As often happens when I am particularly distressed by the seeming fruitlessness of ideological critique from the left [how bad have things become when I find that I must hope that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016?], I pulled my copy of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man off the shelf. I was looking for a passage I recalled in the Introduction. Here it is. Those of you who have copies of the book will find it on page xiii.
"In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus 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.
"And yet: does this absence refute the theory? In the face of apparently contradictory facts, the critical analysis continues to insist that the need for qualitative change is as pressing as ever before. Needed by whom? The answer continues to be the same: by the society as a whole, for every one of its members. The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment -- even if they are not the raison d'être of this society but only its by-product: its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.
"The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible. The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest is still meaningful."
This passage is Marcuse's apology, as it were, for the abstractness of the book. It is also, I think, a profound observation on the real relationship between ideological theory and revolutionary practice. Despite being a German intellectual with impeccable credentials as a theorist in the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, Marcuse recognized that his theorizing, if it were to be effective, must rest on, and draw its strength from, working class movements and organizations. In their absence, as he so poignantly puts it, his analysis must seem unrealistic speculation, and his commitment to historical alternatives "a matter of personal preference."
Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man in 1964, just before the anti-war student movement erupted here and abroad into what, at the time, seemed a world-historical conflagration. I recall thinking, "Well, Herbert missed the revolution by about six months." Now, with half a century of hindsight, I can see that his diagnosis was right on the mark. I have had great hopes for the Occupy Wall Street eruption, and certainly its instincts were correct about the source of our troubles. But lacking any sort of organizational and institutional structure, that healthy outpouring of energy left little of permanence on which to build.
I remain convinced that Reagan's successful attack on labor unions was crucially important in the evisceration of serious radical protest. Important, too, of course was the decades-long outsourcing of good working class jobs, which, as LFC noted in a recent comment, helps to explain the precipitous decline in working class wages over the past thirty years.
I share Marcuse's belief that the work of intellectuals on the left has some value, even though it is not, and cannot be, the engine for social change. When I had tea with Bertrand Russell in 1954, he said that if he had it to do over, he would have gone into physics rather than philosophy. I cannot honestly say that if I had it to do over, I would have become a union organizer rather than an academic. But I devoutly hope that someone out there is making that choice.