Many socialists in the West have been so influenced by the writings and ideas of the late Herbert Marcuse of that one frequently sees his theories asserted dogmatically without any argument in their support or any credit to the source. Marcuse was an unsparing critic of all advanced industrial societies, especially the United States. The details of his critique are of less importance in this context than the question of why the people who live in these corrupt societies don’t do something about it. Marcuse’s answer was that they couldn’t. Karl Marx believed that the workers would carry the revolution. But in Marcuse’s view, Marx failed to see how the workers would become part of the establishment. Marcuse believed that the worker in an advanced industrial society like the United States becomes corrupted by the influence of the society until he has the same values as the bourgeoisie.
According to Marcuse, modern technology in societies like America eliminates the dissent and conflict that might arise in less advanced societies, by raising false needs and providing false satisfactions. It enslaves people by deceiving them into thinking that the things it gives them are what they really want – better homes and appliances, faster cars, more leisure and luxury. In effect, Americans are so completely dominated, controlled, preconditioned, indoctrinated, and brainwashed that they cannot even recognize their bondage. Man becomes so obsessed by the gadgets he wants to possess, handle, consume, and renew that he ignores the possibility that his obsession may destroy him.
Marcuse attacked this false mass contentment by claiming that the goods produced by the capitalist system provide false satisfaction. First, the system manipulates people into wanting things and then it seduces them into buying them. And then, through such devices as advertising, it increases these wants until the desire to consume becomes compulsive, irrational, and inhuman. The belief of the average man that he is happy only shows how total his bondage is. The things that make man believe he is happy (the electric can openers, the indoor toilets, the diet colas, the boysenberry – flavored breakfast cereals) are the very chains that bind him. Marcuse knew that the members of a capitalist society were not really happy. It made no difference that the individual identified with his needs and believed they were his. Marcuse knew that the needs were the false product of a repressive society.
No evangelical has to reject every aspect of Marcuse’s diagnosis. Portions of it are easily serviceable in a Christian diagnosis of the spiritual ills of a materialistic society whose every conscious moment is spent in pursuit and the consumption of things. But the appearance of moments of truth in any system of thought should not blind one to differences that may be far more significant or to the implications of a theory that may be absurd or dangerous.
Marcuse believed that men and women need to free themselves from false needs and false consciousness to true needs and a true consciousness. What was required was a new type of human being who could not be seduced by affluence. Only a new consciousness would break the economic, social and political chains that have turned human history into a chronicle of domination and servitude.
It is not enough, however, for Marcuse to argue that men must free themselves from the oppressive influence of false needs imposed by a repressive society; he should also have explained how this could be done. And more importantly, he should have shown, given his analysis of man’s hopeless condition in the advanced industrial society, that the attainment of liberation and autonomy is possible. Marcuse may have painted himself into a corner. Marcuse created a serious problem for his own position because he claimed that there was no way for the system to correct itself; it was impossible for those dominated by the system to free themselves from it.
Marcuse’s plot Is thickened by two additional ingredients that seem to make liberation impossible. First, Marcuse argued that social change would not take place through democratic means because democracy contributes to the plight of society by lulling people into decisions that are against their best interests. Advanced industrial societies like the United States appear tolerant of minority views because they know that those views cannot have any effect. Men are not free when they vote and make political decisions, because, according to Marcuse, all who start out under the domination of a repressive society are preconditioned receptacles; they are incapable of criticizing the society or even of heeding a legitimate criticism.
This led Marcuse to his doctrine of “Repressive Tolerance.” Because American society is in such perilous danger, Marcuse came to believe that the suspension of free speech and free assembly was justified. After all, there is no real value to freedom of speech; it only insures the propagation of lies. Truth is carried by revolutionary minorities like Marcuse’s disciples. Therefore, tolerance should be withdrawn from all those who disagree with Marcuse and extended only to those who make what he called the Great Refusal. Social change can be brought about not by democratic legality but by extra-democratic rebellion. Marcuse wanted to replace democratically supported elites with an elite of his own choosing. Oddly enough, Marcuse admitted that even if his totalitarian measures were put into practice and his followers succeeded in destroying existing society, he could not be sure what would follow.
The questions raised by Marcuse’s theory are obvious: How does Marcuse’s elite free itself from the conditioning that blinds everyone else? And who will provide deliverance from the repressiveness of Marcuse’s elite? Such considerations have led several interpreters of Marcuse are to see signs of a neo-Nazi mentality in his position.
While the first difficulty Marcuse saw in achieving liberation was the failure of the democratic process, the second problem was the powerlessness of critical social theory to criticize. The very categories of critical theory were developed within the structure of the system. Furthermore, those who might give the criticism are preconditioned by the system. And finally, those who might otherwise be influenced by a criticism of their society are so brainwashed that they cannot appreciate the force of or understand the nature of the criticism. Thus, there is no one to give the critique, no one to understand, and no critical theory to describe the needed critique. Things indeed look hopeless. But for whom? Perhaps Marcuse created a greater problem for himself that he did for capitalism.
Just when things looked hopeless, Marcuse began to see signs of the Great Refusal all over the place: the revolutions in Vietnam, Cuba, and China; guerrilla activities in Latin America; strains in the fortress of corporate capitalism; stirrings among ghetto populations; and last, but not least, student uprisings.
But the huge and embarrassing lacuna in Marcuse’s argument remains. How, given the total domination of the repressive society, was this opposition possible? Since Marcuse was claiming that all people living in advanced industrial societies are controlled, manipulated, and brainwashed to the extent that they think they are happy, are unable to see their society’s faults, and are unable to appreciate criticisms of their society, it follows that Marcuse’s thesis is self-defeating in the sense that no one, including himself, could have obtained knowledge of the thesis. And even if we grant that Marcuse’s books could have resulted from a miracle, he himself would have rejected this hypothesis with scornful derision. A very ironical situation then exists. Thousands upon thousands of socialists have been influenced by a theory which, according to that theory, should have been impossible for Marcuse to discover and should have been impossible for them to understand.
This brief detour into Marcusian socialism is enlightening for several reasons. While almost all socialists profess that their system will expand human liberty, Marcuse acknowledged the deceit of such claims. Freedom may be part of the utopian dream that lies beyond the revolution and the transformation of society. But the seemingly never-ending road to that dream cannot be traveled without the use of repression. As the former French Marxist, Bernard-Henri Levy says somewhere, “Apply Marxism in any country you want, you will always find a Gulag in the end.” According to George Gilder,
The most important event in the recent history of ideas is the demise of the socialist dream…. In the United States socialism chiefly rules in auditoria and parish parlors, among encounter groups of leftist intellectuals retreating from the real world outside, where socialist ideals have withered in the shadows of Stalin and Mao, Sweden and Tanzania, gulag and bureaucracy.
Gilder could have added Poland to this list as well.
This extract is from Ronald Nash’s book, “Social Justice and the Christian Church.” All attempts have been made to reach the copyright holder, this content is used without permission.
For Further Discussion:
John Rawls and Social Justice
The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.