Herbert Marcuse published ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN in 1964. In the Preface, he apologized for the forbiddingly abstract nature of the discussion. "In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thrown back to a high level of abstraction. There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action meet. Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference." No sooner had these words made their way into print than Europe and America exploded with student protests. Rudi Dutschke in Germany, Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France, Mario Savio and Bettina Aptheker in Berkeley, and countless other left wing students became "demonstrable agents ... of social change." The deaths of Martin and Malcolm transformed the Civil Rights Movement, the movement for Women's Liberation expanded dramatically, and what we now recall fondly and nostalgically as "the Sixties" was off and running. Once ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN had been translated into a number of languages, Marcuse became an icon of the European rebellions, a fact that both bemused and delighted him.
I have for some time been writing rather pessimistically on this blog and elsewhere about the prospects for major social change. Am I making the same mistake Marcuse made? Certainly, the events first in Iran, then in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and now in Bahrein and elsewhere, give us hope that rapid and radical transformation is finally coming to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who live in North Africa and the Middle East. I care less about America's complicity in a half-century of their repression than I do about the signs of an explosion from below. For better or worse, this is how genuine revolutions happen.
At the same time, we see the totally unanticipated events in Wisconsin. Who would have thought there was this much life left in the seemingly moribund union movement! It is one of history's little ironies that the Tea Party Movement, an authentic rightwing populist rebellion, should by its success electoral have triggered such energy on the left. All across America, appalling Mayors, Governors, Representatives, and Senators are trying to satisfy the lust for reaction and repression that their right-wing base demands, and it would seem that their overreaching, the threat they pose to long established principles of relatively humane capitalism, is prodding into action the vast majority of Americans who have been taking those principles, and the associated programs, for granted.
Marcuse was wise enough to understand that the job of the philosopher is to understand what the people are doing, not to lead them or tell them which direction in which to go. I shall try to play that relatively minor role on this blog in the months ahead. Only in retrospect will we know whether Wisconsin was merely a momentary flare-up or the first spark of a conflagration. But if the opportunity presents itself, I certainly shall not hesitate to pour a little rhetorical gasoline on the flames.