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Herbert Marcuse: One Dimensional Man

Updated on February 16, 2013
An older Marcuse
An older Marcuse | Source


Herbert Marcus was a political theorist who gained attention in the 1960s and 1970s because he chose to disengage from the Cold War soldiers and criticized not only the Cold War and how it was applied, but the new conformed way of American life created in the 1950s. He gained the title of “father of the New Left,” though according to his family, it was a title he was not fond of. (H. Marcuse 2012)

Marcuse’s theory of the one-dimensional society showed modern capitalism at its worst, comparing it to totalitarianism. The Great Refusal of the one-dimensional solution would save the masses from this supposed unwanted regime, though he believed the masses were willing to accept this trade-off of political power and exclusion for the modern conveniences of living with technology. (H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man 1991)

This research paper will answer three main questions about Herbert Marcuse. The first, what does Marcuse believe the nature of man to be and what are the conditions of man’s existence. The second is what does Marcuse believe are the goals of political organization. And the third question is: what were the means in which Marcuse proposed to reach his the goals. By answering these three questions, we can conclude that Marcuse believed that the nature of man is a desire for complete freedom and happiness. Marcuse believed that Marx and libertarian socialism was the answer for that complete freedom. Yet, he realized that it was not possible to have complete freedom without oppression in a civilization. He proposed a freedom from oppressive government and the elites who ran both capitalist and communist economic systems by putting the desire back into the hands of the masses. But other than educating the masses to make a concerted effort to rebel, there was little Marcuse could offer to make this happen. His theories were dependent upon people rebelling against the oppressive system.

1955 Newton, MA
1955 Newton, MA | Source


Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin, Germany, on July 19,1898. In 1922, after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Freiburg, he moved back to Berlin, working in the book trade. Marcuse returned to Freiburg to write his professor’s dissertation with Martin Heidegger, another prominent political thinker of the time. Not allowed to complete his dissertation under Nazi rule, Marcuse worked for a short time in 1933 at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, where Marxism and why it had failed, drawing the working class to fascism, was researched. This same year, he migrated to the United States and immediately began the citizenship process, earning citizenship in 1940. Marcuse worked for the US Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War. In this position, he analyzed intelligence reports on Germany until 1952. Then in 1952, Marcuse began teaching as a political theorist in Columbia, then Harvard. He also taught from 1954 through 1965 at Brandeis and afterwards, taught at the University of California, San Diego. (H. Marcuse 2012)

What is the Nature of Man and the Conditions of His Existence?

Marcuse believed that the nature of man was to be free. But he believed the condition of man was oppressive, redeemable only with his liberating vision of a complete development of individuals within a non-repressive society. In order to understand the world in which Marcuse came to this final conclusion when he wrote One Dimensional Man , we need a short background of the political and social surroundings from which he worked.

The Cold War was fought on two fronts. One was overseas through proxy wars, arms races and with words. But on the home front, the fear of card-carrying communists had grown. In 1947, the Truman Doctrine described the new struggle between Capitalism and Communism, stating that each country would have to decide whether it would chose a way of life that enveloped the will of the majority which is distinguished by free institutions or a life based upon the will of the minority, which involves terror and oppression. This belief of the masses became questioned openly over time by the New Left, and in particular Marcuse. (Abbott 2010)

Soviet analyst George E. Kennan was asked by the Secretary of Defense to analyze and respond to a paper written by a government official which outlined Soviet international objectives. He concluded that that the Soviets were following Marxism which was based on economic determinism, that capitalism was self-destructive and that there would be no compromising from the Soviets with the West. While he believed that the Soviets would be difficult to work with, Kennan also felt that Soviets had rationality and that their economic and political system was vulnerable. He laid out many warnings but considered containment of communism to be up most important and that it would result in the United States’ victory of the War. (Abbott 2010)

With McCarthy’s Red Scare came the fear of American citizens against their neighbors, resulting in a developing loss of faith in democracy. War fever had ensued and civil libertarians helped in the development of a mass belief that the American way of life was in danger and everything must be done to prevent it at all costs. If someone dissented from this concept, they were not simply put in a category of a disagreeable fellow citizen. Instead, they were labeled traitors because any show of disagreement would make the enemy more powerful. (Abbott 2010) This definition of traitor meant that a basic cookie-cutter society had developed in the 1950s. Everyone conformed not only in dress and attitude, but in following an American Dream to own the correct form of property, having the white picket fence, the correct white collar job and the correct political anti-communist views. In essence, they had sold out in fear to protect themselves from the evils of communism.

It is in this setting that Herbert Marcuse asked the question of whether America was really a totalitarian society that imposed uniformity, suppressed dissent and blocked change. (H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man 1991) He claimed that totalitarianism did not just exist in the form of terrorist activity from the outside by way of military and espionage, but that it included overt activity such as economic technical coordination by way of manipulating needs by vested interests. He claimed that George Orwellian language made things seem different than they appear. For example, words such as clean bomb would be used to make a bomb seem less horrific. He used the term, Happy Consciousness to explain American society’s desire for technology to the point of giving up political power. To Marcuse, this was no different than the totalitarian regimes the American society hated. (Abbott 2010)

Abbott writes that Marcuse was a Marxist. (Abbott 2010, 268) Marcuse, unlike the handful of Cold War dissidents, came from Germany and had been influenced by the writings of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. (Abbott 2010, 268) He was an emigrant into the United States, and so not privy to the culture in the sense of growing up within it, he was an intellectual who had studied with independent German Marxists who had founded the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in 1923. (Kellner none) This institute worked on theories that would explain what part of Marxism failed that moved the working class towards fascism. (Abbott 2010, 272) Because of this, he was an outsider in two ways, one as a migrated American and second as a scholar with the benefits of having studied all economic classes of people and was able to view American culture with appreciation for its “redeeming features.” (Abbott 2010, 272)

Marcuse believed that the condition of human existence could be changed because it was a matter of nature verses nurture. While cynical, Marcuse left the condition of man’s existence with a solution which was to take political power back and let go of technology. In essence, he argued against allowing technology or those who control the free market to convince man that certain technologies were needed for the existence of man. He critiqued both modern capitalism and communism in the Soviet Union and paralled the social repression in both. Marcuse also recognized the decline of potential in each system. Marcuse believed that the advanced industrial society had created those false needs, which encompassed the individual into a consumption and production mentality and that this was done through mass media. (H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man 1991) To fall into this conformity, leaves man enslaved and in the hands of others who seek to control individuals through this method. Marcuse’s solution, however, was contingent upon the willingness of man to desire change of his condition.

Goals of Political Organization

Marcuse argued contemporary Marxism and become orthodox and because of this, needed “phenomenological” experience to revive it. (Kellner none) However, Marxism neglected the individual and so he focused on individual liberty that would include gradual social transformation and an eventual capitalist movement to socialism. However, he was not happy about his hero, Heidegger’s decision to align himself with National Socialism. (Kateb 1970)This is probably due to the current socialist model was not perfected to prevent the individual from enslavement.

Marcuse seems to have struggled with the goals of political organization. While a Marxist socialism did not satisfy the individual, capitalism in its current state did not either. In both systems, men were pawns and used for the benefit of others. He focused on the critical theory of society. (Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse na) Marcus was involved with the Institute for Social Research. He was involved in many interdisciplinary projects, including a model for the critical social theory. He began development in the theory of a new evolving stage of a state and with monopoly capitalism, by using the relationships between cultural criticism, social theory and philosophy; he provided a systematic analysis as well as a critic of German fascism. (Kellner none)

In 1934, Marcuse fled from Nazism because he was Jewish and radical. In 1941, Marcuse joined the Office of Secret Services and worked for the United States State Department. When he had completed his job with the government, he published Eros and Civilization . In this work, he outlines Marx and Freud and begins the makings of a non-repressive society. Though he conceded that civilization always involves repression, he believed that Freud’s theory showed an instinctual drive for man to have happiness and freedom. To Marcus, the goal of any political organization is for the purpose of individual happiness and freedom. (Kellner none) However, he had trouble finding a way in which that goal could actually be met by a political entity. He left it up to the individual to combat the tendency for government to control freedom. In essence, Marcuse believed in the freedom from the government and oppressive entities but also believed in a negative government model. Though he toyed with notions of socialism to do this, he recognized that Marxism in the current state would not be able to meet this freedom from requirement.

The Means in Which to Reach His Goals

Marcuse did argue that the current societal organization produced surplus repression by devising unnecessary labor, unnecessary restrictions on sexual behavior, and a social system that was organized based upon profit or exploitation. (Kellner none) Therefore, Marcuse wanted to create a new society that would not involve that repression. Marcuse called for the end of repression and creation of a new society.

While working for the Department of Defense, Marcuse had specialized in both communism and in fascism. In attempting to develop a many-faceted look into the Soviet Union, he criticized Soviet bureaucracy, culture and its differences with Marxist theory. Marcuse looked at liberal trends that eventually came to being with Gorbachev in the 1980s. (Kellner none) In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse explores capitalist societies as well as communist ones. In this work, he contended that there was a remiss of revolutionary potential for capitalist societies and that there had developed forms of social control. This had created a one-dimensional view that did not allow for critical thinking or dissention. Socialism, Soviet style, had done the same thing to the working class and did not allow for revolutionary opposition. Marcuse believed that by educating unions, minorities, outsiders and radical intellectuals, the one-dimensional system may be eventually opposed. (Kateb 1970)

These ideas appealed to the New Left in America because of their dissatisfaction with capitalism and communism. Marcuse defended these emerging New Left groups and demands for revolutionary change. In spite of the New Left’s dissatisfaction with Soviet communism, and Marcuse’s support of them, Marcuse did agree with Marxist theory with libertarian socialism. (Kellner none)

Marcuse outlined the importance of technology in society and recognized that there was an emphasis on that technology was relational to culture and life in general. (H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man 1991) He also recognized the importance of this. His argument was for the manipulation of that technology by elites. Those elites were governmental and privateers. He deeply desired liberation from that and believed that libertarian socialism was the answer. (Kellner none) However, he could not commit to that form of government because it simply did not exist. The means to meet his goals was based upon, basically, the working class as producers and consumers, getting fed up enough with being pawns in an elite chess game. Being fed up meant that they would have to leave the comforts they had become accustomed to and take back their political power from those elites. The major flaw in the means using the Great Refusal to his goals is the unwillingness of the working class to do this.


Marcuse believed that the nature of man is a desire for complete freedom and happiness. Complete freedom could only come from a government that provided for it. Marcuse believed that Marx and libertarian socialism was the answer, yet that system could not possibly exist at the time. He himself recognized that it could not be possible to do this in civilization at all. So, he dreamed big. He proposed a freedom from oppressive government and the elites who ran both capitalist and communist economic systems. But other than educating the masses to make a concerted effort to rebel, there was little Marcuse could offer to make this happen. His theories were dependent upon people rebelling against the oppressive system. In some ways, he actually hits the idea of free market on the nose – consumer power. I conclude that if people used that consumer power, as well as their political power, Marcuse would have seen another side of capitalism that simply did not exist during his time due to the swift rise of conformity. Marcuse was a dreamer and he has inspired others to dream as well. With those dreams, come the ideas necessary to better our capitalist society in such a way as to not become victims of elitism or governments.


Abbott, Philip. Political Thought In America: Conversations and Debates. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2010.

"Collection of Papers." Art and Liberation Herbert Marcuse. n.d.

"Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse." na.

Kateb, George. Jan 1970.

Kellner, Douglas. "Herbert Marcuse." Illuminations, none: 1.

Marcuse, Harold. Official Website Herbert Marcuse. July 2012.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Kindle Edition, 1974.

—. One-Dimensional Man. Kindle Edition, 1991.


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