Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was the influential philosophical rock star of the New Left in the 1960s, a man whose accomplishments as a writer, formulating a libertarian Marxism contra the stale Soviet Union’s political line in books like One Dimensional Man, only are matched by his success as a teacher, having mentored the great Angela Davis.
The new biography Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, written by Nick Thorkelson and edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew T. Lamas, is a brilliant primer on both his life and ideas. At a time when things are looking so bleak, this is a pick-me-up we all could use.
The artwork in the book is ebullient and engages the eye with simple salmon tones against black and white drawings that are reminiscent of cartoonists and comic artists from the golden ages of those mediums. It succeeds in communicating to the reader complex philosophical topics that are part and parcel of the Continental tradition. Without becoming a bore (always a serious risk when the name Hegel is involved), we learn about concepts like alienation and the critique of consumerism that continues to inform political activism today.
What is also noteworthy is the utility of the volume in ongoing anti-racism work. Currently we are living in a political landscape where the absurd right wing conspiracy theory called “Cultural Marxism,” a racist fantasia about how the Frankfurt School that Marcuse hailed from attempted to implant a social ideology that would gestate into an eventual Communist revolution, inspires deadly repercussions from the unhinged actors within the alt right.
But with a book like this, readers are quickly shown that Marcuse and his Frankfurt School comrades were in reality not just opposed to totalitarianism but furthermore deeply critical of the failings of the Marxist-Leninist formulation of left wing politics. (The fact that Comrade Theodor Adorno was in fact as miserable as William F. Buckley, Jr. with his elitist condemnation of jazz, pop, and rock music goes unmentioned is unfortunate.) With Steve Bannon’s ongoing efforts to build a base being deeply indebted to theories of cultural hegemony and other New Left concepts, this volume has the capacity to provide a very good counter to the right’s base building efforts.
Marcuse’s biography, told simultaneous with an explication of his theories, does include some contradictory nuances that deserved further elaboration, which I see as its only fault. During the Second World War, living as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Marcuse worked for a time at the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, and then the State Department, a tenure lasting until 1951. These were the years when America absorbed the burden of Western European imperialism and colonialism while fomenting a domestic crackdown on radicals with the Hiss trial and McCarthy witch hunts. The Greek civil war, the Korean War, the Chinese revolution, and the start of the French effort to recapture its Indochinese peninsular colonies, eventuating the American commitment of ground troops twenty years later, were all part of the portfolio of those two agencies. Mao’s groundbreaking revision of Leninism, claiming that the peasantry previously held in suspicion by the Russian Bolsheviks were instead capable of being a revolutionary class in world history, was denigrated by these American agencies while providing a theoretical premonition of Marcuse’s work a generation later. Unlike his contemporary and comrade Bertolt Brecht, who became a citizen of East Germany, Marcuse stayed in America and government service throughout the darkest days of the blacklists, the HUAC hearings, and the Rosenberg trials. Certainly one can fault Brecht’s later reverence towards the East German government when it was challenged by worker revolts in 1953, which germinated the Berlin Wall’s construction eight years later, but that contradiction would also add further dimension to this volume.
Nevertheless the book is a triumph and readers can be assured they will enjoy the proceedings.