An Introduction to Herbert Marcuse

Austin Tannenbaum
8 min readFeb 7, 2022

Herbert Marcuse was a German leftist intellectual who, as a key member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, synthesized the ideas of Marx and Freud in explaining the impact of capitalism on the modern psyche. Born in Berlin on July 19, 1898 to an upper-middle class German Jewish family, Marcuse received a quality education before being drafted into the German army at age 18, where he worked in horse stables during WWI. After participating in the failed Spartacist uprising, Marcuse studied at the University of Freiberg, writing his thesis on the Künstlerroman, or artist’s novel, which traces a young artist’s development into artistic maturity. Marcuse then moved back to Berlin for six years, gaining employment in publishing and marrying a mathematician named Sophie Wertheim. In 1928, Marcuse returned to Freiberg, completing his habilitation on Hegel’s historicity, or the idea that consciousness is not a fixed entity, but a historical phenomenon that changes with culture and time period.

Completing a habilitation makes one eligible to be a full professor in Europe. Unfortunately for Marcuse, who was Jewish, his eligibility coincided with the rise of Nazism, effectively barring him from a university position. Max Horkheimer, another leftist intellectual serving as director of the Institute for Social Research (later renamed the Frankfurt School), had his habilitation revoked by the Nazi government because of his Jewishness and his Marxist leanings. After hiring Marcuse as a faculty member, Horkheimer moved the Institute to Geneva and then New York City, where Marcuse taught from 1934 until 1942. Afterward, Marcuse began a stint with the U.S. government, first working for the Office of War Information on anti-Nazi propaganda projects and then the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — on anti-Soviet propaganda. He later parlayed his work into his 1958 text Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. Marcuse spent his mature life teaching at various universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California San Diego. He died July 29, 1979, ten days after his eighty-first birthday, after suffering a stroke during a visit to Germany.

Marcuse’s work draws from many philosophers, but most prominently Hegel, Marx, and Freud. From Hegel, Marcuse took dialectics, which proposes that ideas contain their opposite: in particularity is universality, in being is nothingness, in the master is the slave. In contrast to Aristotle’s traditional logic, which holds things are what they are and cannot be what they’re not, Marcuse emphasized the internal contradictions within concepts, including the irrationality of “Reason,” the barbarity of civilization, and the liberatory potential of domination.

Marcuse drew on many Marxian concepts, but perhaps most central to his thought is alienation. Marx proposed that human life is affirmed through work, wherein individuals actualize their creative potential and generate value that they can use to enrich their lives. But ​​under capitalism, work for the vast majority is relegated to wage labor, wherein individuals are paid a menial sum to perform an often repetitive, uncreative task only to have the fruits of their labor taken from them by their employers. This creates a sense of estrangement: most obviously, from the products individuals produce, but also from themselves, as most of their time is spent for the benefit of their boss; and from others, as relationships among people are reduced to mere relations among things. Marcuse highlights alienation and the social malaise it causes as an indictment of capitalism.

As with Marx, Marcuse utilized many of Freud’s theories. Two particularly important ones to him are repression and the death drive. Marcuse scales repression — the burying of unpleasant psychic material — from the individual to the societal level, arguing that the ruling class systematically represses ideas that threaten the continuation of capitalism. With regard to the death drive, Marcuse acknowledges the inherent tension between individuals’ desire to freely exist in the world and society’s desire to have them conform, which creates an aggressive, even suicidal quality in the psyche. However, he suggested that a society not based on domination could ameliorate the death drive.

These ideas are all at play in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which investigates why we comply with an economic system that harms us as individuals, sows social disorder, and threatens our very planet. In the text, Marcuse provides at least five interlocking explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. We’re too comfortable. Marcuse opens the book with the tone-setting quote, “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization.” His point is that by satisfying our immediate material needs, capitalism mitigates dissent. This is borne out by sociological research: the biggest predictor of social stability is not the political form of a society — democracy, oligarchy, dictatorship — but the state’s ability to provide for the material needs of its citizens: jobs, food, shelter, clothes, etc. In this environment of plenty, it becomes “socially useless” or even “antisocial” to protest against the status quo. Instead, we are told to “relax, have fun, behave, consume.” A related source of complacency is that our work is not the same grueling, back-breaking labor of earlier times, rendering us less likely to strike. Domination itself is more comfortable: it is no longer the direct domination of master over slave, lord over serf, but an abstract network of laws and market conditions that is more difficult to identify and oppose.
  2. We think we’re more free than we really are. In the Western world, we have the right to vote, practice the religion of our choice, freely express ourselves, decide where to work, how to spend our free time, where to live, what to buy, and so on. But these freedoms are limited at best and false at worst. Our political choices are usually restricted to candidates that seek to uphold capitalism. Our choices of jobs are typically those of laborers who work for the benefit of another. We have little to no control over how our workplaces operate. Our choices of fulfillment are often limited to the purchase of consumer goods, especially given the weakening of our communities — a product of capitalism’s hyper-individualist ethos. This false sense of freedom tricks us into believing we already have what we want and need, precluding us from striving for something better.
  3. We identify with our oppressors. Luxury goods formerly available only to the wealthiest individuals are now in reach for many of us. We’re told, “the poorest today live better than the kings of just a couple hundred years ago.” We’re also fed the myth that if we work hard enough, we can attain the wealth and power of those above us — that we too can become oppressors.
  4. We’re politically impotent. Both government and unions have become captured by industry and corporatized, serving the needs of big business over the working class. The widely publicized 2014 Princeton study highlights this, reasoning that we live in an oligarchy rather than a democracy given the correlation of legislation with lobbyist preferences. Parallel to this, mechanization and automation have made human labor less essential to the productive processes, weakening workers’ leverage.
  5. We lack imagination. This is the most subtle point, and the one to which Marcuse devotes the most time. To explain it, a bit of philosophical history is required. During the first half of the 20th century, philosophy split into two methodological schools: continental and analytic. Analytic philosophy maintains that only that which can be verified through empirical observation or logical proof is philosophically valid; the rest is “nonsense,” as Wittgenstein put it. Continental philosophy is more at home in unfalsifiable subjects such as metaphysics and ethics. Analytic philosophy pairs neatly with the scientific-technological age, which emphasizes precision, verifiability. Marcuse traces how this way of thinking about the world has trickled down into ordinary thought and speech, limiting what we can think about to the “positive,” or to what currently exists. In this way, our imaginations are curtailed as we lose the ability to perceive the “negative,” the “what is not” and the “what is lacking” in the world. Analytic philosophy writes off negative thinking as speculative, emotional, irrational. But Marcuse retorts that rationality cannot be divorced from morality: the reason we pursue knowledge at all is to gain understanding that helps us improve our lives. Negative thinking is thus vital to reason, addressing questions of how to better ourselves and society by expanding the domain of thought to what has been and what could be. In contrast, positive thinking, which is isolated to the present, restricts itself only to what is. Positive thinking also confines itself to the “what,” ignoring the “why.” For example, science and technology increase economic output, but to what end? Is the production of environmentally destructive and unneeded consumer goods, of nuclear bombs and other war weaponry rational? Finally, analytic philosophy focuses on what is now, while continental philosophy asks how it came to be, investigating the factors behind the facts, the historical context behind the present conditions. Marcuse argues that the rigid rationality of analytic philosophy is in fact the real mystifier, as it omits all factors, all context preceding and surrounding a phenomenon, analyzing it in ahistorical isolation, which can never provide a full account of it.

Applied to capitalism, the analytic-philosophy orientation suggests the system is rational: it’s advancing us technologically, it’s raising our living standards, etc. Using negative thinking, Marcuse pulls back this pseudo-rational veneer, exposing the irrationality of an economic system defined by “the domination of man by man.” If we accept that reason is inextricable from morality, capitalism’s ostensible rationality becomes untenable in light of the harm it causes: we are overworked and underpaid. We are deprived of basic needs if we can’t afford them, even though there is enough food and housing for everyone. We are in a perpetual nuclear arms race that could annihilate our species at any moment. We are destroying the planet, and with it our means of survival. And we live alienated lives, feeling estranged from our work, ourselves, and others.

In pushing back against this concealed irrationality, Marcuse encourages his readers to participate in what he calls The Great Refusal: an acknowledgment of the intolerable conditions of capitalism — inequality, exploitation, war, environmental degradation, alienation — and a refusal to go along with them. Doing so requires “radical subjectivity”: a commitment to attacking capitalism at the root and achieving not just quantitative but qualitative change. Marcuse emphasizes the subjective component of revolution, recognizing the need for personal, emotional appeals to foster revolutionary consciousness, in contrast to scientific socialists who maintain that revolution is a historical inevitability.

Given the continued dominance of capitalism well into the 20th century, Marcuse rejected the orthodox Marxist principle that the system would collapse under its own weight. He was also skeptical of the idea that the revolution would be led by the proletariat given the post-industrial nature of the modern Western economy. Instead, he viewed students, artists, intellectuals, and other morally inclined individuals as the locus of revolutionary potential. Marcuse’s first and last publications were about art and its ability to inspire radical subjectivity. The artist’s strong imagination causes her to conceive of a world more ideal than the reality, producing a sense of alienation from it. This alienation is then sublimated into art. Marcuse believed art was perhaps the most effective way to provoke thought and reflection, to see the world and its possibilities differently, and by extension to inspire political action. Although pessimistic at times, his hope was that the transformative power of art would help galvanize individuals to fight for a world that operates on the principle of human need rather than profit. By restructuring society in accordance with a “planned utilization of resources for the satisfaction of vital needs with a minimum of toil,” Marcuse believed that we could achieve a “pacified existence” for all and facilitate true freedom, authenticity, and a flourishing of the human spirit.