I continue with reflection on Mitchel Cohen’s 2013 book, What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street, and I focus today on Mitchel’s criticisms of Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man. The book was frequently mentioned, although not necessarily read, during the student anti-war movement of the late 1960s. There were commemorations on the fiftieth anniversary of the book, so it can be considered a classic.
Mitchel interprets Herbert Marcuse as maintaining that capitalism, by the middle of the twentieth century, had undermined entirely the capacity for revolutionary consciousness to emerge, inasmuch as it had arrived to a stage in which it was able to manufacture a desire for commodities, creating what Marcuse calls “false needs.” Mitchel finds Marcuse’s position to be overly pessimistic, for it concludes that the working class in Western Europe and the United States is not revolutionary and has become part of a “labor aristocracy” that itself exploits (Cohen 2013:60-63). In my view, Mitchel does not appreciate that Marcuse was insightfully identifying important emerging tendencies in the core nations of the capitalist world-economy.
Marcuse, along with Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas, was one of the prominent members of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, even though Marcuse did not return to Frankfurt from exile in the United States following World War II, as did Horkheimer and Adorno (Jay 1973). The strengths and limitations of the analysis of the Frankfurt School reflect their social location in Western Europe and the United States, at a time in which a consumer society had emerged, the labor movement had become bureaucratized, and the intellectuals of the West were not integrally tied to the twentieth century movements of social and national liberation in the Third World.
The bureaucratization of the proletarian revolution, and its incorporation into a structure of reform from above, was a dimension of a general twentieth century social phenomenon of bureaucratization. In Russia, the bureaucratization of the proletarian revolution expressed itself in the form of a petty bourgeois counterrevolution, culminating in Stalinism; in Western Europe, in the form of social democratic political parties that were major parties, often in control of the state bureaucracy; and in the United States, in the form of the New Deal social contract and its corresponding structures of labor-management relations.
In Western Europe and the United States, the bureaucratization of the labor movement and its accommodation to bourgeois democratic parliamentarianism and reform established a tendency toward the conversion of the upper levels of the working class into a kind of petty bourgeoisie, able to consume the multiple products of the consumer society. At the same time, with an increase in educational opportunity, many of the worker’s sons and daughters entered into middle class professions, thus increasing the size of the middle class and reducing the working class, and decreasing the influence of labor unions and political parties supported by workers. The increasingly higher standard of living of the working and middles classes in the core was made possible by the colonial and neocolonial superexploitation of the Third World, which reached its ecological and political limits beginning in the 1960s; and by government deficit spending, which would reach its financial limits in the 1970s.
The containment of the labor movement in conjunction with the emergence of a consumer society provided a social base from which the Frankfurt School was able formulate a penetrating critique of the culture of capitalism. The Frankfort School described the eclipse of reason in the twentieth century, making impossible the defense of values and reasonable ends and goals. It analyzed the creation of false needs through advertising, establishing the foundation for the consumer society. And it maintained that there is a universal human interest in liberation. In accordance with this interest in liberation, Marcuse proposed the formation of a “transcendent historical project” that could challenge the established historical project; and Habermas envisioned a “communication community,” consisting of representatives of various particular interests who would seek consensus through dialogue in an environment free of coercion (Horkheimer 1972, 1974; Horkheimer and Adorno 1972; Marcuse 1960, 1964; Habermas 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975).
However, the penetrating insights of the Frankford school could not indicate the way toward human liberation, because the formulations of the Frankfort School were not connected to any revolutionary social movement, neither to the classical workers’ movement in Europe, which had become bureaucratized and reformist; nor to the Third World revolutionary movements, which pertained to another social world. Marcuse was loosely connected to the student anti-war movement and the youth rebellions of the 1960s, but his concept of a transcendent historical project was not based on analysis of what the members of the movement were doing. Moreover, the student/anti-war movement was not able to sustain itself as a relatively permanent social movement, which would have provided the foundation for a more complete formulation in theory and practice of Marcuse’s concept of a transcendent historical project. Similarly, Habermas’ concept of a communication community was idealist, for the conditions for dialogue free of coercion do not exist in capitalist society.
Nevertheless, in spite of their limitations, Marcuse and the Frankfurt School formulated penetrating insights into the structures of domination of the capitalist world-system, insights necessary for discerning the road to human liberation.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Horkheimer, Max. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Herder and Herder.
__________. 1974. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Seabury Press.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 1972. Dialect of Enlightenment. New York: The Seabury Press, A Continuum Book.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1960. Reason and Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press.
__________. 1964. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.
Habermas, Jurgen. 1970. Toward a Rational Society. Boston: Beacon Press.
__________. 1971. Knowledge and Human Interest. Boston: Beacon Press
__________. 1973. Theory and Practice. Boston: Beacon Press.
__________. 1975. Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.
Jay, Martin. 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research, 1923-50. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.
Key words: Marcuse, Frankfurt School, false needs, transcendent historical project, communication community