CRITIQUE AND PROGRAM
HERBERT MARCUSE: THE NEW SOCIETY
It has been asserted, and the statement has even been attributed to me, that highly developed late capitalist society, particularly in the United States, is no longer really a class society; that the gap between rich and poor has become smaller and the class struggle no longer takes place; that the system has succeeded in removing or in any case dampening the contradictions that Marx revealed. This is out of the question and I have never maintained it. The fact is that in the last few years the gap between rich and poor has become greater than ever before. The fact is that the contradictions, the inner contradictions of the capitalist system, continue to exist. They are manifested particularly sharply, far more sharply than before, in the general contradiction between the enormous wealth of society that could make a life without poverty and alienated labor really possible, and the repressive and destructive manner in which this social wealth is employed and distributed. Even the class struggle goes forward, although for the time being it does so in a purely economic formwage demands, demands for the improvement of working conditions, demands which at the moment can still be met within the framework of the capitalist system, although their satisfaction is becoming more and more difficult within this given framework as we see from the great strikes of recent years and from inflation.
On the other hand, it is correct that late capitalist society displays important differences from earlier periods and that these differences lie essentially in what I have called the integration of the majority of the working class into the existing system; an integration which in its most pronounced form I should again limit to the society of the United States.
This integration of the working class sometimes goes so far that the working class can actually be characterized as a pillar of the establishment—particularly insofar as its union leadership and its support of American foreign policy are concerned. This integration is by no means merely superficial or ideological: there are very good reasons for it. Thanks in particular to the remarkable productivity of labor, late capitalism has succeeded in raising the standard of living for the majority of the population. Most workers, most skilled workers anyway, are very much better off today than they were before. Indeed, to a great extent they share the comforts of the so‑called consumer society and it is quite understandable, quite rational, and definitely more than a result of propagandistic indoctrination or brainwashing, that they are not willing to give up these relative advantages for an alternative "Socialism" which in its pure state seems a utopia to them, or else looks like it does today in the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
So it is that, on the basis of this growing productivity of labor and the constantly increasing abundance of commodities, a manipulation and regulation of consciousness and the unconscious has commenced, which for late capitalism has become one of its most necessary control mechanisms. Again and again new needs have to be aroused to bring the people to buy the latest commodities and to convince them that they actually have a need for these commodities, and that these commodities will satisfy their need. The consequence is that people are completely delivered up to the fetishism of the world of commodities and in this way reproduce the capitalist system even in their needs. The commodities have to be bought because everyone else buys them and because in actual fact a need for these commodities has been stimulated and aroused.
This means that they have to be paid for, and as commodities are always getting more expensive, it also means that the struggle for existence is becoming ever more intensive, even though a rational distribution of labor and social wealth could reduce and lighten its burden to an extent never before possible. But exactly the reverse tendency is present in late capitalism. Precisely because of the accumulated social wealth, the struggle for existence is intensified and does not become any easier. The integration of the workers continues, but as I said, I think it is weakening. I believe the inner contradictions already are far more apparent today than they were a year ago and that even among the so‑called middle classes—the bourgeoisie—the awareness is spreading that the relative prosperity that exists in the so‑called consumer society is perhaps too dearly bought. Too dearly bought, not only because of the inhuman mind and body‑killing work that a highly mechanized and more or less automated industry requires today, where a worker does nothing more for eight hours than turn the same screw or press the same button or attach the same part to another part. These mind and body‑killing activities are far too high a price when one considers that this sort of struggle for existence is no longer really necessary today, and that thanks to the present social wealth and the possibility of rationally exploiting and distributing available resources, most of this work could be abolished; that is, it could be automated. Of course this would involve the abolition of the greater part of the insane waste that prevails in the so‑called consumer society in the interest of the most urgent objective, namely, the abolition of the poverty and misery which continue to exist and to be reproduced unceasingly in highly developed capitalist society.
Another aspect that shows that the price of the consumer society is exorbitant is the increasingly evident fact that stability and prosperity in the United States are necessarily accompanied by new colonial wars and the impoverishment and destruction of large areas of the third world. This is a critique of the consumer society which shows that the Marxist analysis is still valid today, but that a few fundamental concepts of Marxist analysis, particularly the concept of the proletariat, need to be differently formulated.
There is yet another, and, at least at first sight, extraordinarily important defense of high capitalist society; namely, that it maintains democracy and despite everything preserves a large measure of pluralism. Now of course one has to admit, because it is a fact, that there is still more freedom in the United States of America today than, for example, in the Soviet Union, and certainly infinitely much more than in the new fascist and semi-fascist dictatorships that are springing up all over the world. On the other hand, one cannot overlook the degree to which this democracy is a manipulated and limited democracy. There is no real opposition in this country, in the sense that such an opposition could make use of the mass media. There is, for example, not one real opposition newspaper such as those in France or Italy. The Left, the radical Left, has no adequate access to the mass media at all because it simply cannot raise the enormous amount of money necessary to purchase equal time on the television networks and the radio. From the very beginning, the Left is at a disadvantage in this democracy. In addition, it is a well‑known fact that the political process is monopolized by the two big party machines here, the Democrats and the Republicans, that these two parties are fundamentally identical in all their objectives, and that therefore there can be no question here of a real democracy that is nourished from below.
This tendency for democracy to be parceled out between dominant parties which are fundamentally united in their objectives and policies is of course most advanced in the United States, but I believe a similar tendency can also be seen very clearly in Europe, especially in England and probably also in the Federal Republic of Germany.
INTERVIEWER: What then does the alternative model of society look like?
MARCUSE: Well, the question of an alternative always seemed a very simple one to me, and it still does today. What young people want today is a society without war, without exploitation, without repression and poverty and waste. Now, advanced industrial society has at its disposal all the technical, scientific, and natural resources that are necessary to construct such a society in reality. And all that is preventing this liberation is the existing system and the interests that work day and night defending this system, employing increasingly violent means to do so. The alternative model does not seem to me so very difficult to define. How it should be concretized is another question again. But I believe that as a result of the abolition of poverty, massive waste, and destruction of resources, a way of life can be found in which human beings can truly determine their own existence.
INTERVIEWER: And what is the road to this society like?
MARCUSE: The road to this society—that, of course, is something that can become concrete only in the course of the struggle for this society. The first thing to say about it is that it will be a different road in different countries according to their various stages of development: development of the productive forces, of consciousness, political tradition, etc. I should like to limit my comments to the United States because I know this country best. I emphasize from the outset that the situation in France and Italy, for example, is very different. There is, of course, the question of the agent of change, the question "Who is the revolutionary subject?" This question seems unreasonable to me because the revolutionary subject can only evolve in the process of change itself. It is not a thing that is simply there and that one has only to find somehow. The revolutionary subject originates in praxis, in the development of consciousness, the development of action.
INTERVIEWER: Could this agent today be the working class?
MARCUSE: I have been reproached for saying the working class is no longer a revolutionary subject. That is, of course, a falsification of what I said. What I said is that the working class in the United States today is not a revolutionary subject. That is no value judgment on my part; it is, I believe, simply a statement of fact, a description. And again the situation is very different in France and Italy, where strong political traditions exist among the working class, where the standard of living has not yet reached the high level of the United States, and where consequently the radical potential of the working class is much greater than in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: You have always very strongly emphasized the role of the students. What role do they play in a changing society?
MARCUSE: I have never maintained that the student movement today has replaced the workers' movement as a possible revolutionary subject. What I have said is that the student movement functions today as a catalyst, as a forerunner of the revolutionary movement and that today this is an extraordinarily crucial role. I believe that all these defeatist remarks to the effect that a movement of intellectuals which is limited mostly to universities and colleges cannot be a revolutionary movement, and that it is only a movement of intellectuals, a so-called elite—these remarks simply by‑ pass the facts. That is, in the universities and colleges of today, the cadre of a future society is being educated and trained, and because of this the development of consciousness, of critical thinking in the universities and colleges, is a crucial task.
INTERVIEWER: What can revolution start from today? Presumably no longer poverty, at least not in the advanced countries.
MARCUSE: That depends completely on the various countries. In countries where poverty prevails, it will naturally play a crucial role. In other countries, it will not. Probably the crucial characteristic of revolution in the twentieth or twenty-first century is that it is born not primarily out of privation, but—let us say—out of the general inhumanity, dehumanization, and disgust at the waste and excess of the so‑called consumer society; that is, out of disgust at the brutality and ignorance of human beings. Because of this, the chief demand of this revolution will be—really for the first time in history—to find an existence worthy of human beings and to construct a completely new form of life. This is a question then, not only of quantitative change, but also of real qualitative change.
INTERVIEWER: Revolution out of disgust—isn't that really an un‑Marxist thought?
MARCUSE: It's not an un‑Marxist thought at all, for there are very strong objective and social reasons for disgust. Disgust is indeed only the expression of a contradiction, of the ever growing contradiction that permeates capitalist society, namely, the contradiction between the enormous wealth of society and its wretched and destructive employment. At a high level of consciousness this contradiction expresses itself as disgust with the existing society.
INTERVIEWER: Professor, is a humane, emancipated society actually unattainable through reforms?
MARCUSE: Reforms can and must be attempted. Everything that can serve to alleviate poverty, misery, and repression must be attempted. But exploitation and repression belong to the essence of capitalist production just as war and the concentration of economic power do. That means sooner or later the point is reached where reforms run up against the limits of the system; where to put through reforms would be to sever the roots of capitalist production—namely profit.
That is the point at which the system will defend itself, must defend itself, against reforms in the interests of self-preservation, and where the question then arises: "Is revolution possible?"
INTERVIEWER: Roughly, how will the emancipated, post-revolutionary society be organized? Can the complex society of the western industrial countries, for example, be constructed along the lines of a council system while preserving its efficiency and technological standards?
MARCUSE: We cannot prescribe today what the organizational forms of post‑revolutionary society will actually look like. It would be senseless to do that. We are not free, and as such, we cannot predetermine how free human beings would arrange their life and society. We can, of course, adumbrate a few of the fundamental institutions. The "council system" is of course, historically a very loaded term. But I believe the basic idea is still valid. I said that in a free society human beings determine their life, their existence. The first thing that is part of this is that they determine how the socially necessary labor is to be divided and for what objectives it is to be performed. At first this would probably best be done in local and regional assemblies, committees, councils, or whatever you want to call them; being on the spot, they would know best what priorities are to be fixed and how the necessary social labor is to be allocated.
INTERVIEWER: But who can guarantee that the abolition of the capitalist mode of production will lead to a society in which the individual is free and can realize himself? At all events the existing socialist societies don't justify this confidence.
MARCUSE: There is no guarantee for it. History is not a insurance agency. One can't expect guarantees. What one can say on the subject is that the abolition of capitalist society in any case can and will provide the foundation upon which a free society could grow.
INTERVIEWER: What concrete political actions should the New Left take today? Would you recommend a policy of alliance between this group and other critical but non‑Marxist forces? For example, with parliamentary forces?
MARCUSE: The question must be answered differently according to the degree of development in the various capitalist countries. Where the counterrevolution is already at work, a policy of alliance is necessary. But for the New Left this can only be temporary and cannot become a political principle! And it can only be directed at specific targets in specific situations, for instance, demonstrations and local elections. And beyond that? I think that today all radical opposition is extra‑parliamentary opposition.
INTERVIEWER: May the New Left employ violence as well in its extra‑parliamentary actions against the ruling system?
MARCUSE: Well, I do not think this question can be discussed in a general conversation such as this but only within the circle of participants and with an eye toward definite situations. In general, on the question of violence I can only repeat what I have already said; that in existing society violence is institutionalized to an absolutely monstrous extent and the primary question is first of all, "From whom does the violence come?" In any event, I believe we can say that—at least in a period of incipient counterrevolution—violence comes first of all from the existing society and that from this point of view the opposition is confronted with the question of counterviolence, the violence of defense but definitely not the violence of aggression.
INTERVIEWER: One last question. Are you not presupposing in your emancipated society a new anthropological structure of man? A human being who always does good, a human being who always acts in solidarity?
MARCUSE: No, I don't think so. What I am presuming is not a human being who always does good and always acts in solidarity, but a human being who first of all, and perhaps for the first time in history, really can act in solidarity and do good. I believe that on the basis of the achievements of industrial society the possibility is provided to emancipate extensively the instincts repressed in the interests of domination, and that through these emancipated instincts—essentially the life instincts and not the destructive instincts—something like solidarity can, in fact, become reality for the first time in history. For the life instincts are opposed to the aggressive instincts: they contain, in fact, the germ of the possibilities and conditions necessary for an improvement of life, for a greater enjoyment of life, and indeed, not against others, but with them.
SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert; Popper, Karl. Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation. Ed. A. T. Ferguson; trans. Michael Aylward & A. T. Ferguson; intro. Frederic L. Bender; afterword to German ed., Franz Stark. Chicago: Precedent Publishing Co., 1976. Originally published in German as Revolution oder Reform? Herbert Marcuse u. Karl Popper. Eine Konfrontation, ed. Franz Stark, 1972. This section, pp. 65-77.
Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation (Herbert Marcuse & Karl Popper): Contents
Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography
Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide
Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide
Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage
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