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Wednesday, 08 May 2013 22:49

Herbert Marcuse

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Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)


Marcuse was a German Jewish philosopher, born in Berlin. He served briefly in the First World War before taking his PhD at Freiburg in 1922 on the Künstlerroman, a German novel of a specific genre, depicting the lives and development of young artists - usually at odds with their bourgeois culture). He returned to Freiurg in 1929 to write his Habitation with Martin Heidegger. This was published in 1932 as Hegel's Ontology and Theory of Historicity. Heidegger himself rejected the work. He joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Studies in 1933, but by then the National Socialist Party had risen to power in Germany, and like many of his other Jewish colleagues he moved first to Switzerland and than to the USA along with the Frankfurt School in exile. During and after the war he worked for the State Department and the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).


He taught at Columbia in 1952 and Harvard, and after that at Brandeis and U. C. San Diego, teaching philosophy and sociology. During this time he was the most outspoken member of the Frankfurt School and remained an avowed Marxist. By the 1960s, his writings - especially Eros and Civilisation (an attempted synthesis of Marx and Freud) and One Dimensional Man. He had begun to exert a great influence of the emering youth culture and of the New Left Movement. One Dimensional Man, particularly, attracted the enthusiastic attention of the emerging student protest movement. In it, Marcuse compared American capitalism and Soviet Communism, demonstrating how the former, despite its prapagandistic assertions to the contrary, bore marked similarities to the latter. He suggested that the emerging world of consumerism and mass communication had the impact of producing "false needs", of producing a state of cultural and political quiescence and of reducing everyday life to a one dimensional state where critical reflection withered away. Against this, Marcuse proposed the "great refusal" - a resistance to consumption and to participation in mass communications such as television.

In 1967, along with R. D. Laing, David Cooper, Stokeley Carmichael and other Existentialists, Marxists and Anarchists, he presented a paper Liberation from an Affluent Society at the Dialectics of Liberation Conference held at the Round House in North London. The Conference was initiated by the Tavistock Institute (where both Laing and Cooper had worked) as part of its action-research programme. It was a watershed of critical thinking among the New Left at that time:

"The Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, held in London in 1967, was a unique expression of the politics of modern dissent, in which existential psychiatrists, Marxist intellectuals, anarchists and political leaders met to discuss - and to constitute - the key social issues of the next decade. Amongst others Stokely Carmichael spoke on Black Power, Herbert Marcuse on liberation from the affluent society, R. D. Laing on social pressures and Paul Sweezy on the future of capitalism. In exploring the roots of violence in society the speakers analysed personal alienation, repression and student revolution. They then turned to the problems of liberation - of physical and cultural 'guerrilla warfare' to free man from mystification, from the blind destruction of his environment, and from the inhumanity which he projects onto his opponents in family situations, in wars and in racial conflict. The aim of the congress was to create a genuine revolutionary consciousness by fusing ideology and action on the levels of the individual and of mass society. These speeches clearly indicate the rise of a new, forceful and (to some) ominous style of political activity" (for details click here )

Marcusecontribution to the Congress was very significant. He was an invited speaker at many campuses and continued to exert an influence on Western philosophical thought up to and beyond his death of a stroke in 1979. He had gone to Frankfurt to deliver a lecture at the Institute for Social research and had been invited by Habermas to work at the Max Planck Institute.

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