Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

What Herbert Marcuse Got Right — and Wrong

Socialists today should learn from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: in particular, its spirit of protest, its materialist social theory, and its warnings about commodified liberation. But they should leave behind its moralism and despair about change.

Herbert Marcuse, photographed on May 18, 1979. (DPA / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Few intellectuals have been so closely identified with a social movement as Herbert Marcuse was with the transatlantic New Left in the late 1960s. In 1966, the year One-Dimensional Man was issued in paperback, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) included the book in their political education curriculum, alongside the works of C. Wright Mills, Gabriel Kolko, Paul A. Baran, and Paul Sweezy. Following its translation into German and Italian the next year, it quickly became recognized as “a primary ideological source” for young radicals in Europe, according to Hubert J. Erb in the Austin Statesmen in 1967. In the upheavals that rocked universities during the first half of 1968, Marcuse, the “prophet of the New Left,” was suddenly everywhere. Students in Berlin held a banner proclaiming “Marx, Mao, Marcuse!” — an alliterative slogan more elaborately formulated by demonstrators in Rome: “Marx is the prophet, Marcuse his interpreter, and Mao his sword!” Although dismissed by most liberal critics and increasingly denounced by a motley chorus of conservatives, left sectarians, and Soviet apparatchiks, One-Dimensional Man maintained its position as the “bible” of the New Left through the end of the decade, providing, as American commentator Allen Graubard noted in 1968, a “special philosophical vocabulary” that graced New Left journals “as if it were part of ordinary language.”

This article aims to introduce and critically reevaluate One-Dimensional Man for today’s socialists. We begin with the book’s enthusiastic reception within the New Left, capturing why and how it resonated with a generation of young activists in the 1960s. Marcuse’s resolute moral and political opposition to the destructive direction of late capitalist society helped resuscitate the sense that the status quo was unsustainable and change was urgent. Unfortunately, however, some of the book’s weakest aspects — such as its offering as alternatives to the status quo various paths (cultural radicalism, new subjects of history, ultraleftism) that proved to be dead ends — were often its greatest draws for its New Left readers, something Marcuse himself understood and resisted.

In important ways, the New Left missed core aspects of Marcuse’s critical project that are worth retrieving for today. We turn to reconstructing and evaluating Marcuse’s moral and materialist analysis of late capitalism. We lay out the philosophical basis for his critique and his insistence on the breadth and depth of the moral commitments — to freedom, equality, happiness, reason, and peace — undergirding socialist politics. We then examine Marcuse’s materialist social theory, which raised critical questions about the gap between socialist theory and social conditions in “the affluent society” that resonate in our own moment. Our interpretation emphasizes the overlooked degree to which the “classical” Marxism of the Second International provides the underpinnings of One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse’s materialist analyses of working-class integration through consumerism, a rising standard of living, and the culture industry aimed to explain capitalism’s unexpected resilience and absorptive capacities.

It would ultimately be left both to Marcuse’s contemporaries Ralph Miliband and André Gorz and to today’s socialists to draw out the political implications of Marcuse’s questions and method and to formulate a socialist strategy adequate to the advanced capitalist world. Though he insisted that the basic premises of Marxist social theory remained correct — a distinct and underappreciated quality of the book — a sense of futility with the theory’s practical implications in the present, as well as fidelity to a vision of social change as total historical rupture, drew Marcuse to paint an imaginative but inadequate picture of his moment as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s proverbial “night in which all cows are black,” void of possibilities for radical social transformation.

There are, we suggest, two souls of Herbert Marcuse — on the one hand, the critical and materialist; on the other, the moralistic and defeatist — each with its own significance for today’s activists. We close by suggesting that One-Dimensional Man’s decline from its previous stardom may offer today’s Left a chance to learn from its spirit of protest, its materialist social theory, and its warnings regarding commodified liberation, while leaving firmly in the past its political Manichaeism and culturalist despair.

Guru of the New Left

Hebert Marcuse, a German-Jewish philosopher, lived a turbulent but scholarly life that hardly seemed to set him up to become a household name and “father” to a mass movement. He grew up in Berlin, and though he was politicized by the abortive German Revolution of 1918–19, he soon went to Freiburg to study philosophy under Martin Heidegger. (Marcuse participated briefly in a soldiers’ council during the revolution, and he sympathized with the Spartacist uprising and its assassinated leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.) Blocked in mainstream German academic circles with the rise of Nazism, Marcuse joined the Institute for Social Research (also known as the “Frankfurt School”) and, in the late 1930s, emigrated to the United States to teach at Columbia University. During World War II, Marcuse worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), helping to guide the war effort against the Nazis. He eventually returned to teaching, first at Brandeis University and then at the University of California, San Diego, where he became a bête noire of the Right, facing the condemnation of then governor Ronald Reagan.

Among Marcuse’s major writings, his first book published in English, Reason and Revolution (1941), remains one of the best interpretations of the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and an expression of the engaged philosophy that he would continue to champion throughout his career. His other most important works were: Eros and Civilization (1955), a synthesis of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud that aimed to historicize modern psychology, investigate the psychic sources of domination, and articulate a utopia of fulfillment and sexual liberation; The Aesthetic Dimension (1978), which argued for the centrality of art, imagination, and sensuality to human emancipation; and, of course, One-Dimensional Man (published in 1964, but substantially finished in the late ’50s), which is the subject of this article.

Indeed, it may seem especially surprising that One-Dimensional Man, widely regarded as abstruse and pessimistic in the extreme, should have become so deeply insinuated in the discourse of a mass movement. While Marcuse promised, in his preface, that his argument would vacillate between two contradictory hypotheses — “that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future” and “that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society” — One-Dimensional Man was virtually silent on the second point, ultimately presenting a critical theory of society with no “liberating tendencies” capable of translating it into reality. Reviewers charged Marcuse with overlooking the obvious social ferment in American society at a time of escalating civil rights and antiwar militancy. Others excoriated Marcuse for characterizing the welfare state as a container of radical energies rather than an achievement by and for the working class. Although remarking that “qualitative change appears possible only as a change from without,” Marcuse even expressed skepticism toward the anti-colonial movements of the Third World. This great refusal to name possibilities in the present, this maddening tendency to see all apparent opposition as always already absorbed into and reinforcing the system, followed from the traditional materialist framework of Marcuse’s analysis, on the one hand, and the Luxemburgian quest for a total negation of the existing order — a social force capable of “breaking out of this whole” — on the other.

Ultimately, it is the depth of Marcuse’s quest for revolutionary rupture, and his insistence on its necessity, that accounts for the impact of One-Dimensional Man on the youth of affluent nations. Even if the book suggested that such a rupture was nowhere on the horizon, its account of the domination and repression subtly pervading advanced capitalist society confirmed the unarticulated observations of many newly politicized activists who were, moreover, enchanted by Marcuse’s expansive conception of liberation and his willingness to speculate about a utopian future. While the book’s departures from orthodox Marxism caused less shrewd critics to conclude that he had retreated “into the realm of Hegelian idealism,” the Marxologist George Lichtheim correctly recognized One-Dimensional Man, upon its release, as the introduction of Western Marxism to an American audience. To Lichtheim, the book was “a portent” of things to come, and, indeed, the few hopeful passages in the book seemed to anticipate the social unrest coming from exactly the groups Marcuse identified as “those who form the human base of the social pyramid — the outsiders and the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the persecuted colored races, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions.” Thus did Marcuse’s elegy for the revolutionary working class intensify an ongoing search for new subjects of world-historical transformation, despite his explicit warnings that no such subject existed.

“It is sometimes said of Marcuse that the students who follow him haven’t the slightest idea what he means,” the Washington Post observed in 1968. Initial reviewers cautioned, “This is not an easy book,” noting its difficult syntax and disquieting aporetic conclusions. The ambiguities of One-Dimensional Man are legion. Does Marcuse’s argument depend, as Alasdair MacIntyre charged, on “a crude and unargued technological determinism”? Is his “technological order” in fact a political-economic system — or not? Does he describe class exploitation, or universal enslavement to the apparatus of domination? While oblique references to “the particular interests that organize the apparatus” evince a class analysis, much of the language in the book — including its very title — aligns with conventional mid-century humanistic discourse. Indeed, while it was possible for one reviewer to describe the book as decidedly not “just one more journalistic work on the alienation of modern man,” R.D. Laing, writing in the New Left Review, drew the opposite conclusion. Anticipating much of the book’s reception, Laing channeled what he took to be the lament at its core: “Will man be able to re-invent himself in the face of this new form of dehumanization?”

To Marcuse’s New Left interpreters, at least one point was unequivocal: the working classes were bought off, a conservative force, leaving, three SDS theorists wrote in 1965, “virtually no legitimate places from which to launch a total opposition movement.” Invoking Marcuse against calls like Bayard Rustin’s for a coalition politics anchored in the trade union movement, these activists looked beyond purportedly oppositional groups that had succumbed to the lures of parliamentarism and the welfare state, calling instead for “a thoroughly democratic revolution” led by “the most oppressed” — those least captured by existing institutions. But while they looked to the urban poor (as opposed to the working class), by 1968, the search for a revolutionary subject that was carried out under the sign of One-Dimensional Man just as often led to college students, disaffected intellectuals, and the “new working class” of salaried technicians and professionals. Within SDS, opponents of the workerist proposals put forward by the Progressive Labor faction “drew heavily on the ideas of Herbert Marcuse” to support an approach to organizing groups outside “the traditional, narrow industrial working class.” In Europe, students cited Marcuse on behalf of their view of the university as a nexus of revolutionary power. For his part, Marcuse at times seemed to encourage this reading. When asked about the radical forces in the world in July 1968, he placed “the intelligentsia, particularly the students” at the top of the list, followed only by “minorities in the ghetto.” They alone — not the working class — resisted incorporation.

This turn away from the labor movement accompanied other shifts in perspective: from “exploitation” to “alienation,” and from class to consciousness, as the source of radical opposition. As one popular underground newspaper, Berkeley Barb, summarized the argument of One-Dimensional Man in May 1968, “Only those groups on the outside of automation and ‘progress’ — the unemployed, the blacks and minorities, the students — think.” Late-1960s enthusiasts of cultural revolution, such as Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich, enlisted Marcuse in their Romantic attacks on consumerism and technology, dispensing with the materialist underpinnings of his analysis and, as Russell Jacoby noted, conflating his critique of instrumental reason with a subjectivist abandonment of reason itself. By a sleight of hand, Roszak cited Marcuse in order to unmask Marxism as “the mirror image of bourgeois industrialism,” guilty of the same soulless hyperrationality as the society it ostensibly opposes. For Reich, meanwhile, the totalizing ideology-critique in One-Dimensional Man had demonstrated that the source of domination is not in the social relations of production but in consciousness, attitude, and lifestyle. “Nobody wants inadequate housing and medical care — only the machine,” he explained:

Nobody wants war except the machine. And even businessmen, once liberated, would like to roll in the grass and lie in the sun. There is no need, then, to fight any group of people in America. They are all fellow sufferers.

While it is true that Marcuse could hardly be held responsible for these depoliticized corruptions of his ideas, it is telling that he felt compelled to respond to them — more than once.

In fact, Marcuse’s drift away from One-Dimensional Man began almost from the moment it landed on bookshelves, as he attempted, in one historian’s words, “to break out of the theoretical box he had placed himself in with that book.” Writing in the International Socialist Journal in 1965, he declared, “The contradictions of capitalism are not transcended; they persist in their classic form; indeed, perhaps they have never been stronger,” thereby guarding against the impression that advanced capitalism had achieved permanent stability. Speaking to leftist students in Berlin the following year, he waxed enthusiastic about “the militant Liberation movements in the developing countries” and — picking up a theme that would become dominant for the rest of the decade — the alienated youth of the affluent nations. By 1967, he had come to view the counterculture as representing “a total rupture” with the ideology of advanced capitalism, a force heralding “a total trans-valuation of values, a new anthropology” and the development of needs that the existing political and economic system could not satisfy. The student uprisings of 1968 reinforced Marcuse’s growing conviction that “the only viable social revolution which stands today is the Youth” and that “the New Left today is the only hope we have.” So profoundly did this belief in these groups’ emancipatory potential shift Marcuse’s social theory that his 1969 book An Essay on Liberation was initially to be titled Beyond One-Dimensional Man. In the 1970s, even as he worried over the turn to the right (“counterrevolution”) in US politics, he would embrace ecology and especially the women’s movement — “perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have” — as pointing the way to a qualitative break with capitalist society.

In the final analysis, however, Marcuse consistently maintained that no force other than the working class was capable of achieving the full break with one-dimensional society demanded by critical theory. The student movement, the hippie counterculture, the radical intelligentsia — these were catalyst groups with a “preparatory function.” Their task was not revolution, but “radical enlightenment”; lacking a mass character, they could at best move the broader population from false to oppositional consciousness. Their signal achievement was having called into question “the prevailing structure of needs” and freed “imagination from the restraints of instrumental reason.” Marcuse applauded the New Left but cautiously warned his readers not to overrate its significance. The rebellions in Paris in May 1968, while encouraging as “a mass action,” were not a revolution, and the American campus revolts of that season in no way changed the fact that the situation in the United States was “not even pre-revolutionary.” Even at his most utopian, Marcuse inserted escape clauses like the following:

By itself, this opposition cannot be regarded as agent of radical change; it can become such an agent only if it is sustained by a working class which is no longer the prisoner of its own integration and of a bureaucratic trade-union and party apparatus supporting this integration.

Although he insisted that “the traditional idea of the revolution and the traditional strategy of the revolution” had been “surpassed by the development of . . . society,” Marcuse confessed in 1968, “In spite of everything that has been said, I still cannot imagine a revolution without the working class.”

By the end of the 1960s, it was clear to Marcuse that while the “Great Refusal” he had predicted in the conclusion to One-Dimensional Man had materialized, it was bound to remain a mere gesture — even a reactionary “confusion of personal with social liberation” — if it could not reawaken the working class from its slumber. And yet he was extremely pessimistic about the development of revolutionary class consciousness in the advanced capitalist countries (especially in the United States). For this reason, he strongly condemned New Left intellectuals who sneered at the student movement and retreated into “vulgar Marxism,” declaring in 1970:

To a great extent it was the student movement in the United States which mobilized the opposition against the war in Vietnam. . . . That goes far beyond personal interest — in fact, it is basically in contradiction to it and strikes at the heart of American imperialism. God knows it is not the fault of the students that the working class didn’t participate. . . . Nothing is more un-bourgeois than the American student movement, while nothing is more bourgeois than the American worker.

Statements like this one hastened the death of late-1960s Marcuse-mania. Already in 1968, he was booed by students at the Free University of Berlin for inadequately affirming their excitement about the supposed fusion of Third World and proletarian revolutionary forces. “A Revolution is waiting to be made,” one disappointed former admirer complained, “and he offers us California metaphysics.” A study of campus bookstores conducted in late 1969 found that One-Dimensional Man had been surpassed in sales by the works of Black Power militants, such as Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and a string of paeans to cultural radicalism (Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture, Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It, and Laing’s The Politics of Experience). Marcuse’s defense of the university, his willingness to condemn violence, his concerns about the “anti-intellectualism” that had “infected” the New Left, and his calls for organizational discipline in the years that followed further diminished his standing. Although more than 1,600 people turned out to see him speak at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 1971, many in the audience were dismayed by his failure to discuss “the joyful possibilities of youth culture.” “I have always rejected the role of a father or grandfather of the movement,” he told Psychology Today. “I am not its spiritual adviser.”

So, what exactly was Marcuse’s theory, as laid out in One-Dimensional Man? How much was it a product of — and subject to the limits of — its time? What remains from the work? We will focus specifically on the social theory of the work, on which Marcuse’s ideology-critique of culture and philosophy rested, which was the book’s greatest influence and is most relevant for left-wing readers today.


One-Dimensional Man, most of all, is a resolute, unsparing, and honest depiction of a monstrous society, set for destruction, whose possibilities for change seemed far dwarfed by the forces of the status quo. The society Marcuse analyzed had more than enough technological ability to be decent and humane; instead, it teetered on the edge of destruction, preserved deep injustices, and relied on mass quiescence engineered by systematic manipulation. It was a sick, insane society that passed itself off as reasonable and orderly.

Marcuse’s call to radicalism rested on three main diagnoses of mid-century capitalism that have only shown signs of intensifying as the ruling class has tightened control:

  1. Irrationality and destructiveness. The imminent possibility of nuclear war is the shadow that hangs over all of Marcuse’s critique, from the first sentence on. (“Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?”) The prosperity and relative peace of the Trentes Glorieuses were purchased at the cost of an unending buildup toward a nuclear war that could annihilate the entire human race. Imperial ventures and the use of defense production to wastefully subsidize the private sector, keeping up profits and employment, trumped the survival of the species as a whole. This imminent destructiveness was also contained in the devastation the consumer society visited on the natural world.
  2. Manipulation and unfreedom. Marcuse believed that some level of general material security and prosperity had been exchanged, in a devil’s bargain, for the broader demands of the socialist movement for autonomy. Workers had little decision-making power in the face of gigantic corporations, elections were organized spectacle rather than an opportunity to realize the will of the public, and the culture industry utilized techniques of mass manipulation to keep people pacified. “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing. And this mode of existence is not abrogated if the thing is animated and chooses its material and intellectual food, if it does not feel its being-a-thing, if it is a pretty, clean, mobile thing.” One-dimensionality was compliance in the guise of freedom.
  3. Continuing poverty and exploitation. Despite the advances achieved by the working class of the period, Marcuse would emphasize the continuing poverty amid plenty that characterized the United States especially, and the vast differences between rich and poor countries. Moreover, he would insist that society was holding back the general decrease in working hours that could accompany the mechanization and automation of production.

Marcuse and Classical Marxism

One-Dimensional Man, then, offers the case for the continuing relevance of the Marxist critique of capitalism. But what about the theory’s understanding of collective action and social change? If social change is so urgent, why is society characterized by such a muted opposition? One-Dimensional Man answered by attempting to provide a materialist social theory adequate to the conditions of the time, not by abandoning Marxism but by developing the theory.

Marcuse is insistent that an adequate explanation for working-class quiescence will have to be a materialist one. Something deep must have changed in the economy and society for mass consciousness to shift as it has. It is difficult to understand what that thing is, since the mid-century United States was surely still capitalist, characterized by the same injustices and systemic dynamics. Moreover, Marcuse treats as his point of departure what we might call the basic strategic formula of “classical Marxism” (broadly, from Marx and Friedrich Engels through the Second International and ending with the last attempts of international revolution of the early Third International), as the only rational theory for comprehensive social change.

That formula, more or less, runs as follows:

working-class majority + party + crisis = socialist revolution

The emerging working-class majority has particular structural advantages for exercising power, with their numbers, their concentration and accompanying capacity to organize, and the power of their strikes to shut down production and touch the powerful where it most hurts. These workers saw their basic survival, let alone their thriving, as fundamentally threatened by capitalism, and they had the power to tear it down. They needed to be organized into a political party, in order to intervene on the level of the state, to develop a consciousness that things could be different, and to formulate a strategy for how to get there. (Of course, precisely these kinds of mass working-class parties had developed all over the advanced capitalist world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) Finally, the persistence (and possibly radicalization) of generalized capitalist crisis would afford opportunities for dramatic revolutionary change, in which a class-conscious party would lead the majority toward a new, truly democratic order. (This theory sometimes goes by the name of “Kautskyism,” after its authoritative expositor, Karl Kautsky, in The Class Struggle (1892), The Road to Power (1909), and other works.)

Marcuse argued that the conclusion of the Marxist theory of social transformation still uniquely followed from the premises, but that those premises no longer applied to the world in any obvious way. Some sinister combination of defeat and partial victory had paralyzed politics.

The interesting task of One-Dimensional Man is that, though it accepts both the necessity of fundamental social change — especially given the severity of the threat of nuclear war and the irrational destructiveness of the social order — and the classical Marxist formula of how to get there, it argues that social change has undermined the latter without providing any alternative. (This was a common problem for many heterodox [ex-]Marxists at the time.) It’s a work that admits to being stuck in a way that was both intellectually forthright and so unsatisfying that Marcuse himself — and especially his epigones — would search for easy ways out to escape the dilemma.

The Theory of Integration — Social Democracy as Impasse

Beyond describing these matters and giving force to the kind of impossible frustration they must cause in anyone who reflected on the matter, Marcuse also laid out a hypothesis as to how this had happened. Marcuse argues that it was precisely the accomplishments of the working class and their institutions in the face of the last crisis that were standing in the way of the further, necessary change. There is perhaps no more powerful analysis of the capacity of capitalist society to absorb opposition and commodify liberation than One-Dimensional Man. Late capitalist society, Marcuse said, was based simultaneously on “an increasing standard of living and an increasing concentration of power.” Another way he had of expressing this was the intertwining of the perfection of the means of production and the means of destruction, pithily summarized in the juxtaposition of the “welfare and warfare state.” Social democracy was, in this view, the enemy of democratic socialism.

One of the main achievements of the working-class movement was its cutting off the logic of immiseration characteristic of the rise of capitalism and creating the power to extract profound concessions from capital in the form of high wages and the welfare state. (It should be noted that Marcuse seems at times to severely overestimate capital’s ability and willingness to accede to these demands in the text.) This increased standard of living, Marcuse insisted, was a real achievement, and was not to be denied as the basis for any real conception of human freedom.

However, this achievement had, for Marcuse, a fundamentally depoliticizing effect in several ways. First, the rising standard of living itself produced a cooling effect. Revolution occurs when, among other things, a subordinate class sees the existing order as absolutely opposed to its life. People revolt for want of bread — give them bread, and they don’t revolt. By giving the working class something to lose besides its chains, and by eliminating total immiseration for the vast majority in the advanced capitalist world, capitalism had made systemic change less likely.

Consumerism, the form in which this rising standard of living is realized, also, Marcuse argues, blunts working-class politics. This is, first of all, for material reasons. Consumption is atomized, so that the modes of life that once brought working-class people together now help to drive them apart. Working-class popular culture is replaced by a commoditized mass culture. There is, too, an ideological analogue. The system’s demonstrated ability to increase consumption is used to sideline any questions around life’s quality and meaning, the destructive externalities and militaristic uses of the production process, and the increasing concentration of control.

This changing standard of living was also based in changes in the labor process itself that, Marcuse argued, blunted opposition. Marcuse speaks of the mechanization of the production process increasingly relieving work of backbreaking destructiveness, as well as an increase in white-collar work and administration. These diminish the strength of the opposition of the worker to the capitalist and also diminish the leverage of workers. Again, these changes have an ideological analogue: the machine seems to play a role in production independent of any particular capitalist — it appears merely as the product of reason itself, and thus relatively uncontestable.

Finally, there was an overt trade-off between the satisfaction of needs and autonomy. (This is the best way to understand his characterization of “false needs” versus “true needs.”) The labor movement more or less gave up contestation over the prerogatives of management, ceding control of the production process; in exchange, it got greater wages and benefits. Marcuse saw this trade-off on the factory floor as the microcosm of a larger social transformation. Privacy and the freedom to criticize were being hemmed in on all sides. But the offer of greater prosperity and security quashed opposition. This is the basis for Marcuse’s use of the word “totalitarian” to refer to liberal-democratic capitalist societies just as much as Nazi or Soviet ones.

Advanced capitalist society “delivers the goods” to the majority, making questioning and attempting to change the irrational system itself seem totally unreasonable. In some ways, Marcuse simply updated for the advanced industrial world the criticism of Juvenal against the bread and circuses of Rome. Even as capitalism increased the power of the ruling class, exposed individuals to systematic and many-sided manipulation, and condemned the vast majority to alienated work and a still-significant minority to poverty, it also offered a two-car garage and spectacular entertainment. The most powerful and hard-to-counter ideology of the period was built on that basis — things are the way they are because technology and prosperity say so.

Thus, Marcuse provides a materialist theory of working-class integration through the rise in the standard of living (capitalism “delivers the goods”), the changing structure of occupations, and the atomization of the class through consumption. (Indeed, in classic Marxian fashion, it is the workers themselves who produce their own integration and subjugation. That is, it is ultimately their labor, their social action, and even now their consumption that reproduces the conditions of their own comfortable and bland unfreedom.) On top of these mechanisms are built a cultural totality that increasingly invades individual experience. Capitalist mass culture, due to its corporate structure, fundamentally sifts out information necessary for working-class people to get a bearing on how society works and overwhelms the individual with distractions and entertainment. Socialization through mass institutions such as the media reinforces the obstacles toward social change that shifts in capitalist production and the partial victories of social democracy erected.

Insights and Impasses

Some of Marcuse’s insights have become common sense on the Left. For instance, that corporate media systematically narrows the scope of political contestation is the raison d’être for today’s growing left media ecosystem, both independent and through established channels. We know that it is part of our fundamental task to expose how “opposition” parties are anything but when it comes to the sanctity of profits, the blind faith in technology’s ability to solve social problems, and militarism.

There are other insights that seem fresh and alive and worth recovering in light of some of the theoretical problems today’s socialists face. The reorientation of the Left around a program of class-struggle social democracy has allowed it to finally grow and engage with political reality. Marcuse at his best made normative, analytic, and strategic contributions that are worth revisiting in this context.

Let us begin with the normative. One of the freshest aspects of One-Dimensional Man today is its attempt to wed the critique of inequality with critiques of unfreedom, systemic irrationality, and destructiveness. Today’s Left has rightly restored obscene inequality and redistribution to the center of its politics, thereby broadening its base and concentrating its efforts. Still, Marcuse pushes us to remain expansive in our indictment of capitalism by discussing forthrightly aspects of the “good life” that it denies most individuals. Our society’s degradation of the natural world, everyday cruelty and meanness, trivial intellectual culture, boredom, depression, and puritanical preening are not incidental to our criticism but form a core plank of it. Politics and philosophy ought to clarify, not deny, the ordinary ways in which people express their happiness and dissatisfaction. This is a deeply sick society that denies important and ordinary goods to most human beings — liberty, love, satisfaction, security, peace — and it is rational to rebel against it.

Moreover, in cases where the normative and the practical-political are in some tension, we should admit the difficulty rather than elide it. It can be too easy to neglect the most fundamental issues of our, as Noam Chomsky puts it, “race to the precipice” — nuclear weapons and climate change — because they are related in only mediated, complex ways to economic interests. There is a temptation to either engage in empty moral gestures or push the problem aside to a later day. But the difficulty in formulating a concrete strategy around these issues is no excuse. Serious moral thinking and serious political economy must be joined.

Second, Marcuse offers analytic resources for considering what should be the central problem of the day: the separation of the working class from radical consciousness. Much like in the period of the New Left, the Left in the advanced capitalist world is still relatively isolated among the highly educated, despite wide popular appeals of a left-wing economic program. Marcuse both foregrounds the centrality of this question for any radical political strategy and offers a materialist method for analyzing the problem. He began with an analysis of changing class composition to understand the limits of oppositional politics with a narrow base since, however much he welcomed the New Left, he insisted that no fundamental transformation would occur without overcoming obstacles to working-class radicalism. He then offered an intriguing and still relevant hypothesis: that capitalist consumerism integrates through atomizing the neighborhoods, leisure, and general experience of working-class people. The intellectual task for today’s Left is to size up the sources of working-class atomization at work and at home, and to approach these obstacles as organizers.

And while hardly an immediate problem, Marcuse’s analysis of how partial victory can paralyze oppositional forces, and how a high level of capitalist development turned out to mean a low level of revolutionary potential, are absolutely essential for the Left’s long-term strategic perspective. It bears repeating that today’s Left should begin with the analysis of a relatively stable capitalism due to the near elimination of starvation in the advanced capitalist world and the spread of democratic and activist states. Furthermore, the Left should be ready for both severe defeat and partial incorporation. Are there ways that the Left can anticipate these plausible paths and prepare for them? Already, the increasing will to organize on the Left — remarkably well-developed since the Occupy Wall Street days — is a good sign, as organization is essential for maintaining continuity between high and low points of struggle. The rise of member-based organizations with vibrant internal cultures is again a promising development. Most of all, the Left needs to fight for structural reforms that increase the capacity to mobilize in the future and to find ways to plausibly resist the urge to demobilize with victories.

Yet Marcuse also articulated a form of defeatism that has plagued the Left of the advanced capitalist world. Marcuse’s liberatory and socialist message was largely abandoned and repressed with the defeats of the New Left, but his doubts as to the possibility of majoritarian left politics became the common sense of the New Left and the elite liberalism that would follow.

Critics of the strain of gloomy mid-century social theory Marcuse exemplifies often point to how wildly inaccurate the portrait of a fundamentally static world turned out to be. High growth rates, proportional wage growth, high unionization, and more were hardly permanent. But Marcuse was certainly not alone in failing to accurately predict how far we could fall backward. Some variation on the theory of state capitalism was widely held at the time. Everyone missed the possibility of a strong revanchist turn to a seemingly permanently discredited laissez-faire liberalism.

More problematic is Marcuse’s obfuscation of class theory. On the one hand, Marcuse depicts a society ruled by the few, which the vast majority has an interest in changing. As we mentioned, he continually returned to the necessity for working-class action in order to change society. On the other hand, when describing the various mediations that interpose themselves between this basic sociological analysis and late capitalism, he frequently presumes what he ought to prove — that working-class people have been not only effectively adjusted to but have even happily embraced their position in late capitalism. He presumes that the modal consciousness in advanced capitalist society is working-class consent rather than resignation. This has significant consequences for the theory and for organizing. Resignation is a different habit of mind to break through for organizers, which requires different tools than how one might approach the converted.

Some of Marcuse’s contemporaries noted the illicit presumption of working-class enthusiasm for the social order of the day and its quietist implications. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse cites a pamphlet by the Trotskyist Marxist-humanists on automation and speedup in Detroit, among other studies on the mechanization of the production process and the bonding of workers to the machine. Yet Raya Dunayevskaya, in her review of One-Dimensional Man in the Activist, would write that Marcuse “leaves out entirely the central point of the pamphlet, the division between the rank and file and the labor leadership in their attitudes toward Automation.” Marcuse supplemented references to this pamphlet with “many references to bourgeois studies which maintain the exact opposite”; Marcuse has “[failed] to hear this powerful oppositional voice at the point of production itself,” and instead chosen to listen to authors who claim that workers have been incorporated; he is wrong to adhere “to the view that the new forms of control have indeed succeeded in containing workers’ revolt.” Even as Marcuse plausibly pointed to the change in workers’ situations as being enough to present fundamental problems for a theory of social change — golden chains are less likely to produce revolutionaries — he less plausibly claimed that the overall reaction to this situation mostly eliminated tension, dissatisfaction, and opposition rooted in the production process, between workers and their bosses. Though he would insist that the underlying conflict of interests remained, the gap between imputed and actual interests threatened to become an abyss.

This provided a basis for New Left activists inspired by his works to reach the conclusion he refused to countenance, that there could be a socialist politics that somehow occurred independent of working-class radicalization. The “cultural turn,” with its overvaluation of interventions into culture and the discourse — and the increasing orientation to middle-class concerns that this implied — was both a plausible implication of Marcuse’s pessimism about integration and at the same time a conclusion he had to refuse given the critical theory of capitalist society. The theory also seemed to countenance a never-ending search for actors who were too marginalized to be incorporated into the system, less because of the moral importance of the flourishing of every human being than the conceit that, there, one might find the “real” revolutionaries. Both these trends are in no way immune to the commodification of opposition characteristic of late capitalist politics that Marcuse himself analyzed.

Moreover, Marcuse’s presumption about the form of political change necessary does not seem to have been subjected to the same critical consideration he insisted on applying to the working class. This vision of revolution is nobly related to the barricades of Marcuse’s youth in the betrayed German Revolution. Yet it is also rather all-or-nothing. The intransigent anti-capitalist consciousness that demanded the narrow debate of the period be burst open also threatened to lead to a kind of apolitical idealism.

This is, again, not unique to Marcuse — the severity of the chasm between the Second and Third International was real enough to facilitate the rise of Nazism. And Marcuse was severely critical of the parties or sects of the Second, Third, and Fourth Internationals. But the weakness of the vision of social change in the idea of the “Great Refusal” is related to Marcuse’s dismissive criticism of the parliamentary participation of the Italian and French communist parties (Partito Comunista Italiano, PCI and Parti communiste françaism, PCF) and silence on the civil rights movement. Marcuse had little hope that participation in liberal democratic politics or the achievement of significant reforms could meaningfully shift the dynamics of the system overall (and the totality of the system is what mattered, in the final analysis). He only saw how they served to further integrate the working class into an increasingly powerful system, handicapping opposition before it could really get off the ground.

This led generally to an overvaluation of subjective radicalism and an undervaluation of objective transformation. The hope Marcuse placed in the New Left was that their cultural subversion, aesthetic sense, demand for a less narrow and repressed life, and expanded sense of need could flow over into demand for a transformation of the basic structures of social life, especially the economy. et he seemed to have very little hope that mass politics focused on redistribution could overflow its boundaries in the other direction.

Yet this was hardly the only conclusion one might reach from his premises. Starting from the premises that the working class of the advanced capitalist world was not likely to lead an insurrection, especially given its higher standard of living, while all the same it continued to suffer from alienation, exploitation, inadequate public investment, and diminished democracy, other theorists looked to develop a political strategy on these grounds that did not presume the same subjective integration that Marcuse did. André Gorz in France, influenced by the Left of the trade union movement in Italy, introduced in his Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal the idea of “non-reformist reforms” — aggressive measures that took on capital’s prerogatives, built the capacity of labor, and addressed the wide range of needs that were unmet by advanced capitalist societies — as a path forward for the Left. Ralph Miliband in Britain would underscore the importance of this idea for a socialist strategy adequate to the fact that no advanced capitalist state had ever collapsed and that revolutionary dictatorships had hardly proved fertile ground for socialist democracies. Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington in the United States insisted that mass politics oriented toward (removing conservative obstacles to) expanding a hobbled American social democracy could spill over into fundamental system change. These theorists suggested that the causal arrow could, and indeed must, move the other way, from political action to a deepening of revolutionary consciousness.


We have said that there are two souls of critical theory in Herbert Marcuse. On the one hand, there are roots of what has become a sort of common sense among some of today’s liberals (however little they would be able to trace this to the Frankfurt School): the replacement of interest-based politics by ethics, self-expression, and identity; of class organization by cultural contestation; of majoritarian aspiration by elite pose. This is the long-standing tendency on the Left to flee the dilemmas of organizing a working-class majority in the advanced capitalist world, which is understandable but not tenable. On the other, there is the attempt to preserve and develop a socialist strategy adequate to the transformations of contemporary society — mass politics, the welfare state, the further application of technology to production, and mass media. Indefatigably critical, morally expansive, and analytically materialist, it forthrightly analyzes, and then seeks to overcome, new obstacles to organizing a working-class majority to press for a transition to a new society.