The Reactionary Philosophy, Ambiguous Aesthetics,
and Revolutionary Politics of Herbert Marcuse

Ralph Dumain

Art, Alienation, and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse.  By Charles Reitz.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.  xvi, 336 pp.  (SUNY Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences; SUNY Series, The Philosophy of Education)  Hardcover   $26.50, paperback $25.95.


This review is based on my conceptual schematization of the issues involved:

(1) Marcuse's ideas in their original European social and intellectual context (lebensphilosophie, Heidegger, etc.);

(2) The applicability of Marcuse's ideas in abstraction from this intellectual context (as many English-speaking lay readers are likely to appropriate Marcuse);

(3) The motivation and application of Marcuse's ideas in the American context

     (a) at the time of his work and influence on the student movement in the United States,
     (b) more recently and now;

(4) Charles Reitz's perspective on (1)-(3) and their interrelationships.

The essential components of Reitz’s analysis are Marcuse’s underlying philosophical framework, aesthetics, alienation, education, and politics, with Reitz’s own perspective on the contemporary applicability of Marcuse’s ideas appended.  Using my framework, my evaluation is as follows.  (1) I am at one with Reitz’s accomplishment in dissecting Marcuse’s philosophical framework, and I find this invaluable for my own work.  (2)-(3a): As useful as Reitz’s intensive treatment of Marcuse’s aesthetics is, I find some absences here.  (3b) Reitz’s contemporary perspective is presented in chapter 10, which I find sadly disappointing.  Otherwise, I deem this book an outstanding achievement and indispensable for anyone with a stake in this subject.

Lebensphilosophie and Marcuse’s Misguided Philosophical Foundations

Reitz’s most important accomplishment here, from my perspective, is to demonstrate how deeply Marcuse was imbued with the noxious, reactionary philosophy of lebensphilosophie and how much it reveals about his approach.  Reitz is interested in Marcuse’s aesthetic ontology as a point of departure for analysis of Marcuse’s aesthetics, but it is still important to understand the overall philosophic import of Marcuse’s investment in such irrationalists as Dilthey, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. 

Quoting from One-Dimensional Man and Soviet Marxism, Reitz points out that

Marcuse holds positivism and rationalism, rather than metaphysics or irrationalism, to be among the more pernicious intellectual forces concealing the human dimension in the social, philosophical, and political spheres of advanced industrial societies. . . . In Marcuse's view romantic oppositional philosophies of protest like Lebensphilosophie present humanity with theories having greater rationality with regard to human problems than the allegedly alienating results of the natural sciences. . . . Marcuse continues to polarize the "technological and humanist rationalities" . . . he highlights a liberating, negative, that is countercultural, value in the pessimistic, protest philosophies of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Lebensphilosophie. These allegedly offer strategies for breaking through Verdinglichung. (pp. 114-115)

Marcuse assigns an important role to imagination and the consciousness of death, heavily influenced by Heidegger (p. 118), with input from Nietzsche.  Eros and Civilization depicts history as a struggle between Eros and Thanatos (p. 122).  The influence of Nietzsche is pervasive:

Marcuse concedes that traditional metaphysics does not actually overcome what he considered to be the alienating negativity of the empirical world. Nonetheless, he finds that it has preserved the spirit, or principle, of negation that he considers to be essential to the eventual attainment of gratification and fulfillment.

Marx is nowhere mentioned in the "critical" philosophical discussion central to Eros and Civilization. There is also no evidence to suggest that Marcuse's "philosophical inquiry into Freud," as the book is subtitled, occurs on the basis of a Marxist philosophical analysis. Quite to the contrary, it appears that Marcuse turns primarily to Nietzsche's critique of the traditional metaphysics in this regard. Nietzsche rather than Marx is credited with the insight that metaphysics and religion have functioned to compensate the subjugated masses emotionally and to protect and maintain those who rule. Furthermore, "only Nietzsche's philosophy" is thought actually to surmount this metaphysical tradition.

To no other philosophical author does Marcuse make such sustained theoretical reference as he does to Nietzsche. Marcuse backs away from him in only one instance, in "Political Preface 1966", and this is possibly a response to criticism of his rather categorical earlier support for Nietzsche. Marcuse points to Nietzsche as the single Western philosopher to have fully left the terrain of the repressive rationalism of the Western metaphysical tradition, although he simultaneously acknowledges that Nietzsche's thought is largely unsubstantiated or unsubstantiatable. (p. 126)

Marcuse opposes the Apollonian-Promethean principle, which is basically equated with the Enlightenment, positive thinking, alienation, and reification, à la Heidegger (p. 130).

Marcuse’s “Great Refusal” introduced in Eros and Civilization has its roots in his early work.  His commitment to lebensphilosophie proved to be a lifetime one.

Marcuse explicitly draws on Lebensphilosophical themes in several of his early works . . . . He is intellectually attracted to Lebensphilosophie because it represents a philosophy of lived human existence and a dynamic theory of human sensuousness and instinct. It would seem that Lebensphilosophie, as an essentially life-centered approach to an understanding of humanity and the world, also functions as the foundation of Marcuse's 1969 "protest" philosophy by offering its orientation to "life" as an alternative to the philosophy of sheer "reason" that was thought to predominate in certain interpretations of the Hegelian tradition in philosophy and education. It also serves as a replacement for the utilitarianism and instrumentalism that motivated much scientific and efficiency reform in schools and society in early twentieth-century Europe. Lebensphilosophie, thus, related to that which was "alive" rather than to that which was merely "rational" or "pragmatic" in order to understand human history and culture. It rejected as lifeless and dull the classical bourgeois materialism of the Enlightenment and the historical materialism of the classical socialist sort. It presented itself as a vigorous philosophical hybrid, superior to any stiff, one-sided theory of matter or mind, combining a sensuous imaginative aesthetic sensibility and a critical consciousness. Lebensphilosophie also emphasized critique of fixed forms and static ideas. (p. 185)

After Hitler's rise to power, Marcuse acknowledged that Lebensphilosophie became a part of the "heroic-folkish" fascist ideology, but he did not consider that this discredited Lebensphilosophie as such: "This philosophy of life resembles Dilthey's Lebensphilosophie in name only and took from Nietzsche only odds and ends . . . " In 1931 he was also quite critical, but supported Dilthey's approach nonetheless . . . . (p. 186)

Marcuse broke with the Marxist tradition of “categorical scorn for Lebensphilosophie.”

Historical knowledge and historical human existence are understood as related in "a living unity". The theory of Verdinglichung is consequently relevant to educational philosophical concerns precisely because it speaks to the problem of how the subject matter of life is to become thematic in scholarly activities. Scholarship is henceforth inseparably linked to the perspective of the artist and to the rationality of art, which are held to be rooted in the human dialectics of life and death, self-preservation and self-destruction, and suffering and joy. This rationality is considered to be the realm of concrete knowledge, and it is thought to find its home in the Geisteswissenschaften. Science and learning are thought to remain entirely trivial unless related essentially to a critical aesthetic perspective. Likewise, all education is thought to be at best partial and incomplete if it is void of reference to what is taken to be the conflicted and sensuous human core of knowledge. (p. 187)

In addition to lebensphilosophie, Marcuse makes use of Plato.  The struggle of memory against forgetting is a great theme in western philosophy, resurfacing in Freud.  Education (including the propagation of high culture) has become dominated by technological rationality, which facilitates forgetting.  Marcuse adopts the program of Plato and Schiller for education (pp. 132-133).  Marcuse advocates a retooled Platonism:

Marcuse acknowledges here (as in "The Affirmative Character of Culture") the historical limitations of the classical Greek philosophical framework that were rooted in the social separation of mental from manual labor in the civilization of Periclean Athens. Yet [in One-Dimensional Man] he finds an underlying identity in the pretechnological rationality represented by the Platonic dialectic and by the "post-technological rationality" his critical theory seeks. This attempts to reestablish the interpenetration of Logos and Eros, and reason and art. Marcuse believes that the closed and one-dimensional rationality of modem positivism and science must be opened to what is considered to be the emancipatory, second-dimensional rationality of art, and the full potential of the Platonic philosophy. (p. 153)

From Lebensphilosophie to Hegel, Marx, and America

Reitz provides an extensive analysis of Marcuse’s early intellectual environmental influence and work, imbued with the weighty influence of Dilthey (chapter 2).  Dilthey and Heidegger were incorporated into Marcuse’s Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity.  Marcuse was the first to review Marx’s newly available 1844 manuscripts.  However, it is important to realize that Dilthey and Heidegger determined Marcuse’s reading of the young Marx (pp. 58-61).  Marcuse’s basis was a concern with reification and the alienation of the human essence, not historical materialism.  Marcuse was also heavily influenced by Lukacs, whose notion of reification can be shown to be rooted in German idealism, not Marx. 

These are the ideas that inform Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (pp. 65-66).  It is important for us to know this, as many lay readers of Marcuse's first book in English today as in the 1940s could easily miss some of the underlying motivations of this text.  Given the blackout on Hegel in the English-speaking world of 1941, the book looks to be primarily an education in the history of German idealism, Hegel, and the young Marx for an audience who knew nothing of these matters.  To the innocent reader, this one book does not seem to reveal explicitly all of the major themes to be found in Marcuse's earlier and later works.  Marcuse’s take on German idealism exemplifies a very different logic than does, say, the history of American philosophy. This means very different conceptions of the ultimate meaning of science for human progress.  In the light of the background Reitz provides, a comparison of Marcuse's anti-science position in Reason and Revolution with John Dewey's criticism of anti-science in his 1948 introduction to Reconstruction in Philosophy would be illuminating.  Reitz provides the philosophical background as a prelude to the analysis of Marcuse’s aesthetics and philosophy of education, but it is essential for us to understand how deeply reactionary and objectionable Marcuse’s philosophical basis is, apart from these concerns.

Culture and Aesthetic Ontology

While Reitz is impressed with Marcuse’s deployment of classical German philosophy and the entire repository of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition,

. . . I find myself troubled, in particular, by the way in which Marcuse's theories of art, alienation, and the humanities displace Marx's structural analysis of social life to such an extent that the former's work also takes on ironically conservative political overtones. I want to underscore not only the gains to be made from a familiarity with Marcuse's philosophy of culture, but also the theoretical limitations of his approach. I hold that the philosophical difficulties of Marcuse's theories of art and education hinge upon his reformulation of the analysis of alienation veering attention toward a concept of reification (as Verdinglichung) that is ultimately detached from the materialist context of the Marxist economic analysis. As this book develops I will show why I feel that Marcuse's non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist philosophical abstractions debilitate our efforts to understand ourselves and to extricate ourselves from the oppressive conditions of our social existence. (pp. 7-8)

Art, alienation, and the humanities (humanistic education) coalesce as the decisive themes of Marcuse’s lifelong work.  Marcuse begins with very traditional humanistic themes.  His early period is probably the least known to most of Marcuse’s public.  The reader is likely to be most familiar with Marcuse’s middle period (approximately 1932-1970), which Reitz calls his “Art-against-Alienation program.”  Marcuse’s early tendencies resurface in his third, “Art-as-Alienation” period.  Following in the path of Dilthey and Heidegger, Marcuse pitches his philosophical tent in the humanities, demarcated from the world of science and technology.  In his “militant middle period,” he promotes an educational activism in opposition to traditional aestheticist quietism, to which he reverts in this third period (pp. 11-12).  Reitz’s decisive contribution is to question these philosophical foundations, rooted in the Frankfurt School’s conception of alienation as reification.

After 1933, Marcuse shifts his affiliation from Heidegger to the Frankfurt School.  Marcuse bases his investment in critical theory on utopianism, not scientific objectivity (p. 81).  However, his aesthetic conceptions undergo a shift in his second period, decisively registered in his 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture.”  Here he attacks the quietism of the traditional role of culture, advocating instinctual gratification—not just the liberal arts, but a reshaping of life and experience (pp. 81-84).  Schiller’s notion of aesthetic education (pp. 94. 96) plays a role in Marcuse’s liberatory vision. 

Marcuse’s view of culture becomes most progressive at this moment, but his aesthetic ontology is predicated on an aesthetic rationality (as opposed to science) which negates the existent (pp. 106-107).  Marcuse’s “dialectic” is Romantic negation; it is a conception rooted in dualism, not historical materialism (p. 109).

High Culture, Popular Culture, and Politics

Reitz rightly sees a lasting contribution in Marcuse’s notion of repressive desublimation, as brilliantly articulated in One-Dimensional Man (p. 144).  This idea has become even more relevant in today’s trashy, sensationalist pop culture environment.  In 1964, Marcuse concluded that popular culture had obliterated the negative, that the disjunction between culture and the social order was closed, no longer to be disrupted by unruly outsiders (p. 149).  It is unfortunate that Reitz neglects to analyze what is different about the world of the early 1960s compared to now.  As we shall see later, this omission augers a fundamental defect in his conclusions about the present.

Marcuse shows an awareness that propaganda for high culture has historically been tied to an elite even if it is made accessible to the masses.  (This issue resurfaces in the recent “culture wars.”)  The classics have been politically neutralized.  There is no critical distance in the way in which they are socially appropriated (p. 150).  From the brief quotations, one cannot be certain whether Marcuse’s complaints about the mass availability of the products of high culture are solely based on this legitimate concern, or whether there is an undertone of elitism chafing at the vulgarity of such easy mass availability of the classics in corner drugstores, on television, etc.  One can give him the benefit of the doubt here.

In his 1967 lecture “Art in the One-Dimensional Society,” Marcuse emphasizes the liberatory power of art against the prosaic routine of daily life.  Revolutions in art and culture—manifestations of the rebellious spirit of the aesthetic imagination—could fuel social protest movements, especially in today’s advanced technological society, in spite of the danger of cooptation  (pp. 166-171).  Marcuse emphasizes the importance of the mediating role of form (p. 171).  He is aware of the historic danger of art being used as a substitute gratification (p. 172), but he also insists on art as a means of learning (pp. 172-173).

At this point Reitz interjects a criticism I find perplexing:

"Art in the One-Dimensional Society" endures as one of Marcuse's strongest statements of the interventionist mission of the artist into the day-to-day workings of advanced industrial society. Marcuse was confident that art can well fulfill a critical and emancipatory function. Nonetheless, he also recognized the fact that the critique immanent in the aesthetic Form is inadequate, taken in isolation, to the task of social reorganization that art itself proposes. As Marcuse concludes: "The rest is not up to the artist. The realization, the real change which would free men and things, remains the task of political action; the artist participates not as artist. But this extraneous activity today is perhaps germane to the situation of art and perhaps even germane to the achievement of art" (AO, 67). While art, alone, is insufficient to the achievement of a pacified and harmonious form of social reality, it is, according to this essay, an absolutely necessary and uniquely invigorating call to action in this regard. In contradistinction to dialectical materialism, Marcuse preserves here (as in "Philosophy and Critical Theory") a dualistic conception of the relationship of politics to art (as "extraneous activity"). While aesthetics must inform politics, Marcuse is adamant in emphasizing throughout his middle period the fact that “the real change which would free men and things, remains the task of political action" (AO, 67, emphasis added). Marcuse's major contention in this essay is, however, that no negation of the alienating conditions of social existence is even possible apart from the emancipatory potential of the aesthetic dimension. (pp. 173-174)

I find this the first really objectionable point in the book.  Marcuse’s comments, as least as reported in this paragraph, are unimpeachable.  The left has a very bad record in respecting the independence of artists and intellectuals, and there is nothing inherent in dialectical materialism that mandates a fusion of artistic and political activity.  They are not identical activities, and there is nothing more philistine and pretentious than passing one off for the other.  Perhaps this is another foreshadowing of what will go wrong in chapter 10.

Education, Reification, and Social Change

Marcuse’s views come closest to revolutionary politics in his 1969 book An Essay on Liberation, when student activism was at its height.  Lukacs and Marcuse both saw the necessity for a new form of reason to serve an educative function in the struggle against reification.  In contrast to Lukacs, though, Marcuse directs education against not capitalism as such but against the reification of reason, adopts the Schillerian principle of aesthetic education, and views the aesthetic dimension as primary (pp. 177-179).  Marcuse approaches psychoanalysis from the standpoint of meta-theory, opposed to psychoanalysis as science and as therapy.  Psychoanalysis is instead incorporated into educational and aesthetic theory (p. 180).  While Reitz is correct to criticize Marcuse’s substitution of the dialectic of aesthetically conceived forces (such as life and death) for the conceptual apparatus of historical materialism and class struggle, he once again throws a curve ball by opposing Marcuse’s aesthetic ontology to the historical materialist philosophy of art (p. 181).  This last claim detracts from the validity of the rest of argument and unnecessarily injects a dose of the philistine leftist approach to art into the discussion.

In a 1968 talk on “Education and Social Change” Marcuse confronts the problem of general education, which has an historical association with conservative forces.  The need for general education has an objective basis in the modern world, but the conservative forces that rule education must contain its expression, hence there is a conservative cultural offensive today as there was in the 1940s and 1960s.  Marcuse recommends a critical education.  Reitz discusses subsequent developments such as the community college movement (pp. 189-194).

Retreat from Radicalism, the Aesthetic Dimension, Bourgeois Culture and the Counterculture

While Marcuse’s reversal of his middle period is clearly marked in his 1978 The Aesthetic Dimension, the precedent for it can be found in his 1972 Counterrevolution and Revolt

Counterrevolution and Revolt's third chapter reconsiders the relationship of "Art and Revolution," and anticipates The Aesthetic Dimension in several ways. The basic objective of that chapter is to reassess the relationship of "bourgeois culture" to the admittedly radical and progressive but decidedly less formal art of the "cultural revolution." It is here that Marcuse swings from his usual association with the revolutionary perspective on culture (established first in "The Affirmative Character of Culture," then in An Essay on Liberation [EL]) to a favorable reappraisal of the validity of the culture of the bourgeois era. It is here, also, that Marcuse begins to speak forcefully of art as a "second alienation" (CR, 97), underscoring this alienation as emancipatory rather than oppressive. Here, the affirmative character of art itself is thought to become the basis for the ultimate negation of this affirmation. Affirmation represents a dimension of withdrawal and introspection, rather than engagement. This permits the artist to disentangle consciousness and conduct from the continuum of first-dimensional alienation, and thus to create and communicate the emancipatory truth of art . . .” (p. 197)

There are some other passages of great significance that should be quoted verbatim:

Marcuse regrets especially the atrophy of the critical distance and perspective associated with the liberal arts approach, as well as the "disintegration" (CR, 84) of bourgeois culture in advanced industrial society. The emancipatory, second alienation, considered inherent in high-cultural phenomena, is thought to have dissipated, along with the critical potential otherwise preserved even in affirmation. Marcuse is convinced that overtly bourgeois art—because it is art—retains a critical dimension, and should, itself, be regarded as a source of sociopolitical opposition to domination. Marcuse maintains in fact that the art of the bourgeois period indelibly displays an antibourgeois character, and in this manner he rejects the orthodox Marxist emphasis on the class character of art . . . (p. 198)

It is very difficult to judge the following passage in a vacuum.

Marcuse also criticizes the "living-art" and "anti-art" (CR, 85) tendencies that he associates with the politically progressive art of the leftist-oriented "cultural revolution,"' as representing a "desublimation of culture" (CR, 81), and an "undoing" (ibid.) of the aesthetic form. In this regard, Marcuse explicitly turns away from the immediacy of sensuousness and militance characteristic of his own middle-period aesthetic, moving instead toward a rehabilitation of the value of highly sublimated art. Marcuse asserts that art must move today, not toward an "immediate" (CR, 82) and politically urgent art (or "end of art") in contradistinction to the tradition of higher culture, but instead toward a reinstatement of the customary bourgeois separation (CR, 83) of the artistic from the material-political culture. (p. 198)

In the abstract, there may well be justification for Marcuse’s position, but the warrant for immediacy or critical distance must surely depend on the particular circumstances under consideration.  Without a detailed analysis of the aspects of the ‘60s counterculture(s) (political and extra-political) to which Marcuse specifically reacted, there is no way of judging his position.  Is there a generational issue here?  Could Marcuse have been too traditional, too elitist and European, or was there something really lacking in the counterculture that merited such criticism?  It is a crucial question, and Reitz’s total failure to address it contributes to the central flaw in his book.

Reitz only hints at a few cultural expressions of the 1960s that Marcuse swiped at.  On the other hand, it seems that Bob Dylan joins the august company of Joyce, Beckett, and others in standing up for art-as-alienation (p. 199).  Marcuse reverses his former critique of affirmative high culture against the attempt of the cultural revolution (New Left and counterculture, presumably) to eradicate it (p. 202). 

Again, nothing could be more crucial than a detailed analysis, but Reitz has nothing to offer here.

In his last book, The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse opposes Marxist aesthetics and argues for the permanent value of art (pp. 204-206).  This is a pessimistic period for Marcuse.  Art is a transcendental idea.  The emphasis on the somatic might give the impression that Marcuse has a materialist basis, but he is in actuality an idealist (p. 208).  Marcuse has returned to his earliest ideas.  There is a dualism between art and society; art is permanently incompatible with life.  Art is inherently alienated and rebels against the established reality principle (p. 210).  Art plunges into the depth of life, as no superficial, optimistic, politically engaged art can do (p. 214).  Marcuse’s conception of education is affected also, as he attempts to deploy the notion of “educational dictatorship” to oppose an otherwise hopeless reified reality (pp. 215-216). 

Finally, on the permanence of art: Marcuse argues for the universality and permanence of the classics.  Aesthetic “stylization reveals the universal in the particular social situation.”  The historical content of an artwork becomes dated, but the universality of the forces represented transcend the particular history (pp. 217-219).  While it is quite clear that the aesthetic ontology supporting Marcuse’s judgments is highly questionable, it is not clear without analysis that his aesthetic principle is wrong.  This is a distinction I introduce that Reitz does not.  This is another situation, like opposing traditional culture to the counterculture, in which it is difficult to judge any assertions about the “timelessness” of art in the abstract in lieu of detailed analyses of specific examples.  A crucial change that has solidified since Marcuse’s death, in the culture at large and in the specialized world of cultural criticism, is that cultural and social assumptions have altered so drastically that we are now aware of the vast discrepancy between the assumptions upon which we now operate and those current even as American society entered the 1970s.  There are no easy answers as to what is permanent and what is dated, but the question must be addressed in particulars in an analytically sophisticated manner, and there is no indication here that Marcuse did so.

The Missing Link: Marcuse and American Culture

Before we proceed to Reitz’s final chapter—on the future—we must pause to take stock of the most glaring omission in Reitz’s presentation, key to explaining why Reitz fails, as I intend to show, to connect the past to the future of Marcuse’s critical theory.  There are several missing links between Marcuse and our situation today.  The European vs. American context is crucial.  One would have to examine this relationship in the 1940s, the 1960s, and today.

We see Marcuse’s intellectual and cultural socialization in Europe, and the circumstances under which he becomes radicalized even with the conservative ideological baggage he inherits.  Then he becomes an émigré living in the United States, developing his ideas further in an altered context.  Emerging from the repressive 1950s, Marcuse makes his closest approach to a popular movement at the height of the protest movements of the 1960s, then retreats as revolutionary hopes recede.  Yet something very obvious and very crucial is missing here: an assessment of the transplantability of ideas based on a European cultural heritage to American conditions.  We get a few tidbits of aspects of American culture to which Marcuse responded positively.  He seems to have been much more adaptable to this country than some other members of the Frankfurt School and comparable émigré intellectuals.  We also learn that Marcuse balked against certain tendencies of the American “cultural revolution”—we must presume youth culture. We can make little of all this, though, without a much more in-depth exploration of the relevant details. 

There are further questions to pose as well.  What are we to make of the congeniality of Marcuse’s ideas to the youthful revolutionary generation of the 1960s?  The milieu that generated the reactionary, irrationalist lebensphilosophie that Marcuse imbibed was completely alien to the experience of American youth, but do the two cultures not intersect on the basis of the primitivist, escapist, instinctualist tendencies of the ‘60s generation, and do the two not also diverge on the basis that the latter was putting into practice what the former could and would only theorize about?  Were the college-age students who studied Marcuse wise to the reactionary lebensphilosophie that informed Marcuse’s thinking, or were they wise to the irrationalist, New Age currents of their own generation?

Is there some connection between the mandarin origins of critical theory and the pervasive snobbery and elitism that seem to characterize academics who have been socialized into the ranks of critical theory in the United States?  We know that subsequent generations of students of critical theory in the United States succeeded in assimilating the European background of critical theory, but has that expertise translated into thinking these ideas afresh based on American cultural situations and assumptions?

The other decisive contrast is between avant-garde and popular culture, which is where the issue of art as immediacy vs. alienation enters.  I don't believe that the rigid opposition, which grew out of the European context, is adequate to American conditions.  (Just take the history of jazz in all of its phases—the dichotomy doesn't work very well, even for the avant-garde of the 1960s which was misrepresented in Ken Burns' monstrous falsification—probably thanks to Wynton Marsalis—of the past four decades of jazz history.)  Critical theorists have not successfully mediated the application of European theory to American conditions.  One characteristic of academic bureaucracy is submission to authority.  Leftists are no better than anyone else in this department; in my experience they are worse.  There are two cultural authorities at work here: the authority of European intellectual capital with the cultural referents upon which European theory is constructed, and the authority and power of popular culture.  It seems that some people embrace both and combine them in a shallow and opportunistic manner.

The problem is that there is no aprioristic way to decide what constitutes a principled refusal to participate in compromising cultural forms vs. the cases in which participation in popular forms does not entail being swallowed up by the mechanisms of the culture industry.  When it came down to concrete cases, Adorno was not very good at this and not precise either.  But now that the rebellious '60s and '70s are over, and all gestures of defiance have been incorporated into the multibillion dollar culture industry, Adorno's ideas are probably now much more applicable than they were in the repressive 1940s, because now with so many taboos broken we are fed the illusion that self-expression is all when in fact individuality is more ruthlessly repressed than ever.  Talk about repressive desublimation!  Marcuse's jaw would drop open were he to live to see the 1980s and '90s.

The problem now is, if one wants to use alienation effects to break through the wall of commodity fetishism, conformity, false and demented values, there is no place for an avant-garde to go.  The old avant-gardes were squeezed dry to feed the popular culture of the present, and there is no technique left by which to defamiliarize the taken-for-granted.

It is almost inconceivable that Reitz, who is of the age to have lived through the 1960s as a young adult, fails to pose any of these questions.  The fact that he does not bespeaks a curious historical amnesia I sense among baby boomers who later became part of the academic theory industry: these people have lived through the tremendous epochal cultural shifts that transpired over the past four decades, but they seem to have forgotten—intellectually—the experience of the transition and the difference in living on both sides of the divide.

Returning to the framework outlined at the beginning, I have affirmed the thoroughness with which Reitz has supplied the European intellectual and cultural context in which Marcuse developed (1), and I have indicated the gaps in the account of the application and applicability of Marcuse’s ideas to the American context in which he lived in the 1940s and 1960s, and that in which we live now (2-3).  Finally, as to point (4), how does Reitz view the relationships obtaining among (1)-(3) in my itemized framework?  I do not believe he has distinguished them as sharply as he should have.  Clarity of distinction is necessary even to demonstrate interrelation and even inseparability.  Of course there are tangible connections linking Marcuse’s underlying philosophy, his aesthetics, and his politics, as Reitz indeed demonstrates.  However, I believe an analytical distinction may need to be drawn between Marcuse’s aesthetic ontology and some of his stated aesthetic principles or judgments, and also between the latter and his politics.  I segmented the title of this review very purposively: I itemize the issues as reactionary philosophy (lebensphilosophie and the ontological basis of Marcuse’s aesthetics), ambiguous aesthetics (sometimes difficult to judge depending on context and specific examples), and revolutionary politics (political perspective).

Finally, what does Reitz have to say about the future, and how does this relate to my analysis up to this point?

The Future

Chapter 10 poses the question, how to liberate the “critical” in critical theory?  This chapter has a complex structure, combining the evaluation of Marcuse with contemporary problems of pedagogy, art, the culture wars, and political action. 

Reitz summarizes the ways in which Marcuse dissociates himself from the traditional concerns of Marxism, but here he adds “the identification of revolutionary art and education with the cultural forms actually experimented with by communist societies” (p. 224).  What communist societies does he have in mind, I wonder?  I wasn’t aware that any modern communist society ever existed.  Many would question even the socialist nature of putatively socialist societies.  Could Reitz have in mind the Soviet Union, since he criticizes Marcuse’s analysis of Soviet education and aesthetics (pp. 157-163)?  Or does he have some other communist society in mind, Mao’s China perhaps?  While Reitz’s summary of Marcuse’s other shortcomings is exemplary, passing remarks like this may be revealing of the underlying mentality of segments of the American left and what is wrong with it.

Following Mitchell Franklin’s lead, Reitz argues that Marcuse is a “beautiful soul” in Hegel’s sense, essentially dualist and incapable of overcoming contradiction (p. 228).  Reitz also documents the sense of betrayal that radical activists felt towards Counterrevolution and Revolt written while their movement was still a going concern and taken to be a call for postponement of revolutionary action (p. 229).  However, Reitz makes two rather important omissions here.  First, he assumes that Marcuse’s stance here is the direct result of the quietism implicit in his underlying ontology and the vacillation inherent in his dualism.  Of course this is entirely possible, but we cannot know for certain without a more thoroughgoing analysis of the political situation in 1972 and Marcuse’s assessment of it.  The second omission is even more glaring, i.e. the lack of questioning of the student radicals of the time and the ultraleftist rah-rah-revolutionism that burned out rather quickly, without any discouraging stimulus from Marcuse.  Perhaps Marcuse had reason for doubts about what was going on around him?  I could be wrong, but I can’t help but wonder if there is an undertone here of a political immaturity in Reitz’s generation that perhaps was never outgrown.

Reitz is quite correct that an ontological, abstract philosophical anthropology cannot adequately cope with the specificity of historically occurring social and cultural forms (p. 234).  He has had little to offer up to this point in delineating the dialectical materialist alternative to cultural analysis, except to cite some of its stodgiest representatives.  But he takes this opportunity to attack essentialism by quoting some fashionable ideas and thinkers of the current postmodern dispensation (p. 235).  To some extent he upholds Habermas, and wonders about the possible validity of a linguistic turn.  Then he returns to some of the most dubious representatives of the Marxist tradition and advocates the politicization of art (pp. 237-239).  Then he quotes two feminist philosophers on Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic (p. 240).  More postmodernists follow (p. 242).  This is not only political rhetoric; it could not be more academic.  And is it not built into the very nature of academic existence, whatever the political pretensions of academics, not to be able to recognize the patent laughability of their positions—transparent to any outsider?  Is this what has become of the baby boomer revolutionaries?  I almost cannot believe my eyes.

Reitz wants to preserve the “militant and adversarial dimension of Marcuse’s philosophy” (p. 243), but adds nothing about what there is in it worth preserving except for its militant and adversarial moments (p. 246). 

Reitz advocates an activist agenda, citing some educational theories, some practical programs, advocacy of public service and citizenship, and some principles of empowering education and collective political struggle.  It is not easy to sift the practical proposals from the hot air.  There is also little indication proving any connection between the ambitions of radical intellectuals and the goals and expectations of working class students who make their way into higher education with the view of surviving in society as it is constituted now without the luxury of devoting themselves to “causes” characteristic of a professional class whose members are educated to believe they can run everything anyway. One might well ask how serious any of these “causes” can be in the absence of a mass movement to sustain and discipline them. 

Reitz, ostensibly an advocate of dialectical materialism, throws into the conceptual pot every ill-digested idea he can think of, including “multiculturalism,” without seeing the latter for the managerial containment strategy it is. The forms of popular culture—music, movies, etc.—as possible manifestations of the resistance to alienation, must become central to the curriculum (p. 251).  Of course there is no mention of any potential resistance on the part of students to being pigeonholed and confined to the cultural expressions of their social origins without being consulted.  The one substantive idea of Marcuse that is cited here is “repressive tolerance”, in connection with the issues of political correctness and hate speech (pp. 254-262). 

I should also mention the appendix, “Charter 2000: A Comprehensive Political Platform”   to which the author and others subscribe.  It stands on its own merits, independently of any connection to the rest of the book.

Whose Future?

I regret to say I regard the concluding chapter as intellectually insipid, once it ventures beyond summarizing Marcuse’s questionable aesthetic ontology and attempts to connect the topic of the book to contemporary perspectives.  There is a surfeit of cited ideas combined with a feebleness in thinking any of them through.  I must also add another trenchant comment: beneath all the talk of social service there is something implicitly self-serving in all this rhetoric.  Those of us—especially on the outside—who have actual experience of the prevailing intellectual and ethical level on which academics operate—the left included—are not going to be very impressed with Reitz’s rhetoric.  The academic leftist is an academic above all.  His causes all stem from the do-gooderism or ambition of the middle class professional, and Lord or Marx help you if you are not one of his causes.  He is all too susceptible to the prevailing conformism, lack of intellectual independence, mediocrity, opportunism, unscrupulousness, ruthlessness, authoritarianism, and lust for power of the breed.  The fundamental flaw of the coalition mentality of the academic left is that coalitions center around political goals incompatible with the basic unprincipled functioning of the profession and career advancement and inhibit the necessary combat of ideas by forcing tolerance of mediocrity and bad ideas in the quest for a united front.

How is it possible that Reitz combines such brilliant analysis of Marcuse’s philosophy with such blithe gullibility in the attempts to make it more politically relevant?  How can this discrepancy be accounted for?  Again, the missing link is the failure to analyze the application of Marcuse’s European ideas in the American context.  It lies in the silence about the relationship of these ideas to the ‘60s student generation, beyond the congruence or rift between Marcuse’s advocacy or quietism and the students’ activism.  But this is precisely a manifestation of the infantile approach of the ‘60s generation to ideas in the first place.  I am of their generation, with a couple years difference, but as a teenager I never trusted the student radicals, and I don’t trust them now in middle age.  I thought they were childish then, and though they gradually changed with the times, I have my doubts they ever matured, which likely accounts for the amnesia I suggested earlier.  The reactionary or progressive nature of ideas lies in the ideas themselves.  Lebensphilosophie is inherently obscurantist and reactionary and can only have a retarding intellectual influence on radicals.  Why attempt to prove anything else, unless you think you have the mandate to point a gun to an intellectual’s head and make him join your cause or shut him up?


I do not wish my harsh evaluation of the final chapter to be my last word or distract unduly from my overall commendation of the book.  The book’s shortcomings reflect the lack of opportunity for meaningful dialogue in this society.  Neither Reitz’s book nor my review should be construed as the last word on Marcuse and his meaning for today.  Reitz has given us the fundamentals for opening up an intelligent dialogue on Marcuse’s intellectual contribution; it is our job to continue the conversation and take it to the next level.

©2004 Ralph Dumain.  All rights reserved.  Further publication prohibited without permission.

Note: This is a draft, which though useful in its unabridged form, could stand some pruning. Many of the quotes and some of my commentary had to be abridged or deleted for print publication. A lean, 2500-word version of this review will be published under the title “Reactionary Philosophy and Ambiguous Aesthetics in the Revolutionary Politics of Herbert Marcuse—A Review Essay” in a forthcoming issue of the journal Nature, Society, and Thought (vol. 16, no. 3).

Reactionary Philosophy and Ambiguous Aesthetics in the Revolutionary Politics of Herbert Marcuse—A Review Essay” by Ralph Dumain [PDF file]

Notes on Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution by Ralph Dumain

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage

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