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Herbert Marcuse, 1898-1979

Russell Jacoby
Herbert Marcuse is dead. At the age of 81, he
succumbed to a world he always resisted. His list
of credits or crimes is long, and includes inciting
the student revolts of the 1960s. For those who
collect evidence that the ’60s are over, another
scrap can be pasted in the album. But those who
were too young to remember those years and those
who never cared should be told: A piece of the living
past has been dislodged.

Herbert Marcuse was a perpetual scandal. He
belonged to a species on the endangered list everywhere: the pOlitically engaged intellectual. The
world of the big buck and the fast deal was not his;
neither was he one of those academics who clamber
up the ladder of government posts and consulting
fees nor was he the front man or fall guy for any
political group. His commitment to critical and
independent thought belonged to a fading tradition.

Marcuse shared obsolescence with others from his
generation; it was the source of their intellectual
force. What he said on the occasion of the death of
his friend, T. W. Adorno, can be said of himself: He
preserved past forms of culture in the uncompromising opposition to the present culture. This generation indicted the present with its own past. Here was
the root of Marcuse’s unfashionable integrity. That
Marcuse was attacked not only by defenders of the
security of the Republic, but also by Moscow’s
Pravda; not only by the Pope, but also by the French
Communist Party; not only by the American Legion,
but also by left sectarians suggests that he threatened authorities of every stripe. Marcuse was not only
a subversive; he was subversive to the subversive.

Marcuse a subversive? He never tired of affirming
that he was only a ‘poor’ philosopher. He threw no
rocks and set no bombs. He offered only unexpurgated thought: thinking without censorship and fear.

But this provoked censorship and fear. Academics
were unnerved by his intellectual audacity, and the
eaSe with which he walked between the departments
of the university. He wrote on Marx as well as
Freud, on the Soviet Union as we 11 as the United
States, on philosophy as well as on art. His academic critics were convinced that because he had so
much to say he lacked rigor. Defenders of law and
order mailed him death threats.

Marcuse drank deeply from Freud, as well as from
Marx and Hegel. The titles of some of his books
suggest his unfashionable scope: Eros and Civilization and Reason and Revolution. These four words
encompass everything he wrote. The Freud who
pondered whether aggression and self-destruction
would drown civilization was familiar to Marcuse;
and he turned not to the Marx of state production
goals, but to the Marx of human liberation. He
shared the sentiments of his friend Max Horkheimer~
who had denounced those revolutionaries who were
already drawing up lists for the executions of the
future. Marcuse was no pacifist, but neither was he
a friend to the cultists of violence. In his vocabulary~
pornography was not so much four-letter words, but

the hardware of military destruction. He found
obscene a society that indicted the pornographers
while parading bemedaled generals to be gawked at
by Little Leaguers and Boy Scouts.

The improbable happened. For a historical instant
this uncompromising intellectual from the past, who
never lost his German accent and never learned to
drive, was lionized – and cursed – as instigating the
student upheavals of the r6Us. A student 01 lVlarcuse’s,
Angela Davis, made headlines as a black revolutionary, and added to the din around her teacher. His
best known work, One Dimensional Man, had
appeared in 1964, and anticipated that future social
revolts would be triggered not by a working class
but by those ‘outside’ the working class: blacks,
minorities, students and peoples of the Third World.

In the US, and even more in Germany, France and
Italy, Marcuse emerged as one of the most visible
spokesmen of a new left. The ‘new’ of the New Left
expressed a hope and, partly, a reality. It was new
after the dissipation and repression of the older left
of the 1950s, and it turned away from the traditional
arenas of elections and trade unions to challenge
society in its gut: the streets, the bureaucracies,
the forms of life and loving. Yet did the youth of
Jerry Rubin’s ‘Do it!’ – the Yippies, hippies and
rebelling students – actually read Marcuse’s books?

No matter. For a moment there was a convergence
of sensibilities. The inchoate protest against the
war in Vietnam and racism, which spilled into a
wider and deeper protest, found its reason and mind
in an aging German-Jewish philosopher. For a
moment the gap between the texts of Marcuse and
the writing on the wall was closed. At the same
time that he was writing ‘the fight for Eros is a
political fight’ the streets resounded with the scuffles
of a counter -culture. If Marcuse was fashionable,
however, it was despite himself; he wrote no blank
checks, and was sometimes a sharp critic of the
New Left. And when the world went on to other
things, Marcuse continued writing and lecturing.

A society traumatized by the exhaustion of its
energy and fuel should take note. Fascism packed
off to these shores a sliver from the wreckage of
European culture. It included a Thomas Mann, a
Bertolt Brecht and a Herbert Marcuse, as well as
thousands of others. Marcuse was active and
committed, interested and interesting to the very
end of his life. He was born before the age of the
automobile and he died in the nuclear era. Today,
corrosion and erosion have damaged the ability and
energy to think critically and boldly; the pay is
poor, and few are applying.

Marcuse, the pessimist, once wrote that ‘Not those
who die, but those who die before they must and
want to die, those who die in agony and pain, are the
great indictment against civilization.’ Neither
Marcuse’s life nor death add to that inrlictment; the
carnage of daily life and the destruction of wars
more than suffice. Marcuse led a full and graceful
life. What does darken the future prospects, however, is that the force and subversion that belong to
the engaged but independent intellectual will fade
into oblivion, and that with Marcuse we are burying
a piece of ourselves that we are unable to retrieve.


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