Herbert Marcuse and Absolute Struggle in 2013


“One can delineate the domain of philosophy however one likes, but in its search for truth, philosophy is always concerned with human existence.  Authentic philosophizing refuses to remain at the stage of knowledge […].  Care for human existence and its truth makes philosophy a ‘practical science’ in the deepest sense, and it also leads philosophy—and this is the crucial point—into the concrete distress of human existence.”

– Herbert Marcuse, “On Concrete Philosophy” (1929)

From Thursday 7 to Saturday 9 November 2013, the fifth biannual conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society took place at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington.  With the theme this year being “Emancipation, New Sensibility, and the Challenge of a New Era: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy,” the conference opened space for 25 panels, three plenaries, and two keynote addresses dedicated to examining the thought of Marcuse’s Hegelian-Marxist critical theory and the myriad ways by which it might be applied to the difficulties of the present.  The conference itself was co-sponsored by several UK departments, including philosophy, sociology, political science, international studies, and others, and UK philosophy professor Arnold Farr served as the conference’s host and master of ceremonies of sorts.  As it was would have been difficult to attend all—let alone one-third—of the panels on offer at the conference over the course of its three days, this report-back will concentrate only on those I saw and found most stimulating.

In the very first panel of the conference early on Thursday morning—some of which I missed, including Professor Robespierre de Oliviera’s intervention which had to do with the 2013 revolts in Brazil—Prof. Lauren Langman spoke to the “Interesting Times” in which we live.  Reflecting on Marcuse’s 1963 lecture on the “Obsolescence of Freudian Man [Humanity]” 50 years later, he made the claim that the vast majority of people in the U.S. should now be considered as no longer having a Freudian character—that is to say, one whose ego and superego are formed through the primary conflict with the father-figure—but he stressed that Freudian analyses still retain importance in U.S. society, particularly as means of analyzing the Tea Party and emerging neo-fascist movements.  Those individuals who make up these movements are conformists who resist change; as they are worried about losing their privileges, Langman claimed them to be beset by the “anal character” postulated by Freud.  The professor contrasted these reactionary contemporary developments with the “Great Refusal” theorized by Marcuse a half-century ago, by which the human organism in its entirety is to rebel against organized destruction and alienation, in addition to the “SexPol” of fellow German social critic Wilhelm Reich, whereby the prospect of social liberation was to be improved by approaches which encouraged open and pleasurable sexual expression among adolescents.  It should be noted here, as Langman did, that for such unorthodox views Reich was expelled from both the German Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytical Association—just as Marcuse was fired from Brandeis University in 1965 for his radical refusal to separate philosophy from its practical, revolutionary implications: the radical struggle (Radikalkampf) against domination.  Returning to his analysis of the prevailing situation, Langman was happy to cite the December 2011 Pew Research Center polls indicating that about 50% of U.S. youth consider socialism preferable over capitalism.  Acknowledging the very real risk of “planetary catastrophe” in this century because of the entrenched dominance of the capitalist mode of production, Langman closed his intervention by noting that the twenty-first century would like the twentieth face the choice of a liberatory socialism or a Mad Max sort of barbarism.

After Langman’s talk came Andrés Ortiz Lemos’s intervention on “The Fata Morgana of Technology” within the “Citizen Revolution in Ecuador.”  Presenting his paper on the subject, Ortiz Lemos sought to apply Marcuse’s critical analysis of instrumental rationality—or what Marcuse at times also terms technical rationality—to President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador.  The process by which utilization of capitalist scientific methods leads inevitably to the reification of consciousness should not be considered as limited only to “advanced industrial” settings, argued Ortiz Lemos, for, in his argument, Correa has clearly employed science and technology as a means of silencing critics of his “Citizen Revolution.”  As a prime example of this dynamic, Ortiz Lemos discussed Correa’s grandiose plan to build Yachay, or the “City of Knowledge” (Ciudad del Conocimiento) as a South American equivalent of sorts to Silicon Valley.  The idea of Yachay, which has received the blessing of such scientific celebrities as Stephen Hawking, is to supplement Ecuador’s export of primary resources through extractivism with an ever-increasing export of advanced techno-knowledge.  Naturally, as Ortiz Lemos discussed, Yachay is to be a highly exclusive institution, not one accessible to ordinary Ecuadoreans.  Indeed, the speaker likened Correa’s plan for Yachay to Argentinian President Juan Perón’s fantastical scheme to green-light a plan hatched in 1950 by ex-Nazi scientists by which they would attempt to develop fusion power at a remote site in the Andes—as with Correa and Yachay, Perón employed the “technical rationality” represented by such a work toward the end of demobilizing his opponents.  In closing, Ortiz Lemos contrasted the Correa government’s stipulated commitment to the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay, or “good-living,” given Correa’s increasingly techno-bureaucratic politics, and he noted in hopeful terms the strength of indigenous social movements in the country.

Following the initial panel discussion on Marcuse and recent social movements came the panel “Ecology, Biopolitics, and Aesthetics,” which began with Brazilian doctoral student Silvio Ricardo Gomes Carneiro speaking to the aesthetic specters found in Marcuse’s work, from his very first scholarly work on The German Artist-Novel (1922), which examined the conflicts between the alienated artist and the surrounding capitalist society, to Eros and Civilization (1955), Marcuse’s famous synthesis of Marx and Freud, and beyond.  For Gomes Carneiro, art in Marcuse’s conception constitutes a sort of guerrilla warfare against one-dimensional society and the administered life; at its best, aesthetics can help break the reification of consciousness.  Professor Imaculada Kangussu followed by reflecting on Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) with her talk on “The Aesthetic Ethos of Real Life.”  Beginning dialectically by citing Augustine of Hippo’s saying that “Where the danger grows is also found what can save us,” Kangussu brought up Marcuse’s observation that radical political alternatives which are dismissed as “utopian” are considered so only because they are blocked from being realized by established power relations.  According to Marcuse (and Kangussu), the struggle to bring to life the “utopian” possibilities of the present is one that takes place even and especially at the level of the individual organism, such that the individual’s progression beyond conformity to and complicity with the brutality and aggressiveness required under relations of domination serves as a forerunner prefiguring the overturning of such domination.  In Marcuse’s view, as he famously develops it in the Essay on Liberation, morality is an inherent “’disposition’ of the organism,” one which works to counteract the grip of death (Thanatos) on the individual and societal levels.[1]  A sensitization to aesthetics can aid the organism to overcome established domination, as Kangussu argued (following Marcuse), for art is indelibly linked with the human imagination, which turns its focus onto “things that are not and things that should be.”  In aiding in the development of a new human sensibility, aesthetics can assist emancipatory movements to realize liberation.  Kangussu quotes Marcuse:

“This would be the sensibility of men and women who do not have to be ashamed of themselves anymore because they have overcome their sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and and forgotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental temples of corporations, and who have worshiped the higher culture of this reality.  If and when men and women act and think free from this identification, they will have broken the chain which linked the fathers and sons from generation to generation.  They will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have become free to stop them and to prevent their recommencement.”[2]

Transitioning to questions of ecology, Brandon Huson presented on agroecology as a form of “Food Production that Liberates.”  He noted agroecological practices to be superior to dominant chemical-industrial ones, given their potential to be freed from market strictures and based on local knowledges.  Additionally, he argued that observing agroecology could help considerably to reconstitute soils depleted by previous agricultural practices and pragmatically to improve crisis resilience for local communities in light of negating future eventualities such as oil-price shocks.  I then presented my paper on “Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse,” which I introduced by noting the “continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day” and the “critical-dialectical perspectives” provided by these three theorists, which I believe “hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together.”

I began by considering Karl Marx’s views on imperialism, which are to a degree marred by the deterministic view that all non-capitalist societies of the world would have first to be subjected to the torturous path of capitalist industrialization as a precondition of later attaining communism—though he famously broke with this view late in life, particularly after studying ethnology and anthropology in depth.  Marx ultimately came to conclude that the agricultural collectivism evinced for example in the Russian mir system presented an alternative that could allow for a direct path to communism, if those participating within the mir would be helped along by revolutionary proletarians in the West.  Marx definitely presented some problematic views on the British Raj in India during his 1853-1858 journalistic work with the New York Tribune—views that would lead Edward W. Said to denounce him in Orientalism—yet he also precociously called for Indian independence from Britain long before any Indian nationalist had done so, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny against the Raj.  In Capital volume 1, moreover, Marx defines his theory of primitive accumulation in the following anti-imperialist fashion:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”[3]

Though greatly influenced by Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, on the other hand, did not share Marx’s impassioned humanism with regard to non-European peoples: it would seem that his social critique revolved principally around contemplation of the Shoah, such that the genocidal social exclusion imposed by fascism became primary within his thought, to the detriment of other important considerations.  Adorno was unfortunately an unreflective Zionist, and he and his colleague Max Horkheimer called Gamel Abdel Nasser a “fascist chieftain” in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis.[4]  However, more than a decade later, Adorno rightly spoke of the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and he clearly locates the U.S. war against that country as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz.  Though his anti-militarist position is far more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who rather bizarrely supported the U.S. war effort, Adorno did not engage in any sort of concrete activism to resist the war drive during his last years of life in Germany, unlike Marcuse, who received several death-threats from right-wing groups in the U.S. due precisely to his opposition to the war and his agitating for radical social change more broadly.  Marcuse himself considered national-liberation struggles as the most revolutionary developments on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and he welcomed the coming of the Cuban and Chinese Revolutions.  Marcuse also visited historical Palestine in 1971, and rather than parrot Zionist narratives at this time, his perspective as communicated in his Jerusalem Post article “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede” clearly acknowledges the vast injustices done to the native Palestinian population in the founding and maintenance of the Jewish State, and though he endorses Israel’s right to exist, he calls for Palestinian self-determination and just settlement of the refugees; he sees these “interim solutions” as stopgap measures which might lead one day to a Middle Eastern “socialist federation” in which Arabs and Jews would coexist as “equal partners.”[5]  During the visit he and his wife Inge made to Nablus in 1971, indeed, Marcuse expressed highly unorthodox views for a supporter of Israel, noting that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”[6]

In terms of ecology, I sought to express my opposition to recent interpretations of Marx’s thought which have stressed his supposed contributions as an ecologist, as most notably advanced in the writings of John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology, The Ecological Revolution, and The Ecological Rift, among other titles.  I am very far from convinced that contemplation of Marx’s passing references to the depletion of soils resulting from the introduction of capitalist agricultural practices should lead us to embrace him as a trailblazing environmentalist.  Instead, in my view, Marx was far more concerned with communist humanism than ecology; he was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—uncritical—view of industrialism, and I am sympathetic to Adorno’s declaration that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”[7]  It is important not to confuse Marx’s industrialism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller.  Adorno himself, on the other hand, expressed much concern for the destructive effects capitalism and industry have had on non-human nature, and he would often champion animal rights and vegetarianism.  Indeed, the question of the domination of nature is central to the entirety of his social philosophy, from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Aesthetic Theory (published posthumously in 1970).  In the latter work, Adorno observes that experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination,” and he argues that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants.”[8]  Similarly, in his 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of this concept, whereby it is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which renders it capable of “becom[ing] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[ging] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”[9]  Lastly in this sense, environmentalism and concern for nature are rather evident in much of Marcuse’s mature works—his early, uncritical lapse on the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) notwithstanding.  In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse integrates Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable, and in both One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse argues for the importance of vastly reducing the suffering humanity imposes on non-human aninmals, though he stops short of endorsing vegetarianism in the latter work.  Identifying nature as an “ally” in the struggle against capitalism in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse takes issue with the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature”: though this is clearly preferable to capitalism’s utter destruction of the biosphere, Marcuse criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled, and he reiterates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature in this sense.[10]

Following this panel, the next major event at the conference was Professor Richard Wolin’s keynote address on “Marcuse and the New Left: Emancipatory Violence as a Problem of Political Philosophy.”  Wolin, author of Heidegger’s Children and co-editor of a collection of Marcuse’s writings from his period of study with Martin Heidegger, Heideggerian Marxism, used his comments to discuss a brief period in the 1960’s when Marcuse is said to have flirted with the concepts of revolutionary violence and of a transitional dictatorship away from capitalism (1964-1968).  He opened by arguing that Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which famously theorizes the Marcusean pessimism which claimed the working classes of the advanced-industrial West to have been hopelessly integrated into the capitalist system, may well have over-exaggerated the claim that the established system enjoyed control over its subjects.  Wolin noted that the negating fate of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 left Marcuse with a permanent distrust of liberalism, given that it was the reformist Social Democrats who ordered the insurgent proletarian and soldier movements at the end of World War I to be smashed; Wolin said that this experience indelibly left a gap in thought between Marcuse and the New Left in the U.S., even if Marcuse came to be known as the “guru” or even “father” of the New Left (terms he reportedly disliked); Wolin noted that the U.S. New Left was not so intransigently opposed to liberalist reformism.  Marcuse’s view, then, that U.S. social institutions were politically unserviceable led him to hold out the need for an extra-systemic intervention; like Frantz Fanon, Marcuse saw this development—the veritable embodiment of the Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic—in the anti-colonial insurrections of the 1950’s and 1960’s: principally in Castro and Che as well as the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. war.  Meanwhile in Germany, student radical Rudi Dutschke applied Marcuse’s theories by holding the attainment of revolutionary progress to be a matter of will, given that the material conditions were already ripe for the jettisoning of capitalism; the idea, which influenced groups like the Weather Undeground and the Red Army Faaction (the Baader-Meinhof group), was that the national-liberation struggles must have parallel groupings in the metropole.  It is doubtful that those attracted to Dutschke’s advocacy of direct action or “actionism” paid much heed in this sense to Jürgen Habermas’s much-reviled denunciation of a tendency he saw as leading toward “Left fascism” at this time.

Within this tumultuous confluence of events and thought, argued Wolin, Marcuse came closer and closer to endorsing authoritarian methods of “forcing the people to be free”: from the lamentation over the pervasiveness of false consciousness and the identification of “totalitarian democracies” in the West as expressed in One-Dimensional Man, it was not so great of a leap to advocate revolutionary dictatorship as a temporary corrective of sorts.  According to Wolin, Marcuse must have felt the risks of such a dictatorship to be less than those associated with liberal or Stalinist regimes; the speaker even cited Marcuse’s declaration in Eros and Civilization that, “From Plato to Rousseau, the only honest answer is the idea of an educational dictatorship, exercised by those who are supposed to have acquired knowledge of the real Good.”  Curiously, though, Wolin failed to include Marcuse’s next sentence in his comments refuting the idea: “The answer has since become obsolete: knowledge of the available means for creating a humane existence for all is no longer confined to a privileged elite.”[11]  Wolin instead pressed on attempting to trace the influence of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt on Marcuse’s thought during this period, as supposedly seen for example in Marcuse’s 1967 defense of the minoritarian insurrectional tactics of Gracchus Babeuf, who attempted to organize a “conspiracy” to forcibly overthrow the reactionary Directory in the final stages of the French Revolution (1796).  Marcuse sides with Babeuf’s romantic project due to the belief the two share in the objective superiority of natural law over that of established law, coupled with their common view that “the people” can be ideologically misled, adopting conservativism, as many of the weary denizens of France arguably had by 1795.  Wolin claims such considerations to form the basis of Marcuse’s justification of a revolutionary dictatorship—though, again, he failed here to mention the 1968 postscript to Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), where the critical theorist clearly states that the “alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy.”  It would seem, then, that Wolin proved disingenuous in at least some of his claims in this address, perhaps for controversy’s sake.  He concluded by contrasting Marcuse’s supposed position on dictatorship in this period with the thought of Hannah Arendt, who theorizes the concept of power as people’s collective action in concert and considers violence the very antithesis of power—it is employed by states, for example, only when their control over their populations falters.  Wolin also noted the “poor endings” of various radical currents within national-liberation or post-colonial movements, including the Naxalites, the Tamil Tigers, and Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and he favorably cited Gene Sharp’s work on active nonviolence as an alternative.  Wolin made no mention of Sharp’s established ties with the CIA and the Pentagon.[12]  Apropos, during the discussion period, Professor Harold Marcuse (Herbert’s grandson) brought up the advocacy of violent tactics made late in life by Günther Anders (1987), who was Arendt’s husband for a time and himself marginally associated with the Frankfurt School; Anders felt popular, revolutionary violence to have been a necessity amidst the early growth of the Nazi movement within Weimar Germany, and he similarly held it to be legitimate as a means of attempting to resolve the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, given the marked irresponsibility of the world’s states on this matter.  One wonders what Anders would have to say about catastrophic climate change.  This stimulus from Prof. Marcuse led Wolin lucidly to mention the “honorable tradition of tyrannicide”, a tradition that can be seen to have been exercised for example in Russia against Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Prime Minister Pëtr Stolypin in 1911.

The final event for the first day of the conference—its first plenary—involved the playing of a fascinating audio recording of an interview between Professors Jeremy and Richard Popkin regarding the latter’s recollections of Marcuse during the time he taught in the philosophy department at UC San Diego (1965-1976, with emeritus status from 1976 until his death in 1979).  The elder Popkin, who founded UCSD’s Philosophy Department in 1963, first encountered Marcuse during a symposium he and his colleagues hosted in 1964 regarding the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thought.  This was a time which coincided with the publication of One-Dimensional Man and the heightening tensions between the mature radical intellectual and the administration overseeing him at Brandeis, which ultimately obliged Marcuse to “retire” following his open and public welcoming of the Cuban Revolution and his organizing of a class on campus to analyze the “Welfare-Warfare State.”  At Popkin’s invitation after the 1964 Marx symposium—which itself generated a fair amount of controversy among the UC regents—Marcuse left Massachusetts to join the philosophy faculty at UCSD, settling in the rather unlikely locale of La Jolla, California, the grossly affluent neighborhood which served then (and still?) as a retirement destination for many ex-military officers, in addition to counting with the strong presence of the American Legion and plenty of other reactionary groups and individuals.  As an illustration of the depth of the town’s conservatism, Popkin explained that over four-fifths of La Jolla’s residents voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Accompanying Marcuse in his move from the Northeast U.S. were several of his Brandeis graduate students, including Angela Y. Davis, who would receive her M.A. at UCSD in 1969, a year before Jonathan Jackson would take over a Marin County courtroom to demand the release of his imprisoned brother George Jackson, a confrontation that would lead to police killing him and imprisoning Davis for having bought the weapons Jackson used in the operation.  During her studies in San Diego, though, Davis would assist with efforts to have a branch of the school renamed for anti-imperialist martyrs Patrice Lumumba and Emiliano Zapata.  At UCSD, Marcuse taught both introductory and advanced philosophy courses, including the Social Philosophy course of 1967-1968 which Jeremy Popkin took as a student; according to the elder Popkin, students definitely liked the emigre German philosopher, and his classes were always well-attended.  Rather inevitably, though, relations with local right-wing groups soon came to a head, with conservatives becoming initially alarmed upon learning of Prof. Marcuse’s brief departure to attend an [Javier 1] international conference on Hegel in Czechoslovakia—that is, behind the Iron Curtain.  At first, the American Legion pressured the UC administration to let Marcuse go, and when this tactic failed, the group boldly offered to buy Marcuse’s contract for $20,000.  More grimly, in summer 1968 came the “Night of the Long Guns,” when, amidst a context beset by an increasing number of death-threats directed at Marcuse (including one from the KKK), the telephone line to the Marcuse household was mysteriously cut.  This led to the mounting of a rapid response among Marcuse’s supporters and friends in La Jolla, with the somewhat amusing result that intrepid philosophy students armed themselves with shotguns and formed a protection detail to stay up through the night and watch over Herbert and Inge’s home.  Fortunately, as Popkin recalls, the whole scare was a false alarm, and he speculated that the problem of the telephone line perhaps had to do with Inge’s failure to pay the utilities company on time.

Besides his trip to the Hegel conference in Czechoslovakia, Marcuse traveled internationally quite a bit in his time at UCSD, visiting Germany to speak at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967 and observing the evénéments of May-June 1968 in Paris firsthand.  Indeed, Jeremy Popkin recalls that, the very night Marcuse returned from revolutionary Paris, he gave students a two-hour presentation stressing the critical importance of the upsurge, yet urging them to recognize the great differences between French and U.S. societies at that time—such that their next move should not have been, for example, to storm LBJ’s White House!  Popkin also shed light on Marcuse’s developing relationship with Israel, noting tensions on this question between him and Inge, who he claims to have been “very anti-Zionist” as well as effectively Maoist.  One such controversy had to do with the Israeli ambassador’s personal request that Marcuse speak out publicly in favor of Jews facing repression in the Soviet Union, while another revolved around a call for notable public intellectuals to sign a statement declaring the Jewish State to desire peace in the Middle East, this less than a week before it attacked Egypt and so opened the Six Day War.  Within this tumultuous national and international context, moreover, the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan (1967-1975), was determined to remove Marcuse from the public eye.  In no small part due to Reagan’s aggressive machinations, the UC at this time imposed the arbitrary rule that all professors older than 70 could not be promised contract renewals—with this being a threshold which Marcuse surpassed in 1969.  Popkin observed that thinkers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Karl Popper wrote letters of recommendation in support of Marcuse’s bid to continue teaching in his last decade of life.  Incidentally, these new regulations also affected another anti-war academic activist, the chemist Linus Pauling, who left UCSD for Stanford in 1969.  Apparently, despite his well-known advocacy of social revolution, Marcuse insisted continuously during his time at UCSD that students not act in any way which might threaten the relative autonomy of the university, for he considered such to be their “safe space” in society.  Both Popkins recall that Herbert was wont not to get overtly involved in political situations which might lead him to be arrested and so result in aggravated tensions with the Right and/or a jeopardization of his teaching position, but they did discuss one instance when Marcuse entered a UC space that had been occupied by protesting students, defended the occupation publicly, and offered to pay the trespassing fine the students had incurred for their action.

The second day of the conference began with a plenary panel session on Crisis and Commonwealth: Marx, Marcuse, McClaren, a 2013 book edited by Marcuse scholar Charles Reitz which features original hitherto unpublished manuscripts by Marcuse together with interventions from various contemporary theorists who are, according to the book’s description, “deeply engaged with the foundational theories of Marcuse and Marx with regard to a future of freedom, equality, and justice.”  Besides consideration of Marcuse and Marx, the title also includes a manifesto for radical educators written by the illustrious Peter McLaren.  In his reflections on the volume, editor Reitz discussed the critical utopianism of Marcuse, as expressed well in the closing line on his dissertation on the German Artist-Novel: “We are in search of a new community.”  Bringing Marcuse’s continued hopefulness to the present—in his essay “On Hedonism,” written in exile from Hitler, Marcuse writes of a “new, true community, against the established one”—Reitz held out the prospect for a rehumanized future that is within our grasp.  Herbert’s son Peter then discussed a 1960s occupation of the institution where he currently teaches urban planning—Columbia University—taken by black revolutionaries together with more privileged radicals belonging to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Peter Marcuse explained that the former group sought practically to improve the material conditions of proletarian and oppressed communities in U.S. society, while SDS members wanted not “more” but rather something “other,” or different.  Like his father, Marcuse suggested that both streams should be combined, so as to create alternative relationships among people.  In terms of praxis, Marcuse for the present suggested an expansion of worker ownership as a means of securing better material conditions for workers and of developing relations of cooperation rather than competition generally within society, toward the end of giving rise to the commonwealth Reitz identifies in the title of his volume.  Also on this panel, Professor Farr argued that there is currently no general commonwealth—no wealth held in common.  Noting capitalism to be the crisis of history, Farr raised Kant’s argument against lying and recommended that theorists and activists reflect on the ways in which we lie to ourselves.  During this morning, moreover, Prof. Farr playfully paraphrased the title of a 1968 panel discussion Marcuse participated in, saying that, while democracy doesn’t have a present, it could perhaps have a future.

Besides a couple of presentations by Douglas Kellner and Peter-Erwin Jansen on recent publications of works researching Marcuse as well as on the forthcoming sixth volume of his collected Papers—attractively entitled Marxism, Revolution and Utopia—the rest of the following morning consisted of Prof. Andy Lamas discussing the concept of the “long march through the institutions” raised by Rudi Dutschke as an alternative to the “revolutionary terror” of the RAF.  Stating his basic premise, Lamas argued that critical theory must be “anti-capitalist, democratic, participatory, and liberatory”; in his comments, he advanced the notion that the “long march” was a reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, part of the war of position against the capitalist class.  Citing Angela Davis’s elucidation of Marcuse’s avowed support for the “long march” later in life, as in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Lamas spoke to Marcuse’s late views on social change, whereby groups might take the “mining” or “undermining” approach by which to work against established institutions from the inside.  With a nod to Peter Marcuse’s intervention, Lamas also pointed to the recent rise of interest in consumer and worker cooperatives as well as the commons generally understood as an encouraging sign in this sense.  During the subsequent discussion period, militant writer George Katsiaficas raised the point that Dutschke’s call for integrating into given institutions was a controversial point among leftists, then as now—especially for anarchists.  Another participant pointed out that the question might not be one of working through established institutions but rather of building counter-institutions, and he mentioned the origins of the term of the “long march”: that is, the Long March taken by Mao and the Communists as a tactical retreat from the Guomindang so as to regroup and ultimately defeat Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces.  Harold Marcuse ironically observed that right-wing social critics in the U.S. feel Marcuse’s “long march” has in fact been successful, given their delusions regarding the reportedly progressive nature of much of academia, the mass media, and Hollywood.

During the afternoon of the conference’s second day, I attended a panel on “Marcuse, Marx, and Marxisms,” which began with the intervention of Fred Mecklenburg, who spoke to the influence of Hegel on Marx’s thought.  Mecklenburg noted the critic Hegel as holding freedom to be the driving force of history, and the Absolute the struggle of humans to realize such freedom.  While Marx would integrate such revolutionary notions into his conception of communism, he also famously criticized Hegel’s mature acquiescence to the bourgeois society of post-Napoleonic Europe; Marx the pupil does not accept the world dominated by commodity, indelibly linked with slavery and genocide.  Mecklenburg observed that Marx was aware of and concerned with the course of the U.S. Civil War in his lifetime, though he seemed to be unfamiliar with the Lakota people’s resistance to the expanding U.S. settler-colonial state.  Focusing his concluding comments on the present situation, the speaker claimed the specter of catastrophic colimate change to illuminate the continued relevance of “Absolute struggle.”  Next, David Peña-Guzman addressed the “Marxism-Heideggerianism Tension” by noting Marcuse to have considered Martin Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time as having the philosophical potential of displacing hegemonic positivism within a historical context in which the proletariat had yet to “fulfill its historical role”; Marcuse felt Heidegger’s stress on authenticity could be used as a supplement to the Marxist notion of class consciousness.  Of course, when Heidegger publicly welcomed the coming of the Nazi regime in 1933, he forever forsook the possibility of remaining a great philosopher, and he expressly failed to clarify his relationship with National Socialism after its military defeat 12 years later, as Peña-Guzman discussed.  In the speaker’s opinion, there are no clear politics or ethics to be discerned in Being and Time—a position similar to that of Marcuse, who in a 1977 interview re-evaluated his youthful admiration of the work, noting it to advance a “highly repressive” and “highly oppressive” view of human life, one that is “joyless” and “overshadowed by death and anxiety.”[13]

Karla Encalada Falconi followed with an intervention on Marx and Lacan on the “Comparison of the Impossible,” but I did not follow this well enough to be able to summarize her argument, other than to note her observation that Lacan considers separation a form of liberation, while for the young Marx separation is fundamental to his development of the concept of alienation.  Lastly on this panel, Russell Rockwell, co-editor of the recently published Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence, 1954-1978 (2013), presented on the trajectories and intersections of the Marxisms advanced by Marcuse and critical psychoanalyst Erich Fromm respectively.  Against established trends which would largely suppress consideration of Fromm’s significant contributions to the nascent Institute for Social Research, Rockwell explained how Fromm felt psychoanalysis could productively serve as a complement to Marxian economism, and he mentioned Fromm’s 1929 lecture to the Institute of Psychoanalysis which cited Marx favorably.  He also brought up Fromm’s 1929 psychological study of workers in Weimar Germany, which was rejected for publication with the Institute for Social Research for practical political considerations—it held that some three-quarters of the German working population would not resist Hitler if he seized power, while only an estimated 15 percent had personality structures which Fromm felt would lead them to actively resist him.  Indeed, the work did not see the light of day for over five decades.  Rockwell stressed that both Fromm and Marcuse shared an interest in the humanism of the young Marx, unlike most of the rest of the theorists associated with the Frankfurt School.

Lastly on the conference’s second day, Professor Cynthia Willett presented a keynote address on “Interspecies Ethics: Cosmopolitanism Across Species.”  Reading from her forthcoming book of the same name, Willet sought to extend concern for the outcast from humans to non-human animals and to highlight some of the various ways animals resist the imposition of domination from their human exploiters—as in laughter, for example, which she claimed to be exhibited by many animals, including the macaw.  Mentioning Franz de Waal’s (oppressive) observation of primates in confinement at Emory University, Willett dedicated part of her address to consideration of the bonobo, the “hippie” or “Marcusean” ape, which in its genetic closeness to humanity suggests the possibility for humans to behave in ways other than those demanded by capital.  Speculatively, Willett assigned a hitherto unrecognized importance to the “gut brain” of humans—the enteric nervous system—which, as Donna Haraway argues, may produce indigestion in response to indulging in practices it considers disgusting, such as eating animal flesh or performing experimental testing on animals.  (I will say here that her claim here was highly inauthentic in Marcusean and Heideggerian terms, given that she admitted to eating a beef hamburger before her address.)  Willett argued for the criticality of disgust as a means of repudiating some of the ethically problematic practices imposed onto animals within late capitalism, such as the intensive factory farming.  She also raised the case of a caged bonobo clearly expressing interspecies empathy, as seen in the gentle care it expressed for a bird that had fallen into its zoo habitat: the bonobo ultimately climbed to the top of the highest tree in the habitat and from there released the bird back into its own environment, beyond the confines of captivity.

In closing, I will summarize the only panel I attended on the third and last day of the conference which I feel to be worth mentioning: one examining the Eros effect, as theorized by Marcuse’s student George Katsiaficas.  First, Jason del Gandio defined the Eros effect as being the political expression of the life instinct (Eros) on the collective political level.  Melding Marcuse’s insights with post-structuralism, he hypothesized the human body as having three defining characteristics relevant to radical inquiry: it is a sentient creature, a producer of reality, and one which emanates.  Essentially, he argued that human bodies desire the resistance of inherited oppression by moving spontaneously, or of their own accord (emanations) .  After del Gandio, AK Thompson, author of Black Bloc, White Riot, provided a highly original interpretation of the Eros effect, noting its activation in such moments as the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Euro-American upsurge which followed in time to be based in a lack, rather than be an affirming reflection of Eros itself.  He also interestingly commented on his view of the closeness between Marxism and nihilism, given that the former philosophy would have the proletariat abolish its own self in the process of overcoming capitalism.  George Katsiaficas himself then intervened, associating his take on the Eros effect with the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious; he proudly declared the Eros effect to be a concrete expression of the idea that the human spirit is indomitable, and—disagreeing implicitly with Thompson—that it speaks to humanity’s biological need for socialism and freedom.  Bringing up the example of the 1980 Gwanju uprising in Korea, which can be likened to another Paris Commune, Katsiaficas asserted that the people’s love for each other becomes even more important than life itself in moments of an activated Eros, and he hypothesized the Eros effect might be taken to represent one explanation for the emergence of the radical wave of People’s Power in East Asia (1986-1992).  After Katsiaficas spoke Kellner, who asked to what extent the embodied strength of Thanatos—as in the world’s military and police apparatuses—poses challenges to an erotic politics; he also sought to connect Eros to the development of a different relationship between humans and nature.  I will leave the final word for Imaculada Kangussu, who from the audience remarked on the similarity between Katsiaficas’s account of the Eros effect and Kant’s idea of enthusiasm, or the sublime fusion of affect, idea, and imagination, which is capable of inspiring events that overturn the course of world history.

Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism.  His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.  He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.


[1] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 10.

[2] Ibid, 24-5.  Emphasis added.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, chapter 31, online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm.

[4] Quoted in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 413.

[5] Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2005), 54-6.

[6] Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.

[7] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.

[9] Ibid, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.

[10] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 59, 61, 69.

[11] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 225.

[12] George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings volume 2 (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013), 416-7.

[13] Herbert Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism, eds. Richard Wolin and John Abromeit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), 169-170.

More articles by:

Javier Sethness Castro, author of two books, has had essays and articles published in Truthout, Dissident Voice, Countercurrents, Climate and Capitalism, MRZine, Dysophia, The Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He worked as a human-rights observer in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca during 2010, and has just completed a draft manuscript of his political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.

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