Today, who remembers or even reads Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), post-Marxist theoretician and last proponent of a society founded on total human emancipation and personal self-accomplishment? In The One Dimensional Man (1964), his scathing attack of the ‘ideology of advanced industrial society’, Marcuse deplored the narrowing down of modern consumers’ aspirations as ‘they recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.’
Exiled to America with his fellow-members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Marcuse contributed to the ‘psychological’ war effort but unlike most of his distinguished German colleagues like Horkheimer and Adorno, he chose to settle in the USA where he rapidly became an acute observer of the changing American way of life in the 50’s and 60’s. Influenced by the pioneering work of American sociologist C. Wright Mills, Marcuse diagnosed a growing malaise in a society obsessed with material success and ruled by the invisible repression of personal desires. As moral conservatism and political conformism triumphed during the booming years of Eisenhower’s presidency, the early sixties saw a gradual transformation of attitudes resulting from the growth of an uninhibited youth culture. The Vietnam war soon mobilised an entire new generation of young Americans and crystallised their dream of a peaceful world and a more open society. As a very popular professor at Brandeis and the University of California, San Diego, Marcuse inevitably found himself on the side of the anti-war movement while his 1955 book on sexual liberation, Eros and Civilization found a renewed echo on Californian campuses as well as London, Paris and Berlin.
Marcuse’s appeal to ‘liberation’ soon inspired students’ leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Rudi Dutschke whereas his eclectic interests were regarded with mounting suspicion by the high-brow supporters of the Marxist dogma. Aged 70 in ‘the year that rocked the world’, Marcuse fully assumed and enjoyed his role of philosophical catalyst of a new generation eager to change the world. Disillusioned with the failure of the revolutionary aspirations of ’68, he then turned his attention toward ethics, culture and ecology.
Two late works point the way towards a sensitivity still shared by the ‘grand-children’ of the German Theorist. In Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society, a talk delivered shortly before his death in 1979, Marcuse warned against ‘one of the most important processes in contemporary society. In effect, needs which actually are offered to individuals by society, and in many cases are imposed upon individuals, end up becoming the individuals’ needs and wants.’ In what he calls ‘the radicalisation of consciousness’, he finds in women’s liberation movements, citizens’ initiatives or green campaigns, new forms of socialisation and the hope of a better future: ‘Politics is personalised. We see “politics in the first person”.’
In his last published work, The Permanence of Art, retitled The Aesthetic Dimension in its English edition (1977), Marcuse emphasises the restorative and ‘revolutionary’ nature of great art and its key role in transforming our self-centred conception of the world: ‘What appears in art as remote from the praxis (actualization) of change demands recognition as a necessary element in a future praxis of liberation – as the “science of the beautiful”, “the science of redemption and fulfillment.” Art cannot change the world but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world. The movement of the sixties tended towards a sweeping transformation of subjectivity and nature, of sensibility, imagination and reason. It opened a new vista of things, an ingression (foray) of superstructure into the base.’