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Saturday, October 15, 2011


One-Dimensional Man -- A Mini-Tutorial

I now begin what I hope will be a series of mini-tutorials, each perhaps only a few parts long, on books that I think are important or interesting, and which may not be familiar to the readers of this blog. As I proceed, I will find it necessary, for clarity and coherence, to repeat some things I have said in other tutorials. I apologize for this, but it has been borne in upon me that not every visitor to this blog has read the 300,000 or so words I have posted on serious subjects over the last year and a half. I find this incredible [ :) ], but I must bow to the exigencies of the cultural norms of the medium.

Herbert Marcuse was born in Germany in1898, and died at the age of eighty-one, in 1979. He was a student of Heidegger and Husserl and was deeply influence by the philosophy of Hegel. [Faithful readers will know that I have an allergic reaction to Hegel, so I consider it an evidence of my admirable broadmindedness that I am willing to take Herbert's works seriously, as I do.] In 1932, Marcuse published his first major work, Hegel's Ontology and Theory of Historicity. The next year, he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which had gathered to itself the most brilliant left-wing thinkers in Germany -- Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, and many others. In 1934, fleeing the Nazis like many other intellectuals, Marcuse came to the United States. During the Second World War he worked in Washington for the organization that eventually became the CIA, heading up the German Desk. It was there that he met and befriended Barrington Moore, Jr., who was working on the Soviet desk. They remained close friends for the rest of Marcuse's life, and it was at Moore's house that I first met Marcuse in 1960 or 61.

Although Marcuse was a formidably raffine German intellectual, he became, almost through a serious of accidents, the inspiration and idol for young, rebellious German, French, and American students in the 1960's, gaining such wide name recognition that at one point he even was mentioned in a New Yorker cartoon. Herbert was somewhat bemused by this fame, and publicly disavowed any interest in it, but I have always thought he was secretly amused and pleased by it. Marcuse taught for some years at Brandeis, and then, when he reached retirement age and Brandeis would not extend his contract, he went for a time to UC San Diego, where he taught Angela Davis, among others. The two books by which he is best known in the United States are Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, and One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964.

In order to understand One-Dimensional Man, it is essential to have some grasp of the set of issues that Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfort Institute were grappling with in the 1930's and afterward. I believe this is what French intellectuals and their American epigones would call his "problematic," although I dislike that term. For these thinkers, the two great influences on their understanding of the world around them were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx [and on mine as well, I might add.] But it was very difficult to see how the insights of these two great thinkers were to be combined, or even held in the same consciousness. Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood. Perhaps his central analytical concept is the notion of repression, the forcing into the unconscious of "unacceptable" thoughts and wishes, which, despite the repression, retained their power to disrupt conscious adult functioning. Freud was deeply pessimistic about the human condition, as he made clear in such speculative works as Civilization and its Discontents. The survival of the human race, he argued, requires the stifling of powerful libidinal instincts, or at the very least, the sublimation of erotic energies in productive and socially acceptable activities, such as art, literature, industry, and even war. No amount of psychoanalysis, Freud thought, however successful in relieving neuroses, could alter the fact that the infantile fantasy of instantaneous gratification of libidinal desires is incompatible with the reality orientation required for survival and for civilization itself. Notice that although these views seem to be about the social and economic world, their universality and pessimism is such that they leave that world untouched, unaltered, and hence unchallenged. In this sense, Freud's views, while scandalous to his world, were in fact in their effect conservative rather than revolutionary.

The focus of Marx's mature work was the socio-economic structure of capitalist economies -- what he called, echoing Newton, "the laws of motion of capitalist economy." Although in his twenties he wrote some very suggestive and important essays about the psychodynamics of labor in a capitalist economy -- essays that, as we shall see, had a considerable effect on Marcuse and other mid-twentieth century left intellectuals -- it was the economic theory set forth in the five thousand pages of the six volumes of Capital and several other works that were his great legacy. Particularly after the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, carried out in his name if not in his spirit, it was Marx's theories of capitalist exploitation, of crises, and of the possible transition from capitalism to socialism, not the early speculations on unalienated labor, that were most widely associated with his name.

The key concept of Marx's analysis of capitalism is surplus labor -- the labor that workers expend over and above what is necessary to reproduce their conditions of existence. In any society, under any circumstances, a certain amount of labor just be expended to grow food, produce clothing and shelter, provide medical and other services, and care for the children who are new generation of workers. Marx calls this ”necessary labor," and he makes it clear that this labor must be performed no matter what the "social relations of production" may be. But because capitalists own or control the means of production, they can force workers to labor longer hours than is necessary for their existence. The capitalists appropriate this "surplus labor," in the form of the products which they sell in the market. Marx's central analytical claim is that profit is nothing but the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers. Marx calls this appropriation of surplus labor "exploitation." Thus, the central conclusion of Marx's analysis, which, despite certain technical and mathematical problems I consider fundamentally correct, is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

The central project of the Frankfort School, to put it in a phrase, was to bring Freud and Marx into fruitful conjunction, and, by somehow fusing their insights and teachings, produce an integrated theory of human existence in a mature capitalist economy and society. In their different ways, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and others were all embarked upon this same quest. After the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the advent of Nazism, their principal effort was to understand how such horrors could come to be in a society that seemed to be at the height of refinement, intellectual development, and artistic and cultural realization. Many of the great works of the mid-century period deal, in one way or another, with this question. [See, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno's study of The Authoritarian Personality -- note the fusion of psychoanalytic and socio-political themes in the title itself.]

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse, in a truly brilliant coup de theatre, combines the concepts of repression and surplus labor, and gives us, as a key to understanding life in a capitalist society, the concept of surplus repression. Tomorrow, we will see what he means by this suggestive phrase.


Matthew J. Brown said...

Thanks for starting this tutorial! I'm really looking forward to the rest.

Michael said...

I second Matthew Brown's gratitude. I recently picked up a copy of One-Dimensional Man. I'm looking forward to starting it while this is going on.

Just to clarify, by the six volumes of Capital, you mean the three volumes titled Das Kapital and the three volumes of Theory of Surplus Value, correct?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That's right, Michael. The Theories of Surplus Value is actually Volume Four, but it is three volumes long. And of course only volume One was published in Marx's lifetime.

Daniel said...

Excellent initiative. I'm struggling with the postmodernists so I very much look forward to you enlightening me about Marcuse.

Another fellow who have tried to enlighten the masses (incl. me) about postmodernism is Rick Roderick. His excellent TTC-lectures about marcuse, derida, foucault and others are available at

It's probably semi-legal, but I'm pretty sure that lectures about postmodern philosophy isn't what the anti-piracy lobby is looking for.

Thanks for an excellent blog. For a molecular biology grad student struggling to get time to read philosophy, these minitutorials and "bourses" are great. Thanks again. (almost getting a bit embarrassed by all this praise, but well, sometimes it's deserved)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Daniel, Thank you for the praise. At the moment, I am reading J. Craig Ventner's autobiography, having previously read books by Nick Lane, under the guuidance of my sister, in an attempt to understand more about molecular biology, which is where the real action is in science these days.

theoneandonlyTettner said...

I think it is SO COOL that you blog. I find it a problem that professors and other intellectuals generally don't use the internet to share their insights on the world. Quite looking forward to reading the mini-tutorials.



Hookah Herald said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hookah Herald said...

As a B.A. student for sociology and political science i really like that you try to enlighten your readers with Marcuse, Marx and the Critical Theory of the Frankfurter Schule, especially because i live in Germany and study in Frankfurt. While the Frankfurter Schule is somewhat normative, sometimes a bit exaggerating and not so popular in modern science i believe the world would be a tiny bit better if their work would be read more often.

I might mention that the Frankfurter Schule offers far more interesting writings than those that were posted and even the relations between the most influencial persons in that "intellectual paradigm" and their history is pretty interesting, because they kind of dissociated in their thoughts as time went by. Especially when you think about Erich Fromm. If you're interested in german history (and pretty much every non-academic german i met doesnt know this) you may find it interesting that the "Deutsche Herbst" and students movement in 68 are somewhat related to the Frankfurter Schule.

Keep posting!

PS.: My english could be better, i apologize for that :)