on the question of origin. On the other hand, compare Marcuse with Rousseau of the Second Discourse.

9 Compare Marcuse's contention that the instincts are beyond good and evil (EC 206), and Hobbes's statement that ”The desires and other passions of man are in themselves no sin.” Leviathan (Oxford, 1955), Michael Oakeshott, ed., pp. 83 et seq. See ibid., on the following topics (and compare with Marcuse): Nominalism: pp. 21, 23–25, 32; imagination: pp. 31, 43; reason: pp. 29, 46, 104, 436; freedom: p.84; cultural relativism: p.104. Consider, however, how Hobbes's influence is mediated by Rousseau, Marx, and Freud.

10 Leviathan, pp. 63–64.

11 Strauss Leo, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York, 1968), pp. 261262.

13 Marcuse's animus against law and civilization (EG 215–216; ODM 237) reminds one of certain ancient Gnostic sects who regarded all law and civilization — indeed, the very order of the cosmos — as intolerably repressive. See Jonas Hans, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1963), 2nd ed., pp. 320340, on “Gnosticism Existentialism and Nihilism, ” also printed in his The Phenomenon of Life (New York, 1966), pp. 211234.

14 Perhaps it will be thought that with this liberation of the id there may ensue libidinous if not other forms of conflict. Marcuse does not deny this; although he believes that in his utopia even conflict will be gratifying (EC 208). Besides, conflict will be minimized by what Marcuse calls the Superid (EC 209). The Superid, he hypothesizes, might constitute some kind of “libidinal morality” which will serve to “delay and detour” gratification of the id, and thus impose some inner restraint upon the individual (EC 207).

15 When all is said and done, Marcuse's Utopia would be inhabited by what Nietzsche called the “last man.”

16 See Marcuse's interest in Freud's conception of the death instinct (EC 122–126).

17 See above, p. 7.

18 See Joad G. E. M., A Critique of Logical Positivism (Chicago, 1950), pp. 920, 143–152. Joad's concluding chapter on the demoralizing influence of logical positivism is prophetic of the character of campus revolt.

19 But see Stebbing L. Susan, Philosophy and the Physicists (New York, 1959), pp. 813, et passim.

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The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
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