Herbert Marcuse Biography

Biography of Herbert Marcuse with an outline of One Dimensional Man.

Herbert Marcuse was born in 1898 in Berlin, Germany. His parents were Jews and moderately wealthy.

During WWI, Marcuse worked for the German army. He did not fight in battle, but worked on stable maintenance. His role was not exactly that of the typical soldier; instead, he fed and groomed the horses that would be used in the battles. Like many Germans, he was not happy with the war. Marcuse eventually aided the spontaneous 1918 Revolution that ended WWI.

The 1918 Revolution disposed of the German Kaiser and attempted to establish a republican system of government. Like many people, Marcuse joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This political party presented the most orthodox interpretation of Marx's theories and hoped to authorize them into the German government. When the SPD aided the murders of the Spartacist League, Marcuse left the group in political protest. He refused to organize with any political organization after that, but he continued to defend Marxist analysis.

From 1919 to 1922, Marcuse studied philosophy, literature, and economics at the universities of Freiberg and Berlin. At the same time, he maintained a small book store and wrote philosophical works on Marxism. In 1929, Marcuse went to Freiberg to study philosophy with Husserl and Heidegger. Marcuse never finished his doctoral presentation due to Heidegger's association with the Nazi party. Noting Heidegger's emerging anti-semitism, Husserl refered Marcuse to the "Institut für Sozialforschung". This group worked with universities in Geneva and the United States.

In 1934, Heidegger warned Marcuse to leave Germany. Heidegger fled to America under the auspices of the "Institut für Sozialforschung". He then carved himself a philosophical niche with his 1941 treatise: "Reason and Revolution." It is still considered one of the best works to show the similarities between the philosophical methods of Hegel and Marx. Then, in 1955, he produced the first Marx-Freudian criticism, "Eros and Civilization". By 1958, he received a tenured position at Brandeis University.

While working at Brandeis Herbert Marcuse wrote "One-Dimensional Man", which he published in 1964. Out of all his works, this one remains his most famous, for it had a wide sphere of influence upon the radical social movements of the ensuing decades. The work also proved on of the more important reflections on the many technological horrors that happened during WWII, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima.

In this work, Marcuse, using Marx-Hegelian analysis, argues against what he saw as "one-dimensional behavior." He defines this behavior as a blind acceptance of cultural conformity---an acceptance that does not question the problems of existing structures and ways of thinking. Particularly, Marcuse relates this issue to the philosophy of the Cold War Era. Marcuse believes that industrialized Western society, whether capitalist or communist, suffers from the same problem: the need to emancipate people from technological oppression. Marcuse also predicts a rise of totalitarian injustice if individuals, especially academics, lose the right to oppose cultural conformity.

The first chapter of "One-Dimensional Man" introduces the problems of creating a democratic society. Marcuse explains that a difference exists between "true needs" and "repressive needs". Marcuse defines true needs as those things that are essential for human survival, such as food, clothing, and shelter. He defines repressive needs as superfluous commodities, such as cosmetics, luxury items, recreational items, etc. Analyzing the differences between these commodities, Marcuse argues that the possession and ability to attain repressive products gives the lower-class a sense of unjustified equality. That is to say, the worker feels equal to the boss when they both have the ability to attain the same luxuries. Therefore the worker cares less about the real inequalities between their stations in life: for example, the boss might have health care insurance, whereas the part-time employee will slave 40 hours a week and sometimes more without the opportunity for raises, health care benefits, etc. Marcuse then warns that liberty can become a device for controlling the masses. For example, the ability to vote for leaders does not abolish totalitarianism. Free trade also allows the government to punish people with trade sanctions. Free speech also allows for free censorship. Marcuse concludes that technological oppression threatens industrialized society. Though technology can liberate the masses, governments have traditionally used it to oppress the people through advertisement, military weapons, etc.

The second chapter concludes with one of Marcuse's famous quotes: "Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination." In this chapter, Marcuse specifically analyzes capitalism and communism to show that they essentially do similar things. For the sake of industrial profits, both paradigms use technology to control people. These paradigms use a balancing of "Welfare State" and "Warfare State" powers as the technological aides of domination. The Welfare State consists of academic and social institutions, who produce and motivate the logic of domination. The Warfare State enforces this logic with military organizations and local police departments. Through this balance, domination becomes institutionalized and supordination becomes criminalized.

The third chapter examines the role of art and high culture. Marcuse shows that art has changed with the emergence of a one-dimensional reality. Artists have traditionally contrasted the lives of characters who live within the norms of society against those who live outside the norms of society. Marcuse claims that these characters have not disappeared, but their roles have been transformed. Instead of protesting against the society, these characters now support the order of the society. The outsiders try to transform themselves or they redeem themselves as part of the social agenda. The Welfare State of academics also controls the interpretation of the older works. Thus, these works loose their subversive impetus; they become commodities of higher education and bookshelf trophies of one's college years. Marcuse believes that the most important role of art is to negate the social norms, but in a one-dimensional reality, art becomes only a mode of pro-cultural propaganda.

The fourth chapter closes the first part of the book. Marcuse first analyzes the function and control of language in totalitarian societies. He observes Slang as a method to humorously debase the principles of proper language. He also explains that the government and particularly the law makers of government speak a different language from the common person. He then explains that the proper language attempts to sanitize unpopular ideas through illogical assimilations of words, such as the phrase "clean-bomb" which the American government used to describe its new atom bombs. He also explains that the proper language attempts to arouse feelings through the politicization of words, such as "freedom" and "communism". These terms can have multiple meanings, but the society enforces one traditional reading of the terms. Marcuse then questions the use of familiarity advertizing, i.e. when the government uses phrases like "your tax dollars", "your congressmen", etc. This personalization subliminally makes the government seem like a possession of the individual. However, the government oppresses the same individual with the use of tax dollars and congressmen. Marcuse criticizes the use of abbreviations because they prevent people from knowing what the organization represents. Very few people know what NATO (North-Atlantic Trade Organization) represents, thus they do not question the involvement of Turkey or Greece as member nations. All these problems contribute to public ignorance which allows the government to dominate the masses.

The second part of the fourth chapter analyzes the scientific approach to examining the problems of labor issues. Psychology and sociology attempt to control people, establishing them in the proper forms of behavior. When people do not behave appropriately, they either need medication (stimulants or depressants to help them endure the day) or therapy. The testing of human relations often involves vague or generalized concepts that cannot provide specific information about each workers problem. The interpretation of these problems benefits the company more than the workers. At the same time, the specification of certain questions can also benefit the company more than the worker. For example, a worker could complain: "The wages are too low." A panel of human relations workers examine his case and discover that his children are ill. They determine that the wages are not really that low, but that he's just in temporary distress. However, the question arises, would his children be terminally sick if their father had more money, health care insurance, and the opportunity to live in a better community? These factors are not resolved, since the human resource group denies the original proposition: "the wages are too low." Instead of giving better wages, they settle with some alternative means of compensating the man. Similar situations arise in politics and political advertising.

The fifth chapter examines philosophy as a form of oppression. Marcuse, like many philosophers, examines the death of Socrates as an anecdote that reveals the oppression of logic. Socrates violated the codes of the Athenian state, so he was executed. Marcuse then examines the problems of Aristotelean logic. Aristotle disposes of the unique qualities of things to categorize logical statements in terms of symbolic variables. Unfortunately, this destroys the metaphysical meaning of concepts, especially when one must determine them as precisely true or precisely false. Marcuse ends the chapter explaining a relationship between history (or what we learn as history) and the roles of philosophical oppression.

Marcuse examines rationality in the sixth chapter. He develops his argument to prove that science does not represent reality as neutrally as we would think. Rather, science is a mode of domination that has a political discourse. Afterall, the objective thought is always a subjective thought. Unfortunately, as technological progress has become more demanded, the sciences have become a form of unquestioned logic and objectivism.

Marcuse follows this last problem into the sphere of politics and individuality in the seventh chapter. He notes that a society that does not question its logic of oppression will certainly fall into the toils of totalitarianism. He makes particular note of how modern society elects represents individuals to represent a group. The individual becomes a medium for creating a stereotype about that group of people. Additionally, depending on the role to which that person was elected, society may expect people of that group to act in a similar manner. In some cases, people of that group may feel obliged to behave like their representative. This produces all the good and bad aspects of conformity. Marcuse gives more examples of how modern psychology oppresses people, as well as the language of authors and poets.

The last three chapters of the book, which are relatively small, reiterate the themes of Marcuse's philosophy. He now explains the consequences of a totalitarian society, yet he also explains the problem of moving away from industrialized oppression. He believes that technology could potentially liberate all humanity, but that the current uses exploit the freedom of humanity. Thus, he ends the book explaining the essential role of imagination, to negate and envision new roles for society.

"One-Dimensional Man" inspired many radical groups of the late 1960's. Notable groups included: Students for a Democratic Society, the Yippies, the Black Panther Party, and the Weather Underground. The work particularly aided campaigns for free speech, anti-Vietnam protests, a moratorium on the death penalty, and anti-nuke campaigns.

Despite the immediate success of the work, Marcuse retired from Brandeis University in 1965. The University of San Diego offered him an appointment on their faculty staff, which he accepted. He continued with lecturing tours at Harvard and Yale. He continue to teach at UCSD until 1970. As more people involved themselves in anti-Vietnam protests, the media soon hailed Marcuse as the "Father of the New Left." When the New Left splintered, Marcuse returned to the themes of his older works. He encouraged people to take a revolutionary role in society, to value artistic negation of society, and to protect free speech at all universities.

Marcuse died on July 29, 1979 in Starnberg, West Germany. He was 81 years old.

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