Marcuse contra Marx?

Revolutionary Strategy and the Role of the Proletariat in the Work of Herbert Marcuse

undergraduate honors thesis by Craig A. Whittall, April 2007

To: Unpublished Papers page of the Official Herbert Marcuse website,
page created Aug. 22, 2007; updated

An Independent Project submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree BA (Hons) Politics,
in the Department of Politics and Philosophy,
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Supervisor: Professor Jules Townshend
12,704 words


[p. 1 of original thesis]

Chapter 1:
The Marxist Conception of the Revolutionary Proletariat
[p. 3]
Chapter 2:
Herbert Marcuse and
the Integration of the Proletariat

Chapter 3:
Marx and Marcuse:
Models of Revolution
[p. 43]
[p. 54]
[123 total]
Unpublished Papers Page
Books About Page

Herbert Marcuse website


Herbert Marcuse remains, to this day, a controversial figure in the Marxist political tradition. He achieved notoriety with the publication of his seminal work One-Dimensional Man, a blistering critique of advanced industrial capitalism which ventured to theorise that the industrial working class, the traditional epicentre of Marxist thought, had been successfully integrated into the consumer society and were no longer a revolutionary force for radical social change. He is also remembered for his support for radical student movements throughout the late 1960s, One-Dimensional Man being one of the few works which can reasonably claim to have inspired the generation of the New Left. Marcuse’s assessment of the working class, coupled with his association with student protests and 1960s counter-culture, have led many Marxist theorists to castigate his work as ‘revisionism’, a charge this work intends to explore.

This dissertation is designed to evaluate where Marcuse’s theories, regarding both the proletariat and the notion of socialist revolution, stand in relation to the precepts of Marx and Marxism. It will involve analysis and comparison of the writings of Marx and Marcuse, and will also involve the work of other prominent Marxist theorists, such as Lenin, Gramsci and Lukacs, in order to situate Marcuse’s position relative to other shades of revolutionary Marxism. This dissertation will aim to explain; why the proletariat are central to Marxist political theory, why Marcuse argues that the proletariat have been integrated into capitalist society, how Marcuse constructs his revolutionary theory in the apparent absence of a mass-basis for revolutionary change, and how Marcuse’s model of revolution relates to the concepts of revolution to be found in more ‘traditional’ Marxist perspectives.


I would like to acknowledge the help and support I have received from my supervisor, Prof. J. Townshend, whose advice has always proved invaluable and from whom I have learnt a great deal in a short time. His knowledge of his subject, and his dedication toward it, are qualities I have come to deeply respect.
I would also like to thank my closest friends and family for their unfailing love and support, without which I would be truly lost, and which I can never hope to repay.

I certify that, apart from the guidance provided by my supervisor and the references cited in the text and bibliography, this dissertation is the sole work of Craig Whittall and has not been previously submitted as part of the assessment requirements for any academic award. Signed C.W.

Introduction (back to top)

The primary objective of this dissertation is to account for the theoretical foundations upon which Herbert Marcuse based his assertion that the working class in advanced industrial capitalism have become integrated into its governing economic and political structures. Its secondary objective is to examine Marcuse’s model of revolution, to explore the similarities and differences between the models of Marcuse and Marx, and to evaluate the extent to which Marcuse’s revolution can be seen as congruent with traditional Marxist theories of revolutionary social change. The underlying theme of the entire dissertation is to analyse the extent to which the thought of Herbert Marcuse constitutes a genuine manifestation of Marxist social theory, particularly when viewed against his established historical reputation as proponent of ‘revisionist’ Marxism.

In order to achieve its objectives, this dissertation will be separated into three chapters; Chapter One will seek to investigate the reason why Marxist political theory conceives of the proletariat as the sole historical agent of revolutionary social change. It will examine the nature of the proletariat’s creation through the dialectical development of capitalism, the key definitional features of the proletariat and how the proletariat’s strategic location in the capitalist mode of production make it the sole feasible agent of revolution. Chapter Two will move on to analyse the grounds upon which Marcuse constructs his contention that the proletariat have been successfully integrated into prevailing structures of advanced industrial capitalism. It will look at the dialectical development of ‘monopoly capitalism’ as a distinctive reconfiguration of the mode of production, the underlying transition toward the paradigm of ‘technological rationality’ as an integrative force upon the labouring classes, and it will explore Marcuse’s analysis of the material, political and cultural integration of the working class into the established capitalist system. Finally, Chapter Three will examine both Marx’ and Marcuse’s models of revolution, seeking to find similarities and differences in their conceptions of revolutionary social change. It will examine Marx’s notions of the ‘crisis tendency’ in capitalism, the need for the socialisation of the means of production and the Marxist notion of a revolutionary ‘vanguard’. In relation to Marcuse, it will examine Marcuse’s conception of the role of the proletariat and his controversial notion of the radical intelligentsia as possible agents of social change. It will also examine his analysis of technological development in making possible the abolition of toil and scarcity, and investigate the physical mechanics of Marcuse’s revolution in order to throw into sharp relief his relationship with Marx. This dissertation will conclude with a detailed summary and analysis of all the points discussed throughout the previous chapters, in which I will aim to demonstrate the strength of Marcuse’s commitment to a fundamentally Marxist conception of revolutionary social change.

Chapter One (back to top)

The Marxist Conception of the Revolutionary Proletariat

The central feature of Marxist revolutionary theory is the role of the proletariat as the historical agent of social change. In his dialectical analysis of industrial capitalism, Marx explains the way in which this revolutionary class is created through the inherent contradiction, in the capitalist mode of production, between the social nature of work and the private ownership of the means of production. Through concepts such as the appropriation of surplus-value from the worker and the objectification of human labour necessary in the capitalist production process, Marxist social theory demonstrates the immanence of exploitation and alienation to the economic organisation of capitalism. It is the resultant generation of intolerable conditions of existence for those within the working class, and the impossibility of their amelioration under the governing economic framework, that made the proletariat a necessarily revolutionary force in Marxist political theory.

This chapter will explore the relationship between Marxist theory and the concept of the revolutionary proletariat. It will analyse Marx’s conception of the proletariat, discussing the key definitional features of the revolutionary working class. Firstly, I will seek to examine four key notions in the Marxist definition of the proletariat; the nature of its creation through the dynamics of industrial capitalism, the basis of the material exploitation of the working class in the capitalist production process, the causes and effects of alienation inherent within capitalist commodity production and the generation of intolerable living conditions for the majority of the constituent population. I will then move on to explain key factors which make the proletariat the single possible agent of revolutionary social change in Marxist theory; focussing upon their vital need to subvert the material conditions of life under capitalism, their ability to seize and socialise the means of production, the fact that the proletariat constitutes the majority of the population and the fact that the proletariat embody the ‘determinate negation’ of bourgeois society, whose very existence gives the lie to the rhetorical ideals of freedom and justice immanent to the ideological superstructure of Liberal capitalism. This chapter is intended to set the Marxist context for the evaluation of Marcuse’s analysis of the integration of the proletariat and so, is essentially explanatory in character. I have included no overall critique of Marxist theory per se as the aim of the entire dissertation is to evaluate Marcuse’s theory qua Marxism. This chapter should be understood as introductory, laying the groundwork for the theoretical appraisal of Marcuse in the remaining chapters.

In Marxist theory, the proletariat is the creation of the dialectical development of capitalist production relations. It is created as capitalism supersedes the feudal mode of production and, by virtue of the increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of the new ruling class, results in the bifurcation of society into two opposing classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat1. In Marx’s analysis, the multiple class antagonisms of earlier societies become simplified as ‘…the distinction between capitalist and land-rentier, like that between tiller of the soil and factory worker, disappears and…the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – the property-owners and the propertyless workers2. The proletariat’s lack of property is a central feature of its definition and role in revolutionary Marxist theory. Without control over the privately-owned means of production and without any form of capital or property, the proletariat occupy a position outside of bourgeois society. Their lack of any vested interests in the capitalist system make the proletariat a revolutionary class with nothing to lose and everything to gain in overthrowing the institution of private property, upon which capitalist production relations are based3.

In addition to their propertyless status, the proletariat are also defined by the nature of their employment. Marxist economic and political theory demonstrates the processes by which bourgeois profits are created and maintained through the endemic exploitation of the labouring classes in society. In the Grundrisse, Marx shows that workers involved in material production receive a wage approximately equal to the amount necessary for their subsistence (or rather, for the physical reproduction of their labour-power4) and which, if realised against the exchange-value of the goods they produced, would only necessitate working a fraction of the mandatory working day. The value, in exchange terms, of the rest of the working day is appropriated by the owner of the means of production as surplus-value, the extraction of surplus-value being the basis of the rate of profit5. This results in the labourer working a proportion of his day in service to the owner of the means of production without receiving adequate payment6, hence the Marxist use of the term ‘wage-slavery’. As workers become more productive and increase the value and range of commodities they produce, they become increasingly poorer. By producing more exchange-value, workers lessen the proportion of the day’s production which is necessary for their subsistence, and increase the proportion of the working day for which they are essentially unpaid and from which the employer extracts greater amounts of surplus-value. The specific nature of this exploitation further defines the proletariat and their role in capitalist relations of production; the economic necessity of maintaining and increasing this exploitation in the drive to maximise the rate of profit supports the Marxist conclusion that the working class must have an inherent antagonism toward the capitalist mode of production and therefore naturally become the agent of revolutionary social change.

In addition to physical exploitation, Marx and many other later theorists shared a concern with the social and psychological effects of the capitalist production process. For Marx, labour is the ‘natural condition of human existence’7, it plays a central role in both the physical reproduction and self-definition of the species. The difference between human labour and the work of other animals is that, whilst animals produce ‘one-sidedly’ the things they require for their immediate survival, man’s labour is universal, it is not dictated only by need and it serves a reflective role as the objects of human labour become objectifications of humanity’s species-being, the realisation of the abstract human essence into the material world8. Therefore, when the object of an individual’s labour is appropriated by another, as in capitalist relations of production, a fundamental alienation between man and his species-being as free producer is created, and man’s true species-life is degraded to the point of becoming a mere means to physical survival9. This process of estrangement leads to an ever deeper alienation of the worker, not only from the object of his labour but also from himself, capitalism reduces the worker to an object of labour and the worker sees his labour-power no longer as the root of his species-being but rather as an objectified commodity, to be bought and sold on the open market. The alienation and objectification of such an integral part of the individual’s person is the beginning of the process of ‘reification’, the degrading and pernicious nature of which was expounded most forcefully by Lukacs in ‘History and Class Consciousness’:

“Neither objectively nor in relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process [of production]; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not”10

As the division of labour fragments the nature of work into increasingly specialised tasks, the worker also finds himself further alienated and fragmented in relation to his vital human needs, and the process of reification famously culminates in the alienated perception of social relations between men as objective relationships between things. The universalised nature of commodity production under industrial capitalism is therefore responsible for the physical and psychical mutilation of those forced to sell their labour in order to survive. To quote, again, from Lukacs:

“[The proletarian’s] fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation”11.

The tendencies towards dehumanisation and reification inherent in capitalist relations of production, therefore, combine with the naked exploitation of workers in the production process itself to create within the proletariat an ever increasing vital need for revolutionary social change.

This conjunction of alienation and exploitation, and the ever increasing intensity of these processes as capitalism continues its drive toward greater concentrations of wealth and greater levels of industrial productivity, are held to create for the proletariat intolerable conditions of existence. Marxist theory demonstrates that the fate of the worker under industrial capitalism is one of continuing arrest of his free development, that in order to survive he must surrender himself to a mode of production which ‘mortifies his body and ruins his mind’12. Furthermore, it requires a subjective awareness of such conditions (both in terms of the contingent subjectivity of the individual worker and the constitutive subjectivity of the proletariat as a class) to actualise the revolutionary character latent within the working class13.

Having demonstrated the tendencies within the development of the capitalist mode of production which created the proletariat as a class with a necessarily revolutionary agenda, it is important to examine the ways in which Marxist theory understands their role in effecting radical, revolutionary social change. Here, I intend to develop three points14; firstly, that the proletariat are the only social group capable of seizing and socialising the means of production, secondly, that the proletariat constitute the majority of all industrial populations and, finally, that the proletariat’s existence as such forms the dialectical ‘determinate negation’ not only of bourgeois society, but of human civilisation itself.

Marxism recognises the key strategic position of the proletariat within the economic organisation of capitalism, insofar as the workers are in direct operational control of the means of production. This situation itself is part of the dialectical unfolding of the logic of capitalism, as Gramsci observed:

“Capitalist concentration, demanded by the mode of production, produces a corresponding concentration of the working human masses. This is the fact that underlies all the revolutionary theses of Marxism…”15.

In its drive toward rationalisation and productive efficiency, industrial capitalism creates larger units of production, with larger workforces, in order to achieve economies of scale. One corollary of this process is the increasingly social character of work, which forms the basis of one of the ‘inherent contradictions’ of capitalism when contrasted with the capitalist’s private ownership of both workplace and product16; one further corollary of this process, and perhaps more prescient in regard to revolutionary class politics, is the tendency for workers in larger units of production to organise themselves effectively, a development reinforced by the increasing organisation and specialisation of work through the intensifying division of labour. The capitalist dynamic does not only create the proletariat as a class with a vital need for revolutionary change, it also provides it with key weapons of revolt (organisation, discipline, etc.) and key strategic positions throughout the economic base from which to attack the prevailing structures of power. To quote from Mandel:

“Capitalism raises the proletariat, concentrates it in bigger and bigger enterprises, instils industrial discipline into it, and, alongside this, provokes the emergence of elementary cooperation and solidarity in the workplace.”17.

The dual processes of increasing organisation and the occupation of key strategic positions, all created through the internal logic of capitalism itself, are the central foundations for the Marxist belief that the proletariat are the only class within society capable of creating and maintaining a revolution against the power of bourgeois capitalism18.

The assertion that the proletariat constitute the majority of the population (under capitalism) is essentially tautological. However, as an integral and essential component of both Marx’ and Marcuse’s concept of revolution, this point requires a brief clarification in order to set the relevance of Marcuse’s ‘integration of the proletariat’ thesis in an appropriate context. By distinguishing between the minority-led revolutions of the past and the majority-led proletarian revolution of the future19, Marx acknowledges the fundamental importance of the mass-basis of the revolution. This central tenet of revolutionary Marxism is echoed in Lenin’s commitment to the inclusion of the peasantry in Russia’s revolutionary struggle as a necessary precondition for its success20 and in Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic class-alliances, required to effectively ‘mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism’21. The demographic preponderance of the proletariat in capitalist societies creates, for revolutionary Marxism, an agent of social change whose interests, and sheer size, effectively preclude the elitist and minoritarian prejudices of previous revolutionary groupings.

The final revolutionary characteristic of the proletariat that requires examination here is the status of the proletariat as the ‘determinate negation’ of society. As the terminology itself implies, this aspect of Marx’s analysis is deeply rooted in the Hegelian tradition from which Marx’s dialectical analysis was indirectly derived22. The conditions in which the proletariat are forced to live are ‘negative’ conditions insofar as they negate the human values that bourgeois society claims to uphold. The exploitation and alienation of workers in capitalist societies creates the proletariat as the living negation of famous bourgeois ideals of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of human happiness’23, as a class whose very existence becomes an indictment of ‘human civilisation’ itself. Marx holds that the abolition of the ‘negative’ condition of the proletariat holds the key to the liberation of all human society:

“…the emancipation of society from private property, etc., from servitude, is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers; not that their emancipation alone was at stake but because the emancipation of the workers also contains universal human emancipation – and it contains this, because the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production”24.

As a group that exists both outside bourgeois society and as the negation of bourgeois society, the Marxist proletariat occupy a position from which they may potentially dissolve not only capitalist class-relations but class-relations as such. The universal emancipation of the proletarian revolution is made possible by the universal negativity of their conditions of existence. As Marcuse puts it, the proletarian’s ‘concern to exist is not the concern of a given group, class, or nation, but is truly universal and ‘world historical’’25.

This chapter has explored the relationship of the concept of the revolutionary proletariat to Marxist political theory. It has described the key features of the proletariat and the role that they play in revolutionary Marxism. The next chapter will proceed to analyse Marcuse’s conception of the proletariat as a group that has been successfully integrated into the structure of capitalism. It will analyse the historical and theoretical developments employed by Marcuse to account for the perceived change in the nature, structure and function of the industrial working class in advanced industrial capitalism, a change which would imply the need for a strategic re-evaluation of the central precepts of proletarian revolution discussed here.

Chapter 2 (back to top)

Herbert Marcuse and the Integration of the Proletariat

The previous chapter has demonstrated the centrality of the proletariat to Marxist conceptions of revolutionary social change. In the work of Herbert Marcuse, however, the working class are conceived as a successfully integrated, and potentially anti-revolutionary, force in advanced industrial societies. The task of this chapter, therefore, is to examine the theoretical basis on which Marcuse’s claim is made, and to open the way for the detailed comparison between the revolutionary projects of Marcuse and Marx in the final chapter.

In order to achieve its objective, this chapter will be divided into four sections. The first section will seek to demonstrate that Marcuse’s position is based upon a shrewd and sophisticated analysis of the evolution of capitalism since Marx’s time, it will examine the Frankfurt School’s conception of ‘monopoly capitalism’ as a distinct phase of capitalist development and Marcuse’s notion of ‘technological rationality’ as the basis for the assimilation of constituent populations into the economic power structures of advanced industrial societies. The second section will investigate the role of the increasing productive capabilities of capitalism in effecting the material integration of the Western proletariat into its system of rationalised domination through the increasing diversion of surplus-product into the production of commodities for proletarian consumption. The third section will explore the political integration of the working class, looking at Marcuse’s critique of Trades Unions and Social Democratic political forces, whose former role as oppositional forces antagonistic to capital, degenerate under the integrative pressures of the newly developed mode of production, into fully assimilated, non-revolutionary forces within advanced industrial capitalism. The final section will demonstrate Marcuse’s analysis of the extensive nature of the working class’ cultural and psychological integration into the prevailing mode of production, examining his concept of ‘false needs’ as instrumental in the perpetuation of a repressive mode of production and the role of the advertising and entertainment industries in extending the process of reification ever further into the consciousness of individual workers.

Herbert Marcuse joined the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt in the early 1930s, as its second director, Max Horkheimer, set about re-orientating the School’s focus from its previous emphasis upon Marxist political economy and the historical development of the workers’ movement, toward an interdisciplinary approach which ‘sought to discuss the role of theory and social research in a more radically historical and theoretical mode’26. This approach was still founded upon Marxist social theory, though it rejected the economic determinism of theorists who, according to Horkheimer, ‘badly [i.e., mis-] understood Marx’27, and followed a much more flexible understanding of the relationship between the economic base and the social and cultural superstructure28. In his preface to a posthumous collection of essays by fellow Frankfurt School scholar Franz Neumann, Marcuse elucidates the rationale behind the Institute’s work:

“The Institute had set itself the task of elaborating a theoretical conception which was capable of comprehending the economic, political, and cultural institutions of modern society as a specific historical structure from which the prospective trends of development could be derived”29

One of the most important aspects of the ‘specific historical structure’ of inter-war Europe, and pivotal in conditioning the theoretical perspective of the Institute’s work, was the signal failure of the European working classes to stage any successful revolutionary challenge to capitalism, and also the later failure of the German working class to prevent the establishment of the Nazi state, whose accession to power in 1933 prompted the emigration of the Institute (whose staff comprised mainly of Marxist intellectuals of Jewish descent) to the United States30. In seeking to account for the triumph of fascism in Europe, and the apparent ‘withering away’ of the working class as a revolutionary force31, the theorists of the Frankfurt School turned to an examination of the historical development of capitalism over the previous decades.

Marx’s dictum that ‘changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure’32, led the Frankfurt School to investigate the role changes in the structure of industrial capitalism may have played in preventing the predicted proletarian revolution, and in the subsequent rise of fascism in the 1930s. Marx himself had previously predicted a quantitative shift toward the concentration of economic power in capitalist monopolies33, a development which became subject to much Marxist analysis in the opening decades of the twentieth century34. Frankfurt School economist Franz Neumann’s work Behemoth, an investigation into the origins and structure of the Nazi State, sought to account for the rise of fascism as a reaction to the development of ‘Totalitarian Monopoly Capitalism’35, a distinct new phase in the evolution of capitalist forces of production36. Neumann’s position, based upon empirical studies of sectors of German industry, saw the historical tendency of economic concentration as leading to the growth of massive industrial combines, whose size and scope simultaneously lock all sectors of the economy into a structure of increasing interdependence and destroy the previous structure of free competition through market manipulation, price-fixing and the creation of cartel systems37. The tightly interwoven nature of the ‘monopoly capitalist’ economy also makes it significantly more vulnerable to dangerous economic fluctuations, in the words of David Held:

“The network of interdependencies among economic units ensured, at best, a delicate economic equilibrium. Any disturbance or disruption to economic life could potentially ramify throughout the system”38

The potential for destabilising ‘ripple effects’ sweeping through the entire economic system creates a need, within monopoly capitalism, for state intervention, in order to react to such fluctuations and to stabilise the system, thus creating the rationale for the interventionist, or authoritarian, state39. The reconfiguration of state power, from its minimalist ‘night-watchman’ role in ‘liberal’ (i.e. laissez-faire) capitalism to a force for the active stabilisation of capitalism in its monopolistic phase, has profound implications for the Marxist theory of capitalism as ‘crisis prone…anarchic…destructive and prone to eventual demise’40.

Marcuse had developed a similar position in his 1934 essay The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State, in which he describes how:

“…it is liberalism that “produces” the total-authoritarian state out of itself, as its own consummation at a more advanced stage of development. The total-authoritarian state brings with it the organization and theory of society that correspond to the monopolistic stage of capitalism.”41

Marcuse’s critique of monopoly capitalism is not restricted to ‘total-authoritarian’ states, though their political superstructures are perhaps the most distinctive reflections of this change. In his work 33 Theses, a series of theoretical proposals for the post-war recommencement of the Institute’s Zeitschrift journal, Marcuse calls for a renewed critique of ‘…the open identification of the state with the economy, and the integration of the union bureaucracy into the state’42, and castigates Social Democracy which has ‘essentially followed its pre-fascist politics of class-cooperation’43. Marcuse’s critique of trades unions and Social Democratic variants of socialism will be discussed in this chapter’s section on the political integration of the proletariat; of relevance here is Marcuse’s assertion that the development of monopoly capitalism is responsible for significant changes in the structure of capitalist society, and that, following the ‘dialectical-historical structure of Marxian theory’, any change in social or class relations must be met by a corresponding change to the concepts employed in Marxist revolutionary theory44. One of the most significant changes in the transition to monopoly capitalism, the role of the state in stabilising the economy and preventing, at least temporarily, the kinds of economic crisis predicted by Marx, also has a direct effect upon the potential for proletarian revolution. In Soviet Marxism, Marcuse, following Engels, argues that sustained capitalist crisis is an essential precondition for the maintenance of ‘acute’ class-consciousness, and that periods of economic stability inevitably lead the proletariat to prioritise their immediate economic interests, such as higher wages and living standards, over their vital, historical interest in revolutionary social change45.

A further dimension to Marcuse’s positions, both on the development of monopoly capitalism and the integration of the proletariat, can be found in his 1941 essay Some Social Implications of Modern Technology46, and specifically in his notion of ‘technological rationality’. The role of technology in modern society was a consistent theme of Marcuse’s work, undoubtedly influenced both by his studentship under Heidegger47 and his lifelong involvement with Marx. At the outset of the essay, Marcuse makes a clear distinction between technics, the objective mechanical apparatus of production, and technology, which he describes as ‘a mode of organizing and perpetuating…social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behaviour patterns, [and] an instrument for control and domination’48. In Marcuse’s analysis, the technical development of the means of production in industrial capitalism, the concomitant increases in the efficiency and productivity of mechanical apparatus, and the economic requirements of competitive efficiency, induce the transition to monopoly capitalism by ‘forc[ing] the weaker competitor under the dominion of the giant enterprises of machine industry’ and thereby ‘abolish[ing] the free economic subject’49. The process at work here is much more than a simple economic adjustment, it is a dialectical shift from the previous bourgeois paradigm of ‘individualistic rationality’, characterised by the values of autonomy, self-interest and individual freedom, to the emergent paradigm of ‘technological rationality’, with its emphasis upon efficiency, standardisation and co-ordination50. The profit motive works to decide the nature of the commodities produced by the technical apparatus, and the individual worker’s role becomes one of ensuring the needs of the apparatus are met by performing a series of standardised and co-ordinated performances51. Therefore, the development of ‘technological rationality’ contains an important socialising function, in Marcuse’s words:

“With the majority of the population, the former freedom of the economic subject was gradually submerged in the efficiency with which he performed services assigned to him. The world had been rationalized to such an extent, and this rationality had become such a social power that the individual could do no better than adjust himself without reservation.”52

In addition to the integrative effect of standardisation and co-ordination upon the working population, the overwhelming rationality of the system, and its productive capacities, serve to make notions of protest and opposition appear irrational53.

The development of ‘technological rationality’ engineers the very mindset of the worker, inducing a mechanical conformity which begins to ‘govern performance not only in the factories and shops, but also in the offices, schools, assemblies and, finally, in the realm of relaxation and entertainment’54. This expansion is itself aided by the growth of massive administrative bureaucracies, necessitated by capitalist industrialisation’s relentless drive toward rationalisation55, and the development of increasingly ‘scientific’ methods of management, enabled by the triumph of positivistic ‘operationalization’, that serve to create and consolidate ever more sophisticated methods and techniques of social control56. In relation to the proletariat, therefore, ‘technological rationality’ has a double effect; firstly, the size and scope of productive apparatus, and the necessity of adjustment to its needs in the modern economy, work to mystify the nature of the particular class-interests that guide the development of technological society behind the façade of objective technics, inducing ‘reification in its most mature and effective form’57. Furthermore, ‘technological rationality’ has enabled the massive expansion of productive capabilities in industrial capitalism, a development that has greatly increased the living standards of the Western proletariat and succeeded in convincing them that ‘…the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods’58.

The unparalleled productivity of advanced industrial capitalism is, for Marcuse, the key to understanding the material integration of the Western proletariat into the governing economic and political power structures of modern society. The logic of ‘technological rationality’, and the re-organisation of the economic base into its distinctive ‘monopoly capitalist’ formation, has the effect of dramatically increasing the productivity of labour and thereby generating ‘an increasing surplus-product which, whether privately or centrally appropriated and distributed, allows an increased consumption’59. Marcuse notes that Marx underestimated the ability of capitalism to use technological innovation and increases in productivity to surpass the liberal-capitalist mode of production and siphon a proportion of the emerging surplus-product into the production of commodities for proletarian consumption60. The logic of monopoly capitalism’s political economy, therefore, now works to integrate the proletariat directly into the socio-economic superstructure through their accumulation of material goods and benefits61. Marcuse is clear that such benefits are far from universal, marginalised groups within advanced industrial society, the unemployed, ethnic minorities and the very poor, continue to live ‘an inhuman existence’ as the victims of monopoly capitalism’s terrifying capacity for exploitation and oppression62, as do the ‘“supra-exploited”…regions’ of the capitalist global periphery63. However, the critical point here is that the governing economic framework of advanced industrial capitalism has succeeded in displacing these pressures away from the structural proletariat, the group in Marxian theory upon whom such pressures were required to actualise their inherently revolutionary character. In Marcuse’s analysis, the proletariat of advanced industrial society finds themselves located within a stable economic system, with increasing access to a diverse range of commodities and with a rising standard of living, factors inevitably detrimental to the development of their revolutionary potential, as he makes clear in Counterrevolution and Revolt:

“…revolutionary consciousness has always expressed itself only in revolutionary situations; the difference is that now, the condition of the working class in the society at large militates against the development of such a consciousness”64

Whilst the objective capacity for revolution remains, the subjective necessity of revolution is emasculated in the face of growing social affluence, a development which tends toward the political integration of the industrial working class. Trades unions, the great symbol of class antagonism in the bygone era of liberal capitalism, degenerate into vehicles for the advancement of ‘economistic’ demands for material gains on behalf of their members, reforms are no longer demanded, or conceived of, as part of a greater revolutionary strategy65. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse notes this transformation now extends so far that trades unions engage in joint lobbying for contracts alongside the corporations who employ their members66, demonstrating the ability of advanced industrial society to successfully assimilate oppositional forces into the immense bureaucratic and administrative superstructures of its overwhelming productive apparatus.

The growth of political reformism, in the guise of Social Democracy, is a further reflection of the integration, and bourgeoisification, of the industrial working class67. Max Horkheimer’s analysis of Social Democratic politics as essentially conservative, prioritising security of employment and safeguarding its members’ material interests by seeking to ‘stabilize the status quo’68, was supported by Marcuse, who noted ‘the working class’s portion…of the social product is growing to such an extent, that opposition to capital is being transformed into extensive cooperation’69. This cooperation has significant implications for the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, insofar as Social Democratic politics co-opts the organised, employed sections of the proletariat into the integrated power structures of the monopoly capitalist economy, whilst those with the most vital need for revolution, the unemployed and marginalised elements of the proletariat, maintain their revolutionary consciousness yet lack the organisation, discipline and strategic location within the means of production to launch any feasible challenge to the systemic status quo70. A final aspect of Marcuse’s position on the political integration of the proletariat, and itself related to the rise of Social Democratic political parties, is the role of the welfare state in helping to contain qualitative social change. The welfare state, an institutional icon of reformist political gains, is described by Marcuse as ‘a historical freak between organized capitalism and socialism’71, and functions, in concert with other institutions of the advanced industrial society, to absorb any potential oppositional force. The role of the welfare state in consolidating the integrative tendencies of monopoly capitalism is twofold; firstly it works to provide a certain level of material comfort to those who require it, thus staving off the radicalising effects of impoverishment, and secondly, perhaps most importantly, it directly integrates the majority of the proletariat into the administrative and bureaucratic structures of state distribution, leaving ‘no reason to insist on self-determination if the administered life is…the “good” life’72.

In addition to their material integration into the existing society, much of Marcuse’s work focuses upon the ideological, cultural and psychological integration of the proletariat into the structure of advanced industrial capitalism. One of the central aspects of Marcuse’s enquiry here is his use of the concept of ‘false needs’. Throughout his later work, and particularly within One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse makes the distinction between ‘true’ needs, those things essential to human survival, and ‘false’ needs, imposed upon the individual by the dominant economic order and functioning to perpetuate capitalism’s inherently repressive relations of production73. The availability of commodities for proletarian consumption implants, within the individual, both the need to consume and satisfaction in consumption. The productivity of industrial capitalism enables the repressive use of increased social wealth through ‘promot[ing] the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with and for the means of destruction’74. These new needs, and the repressive social values which operate as their natural corollary, are further compounded and internalised within the constituent population through the development of the advertising industry, which is relocated from its previous position in the socio-cultural superstructure and incorporated directly into the basic process of production75. Simultaneously, the entertainment industry emerges as a prime agent of socialisation for repressive needs and values, and ‘leisure time’ as a whole is assimilated into the system of administration and increasingly managed76. These developments all serve to increase the efficiency with which advanced industrial society enables the cultural integration of the proletariat into its rationalised system of repressive production and consumption. The subjective aspect of class antagonism, vital to Marxian revolutionary theory, is further obscured by totalising nature of the fully developed mode of production. The technical apparatus of the administered society and its evolving techniques of socialisation and social control, particularly the mass media, work to assimilate all social classes into its economic and cultural structure, extending its web of exploitation and reification into the ‘white collar’ sections of the affluent bourgeoisie77. This extension, however, does not constitute a genuine ‘equalization of class distinctions’, in Marcuse’s memorable words:

“If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population”78

The integration of the proletariat into the culture of consumer society, therefore, adds a further layer to the intensifying process of reification, mystifying the class antagonisms and inherent contradictions that continue to form the base of the capitalist mode of production. The internalisation of ‘false needs’, and their repressive satisfaction, combines with the mechanical conformism preconditioned by the rise of ‘technological rationality’ to consolidate the domination of advanced industrial society over the proletariat at ever deeper levels of individual consciousness.

This chapter has attempted to demonstrate the key grounds upon which Herbert Marcuse based his claim that the industrial proletariat had been successfully integrated into the structure of advanced industrial capitalism. His analysis paints a bleak picture for a revolutionary theory predicated upon the assumption that the working class are the sole historical agent of revolutionary social change, and are made so by the inhuman conditions of their material existence. The final chapter of this work will now proceed to bring together the revolutionary theories of Marcuse and Marx, in order to identify the similarities and differences between their characterisations of social and political revolution, and to assess whether the emancipatory project of the former is an enhancement of, or diversion from, the revolutionary precepts of the latter.

Chapter 3 (back to top)

Marx and Marcuse: Models of Revolution

The previous chapter outlined the theoretical considerations that led Herbert Marcuse to the conclusion that the working class in advanced capitalist countries had been successfully integrated into the productive and administrative structures of industrial society, an integration which threatens to deprive Marxist revolutionary theory of its prime agent of radical social change. The tasks of this final chapter are; to briefly survey Marx’s notion of revolution and to investigate key aspects of Marcuse’s own model of revolutionary social change, with a view to assessing the extent to which Marcuse’s notion of revolution can be reconciled with the aims, interests and values of Marx’s original revolutionary project.

In order to achieve its objectives, this chapter will be divided into two sections. The first section will discuss four key elements of Marx’s concept of revolution; namely, the role of capitalism’s inherent ‘crisis tendency’ in catalysing revolutionary action, the penetration of proletarian revolution to the socio-economic roots of social life, the seizure of state power alongside the means of production (and the related concept of ‘vanguardism’), and the educative role of the revolutionary struggle in effecting the self-constitution of the proletariat as a class. The second section will be divided into three parts, each exploring a distinctive element of Marcuse’s model of revolutionary social change; the first part, with regards to the agents of revolution, will investigate the role of the Western proletariat in Marcuse’s revolution, and the roles of the radical intelligentsia and marginalised minorities within capitalist countries in advancing the revolutionary movement. In relation to the dialectics of revolution, the second part will examine Marcuse’s identification of a key underlying dialectical development within advanced industrial capitalism that plays crucial role in preparing the ground for radical social change; namely, the ability of continuing technological developments in making possible the abolition of toil and scarcity in society. Finally, considering Marcuse’s methods of revolution, the third part will explore Marcuse’s notion of the ‘Great Refusal’ as a vehicle for social and political emancipation, and his related positions on concrete revolutionary actions against the opponents of radical social change. The conclusion to this chapter will consist of a brief summary, before leading on to the main conclusion of this dissertation, which will attempt to bring together all elements of the preceding chapters and assess the extent to which Marcuse’s analysis of the proletariat and notion of social revolution fits into the theoretical schema of Marxist political thought.

Having discussed the key features of the Marxist proletariat, and the inherent revolutionary potential contained within the material conditions of their existence and their strategic position within the means of production, it remains to examine further aspects of Marx’s revolutionary model itself. The first aspect to require explication is the Marxist notion of capitalism’s inherent ‘crisis tendency’ and the effect of capitalist crisis in actualising the revolutionary character of the industrial working class. As we have seen, Marx considers the rate of profit to be based upon the extraction of surplus value from the worker. However, as the production process expands, the amounts of capital equipment and necessary raw materials increase, as a proportion of the total investment, in relation to the amount of surplus value-generating ‘living labour’, therefore the relative profit available from such investments begins to decline79. The declining rate of profit is in-built into the system and plays the key role in generating capitalism’s recurrent economic crises. In his Introduction to Marxism, Mandel briefly sketches the vicious circle of the downturn:

“As a result of the decline in the rate of profit, a growing part of capital can no longer obtain sufficient profit. Investment is reduced. Unemployment grows. The sale of a growing number of goods at a loss combines with this factor to bring about a general fall in employment, income, purchasing power, and economic activity as a whole”80.

The inevitable descent of the capitalist system into crisis is a doubly crucial component of Marx’s theory of revolution; firstly, the generation of mass unemployment and reduced purchasing power compounds the material privations of the proletariat as a class, and the radicalising effect of increasing impoverishment works to actualise proletarian revolutionary consciousness81. In addition, capitalism’s crisis tendency has a critical effect upon the power and cohesion of the ruling bourgeoisie. As a result of the ‘uncontrollable decomposition of its economic base, and therewith its political power’, the bourgeoisie loses its assertive self-confidence as the dominant class in society and its ideological grip over the proletariat is fatally weakened82. In Marxist revolutionary theory, therefore, the inherent crisis tendency of capitalism is a prime catalyst for the realisation of the proletariat as the historical agent of social change.

A further distinctive element of the Marxist theory of revolution is the fact that, unlike all previous revolutions, the values of the proletarian revolution will penetrate to the true root of human society; its socio-economic base. Marx notes, particularly in relation to the French revolution, that previous revolutions have been ‘partial, political revolution[s]’, establishing abstract political rights which, in practice, were only available to certain sections of society83. The legal, political and cultural norms established thereby function, as a result of their neglect of economic relations, as a reflection of a bourgeois will ‘whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of [the bourgeoisie’s] existence’84. By moving beyond mere political revolution, and aiming instead at a full social and economic revolution, Marxist social theory becomes the basis for a theory of revolution that promises to be more radical, far-reaching and, ultimately, successful than any previous emancipatory struggle in human history85.

The central dimension of Marx’s socio-economic revolution is the socialisation of the means of production, whose appropriation by the labouring classes negates the pivotal contradiction between the social character of work and the private ownership of workplace and product in the capitalist mode of production. This socialisation overcomes the alienation of man from his species-being, as discussed in Chapter One, and reconfigures human relations into relations of equality and communal co-operation as ‘[t]he category of labourer is not done away with, but extended to all men’86. Subjecting the means of production to socialisation is the culmination of the dialectical development of property relations; with pre-bourgeois forms of private property negated through their expropriation into the hands of a small number of capitalists, the proletarian revolution stands as the dialectical ‘negation of the negation’, the creation of communal productive property through ‘the expropriation of a few [bourgeois] usurpers by the mass of the people’87.

A crucial element in achieving the socialisation of property involves wresting the power of the state away from the particular class-interests the state has hitherto served. It must be noted in this respect that the seizure of state power alone forms a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of proletarian revolution. The achievement of state power, in Marxist theory, must also be coupled with a significant qualitative shift in the conception of the state, as Gramsci eloquently observed:

“The institutions of the capitalist state are organized in such a way as to facilitate free competition: merely to change the personnel in these institutions is hardly going to change the direction of their activity. The socialist state is not yet communism…but it is the transitional state whose mission is to suppress competition via the suppression of private property, classes and national economies.”88

The final, and closely related, consideration of this aspect of Marxist revolutionary theory is the concept of ‘vanguardism’. The notion of a ‘vanguard’ party, a group whose revolutionary consciousness exceeds that of the proletariat at large and is therefore required to lead the revolutionary struggle, was developed in Russia by Plekhanov at the turn of the twentieth century89. The concept is most associated with the subsequent evolution of Leninism and, though specifically based upon the particular historical conditions in Russia at the time of writing90, gained widespread ideological currency across a broad section of Marxist thought. In sum, the objective of socialising private property and the means of production, through the qualitative reorganisation of state power, to be accomplished by a revolutionary ‘vanguard party’ which will simultaneously elevate the proletariat from their ‘elementary level of class consciousness’91 to a ‘superior form of political class consciousness’92, are distinctive features in the Marxist mechanics of revolution.

The final element of the Marxist theory of revolutionary social change to be addressed in this section centres upon the role of the revolutionary struggle in completing the self-constitution, and ultimate negation, of the proletariat as a class. The final success of communism requires the continuing development of the proletarian consciousness beyond its pre-revolutionary horizons as a result of the changing nature of political praxis. In his work The German Ideology, Marx contends that the achievement of communism itself depends upon ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale…an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, in a revolution’93. The evolution of the proletariat does not cease with the successful completion of the revolution; its abolition of private property, market competition and the exploitation and alienation immanent to the capitalist mode of production, results in the negation of the roots of class-antagonism, thereby abolishing all classes in society including itself94. The notion of the proletariat coming-to-be through the act of revolution, negating class society and abolishing itself as the first, and last, ‘self-transcending movement’95, once again demonstrates the Hegelian moment in Marx’s thought, whilst also making clear the distinctive notion of agency and unique finality of Marx’s revolution.

In addition to the changes in the structural location and material conditions of the proletariat, the key role of capitalism’s ‘crisis tendency’ in catalysing revolutionary social change is subject to modification in Marcuse. As we have seen in Chapter Two, Marcuse notes the new role of state power in stabilising the economy under ‘monopoly capitalism’, a development which may delay, or ultimately prevent, the onset of crisis. However, Marcuse supports the contention that the declining rate of profit continues into the advanced capitalist system96, thereby maintaining significant pressures upon the corporate economy, which may yet precipitate collapse. Yet in the absence of such a crisis, Marcuse is left to construct a viable revolutionary theory whose aim is to liberate people from a ‘relatively well-functioning, rich, powerful society…which develops to a great extent the material and even cultural needs of man’97. It remains for this chapter to survey the key points of Marcuse’s revolution, and to examine the nature of its relationship to the Marxist conception of revolution described above.

The first key element in Marcuse’s theory of revolution, and essential in the appraisal of any theorist who subscribes to the term ‘Marxist’, is the role of the proletariat in effecting radical social change. As we have seen, Marcuse believes the working class to have become subject to an almost total integration into capitalist society. Marcuse states that ‘if [the proletariat] has become a class in this society…then the transfer of power to the working class alone…does not assure the transition to socialism’98. This argument stems from the Marxist position that the proletariat are inherently revolutionary because they occupy a position partly outside of capitalist society and their conditions of existence constitute the working classes as the ‘determinate negation’ of class society. However, Marcuse’s notion that the proletariat have been integrated into the system should not be misconstrued as an abandonment of the revolutionary proletariat. In his 1969 work An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse reiterates his opinion that:

“By virtue of its basic position in the production process, by virtue of its numerical weight and the weight of exploitation, the working class is still the historical agent of revolution”99

In the same passage, Marcuse repeats his analysis that the working class are currently tied to the stabilisation of the system and have therefore become ‘a conservative…force’100, but Marcuse’s project remains one of attempting to radicalise the ‘dependent classes’ into launching the revolution of which only they are capable101. Marcuse also seeks to redefine the mass-basis of revolution, attacking those who would ‘simply take over the ritualized model of the nineteenth century working class and transfer it to the second half of the twentieth century’102. In Marcuse’s analysis, the spread of advanced capitalism’s ‘base of exploitation’ to the white-collar, tertiary sector also brings groups such as the technical intelligentsia into the potential basis for revolution103. This can certainly be interpreted as a revision of the Marxist precept of the industrial proletariat, though it is a revision made from a sound historical-materialist analysis of capitalist development, and with the creation of a mass-basis for social revolution as its central aim. In Marcuse’s theory, therefore, the central role in effecting revolutionary social change remains with the proletariat, though using a modified and slightly expanded notion of the term. The fact of the proletariat’s integration into the capitalist system poses a major obstacle to Marcuse’s revolutionary theory, and it is from this theoretical starting-point that Marcuse begins to look for groups who may be able to effect the essential ‘political revitalization of the working class on an international scale’104.

One of the most controversial elements of Marcuse’s work revolves around his assertion that the disaffected intelligentsia, i.e. radical students’ movements, have an important part to play in the revolutionary process105. Marcuse’s prominent association with the student protest movements of the New Left in the late 1960s is undoubtedly responsible for the common misrepresentation, even in theorists as historically sophisticated as Laclau and Mouffe106, that he conceived of the students’ movement as a viable substitute for the revolutionary working class. In fact, Marcuse makes his conception of the role of the students’ movement clear in a letter to Theodor Adorno in 1969:

“Of course, I never voiced the nonsensical opinion that the student movement is itself revolutionary. But it is the strongest, perhaps the only, catalyst for the internal collapse of the system of domination today. The student movement in the United States has indeed intervened effectively as just such a catalyst: in the development of political consciousness, in the agitation in the ghettos…and, most importantly, in the mobilization of further circles of the populace against American imperialism”107

As the above quotation implies, Marcuse perceives a link between the students movement and the marginalised ‘ghetto populations’ of advanced industrial societies. We have seen, in Chapter Two, that Marcuse distinguishes a critical displacement of intolerable living conditions away from the proletariat and onto sections of the marginalised residuum of vulnerable minorities, who do not pose the same revolutionary threat. This leads Marcuse to speculate upon the potential link between these two alienated minorities, though he maintains his characterisation of their role as one of becoming ‘first mass basis of revolt (though not of revolution)’108.

Marcuse’s outlook is certainly based upon his location in the United States in the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement substantially determining these aspects of his analysis. However, it must be repeated that Marxist political theory is predicated upon a material analysis of prevailing conditions in a given society and, in this respect, two significant parallels with established Marxian theory emerge. Firstly, both the radical students’ movement and the ‘exploited and persecuted of other races and colours’109 form an ‘opposition that hits the system from without’110, their alienation from society and inhuman conditions of existence (for the latter group, at least) create these groups as ‘determinate negations’ of advanced industrial capitalism, attacking it from an outside position. Furthermore, these radical minorities are set the task of building a revolutionary alliance between themselves and a working class fixated with its immediate ‘economistic’ interests, nothing less than an alliance between ‘the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force’111. This is not to imply a relationship to the concept of vanguardism, Marcuse firmly rejects the idea that intellectuals can impose class-consciousness upon the proletariat112, rather it indicates Marcuse’s retention of Gramsci’s hegemonic principles in advancing the mass-basis revolutionary social change. The task before the intelligentsia is one of agitation and information, catalysing the self-development of the revolutionary class consciousness of the workers, upon whom ‘the radical transformation of [the] social system still depends’113.

The potential for the radical transformation of society is also aided by the continuing dialectic of capitalist development, of which the technological dimension is crucial. One of Marcuse’s most distinctive, and recurring, themes is his analysis of how capitalist technological development has succeeded in using ‘the scientific conquest of nature for the scientific conquest of man’114. We have seen how Marcuse identifies ‘technological rationality’ and the massive productive capabilities of capitalism as essential components of the proletariat’s integration into the governing economic framework, yet the very success of these processes generate, for the first time in human history, the twin possibilities of the abolition of scarcity, as a result of increased production levels115, and the (potentially total) reduction of alienated labour through the process of automation116. However, these possibilities belong to the objective technics of the apparatus and not its repressive use in modern technology, leading Marcuse to affirm the requirement for a radical, qualitative transformation of the role of technology as a precondition for realising its emancipatory potential117. In relation to Marxist revolutionary theory, Marcuse’s analysis of technological development has two significant connections. Firstly, Marcuse discerns how ‘at the present stage the possible conquest of want makes this struggle [for existence] ever more irrational’118, demonstrating his continuing use of Marx’s notion that relations of production are bound to fall behind, and eventually begin to restrict, the rational development of the forces of production, a contradiction which can only be resolved in a resulting revolution. Secondly, Marcuse’s concern with transforming the technological means of production emphasises the fact that his model of revolution retains the distinctive Marxist emphasis on the penetration of radical change into the socio-economic base of human life.

The final characteristic of Marcuse’s theory of revolution which requires treatment here centres upon the physical nature of the revolution itself, which finds expression throughout his later work in his concept of the ‘Great Refusal’. The Great Refusal is a mode of resistance based upon the complete rejection of all norms, institutions and policies of the governing economic and political framework. The totality of society’s domination necessitates the totality of its negation, and all revolutionary and oppositional tendencies must be concentrated upon ‘the one abstract demand for the end of domination – the only true revolutionary exigency’119. This rather ephemeral notion of total revolution is solidified when viewed in association with some of Marcuse’s more practical prescriptions. Douglas Kellner notes that Marcuse’s incendiary essay Repressive Tolerance allows for ‘attacks on the military, strikes and boycotts, civil disobedience [and] marches on Washington’ amongst other things120. Marcuse himself argues that the revolution should not shrink from radical actions that may be undemocratic or illegal; if the Left encounters resistance to its project for revolutionary social change, its countermeasures...

“…would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions…”121

Coupled with his support for revolutionary ‘counter-violence’ against reactionary forces122, it becomes clear that Marcuse’s model of revolution is as brutally uncompromising, in both a physical and political sense, as the Marxist notion of the seizure of the state which preceded it. On a final note of comparison regarding the methods of Marcuse’s revolution, the Marxist notion of socialising the means of production remains imperative in Marcuse. The principles of ‘collective ownership [and] collective control and planning of the means of production and distribution’ are regarded by Marcuse as a ‘necessary but not sufficient condition for the alternative’123. The socialisation of production, for Marcuse, stands as a precondition of genuine liberation, not as evidence of its attainment.

In conclusion, this chapter has attempted to demonstrate that Marcuse’s revolution is in fact a thoroughly Marxist revolution. Its central agent is the same, as is its objective, as are the essential methods. Differences occur as a result of historical changes, Marcuse adapts to such changes by using Marx’s dialectical method to identify the counter-tendencies which may be used to fulfil the aims of revolution in changed times. Marcuse’s revolution goes further than Marx’s in some aspects; the extent of the potential liberation and the extension of the mass-basis of revolution are two examples. In these cases, Marcuse goes beyond traditional Marxism only by assessing the new material conditions of the prevailing situation and evaluating their potentialities. Therefore, Marcuse’s ‘revision’ of Marx seeks to re-apply Marx’s methods to create a mass-revolution dedicated to achieving, and surpassing, Marx’s own aims. I would therefore contend that these two models of revolution should be conceived of as one model of revolution, interpreted in two radically different historical contexts.

Marcuse contra Marx?: Conclusions (back to top)

The introduction to this dissertation established its two main objectives; the primary objective was to account for the theoretical foundations upon which Herbert Marcuse based his assertion that the working class in advanced industrial capitalism had become integrated into its governing economic and political structures. The secondary objective was to examine Marcuse’s model of revolution, to explore the similarities and differences between the models of Marcuse and Marx, and to evaluate the extent to which Marcuse’s revolution can be seen as congruent with traditional Marxist theories of revolutionary social change. The underlying theme of the entire dissertation has been to analyse the extent to which the thought of Herbert Marcuse constitutes a genuine manifestation of Marxist social theory, particularly when viewed against his established historical reputation as proponent of ‘revisionist’ Marxism.

In order to achieve its primary objective, it was first necessary to explore the established Marxist conception of the revolutionary proletariat, in order to set Marcuse’s later position in the correct context. Chapter One demonstrated that Marxist political theory conceives of the proletariat as a class created under very specific historical conditions, whose characteristics and material conditions give them both the vital need and the necessary abilities to subvert and overthrow the capitalist mode of production. The tendency toward ever greater concentrations of wealth and ownership throughout the development of capitalism, leads to the simplification of class antagonisms within society. Marx demonstrated the process by which myriad class distinctions in previous modes of production are distilled under capitalism into a conflict between two main classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat. The proletariat are defined by their lack of property and the necessity of selling their physical labour to the owners of the means of production in order to survive. Marxist economic theory shows how the rate of profit is dependent upon the exploitation of the labour force and the extraction of surplus-value from the work of the labourer. The inherently exploitative economic order to which the working class are forced to submit combines with the much deeper effects of alienation and reification to create intolerable conditions of existence, which in turn create a vital need for revolutionary social change within the proletariat. Although the subjective awareness of this need for radical change may not reach the point of realisation, the material conditions under which the proletariat are forced to live make it a class which is instinctively antagonistic towards capitalist relations of production and inherently revolutionary in character.

Furthermore, the proletariat combines three distinct characteristics that make it the sole possible agent of revolutionary social change in Marxist political theory. Firstly, the development of mass-production, mechanisation and rationalisation in the capitalist production process has led the proletariat to a point at which they assume direct operational control of the means of production on a daily basis. As production units and workforces expand, the increasingly social character of work creates both the organisation and discipline necessary to seize and socialise the means of production and sharpens the contrast between the social nature of production and the private ownership of both workplace and product under industrial capitalism. Secondly, by constituting the majority of the population in industrial societies, the proletarian revolution maintains a qualitative difference between itself and all previous revolutions. All previous revolutions are seen as minoritarian and based on extremely narrow sectional interests, whereas the Marxist proletarian revolution promises to be the first revolution to have a truly mass-basis and a universally emancipatory agenda. Finally, the existence of the proletariat as the ‘determinate negation’ of human civilisation, the living indictment of the disparity between the bourgeois rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the actual condition of the masses, puts the proletariat in a unique position. By occupying a place partly outside of bourgeois society, only the proletariat can hope to overcome class-society entirely. These three characteristics demonstrate how the dialectical development of capitalism does not only create the proletariat; it also gives the proletariat the incentives and abilities to become the sole agent of revolutionary social change on a world-historical level.

Chapter Two sought to demonstrate that Marcuse’s notion of the ‘integrated’ proletariat is based upon a complex and sophisticated analysis of the development of the capitalist mode of production since Marx’s time. Alongside his fellow Frankfurt School theorists, and consistent with Marx’s historical-materialist approach, Marcuse sought to account for the historical failure of the proletariat to assume their predicted role as agents of revolutionary social change by analysing structural changes at the economic base of industrial capitalism, and the role of changing material conditions of existence in ameliorating the inherent revolutionary characteristics of the Marxian proletariat. Two recurring themes, directly related to the dialectical unfolding of capitalist mode of production, provide the key to understanding Marcuse’s work on the integration of the proletariat, ‘monopoly capitalism’ and ‘technological rationality’. Franz Neumann’s empirical study of German industry in the early twentieth century provided Marcuse with a model of capitalism undergoing a transition from its previous ‘liberal’ phase into a distinctively new ‘monopolistic’ formation. Driven by capitalism’s inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and economic power, and reinforced through the competitive advantage gained through economies of scale, the defining feature of monopoly capitalism was the growth of massive industrial conglomerates spreading across all sectors of industry. The new industrial combines locked all sectors of the economy into an increasing interdependence, co-ordinated by the growth of massive administrative bureaucracies whilst also changing the role of the state into a force for the active stabilisation of capitalism. In Marcuse’s analysis, this shift constituted a shift in the organisation of the economic base, which inevitably creates changes in the socio-political superstructure. The most significant of these changes in relation to proletarian revolution is the development of mechanisms to effectively stabilise the capitalist economy, as crises in the capitalist system are essential prerequisites for the formation of revolutionary political consciousness and long periods of stability are held to reduce the class struggle into its more immediate (as opposed to historical) ‘economistic’ form.

Behind the transition to monopoly capitalism, and preparing the way for the integration of the proletariat, was the development of ‘technological rationality’ and the growing power of the apparatus of production over economic and social life. The drive towards efficiency, standardisation and co-ordination was manifested in the transition to monopoly capitalism by the triumph of larger industrial enterprises over their smaller, less efficient, competitors. Simultaneously, ‘technological rationality’ created the situation in which workers were now required to tend to the needs of the apparatus by performing similarly rationalised and standardised tasks, ensuring the triumph of a mechanical conformity to serving the needs of the system of production within the workforce. In relation to the proletariat, therefore, ‘technological rationality’ had three decisive effects; firstly, it developed the process of reification to a new level, mystifying the repressive social relations of capitalism behind the seemingly objective veil of technics, secondly, it worked to integrate the proletariat directly into the system of production, assimilating them into the growing social power of the productive apparatus, and, finally, by emphasising the requirement of workers to meet the needs of the apparatus, it began the process of socialising the working class into its system of mechanical conformity, preparing the ground for the later development of more advanced techniques of socialisation and integration.

These two historical developments lie behind Marcuse’s assertion that advanced industrial society has succeeded in integrating the proletariat directly into its structures of power and control. The integration of the proletariat into the structure of capitalist society is achieved in a multiplicity of ways. Primarily, the overwhelming productivity of advanced industrial capitalism, established through the transition to its ‘monopolistic’ phase, the extent of its technological innovation and the underlying shift toward a new ‘technological rationality’, has enabled a significant proportion of the resulting surplus-product to be diverted into producing commodities for proletarian consumption. The increasing standard of living amongst the majority of the proletariat, and the continuing stability of the economy, tends to anaesthetise ‘acute’ class-consciousness and lead to an ‘economistic’ perspective whereby immediate material gains are prioritised over the historical need for revolutionary social change. As a result, former vehicles of class-antagonism, such as trades unions, are assimilated into the structure of capitalism as they seek to stabilise the system and protect their previous gains. Simultaneously, proletarian politics is split by the development of the Social Democratic movement, whose reformist socialism co-opts the more fortunate elements of the working class into a structure of class-cooperation, whilst achievements such as the welfare state extend the dominion of the ‘administered life’. Finally, the culture of the consumer society, itself enabled through expanded commodity production, succeeds in integrating previously opposed social groups into its colossal structure of administration by imposing ‘false needs’ into the population which may only be satisfied at the cost of perpetuating the repressive practices and values immanent to advanced industrial capitalism. Increased access to commodities, and the scientific techniques of manipulation developed through the mass media, have achieved the almost total reification of the proletariat, mystifying the class-structure of society and effectively precluding the development of a proletarian revolutionary consciousness on a mass basis.

Therefore, in relation to the three definitional features of the proletariat discussed in Chapter One, Marcuse has made only one revision. The diversion of surplus-product for proletarian consumption means that, by Marcuse’s time, the industrial working class did have property and material benefits, which negates the position they once held outside of bourgeois society. Exploitation remains the basic fact of capitalist economics in Marcuse, whilst his concern with alienation and reification constitute major recurring themes of his lifelong work. The difference is that Marcuse perceives that the proletariat’s conditions of existence are no longer intolerable and that, under advanced industrial capitalism, the working class have become a group immanent to, not outside of, class society. In relation to the three strategic features of the proletariat discussed in Chapter One, Marcuse again diverges from only one; that the working class are no longer the ‘determinate negation’ of society. He concurs that they are the only group capable of seizing and socialising the means of production, and remains committed to the notion that the next revolution needs to be a majoritarian revolution, with a mass-basis extending across the entire breadth of society. However, it is the extent of the proletariat’s integration into capitalist society, the extent to which alienation and exploitation have become tolerable in advanced industrial society, which threatens to deprive both Marx and Marcuse of the prime agent of historical social change.

The remaining task of this dissertation was to bring together Marx’ and Marcuse’s models of revolution; to examine their similarities and differences, to explore how Marcuse attempts to construct a Marxist revolution without a revolutionary working class, and to assess the extent to which Marcuse’s work fits into the general theoretical schema of Marxist political thought.

Chapter Three sought to demonstrate that the revolutionary models of Marx and Marcuse are more closely related than first appearances, or received academic wisdom, seem to imply. I would contend that the differences that do arise are based upon Marcuse’s reading of the changed historical context, and the adaptations he considers necessary demonstrate Marcuse’s commitment to the Marxist theory of revolution rather than his rejection of its aims or methods. Marx’s model admits the reality that the proletariat, though inherently revolutionary in character, are actualised into revolutionary agency as a result of capitalism’s crisis tendency, which simultaneously compounds the material suffering of the working class and fatally weakens the grip of the ruling bourgeoisie. Marcuse maintains that the rate of profit is bound to decline, but contends that advanced industrial capitalism has succeeded in managing the crisis tendency, to an extent, and has displaced the radicalising effects of poverty away from the proletariat. Marcuse’s revolutionary project gains its distinctive character in his attempt to create a Marxist revolution in a society whose economic success and stability all but preclude the development of a revolutionary working class. This point in Marcuse’s theory is the foundation of the common misinterpretations of Marcuse’s position; however, we have seen that Marcuse’s revolutionary model is still predicated upon the working class, they remain the sole agent of historical change. In the absence of a disintegrating economy, Marcuse set himself the task of finding other agencies for the radicalisation of the masses and finds, in the radical intelligentsia and the oppressed residuum of ‘ghetto populations’, two groups whose position partly outside of advanced industrial society creates the possibility of a catalysing ‘revolt’ which may spark general revolution. Marcuse’s support for such groups has the surface appearance of a fundamental break with the tenets of ‘orthodox’ Marxism, but on closer analysis Marcuse’s position is revealed as a sophisticated exercise in Marxian revolution on two key grounds. Both Marx and Marcuse realise the importance of attacking capitalist society from an outside position, a position no longer occupied by the working class in Marcuse’s time, Marcuse is therefore using the same method for identifying potential agents of change as Marx had used almost a century earlier. As well as using this Marxist methodology, Marcuse’s use of the logic of hegemony and his emphasis upon the self-development of revolutionary proletarian consciousness are distinctively Marxist, though his rejection of vanguardism puts distance between his model and the precepts of Leninism, a distance not necessarily to his disadvantage.

Marxist revolutionary theory is also distinguished by its expansion of social change to the socio-economic core of human life, an aspect of society which previous revolutions have neglected or ignored. Here, Marcuse’s theory is again congruent to the traditions of Marx, though with one slight difference. Marcuse’s model still stresses the need for the socialisation of the means of production, and the end to the exploitation and alienation that result from private property relations. The difference is that Marcuse recognises the technological development of capitalism has reached a level at which the abolition of toil and scarcity become feasible objectives. Marcuse is therefore more utopian than Marx, who maintained that socially necessary labour would continue, but this divergence is based upon historical developments which Marx could not have foreseen. Therefore, Marcuse’s emphasis on socialisation as essential to the revolution is faithful to Marx’s concern whilst his notion of the complete abolition of toil and scarcity is an enhancement of the Marxist vision of communism, based upon the feasibility of a state of affairs which would have been dismissed, rightly, as ‘utopian’ in Marx’s time.

Finally, neither Marx nor Marcuse laid out forensic details of the form of revolution, and as historical-materialists this was rightly so. However, their general theories of revolution are very closely related. The traditional Marxist form of revolution involves the seizure of state power and its use for the purposes of constructing socialism, most probably as the outcome of a violent revolutionary struggle. Marcuse’s notion of revolution has suffered somewhat both from his association with the New Left and his tendency to emphasise the psychological and individual aspects of liberation. His ‘Great Refusal’ does contain an individualist base and an ephemeral quality, but his notions of concrete revolutionary action, contained mainly within the 33 Theses and Repressive Tolerance, reveal Marcuse’s militancy in advocating revolution and his refusal to reject violence. Marcuse’s revolution, like Marx’s, will become violent if it meets with resistance. Like Marx’s, it will also use the power, both physical and political, of the revolutionary mass to destroy private ownership and socialise production. Finally, also akin to Marx, the totality of its revolutionary intent makes possible the qualitative transformation of its participants through their engagement in the most radicalised forms of revolutionary praxis.

In conclusion, Marcuse’s theory of the ‘integration of the proletariat’ is based upon a material analysis of the conditions, tendencies, and potentialities of a concrete historical situation, a method of analysis initiated by Marx himself. I would contend that, given the social and political conditions of society in the United States in the mid-1960s, Marx would have been forced to much the same conclusions. Furthermore, the models of revolution constructed by Marx and Marcuse share more similarities than differences. Their perceived agent of social change is the same, as is their aim and the majority of their methods. Differences appear in the fact that Marcuse was forced to construct a revolutionary theory in radically changed historical circumstances. The analysis and model of revolution that he creates demonstrate his continuing commitment to the fundamental tenets of revolutionary Marxism, and his assessment of the potential for a total end to scarcity, alienation and toil, are an enhancement of, not detractions from, the Marxist vision of communism. Both men sought to distinguish the possibilities for a future society within the structures and capabilities of their present societies, and both men saw the necessity of mass revolutionary action in creating a sustainable basis for human liberation.

In sum, I contend that Marcuse’s project is a continuation, and enhancement, of Marx’s project for an emancipated society, and one that was crafted under the most unlikely historical circumstances. His reputation as a ‘revisionist’ theoretician, whose work abandoned both the proletariat and Marx’s vision of liberated human life, is as unjust as it is absurd. I hope that this work has gone some way toward falsifying such unfortunate and unfounded beliefs.

Bibliography (back to top)

Note on presentation: The section detailing Marcuse’s essays contain the author and title of the secondary sources from which they have been drawn, the publishing details of which can be found in the Books section. Though this leads to an inevitable aspect of repetition, I have chosen this method of presentation to give quick access to essay references which would otherwise have required the reader to consult the original footnote in order to find the appropriate secondary work.

Marcuse Essays

Marcuse Books

Marcuse Articles

Marcuse (Secondary Works)

Marx Books

Marx/Marxism (Secondary Works)



Notes (back to top)

Presentation of Notes: When first referencing a source, I have included; author name, title and page no. I have not included the full publishing details of each source in the footnotes, they can be found in the appropriate entry in the bibliography. Further, when a source has been introduced into a chapter, subsequent references to it will consist of the book title and page no. I have chosen this style of presentation on grounds of clarity and simplicity.

thesis completed April 2007;
web version formatted and uploaded by Harold Marcuse on August 22, 2007; updated: see header
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