Towards a Critical Theory of Society: The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse

David Ingram reviews Herbert Marcuse's Towards a Critical Theory of Society: The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse: Volume Two, edited by Douglas Kellner, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

As a philosophy graduate student, political activist, and close acquaintance of Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) during the last seven years of his tenure at UCSD I was continually perplexed by his deep reverence for the classics – especially Aristotle – and his equally self-deprecating attitude toward all variety of theoretically untutored political activism. Unfortunately, he adopted the same attitude with respect to his own work, which he simply refused to discuss. However, the famous professor who could be cajoled into conducting private readings of Hegel only with the greatest reluctance (but who would most willingly teach Aristotle’s Metaphysics), could be persuaded at a moment’s notice to speak at virtually any student demonstration, no matter how humble the cause.

The lectures, essays and correspondence assembled in this volume – the second in a projected series of six volumes containing both previously published and unpublished works (including photographs) – reflect not the famous academic scholar of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, but the personally engaged political firebrand who was rightly regarded as the guru of the New Left and student anti-war movements. Together, they span a period that began with the pessimism of the late McCarthy era and end with the pessimism of the post-Watergate era, broken only by a brief period of revolutionary optimism in the late sixties. They chronicle both the development of Marcuse’s mature critique of “one-dimensional society” and his most utopian yearnings for a liberated society.

Several signature traits of the Marcuse style immediately come into view when reading these essays. They reflect an astounding synthesis of philosophy, social science, economics, and literature. Yet they are not academic works intended to persuade intellectual skeptics of the cause being argued for. Since almost all were written during the emotion-charged period spanning the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the student movement, they have the rhetorical ring of political manifestos. Most were clearly intended for consumption by student activists and like-minded professors who would have shared Marcuse’s Marxist slant on the state of global capitalism.

Therein lies their appeal (or lack thereof, depending on one’s political perspective). Marcuse had a knack for combining “high” culture and “low” culture in his writing in a way that defies easy description. True to the Marxist credo linking theory and practice, he could soar to the dizzying heights of speculative theory (mainly Freudian and Marxist) – interlaced with a good dose of Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, or any other philosopher who caught his fancy – and then just as swiftly dive to the depths of popular counterculture, replete with the poetic (and occasionally scatological) argot of the young people he so adored.