Anti-Vietnam War demonstration Martin Place and Garden Island Dockyard, Sydney, 1966. Image credit: Tribune negatives collection, State Library of New South Wales / Wikimedia Commons.
[Herbert] Marcuse was a master of abstract hyperbole—but he was also a great simplifier.
Undaunted by the impressive resilience of liberal democracies in the decade that followed, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man stipulated the same premise—just more abstractly: “By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society”—both Western capitalism and Soviet communism—”tends to be totalitarian.”
That is the bad news.
But there are glad tidings too! As Marcuse admits at the outset, “One-Dimensional Man will vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.”
The bulk of the book falls into two distinct parts: the first, an overheated rehash of criticisms made by many other social critics in the previous decade; and the second, a wildly polemical assault on the main tendencies in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, which Marcuse accused of fostering “one-dimensional thought.”
For a reader like me, with a couple of college philosophy courses under my belt, a familiarity with the writings of the young Marx, but not yet even a superficial acquaintance with Hegel or the mature Marx of the Grundrisse (both footnoted in important passages), One-Dimensional Man suggested that a life in search of world-changing wisdom was mine for the taking—if only I would suspend the skepticism drummed into me by mindless Anglo-American empiricism. It was time for me to put away childish concepts—and to explore instead the riches of true Philosophy.
James Miller, co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).