Monday, 19 March 2012 07:54

Herbert Marcuse: Men of Ideas

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Herbert Marcuse (1878-1979) was a German Jewish sociologist and philosopher. He was a Marxist and wrote what was calculated to appeal to those on the left of the political spectrum. His major works are One Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.

Basically, Marcuse wrote critiques of the capitalist economy from the perspective of Marxism. This critical approach to the West appealed to the 1960s and 1970s generation and Marcuse was an idol for that generation. He was a campus guru of sorts, invited by many students and colleges to give talks, lectures. These talks were leftist in nature and appealed to young people who were rebelling against what they believed was the oppressive capitalist system they were living under, and who were also protesting the war in Vietnam.

What Marcuse seemed to be saying was that whereas we tend to associate repression with communist totalitarian states, such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, that capitalist states could also have repressive aspects that are every bit pernicious as those found in communist states?

Marcuse seemed to be saying that what we have in America, for example, is velvet dictatorship (he called it repressive tolerance) and is like what is found in totalitarian states of the East.

Marcuse advocated genuine tolerance of dissident.  In America there is tolerance for dissent but dissenters quickly find themselves marginalized and shut out of the political and economic system. You are allowed to oppose the American system as long as you are unemployed; for the system would make sure that you do not obtain real employment. The system may not put you in a Siberian gulag, as they did in Russia, that is crude, but it would make sure that you pay a stiff price nevertheless.

Marcuse was able to understand this aspect of America, the velvet totalitarian state, and articulate it in his books.

In his book, Eros and Civilization, Marcuse ventured into the psychoanalysis of society. In civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud had argued that the price folk pay for living in civilized society is repression of their sexual instincts. Freud in the Pleasure Principle had argued that natural man is born with what he called Id, a desire to have sex (and aggression) any how he wants it. But society, for its good, represses the Id instinct. The normal person internalizes his society’s norms and that includes repressing his sexual desire and expressing them only in socially permitted manner. The result of this tendency to repress the sexual instinct is neurosis. Neurosis, according to Freud, is a function of repressing the natural man. But to live in society the natural man must be repressed. Therefore, to live as a civilized person is to repress aspects of ones Id hence to be frustrated and unhappy. Civilization makes human beings unhappy in that it forces them to suppress their nature. And there is nothing we can do about this situation other than to return to nature. As Thomas Hobbes reminded us, living in nature is not pretty. In nature folks are pursuing their desires and the strong impose on the weak and the result is chaos. Life in the state of nature is brutish, nasty and short.

Building on this thesis Marcuse talked about how the bourgeois society deliberately repressed people’s sexuality and other aspects of their being. To live in bourgeoisie society is to be repressed (sexually) and politically.

Marcuse fancied himself on a mission to teach society to be less repressive. People must be given opportunity to express their sexuality and political opinions.

This type of talk appeals to young people and they invited Marcuse to give talks at their various universities. He was the darling of the campus crowd of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Eros and Civilization is a sort of synthesis of Marxism and Freudianism. It is Marxism in that the society it seems to be arguing for is a socialist society where supposedly freedom reigns (as in the freedom of the Soviet Union, freedom to be packed off to Siberia).

Marcuse faded from the scene with the fading of Marxist chic. Marxism does not seem to appeal to today’s campus crowd. The students of today are preoccupied with how to make a living, how to get a job in an America where there are few jobs. Today’s students understand that if they criticized the system that they are essentially finished, are relegated to marginalized jobs.

Moreover, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 few persons take Marxism seriously. We are now living in the age where history is supposed to have ended and capitalism and America’s brand of democracy reigns.

Things go in cycles. This is the 1950s all over, an era where all is calm in the land. But this may be calm before a storm. With CEOs making obscene amounts of money, sometimes a thousand times what the average worker makes, it seems that something has to give, for injustice seldom lasts long.

Herbert Marcuse aroused the student population of the 1960s. Perhaps, some body else would arouse the student population of the 2010s into political action? Change is the only thing that we can count to happen; America’s increasing social and economic inequality cannot last forever.


Herbert Marcuse. Eros and Civilization 91955)

Herbert Marcuse. One-Dimensional man. 91964)

Herbert Marcuse. Repressive Tolerance. (1965)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176