Stephen Whitfield in Dissent (photo from Wikimedia Commons):
However closely or accurately New Leftists and others might have read One-Dimensional Man, as well as Marcuse’s subsequent works, he was once taken very seriously. He helped to define the zeitgeist in a way that needs to be understood, if not resurrected. But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?
To be sure, his reputation has not faded into utter oblivion. An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.
In 1987, the social critic Russell Jacoby traced a downward trajectory in the vitality and scope of the American intelligentsia, yet his The Last Intellectuals mentions Marcuse only briefly. Eight years later, One-Dimensional Man did not make the Times Literary Supplement list of the hundred most influential books published since the end of the Second World War. Nor did the TLS cite any of Marcuse’s other works—not even what he regarded as his “most important book,” Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955), the volume that had presumably irritated Pope Paul VI.
Marcuse’s stature has shrunk even as scholarly interest in other exemplary figures of the Frankfurt School has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Each of them dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Yet they have recently been the subjects of massive biographies, which make the case for their continuing salience in grasping the implications of modernity itself. Marcuse is associated with the crisis of Marxism, however, in a way that they are not. The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change. Even though Marcuse’s dissertation topic had addressed the way that novelists portray artists (the Künstlerroman), his death roughly coincided with the emergence of cultural studies, which marked an abrupt shift in academic fashion.