- Intellectual godfather of the Left
A Berlin-born ideologue, Herbert Marcuse made his reputation as a Hegelian Marxist. His books inspired American student revolutionaries in the 1960s to have contempt for democratic process. In a semi-essay on “repressive tolerance,” Marcuse argued that American democracy was a sham because the ruling class was able to “institutionally” suppress the expression of radical ideas. Therefore radicals were justified in stifling the free speech of conservatives whenever they got the chance. This kind of thinking has inspired the blacklist against conservatives effectively enforced by tenured radicals since the 1970s.
Marcuse was born in 1898 in Berlin, where he was raised in a comfortable home. His move toward the political left began around the time of World War I. At the war’s end, he spent a short period as a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party. He entered the University of Freiburg to study art and history, and completed his doctoral thesis there in 1922. He thereafter he moved back to Berlin and worked as a bookseller. In 1929 he returned to Freiburg to collaborate on a professor’s dissertation with Martin Heidegger. Unable to complete that project under Nazi rule, in 1933 Marcuse took a position at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a Marxist-oriented think-tank.
That same year, Marcuse fled to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he was naturalized in 1940. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war with Japan and Germany, Marcuse took a position at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). There he analyzed intelligence reports from Europe and wrote biographies of political personalities. In 1951 he left the CIA (which was created in 1947, shortly after the 1945 dissolution of the OSS). He became a philosophy professor, first at Columbia University, then Harvard, then Brandeis (1954-1965), and finally the University of California/San Diego (1965-1976), where he was the mentor of Communist icon Angela Davis.
Marcuse wrote several books. Among his best-known early works was Eros and Civilization, his 1955 synthesis of Marxist and Freudian thought. Twenty-three years later he published The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. But his most famous screed, published in 1964, was One-Dimensional Man, which resonated with student leaders of the New Left in Europe and the United States. Among its assertions were these:
“[T]his society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence – individual, national, and international. This repression, so different from that which characterized the preceding, less developed stages of our society, operates today not from a position of natural and technical immaturity but rather from a position of strength. The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before – which means that the scope of society’s domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before. Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living. . . . In the face of the totalitarian features of this society, the traditional notion of the “neutrality” of technology can no longer be maintained. Technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put; the technological society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques.”
Ever-willing to speak at student protests, Marcuse was branded “the father of the New Left” – a term he strongly disliked. His ideas inspired several of students who became noted radicals, including Davis, Naomi Jaffe of the Weather Underground, and Free Speech Movement (FSM) leaders Mario Savio and Bettina Aptheker.
The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 led to the first occupation of a university building and kicked off the student radicalism of the Sixties. By in effect shutting down the Berkeley campus through extra-legal means it exemplified Marcuse’s ideas. There were in fact no restrictions to free speech on the Berkeley campus. The Orwellian slogan allowed student radicals to mobilize their peers to shut down the university and intimidate its administration into rescinding a standing campus rule that there could be no recruiting for political purposes on university grounds. This ended the “ivory tower” insulation of academic life from the political currents of the day and led to the politicization (and radicalization) of college campuses across the country. It marked the beginning of an era when ideological politics would occupy a central place in university life.
Marcuse’s writings also influenced Sam Melville, an anti-corporate terrorist, who listed Marcuse’s “Essay on Liberation” as one of his favorite texts. Melville was an inmate of the prison in Attica New York, after being convicted for several midtown-Manhattan bombings. He was killed in the Attica prison riot. In Europe, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who led a 1968 uprising in Paris under the nom de guerre Danny the Red, described Marcuse as a much-needed leader of German students since he was not tainted by national socialism (Nazism). Germany’s current foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, a Green Party leader who became Germany’s foreign minister, is also a fan of Marcuse.
Marcuse retired from his professorship at UC San Diego in 1976, and thereafter became an active lecturer throughout the United States and Europe. He died in Berlin in 1979, and his body was cremated and shipped to a mortuary in New Haven, Connecticut. It was not until December 2001 that a Belgian student raised the question, “Where are Marcuse’s ashes?” The remains were eventually found, undisturbed, in a back closet at the funeral home and were subsequently buried in a premium plot furnished by the German government.