Discussion on reception and contemporary relevance


In sharply criticizing contemporary capitalist societies, Mar- cuse went against the currents of conformist academic thinking and anticipated the multifaceted critiques of U.S. society that were to emerge in the 1960s. One-Dimensional Man had a curious reception and impact. It angered both orthodox Marxists, who could not accept such thorough-going revision of Marxism, and many others who were unable to assent to such radical critiques of contemporary capitalist society. The book was, however, well




received by the New Left and a generation dissatisfied with the current social order and the orthodoxies of the dominant Marx- ist and academic theories. For the New Left, One-Dimensional Man articulated what young radicals felt was wrong with society, and the book’s dialectic of liberation and domination provided a framework for radical politics which struggled against domin- ation and for liberation. Moreover, One-Dimensional Man showed that the problems confronting the emerging radical movement were not simply the Vietnam war, racism or inequality, but the system itself, and that solving a wide range of social problems required fundamental social restructuring. In this way, One- Dimensional Man played an important role in the political educa- tion of a generation of radicals and to this day has inspired those involved in the development of critical philosophy and social theory.

While One-Dimensional Man became associated with the radical- ism of the New Left in the 1960s, the text has a paradoxical relation with the new radicalism whose possibility its analyses seem to deny. At the conclusion of the book, Marcuse speculated that there was only a slight chance that the most exploited and persecuted outsiders, in alliance with an enlightened intelli- gentsia, might mark “the beginning of the end” and signify some hope for social change. He thought there was hope that the civil rights movement might produce ferment which would lead to a new era of struggle, and he held onto the concept of the “Great Refusal” of forms of oppresion and domination as his political ideal.

Almost on the eve of One-Dimensional Man’s publication, in fact, the New Left and antiwar movement began to grow in response to the accelerating U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. During this period, a generation of radicals turned to Marcuse’s book, which seemed to have denied the possibility of fundamental political change. During the heroic period of the New Left in the 1960s, One-Dimensional Man helped to show a generation of




political and cultural radicals what was wrong with the system they were struggling against, and thus played an important role in the student movement. Marcuse himself quickly rallied to the student activists’ cause and was exhilarated when the Great Refusal was being acted out on a grand scale.

One-Dimensional Man also achieved a quite respectable, even laudatory, academic reception. It was reviewed in most major intellectual journals, many national magazines and newspapers, and many specialized academic journals in a wide variety of fields. The next was read as a classical study of contemporary trends of the current society in the same league with the works of C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, John Galbraith, and other critics of contemporary American society. The book also generated much controversy, however, especially when Marcuse was pre- sented in the media as a “guru of the New Left.” For a gen- eration of young radicals took up Marcuse’s texts as essential criticism of existing forms of thought and behavior, and Marcuse himself identified with the New Left and defended their politics and opposition.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marcuse’s work was probably the most influential social theory of its day and was read and criticized by individuals from a variety of different perspectives. He modified some of his positions in his later writ- ings in response to some of these criticisms, though he con- tinued to be a radical critic of forms of domination and to champion what he perceived as forces of liberation. In particular, he went beyond his model of one-dimensional society in books like An Essay on Liberation (1969) and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) and celebrated all the most radical forms of oppositional thought and action. And then, in his last years, Marcuse turned positively to feminism and new social movements after the demise of the New Left in the early 1970s.

Near the end of his life, when I asked him what he thought of One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse replied that: “I stick to what I wrote




in One-Dimensional Man,” insisting that his analysis of social trends had been confirmed by recent assaults on the changes that the struggles of the 1960s had been producing. Marcuse mentioned attacks on welfare programs, typified by Proposition 13 in Cali- fornia, which cut taxes for welfare spending; demands by gov- ernment and business for cutbacks on social programs and a decrease in government regulation; the Berufsverbot in Germany and other repressions of radicals throughout the world; con- servative attacks on abortion, feminism, and the Equal Rights Amendment; the increased strength of major transnational cor- porations; and conservative and neoconservative offenses in many areas of social and political life. He added, however, that the 1960s had unleashed new social forces, opening up new space for struggle that still existed and should be used by forces of opposition to militate for radical social change.

Marcuse died in 1979. Had he lived through the eras of Reagan and Bush no doubt he would have insisted that One- Dimensional Man is more relevant than ever after a decade of con- servative hegemony, rampant capitalism, and a series of U.S. military interventions and covert operations in Grenada, Nicara- gua, Panama, and many parts of the world, culminating in the Persian Gulf war. Marcuse was a sharp critic of militarism and a lover of life who hated death and killing. He feared that more sophisticated technologies would “instrumentalize” war and produce ever more brutal forms of destruction—a vision amply confirmed in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

Indeed, One-Dimensional Man provides a model analysis of the synthesis of business, the state, the media, and other cultural institutions under the hegemony of corporate capital which characterizes the U.S. economy and polity in the 1980s and early 1990s. While Marcuse does not adequately analyze the antagon- isms that always exist between ruling groups and those in oppos- ition to oppressive policies, he certainly provides illuminating perspectives on the sort of conservativism dominant in the past




decade. In particular, Reagan and Reaganism exemplified one- dimensional “positive thinking” to an extreme degree. The way that the media and political establishment went along with “Reaganism” in the 1980s indicates trends toward one- dimensional thought and politics that have only intensified in the early 1990s.

Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is especially relevant in regard to the resurgence of militarism during and after the Persian Gulf war. The syndrome of denial and projection and unleashing of aggressive energies was a familiar one for the Freudian Herbert Marcuse, who constantly argued that advanced industrial soci- eties unleashed ever more lethal destructiveness which finds a mass base of approval in those who have been conditioned to approve of aggression. One-dimensional society operates by steering erotic and destructive instinctual energies into socially controlled modes of thought and behavior. Aggressive behavior thus provides a social bond, unifying those who gain in power and self-esteem through identifying with forms of aggression against shared objects of hate. This trend is all too visible in current American society, and Marcuse’s analyses of aggression and militarism should be read anew during this era of resurgent aggression and one-dimensional conservativism.

Yet the legacy of the 1960s, of which Marcuse was a vital part, lives on, and the Great Refusal is still practiced by oppositional groups and individuals who refuse to conform to existing oppression and domination. Marcuse should be widely read and studied again to help nourish a renewal of critical thinking and radical politics. For social domination continues to be a block to human freedom and happiness, and liberation continues to be a hope for those who refuse to join the contemporary celebration of militarism, the forces of conservatism, and unrestrained capit- alism. For, quoting Walter Benjamin at the end of One-Dimensional Man, “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”

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