Kellner also shares a pungent observation by historian and activist H. Stuart Hughes: how "deliciously incongruous" it was "that at the end of the 1940s, with an official purge of real or suspected leftists in full swing, the State Department's leading authority on Central Europe should have been a revolutionary socialist who hated the cold war and all its works." Although Marcuse's presence helped the postwar rebuilding of Germany to include progressive political elements, Marcuse also criticized the return to power in Germany of officials with National Socialist ties. He saw the developing cold war as a case of two systems—Soviet Communism and advanced Western capitalism—moving toward tightened control of their societies, if not equal totalitarianism.
In the early 1950s, Marcuse took research posts at the Russian institutes of Columbia and Harvard before teaching philosophy from 1954 to 1965 at Brandeis University. Those years produced his three most important books: Eros and Civilization (1955), Soviet Marxism (1958), and One-Dimensional Man. From 1965 to 1970, Marcuse taught at the University of California at San Diego, where he became famous as the intellectual mentor of the student protest movement. Unlike his Frankfurt School colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse enthusiastically supported student protests. His later works An Essay on Liberation (1969) and The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) cemented that commitment. By the time of his death in Starnberg, Germany, in 1979, he ranked as a major international philosopher, a status that fewer would accord him today.
Marcuse's "one-dimensional society" amounted to an epithet for advanced capitalist society, which Marcuse, like the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, saw as bamboozling (that is, exercising "hegemony" over) workers of every stripe. It did so through a consumer system that met basic needs and provided a false sense of democratic participation as inequalities in wealth and income grew. In that society, Marcuse detected, in the words of Marcuse scholar Charles Reitz, "alienation in the midst of affluence, repression through gratification, and the overstimulation and paralysis of mind." Even in so-called individualistic America, according to Marcuse, individuals lost their critical intelligence amid the avalanche of products and diversions, becoming inauthentic conformists.
Marcuse's ugly and unwieldy term "repressive desublimation" captured a real phenomenon: the erotic identification of consumers with commodities they purchase. Marcuse would not have been fazed by Americans camping out all night to grab the latest gizmos on Black Friday, only to regard them every few minutes with loving adoration once reserved for children. Marcuse noted, in One-Dimensional Man, an earlier version of the phenomenon: "People recognize themselves in their commodities. They find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment."
In light of such behavior, Marcuse abandoned the old Marxist notion that workers would be the vanguard of anticapitalist revolution. Instead, he vaunted the role of students and discriminated-against minorities such as African-Americans. Combined with Marcuse's embrace, in his revisionist, Freudian Eros and Civilization, of liberationist sexuality, the expansion of the play impulse, and the ability of art to build resistance to a highly administered, repressive capitalism—Marcuse believed that beauty leads to freedom—the philosophical package positioned him as an effective guru to 60s radical youth already throwing off antiquated sexual mores. As Richard Wolin aptly put it in Heidegger's Children (2001), Marcuse thought philosophy's "primary aim was the defetishization of false consciousness." His benchmark of social progress remained the "emancipatory ends of Marxism—putting an end to the degradation of the working class at the hands of a commodity-producing society."More...