Author: Filip Rambousek
Herbert Marcuse’s One-dimensional man was first published in the United States in 1964 and had promptly become one of the most important theoretical sources of the (western) student movements of the 1960s. The fiftieth anniversary is a good opportunity to remind us of the author and the intellectual environment, in which the study was carried out, as well as of the book’s main ideas and linkages to the student movements.
The essay is divided in two parts: the first one is dedicated to the reconstruction of the intellectual environment in which Herbert Marcuse worked out his One-dimensional man – his relation to the principles of the so called critical theory of the 1930s will be discussed here, too. The study itself will be reconstructed in the second chapter alongside the reflection of Herbert Marcuse’s role in the student movements of the 1960s.
Concerning literature, the author worked above all with the original text both in English and Czech. As for the secondary literature, particularly Martin Valenta’s book on the impact of the critical theory on the protest movements in western Germany had been used.
Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School
Herbert Marcuse was born in 1898 in Berlin in a Jewish family. He studied philosophy, history of literature and national economy at universities in Berlin and Freiburg. Marcuse fled Germany already in 1932 – first to Geneva and later on through Paris to the United States where he stayed until his death in 1979. Even though his intellectual development can be – in short – described as a shift from Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology to the critical theory of Horkheimer and to the so called Frankfurt school in general, it is necessary to stress that Marcuse was an open-minded and non-dogmatic thinker with a distinctive contribution to the modern philosophy.
The so called Frankfurt school, whose collaborator Marcuse was since the beginning of the 1930s, is merely an informal designation of a group of thinkers and social scientists gathered around the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) established in 1923 under the cap of the University of Frankfurt. After 1933 the institute was forced to leave Germany. It was first moved to Geneva and shortly afterwards, in 1934, to New York, where it was associated with the Columbia University. Here the institute could survive the war and ensure certain continuity of its efforts. In the beginning of the 1950s the institute was reopened in Frankfurt and henceforward it had been led by Horkheimer and Adorno – who unlike Herbert Marcuse decided to move back to Germany. Despite the relatively informal character of the group, its affiliated authors shared a common paradigm, which can be seen in three main bases: neo-Marxism (or even better: non-dogmatic Marxism), interdisciplinary approach and critical theory (usually slightly modified by each author).
The critical theory, which will be in brief outlined below, is that of Max Horkheimer from 1937. This first published critical theory is defined to a certain point as an opposite of a traditional theory. The traditional theories are unable of “inner reflection” – that means unable of assessing their own role, unable to realize that they are based on facts and contexts derived from societal practise and accepting this practise as something given. In contrast: the main subject of the critical theory is its societal context from which traditional theories emerge and where these theories operate. Only then are we able to see their conditionality and limitations, which is exactly the task of the critical theory – in this field taking over the existing role of philosophy. As a critique, this theory is at the same time a practical theory aiming at a change of the entire society. Visions of the prospective future are rather vague, respectively different by each author. However, the simple vision of a better and more equitable society is their common goal. In reaction on Horkheimer’s critical theory of 1937, Herbert Marcuse further stressed that its main target is never a simple accumulation of knowledge, but the emancipation of a man. Herbert Marcuse was therefore loyal to the spirit of the critical theory connecting a thorough critique of the ‘current’ societal order with the purpose of its wide reform – with the aim of the emancipation of a man. This approach can be observed in his One-dimensional man, too.
One-Dimensional Man and the Student Movements
From a brief look at the structure of the book it is clear that most of the space is dedicated to the critique of the ‘current’ societal order (advanced industrial society) and only small part to sketches of possibly better systems of social arrangement. Even though Marcuse states already in the preface that the study “will vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society“ it is clear that it was no more the labouring class who could make a social revolution happen. Nonetheless, most of the book consists of critique of the ‘current’ state of affairs, as mentioned. According to Marcuse the productive apparatus of the advanced industrial society tends to “become totalitarian to the extent to which it determines not only the socially needed occupations, skills, and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations”. Yet, it is (almost) impossible to realize because the system creates a protective environment – one-dimensionality. All spheres of life such as culture, language, politics, philosophy etc. become one-dimensional. Functioning of this smart instrument of self-protection can be well illustrated by the example of one-dimensional language as a product of mass media and advertisement. Such language becomes anti-critical and anti-dialectical and loses its potential for constituting an opposing voice. Similarly, the simplistic one-dimensionality paralyzes all other important fields of human life leading to the paralysis of any potential opposition. In addition to that, “under the conditions of a rising standard of living, non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless”.
It is thus extremely difficult to realize the enforced one-dimensionality and call for rebirth of multi-dimensional (dialectical) language, culture, politics, philosophy etc., which was/is according to Marcuse the most serious task of the advanced industrial society. Marcuse understands the system of liberal capitalism as a historical project against which competitive projects should be raised. His concept of more equitable organization was very close to a vision of classless society in which all means of production would be managed collectively – and thus more fairly. From this perspective, Marcuse (and not only him) was highly critical of the “application of Marxism” in the Soviet bloc. The only way he saw out of the one-dimensionality was in overthrowing the established capitalist system and its replacement with a preferable one. Maybe also this requirement contributed to the high popularity of this book among radical students.
Although they served the students as influential theoretical advisors, all main personalities of the Frankfurt school became gradually to a certain point alienated from the growing protest movements of the 1960s in western Germany – and vice versa. The reason for such estrangement was in the first place the shift of the radical movements from theory, delivered largely by the aforementioned thinkers, to practice for which they needed different type of advices. Horkheimer was accused of being an advocate of capitalism and US foreign policy, Adorno rejected as too reserved. Similarly, Habermas was considered too modest in assessing chances of the protest movements and too strict in condemning their methods. The only one who was never wholly condemned was Herbert Marcuse, even though he could no more provide the radical movements with an appropriate ideological support since they grew stronger and started to consider themselves a revolutionary force. His popularity had thus sunk quickly, too.
Conclusion: Today’s Relevance
Regardless the book’s and its author’s role in the student movements of the 1960s is the critique of one dimensional conformity of western societies considered one of the most important studies of its day. According to Douglas Kellner, the One-dimensional man was continuously “relevant because of its grasp of the underlying structures and tendencies of contemporary socioeconomic and political development. The scientific and technological rationalities that Marcuse describes are even more powerful today with the emergence of computerization, the proliferation of media and information, and the development of new techniques and forms of social control.” It is probably no surprise that what was so relevant and up-to-date for Kellner in the beginning of the 1990s is regarded as still valid for the author of this essay today. He further assumes that Marcuse’ s book is particularly relevant to the – by comparison with the former “western world” – socio-economically slightly delayed central and eastern European societies, which are just reaching an imaginary peak of consumerism and societal conformity.
- Břetislav Horyna, Filosofie posledních let před koncem filosofie: Kapitoly ze současné německé filozofie (Praha: Koniasch Latin Press, 1998).
- Douglas Kellner, Preface to One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society, by Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
- Ladislav Major, “Čtyřicet let Jednorozměrného člověka,“ Listy No. 4 (2004), http://www.listy.cz/archiv.php (accessed December 27, 2014).
- Herbert Marcuse, Jednorozměrný člověk: studie o ideologii rozvinuté industriální společnosti (Praha: Naše vojsko, 1991).
- Herbert Marcuse, One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
- Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).
- Eduard Urbánek, Preface to Jednorozměrný člověk: studie o ideologii rozvinuté industriální společnosti, by Herbert Marcuse (Praha: Naše vojsko, 1991).
- Martin Valenta, Revoluce na pořadu dne. Kritická teorie Frankfurtské školy a její recepce v německém protestním hnutí šedesátých let dvacátého století, Frakci Rudé armády a německé straně Zelených: diskursivní analýza (Praha: Matfyzpress, 2011).
 Herbert Marcuse, One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
 Herbert Marcuse, Jednorozměrný člověk: studie o ideologii rozvinuté industriální společnosti (Praha: Naše vojsko, 1991).
 Martin Valenta, Revoluce na pořadu dne. Kritická teorie Frankfurtské školy a její recepce v německém protestním hnutí šedesátých let dvacátého století, Frakci Rudé armády a německé straně Zelených: diskursivní analýza (Praha: Matfyzpress, 2011).
 Břetislav Horyna, Filosofie posledních let před koncem filosofie: Kapitoly ze současné německé filozofie (Praha: Koniasch Latin Press, 1998), 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Eduard Urbánek, Preface to Jednorozměrný člověk: studie o ideologii rozvinuté industriální společnosti, by Herbert Marcuse (Praha: Naše vojsko, 1991), 12.
 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), xlvii.
 Ibid., 2.
 Martin Valenta, Revoluce na pořadu dne…139.
 Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958). Available also at: http://archive.org/stream/sovietmarxismcri00marc/sovietmarxismcri00marc_djvu.txt (accessed December 29, 2014)
 Martin Valenta, Revoluce na pořadu dne…139.
 Ibid., 206 – 212.
 Douglas Kellner, Preface to One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society, by Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), xi.
 Ibid., xxxii.