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Remembering Herbert Marcuse


Today is the 107th birthday of the late Herbert Marcuse (left), the political, social, and cultural philosopher — a leading member of what is known as the Frankfurt School  along with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. The Frankfurt School wove insights from Marx, Freud, and Max Weber into new syntheses of social and cultural criticism. Marcuse is somewhat out of favor now in American universities — but in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s he inspired several generations trying to construct a new radical politics that rejected both Soviet communism and triumphalist monopoly capitalism and sought to create new cultural critiques and models.

One of my favorite Marcuse anecdotes is this:  When Playboy wanted to interview Marcuse, and offered him a great deal of money to do so, he said he would only do it if he could be the centerfold! There are several good biographies of Herbert Marcuse available online: a quite complete biographical notice by Prof. Teresa MacKey, and a smart intellectual review of Marcuse’s work by the proprietor of Blog Left, the UCLA Prof. Doug Kellner, as part of his quite useful Critical Theory website.

This fall, a major conference on Marcuse will be held November 3-6 in Philadelphia. The conference, “Reading Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization after 50 Years” — sponsored by St. Joseph’s University’s Philosophy Department and the Philadelphia Philosophy Commission — will include not only a re-examination of Eros and Civilization and its place in Marcuse’s social philosophy; but also consider the influence of Marcuse’s work in the past five decades; its place in a critical theory of society; and the importance of Eros and Civilization for fields such as psychology, aesthetics, and political philosophy; as well as prospects for a renewal of Marcuse’s approach to social philosophy.

Marcuse was a major influence on my own thinking, and so much of what he wrote is enormously pertinent to the world in which we find ourselves today. One of his most innovative and, for me, still contemporaneously vital concepts was his 1965 articulation of a theory of “repressive tolerance.”  Marcuse’s thought, while accessible, is too densely contiguous to be reduced to a soundbite, but to give just a hint of the flavor of what Marcuse meant by “repressive tolerance,” here is a particularly pungent quotation:

“It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities,” Marcuse wrote. “Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness  in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the important and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandising, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives….”

The entire text of Marcuse’s must-read essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” is available online — as indeed is much of Marcuse’s work, thanks to a rich and complete multimedia Marcuse website assembled by his grandson, Harold Marcuse (right) , a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. This official Marcuse website includes not only a host of texts by and about Marcuse — including part or all of his books Eros and Civilization, One-Dimensional Man, and his 1967 lectures at the Free University of Berlin assembled under the title The End of Utopia and The Problem of Violence — but audio tapes of Marcuse lectures, and a film and video section.

One of the jewels of the video section of the Marcuse website is the 1996 film, “Herbert’s Hippopotamus,” which recounts the controversy that swirled around Marcuse in the late ’60s while he was teaching at the  University of California’s San Diego campus, at a time when he was considered the godfather of the New Left (a title and role he always rejected). The American Legion led a campaign to have Marcuse fired from the university, and even Ronald Reagan got into the act. You owe it to yourself to watch this captivating and revealing one-hour film, which captures Marcuse’s personality brilliantly, and which you can view by clicking here (make sure that, if you have a DSL connection for your computer, you choose the high-speed version).

My confrere Danny Postel did a long interview about Marcuse with the investigative journalist Lowell Bergman — whose probes have appeared in the New York Times and on the PBS series Frontline, and he was the “60 Minutes” producer played by Al Pacino  in the 1999 movie about the investigation of the tobacco industry, The Insider (poster, right). Lowell recounts his experiences with Marcuse, how they led to Bergman’s career in journalism, and the influence Marcuse had on Bergman’s work:

“I studied with Marcuse as a graduate fellow in philosophy at the  University of California at San Diego (UCSD) from 1966 to 1969,” Bergman told Postel. ” It was a Ph.D. program in the history of philosophy…..My first real contact with Marcuse came [when] reading his book Reason and Revolution, which remains one of the best, if not the best, expositions of Hegel in English. It was—maybe there are others now—the only coherent presentation of his philosophical insights in relation to the development of Marx’s thought. That book led me to read some of his writings from his time in Frankfurt [Ger.], especially a seminal essay on liberalism…

“…One-Dimensional Man provided a unique way of looking at the rise of the authoritarian state in advanced industrial society. The suppleness of the analysis provided a way of thinking that ran counter to the dominant notion of ‘progress’ and ‘Nature’ that permeated thinking on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Marcuse began to articulate ideas about the way in which the culture and mass media were no longer presenting information except for the sake of presenting it. There was no depth, no history, no analysis. Information for information’s sake without any attempt to help people understand….

“]My] jump to journalism was…in 1969, ” Bergman (left) continues. “The spark was the incessant appearance of editorials in the San Diego Union-Tribune demanding that the University of California regents fire Marcuse. This came after students in Europe ran around in 1968 chanting “Marx, Mao, Marcuse!” When Herbert went back to Germany that summer he was feted not just at universities but at outdoor rallies….Back in San Diego, the very conservative community reacted at first with virulent publicity and then physical harassment. Marcuse’s telephone lines at home were cut. Someone drove by and fired at his garage door. There were phone threats. The tension was mounting. San Diego had an active right-wing vigilante movement, which I encountered later when I got into journalism. So his graduate students decided to start escorting him to school every morning, a 15-minute walk. This was in the time when UCSD was a small campus with a small undergraduate college and as many graduate students.

“This experience led the students to discuss the idea of putting out an alternative newspaper in what was and is a monopoly newspaper town. San Diego was not only the largest staging area for the Vietnam War; it was also home to a large military retirement community and politics that made parts of the deep South look liberal. Thus was born the San Diego Free Press, which a year later was renamed the San Diego Street Journal….The publicity [about Marcuse] in Europe—and it was then repeated in the U.S. press—that [Marcuse]  was an ideological leader came to the attention of the anticommunist ideologues associated with the Copley Press (the San Diego Union-Tribune). In those days the paper, now a conservative but civilized rag, was to the right of Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon called San Diego his ‘favorite city.’…

“Marcuse was a symbol, which became even more threatening when one of his students, a veteran of the Hegel seminar and before that a student of Marcuse’s at Brandeis, went to work at UCLA. That was Angela Davis (below left). The ensuing row brought in [then] governor Ronald Reagan  and more action to terminate her appointment. Marcuse’s own reputation, enhanced by hers, made him a central target of the anticommunists of the Reagan right in the late ’60s. … I guess what I’m getting at is that one doesn’t normally associate political upheaval and mass mobilization with philosophy professors—at least not in the United States. Moreover, the figure of Marcuse doesn’t exactly square with the style and tone of the ’60s counterculture. There was something of a baroque quality about him: By that time he was fairly ancient, wore nice suits, spoke with a heavy German accent. There’s a striking scene in the documentary film Herbert’s Hippopotamus in which a group of student activists are holding a demonstration of some sort on the UCSD campus. They’re running around, banging on drums, singing—and then Marcuse steps up to speak, using language right out of 19th-century German philosophy. Yet he captivated them. They fell silent and listened to his every word. This struck me. What was it about him—because I think he was fairly unique in this sense—that so many young people revered and were inspired by?

“…Despite his Germanic professorial bearings and his old world roots, Marcuse  was a captivating orator. His lectures on Hegel were phenomenal. The best way to describe them is to read Reason and Revolution. Few, if any, books on Hegelian philosophy and its aftermath are so cogent and to the point. In the world of UCSD at the time, Marcuse was an intellectual superstar. It was a little surreal, in the midst of San Diego county, high on a plateau, within sight of the largest military complex in the world….

“Marcuse’s dialectical analysis did not depend on heavy-handed ‘conspiracy’ theories or mechanistic economic determinism. That would save me from falling into some of the simplistic traps that lure many people looking for tidy explanations….” You can read the entire interview with Lowell Bergman by clicking here.

I had the privilege of meeting Marcuse only once, when as a teenager I was detailed to go to his home (he was then teaching at Brandeis) and pick him up to bring him to a conference of youthful activists. But I was chatting on the phone this weekend with my former Village Voice colleague Jeff Weinstein, who these days is both culture columnist and Fine Arts Editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I asked him if he’d write for us his memories of Marcuse from the time Jeff also studied at San Diego while Marcuse was teaching there. Jeff was kind enough to oblige with these notes:

“Many of my memories of the time I spent at he University of California, San Diego are out of context, almost cinematic in their abruptness, and those of Herbert Marcuse are no exception. So it‘s all the more significant that I can say that even though I barely recall anything specific he said to me, to his classes or to the crowds of supporters he addressed, he a was crucial part of my coming of age, politically. Let me explain:

“I was a graduate student at UCSD, usually called La Jolla, in the department of English and American literature from 1969 to 1973. For many reasons, I became active in campus and off-campus politics – but I did not veer in the usual left direction. I was firmly against the war in Vietnam, and even more strenuously supported the unionizing of the United Farm Workers under the heroic Cesar Chavez. But my core belief, and in retrospect my only authentic political passion, was founded in my identity as a recently declared gay man. I was, for a while, the first and only out person on the campus. It was not a popular or attractive position to take.

“I actually had done my undergraduate work at Brandeis University, where Dr. Marcuse had taught, but I had never taken any of his courses. Yes, I studied “Eros and Civilization,” and the concept of repressive tolerance  was one we embraced because it challenged the Freudian-based criticism prevailing at that time.

“Yes, of course, Dr. Marcuse’s ideas were seminal. They provided—forgive the mixed metaphors—validating, thoughtful resonance for the intuitive understanding that the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin and drug-enhanced opening of doors were necessary to unravel conformity’s bonds and put the evil of capitalist hegemony, as we called it, somehow behind us. Marcuse dragged the gown into the town. He articulated what so many of us were beginning to know: that change was not only necessary, it was inevitable.

“Yet Herbert Marcuse was important beyond his writing, because he was a very brave man. He put body and soul on the line in demonstrations and sit-ins, stood up to threats from opposites of all stripes (even of death, from the Klan) with unfailing energy and wry humor. He was an authority utterly unafraid to stand up to dominant authority and the pernicious powers that fed it.

“I belonged at the time to a campus group called the Radical Coalition; for a while I was the only gay voice in it.  At some point it fell to me to introduce Dr. Marcuse to an outdoor antiwar demonstration that turned out to attract not hundreds but thousands. Of course – this was 35 or so years ago – I cannot remember any of the pertinent facts of this event, but I will tell you that his example allowed me to take the mike and try to connect the reality of the lives of my friends –especially, and at last, gay men and women – to the demands of the day.

“I was told later that the gay issue was not something he could easily grasp, and a discussion he and I had about this has evaporated. But his personal example, as much as or more than his intellectual one, raised my and all our prospects higher.”

I also solicited a Marcuse remembrance from DIRELAND contributor  Norman Birnbaum (right) who knew him well, and Norman responded thus:

“Here are some brief recollections of Herbert. There is little new to say about his intellectual and political influence. I have always thought of Eros And Civilization as a major work, combining historical insight and human imagination. Compared with the others of the Frankfurt School of his generation, Herbert was far more cosmopolitan, more committed, more courageous (I think of the disgraceful episode in which Horkheimer attempted to have the young Juergen Habermas (left) dismissed from the Institut fuer Sozialforschung because of his political views.) What I now think of, however, are Herbert’s great human qualities: forthrightness, an enormous capacity for enjoyment, and a splendid sense of humor.. 

“I recollect his marvelous talk on Max Weber (left) at the 1964 German Sociological Association Weber centenary meeting. Raymond Aron, Pietro Rossi, Talcott Parsons had given reasonable academic evaluations of Weber (Parsons –at right –, to be sure, had somehow situated him ‘beyond ideology,’ a location which would have rendered Weber himself uncomfortable.) Herbert (seconded by Habermas –lower left)  delivered a large critique of Weber’s Decionism, connecting him to Carl Schmitt, and raised the question of how value-free the advocate of a value-free social science actually was. He invited the public to ask if Weber did not bear some responsibility for the intellectual onslaught on the Weimar Republic which prepared the way for Nazism—which was, in 1964, a breach of German academic decorum.
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“I also remember the way he began the talk, by citing the inscription over the doorway of the university building, in Heidelberg, in which the meeting was held: “Dem Lebendigend Geist” (roughly, “To The Living Spirit”) “Es gibt Dingen, die Mann nicht uebersetzten kann.” “There are phrases which are untranslatable.” I believe that the visit occasioned some melancholic self-reflection on whether he should have taken a full-time academic post in post-war Germany. In the end, of course, Herbert could hardly complain of a lack of influence in Germany and there is hardly a member of the present government who will not have read his writings. That he would greet with all of his irony—and so prepare the way for the next try.

“We were having a drink in the Heidelberger Hof and the singular conventionality of some of the other guests caught his attention. ‘Norman, reality is its own caricature.’

I also recall a visit to Herbert and Inge, winter of 1969…. It was snowing in New England, and I had to cope with ice and fog on Highway 91 as I drove from Amherst to Hartford airport. The next morning, Herbert and I walked to the La Jolla campus, with its palm trees, attractive women in Californian splendor, and tie-less nearness to sensuality. ‘Herbert, what a contrast with New England!’ ‘Norman, I have always told you, winter is a bourgeois ideology ‘…May his memory be blessed.”

Another friend I asked to capture for DIRELAND readers Marcuse’s importance to  him  was Ariel Dorfman (right), the prolific Chilean playwright-political essayist-poet-scenarist-novelist, who begged off because of work pressure, while nonetheless making comments I found so interesting and pertinent (Ariel’s insights as a foreigner into the late-’60s U.S. New Left then are similar to my own, as I always had a disdain for “infantile leftism” and have long thought there had been a general mis-reading of Marcuse by too many), so I asked Ariel to let me share them with you, and here they are:

“I am totally overwhelmed – casting three plays and preparing my anti-war musical and trying to finish up who knows how many other things (I don’t even know how many!).

“I owe so much to Marcuse – he was the first one, as I can recall, who made me understand why we had to oppose both the Soviet system and its capitalist twisted mirror. But I simply have not a moment to spare – and if I were to write something it should be a real reckoning trying to figure out what was so deeply right, but also what went wrong. Or maybe simply how we misapplied Marcuse. I have not given it much thought and should but at the moment simply can’t.

“The only reference in my work which others may find interesting in this regard is the chapter of Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey, where I tell the story of our trip to Berkeley from pre-revolutionary Chile in 1968-69,  and then our return to Santiago to join the Allende revolution which was about to burst onto world history. I deal in that chapter with how deeply influenced I was by what I lived in the States (which is to say, by those who were reading and following Marcuse),  and at the same time about how lacking I found those movements in maturity, relationship with real  workers, capacity to comprehend that radical change means engaging vast sectors of society whose members do not seem to be immediate or obvious  allies.  Part of that chapter is a way in which I hint at how sexuality and revolution tend to have been at odds and should not be, a questioning of the limits between personal and collective liberation….But there you go, dear friend. . . That’s as far as I’ve ventured in the Marcuse memory lane. . .”

I hope that these hastily assembled bits and pieces are tantalizing enough to have encouraged readers to explore the writings of Herbert Marcuse. They have much to teach us (especially, if I may repeat myself, “Repressive Tolerance”) that is of enormous value for how to think about where we are today. Marcuse died on July 29, 1979, just ten days after his birthday. How one wishes he was still here — but, in many ways, he is….

 

 

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