Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Herbert Marcuse.
Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 1, Douglas Kellner, ed.
London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 278 pp. $49.00 cloth (0415137802)

This is the first in a welcome series of six volumes of mainly previously unpublished and untranslated works of Herbert Marcuse. The publication of these volumes must be celebrated especially in these ‘postmodern’ times, where theory has become reduced to little more than linguistic formulae and politics to the idea that a change of style is a subversive act. In a footnote to the Preface to this volume, Douglas Kellner informs us that, “In the Marcuse archives, I found an ad for one of Derrida’s books with a contemptuous scrawl over it in Marcuse’s handwriting: ‘This is what passes for philosophy today!’” (p. xiv) Kellner further notes that although Marcuse was aware of poststructuralist and postmodern theories, his work shows little interest in them. The writings in this volume demonstrate the theoretical vigour and uncompromising intellectual honesty that is typical of Marcuse’s work. These features, along with his critical analyses of authoritarian tendencies in modern democracies, technology and culture contribute to the contemporary relevance of Marcuse’s social theory. Kellner is correct in his assessment in the concluding remarks to his informative and clear Introduction to this volume, that Marcuse’s work “provides us with resources to engage in our own theoretical and political projects today.” (p. 37) One of the most significant corrections to most intellectual histories of the Frankfurt School Kellner makes is that unlike Horkheimer and especially Adorno, Marcuse’s work explicitly attempts to politicize critical theory so that it may itself become a force of practical social change. In this respect it can be argued that Marcuse remained faithful to the earlier vision of critical theory, especially as articulated in Max Horkheimer’s famous 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

The essays, letters and other writings contained in this volume are somewhat uneven in terms of theme and style. Some are more directly philosophical and anticipate the later Marcuse, while others are narrower in their focus. Some pieces will be of more interest to the general reader while others will be of significant interest to Marcuse specialists. A few essays were written as part of Marcuse’s research for the Office of Strategic Services and other US government agencies where he worked from 1942-51. Here he analyzed the cultural development of German fascism and made recommendations on how to build a democratic postwar society in Germany. Many of his insights have implications for the question of authoritarianism and democracy.

One of the best essays in this volume, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” (1941), written in collaboration with the Institute for Social Research, is the only piece published in Marcuse’s lifetime. Unlike some of the essays written for the OSS, this piece reflects the more familiar philosophical tone and quality found in his major works of social theory. A typical example of this is his distinction between technology and technics, where technology is a “social process,” or a “mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behaviour patterns, an instrument of control and domination.” Technics refers to the techniques of production which can “promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil.” (p. 41) In Marcuse’s view, the Third Reich was a technocracy, meaning that technical rationality and the demands of efficiency, along with the primacy of a “matter-of-factness” mentality generated nonhuman values that superseded those pertaining to the welfare of the people. His description and analysis of “matter-of-fact” thinking, which he develops further in a later essay in this volume called “The New German Mentality,” argues that the technological attitude mediates human thought and relationships such that human individuality is weakened. According to Marcuse, the “machine process” generates a “mechanics of conformity,” whereby “[i]ndividuals are stripped of their individuality, not by external compulsion, but by the very rationality under which they live.” The “mechanics of conformity” governs “performance not only in the factories and shops, but also in the offices, schools, assemblies and, finally, in the realm of relaxation and entertainment.” (p. 48) These insights are relevant to postwar democracies as well where human well-being is increasingly subordinate to the demands of efficiency, profit and the maintenance of the state political apparatus.

Marcuse’s analysis of the changes in social attitudes with the establishment of fascism in Germany is another example of what Seyla Benhabib calls the ‘explanatory-diagnostic’ and ‘anticipatory-utopian’ character of critical theory. In “The New German Mentality,” Marcuse points out that in Weimar Germany, democracy was experienced as a blend of liberty, unemployment and poverty. An effective political re-education needs to sever the association of authoritarian government with economic strength and full employment. The language and mentality promoted by the Third Reich focused on facts and factual achievements; birth, race, and folk are immediate, graspable facts, whereas class, human rights, society and humankind are abstract ideas. Marcuse recommended that an effective counter-propaganda had to speak the “pragmatic language of facts” in its effort to change the prevailing German mentality.

A somewhat shorter essay, “Some Remarks on Aragon,” written in 1945, is perhaps the most evocative of the later Marcuse of Eros and Civilization and the Aesthetic Dimension, where he argues that the “unpolitical position” of art may actually contain the only political truth. The promesse de bonheur of sensuality and love expressed in art becomes a kind of “political apriori” where the unpolitical character of sensuality and love preserves the goal of political action, which is liberation. Anticipating his later work, Marcuse writes, “[t]he incompatibility of the artistic form with the real form of life may be used as a lever for throwing upon the reality the light which the latter cannot absorb, the light which may eventually dissolve this reality” (p. 214)

The exchange of letters between Horkheimer and Marcuse will be perhaps more interesting to Marcuse scholars and Frankfurt School specialists than to the general reader. Marcuse’s repeated expressions of longing to work with Horkheimer, along with his fears that he will be forgotten, when considered within the context of nastiness and betrayal within the Institute, especially on the part of Adorno, (p. 16, n. 22) help clarify Peter Marcuse’s remark that it was personally painful for him to agree to their publication. (p. x) However, the most interesting exchange of letters for all readers is that between Marcuse and Heidegger in 1947 and 1948, where Marcuse not only confronts Heidegger about his support of National Socialism, but challenges his entire philosophy in the light of that support which Heidegger never publicly disavowed. Marcuse makes it clear that he cannot separate the philosophy from the man, especially since Heidegger expressed his “enthusiastic justification” for the Nazi regime in philosophical terms.(p. 264) Not surprisingly, Heidegger’s defensive and arrogant response recants nothing, a loathsome display of a lame self-justification that is entirely unconvincing both to Marcuse and the reader.

Although the writings contained in this volume are of varied interest to either general readers or specialists, they are a splendid beginning to a series that (hopefully) promises a renewed and revitalized interest in and consideration of one of the most significant representatives of critical theory. The publication of these planned six volumes may also challenge political intellectuals and activists to reconsider their theories and praxes, allowing a more considered differentiation between genuine social theory and meaningless consumerist academic fashion that is long overdue.

Marsha Aileen Hewitt
Trinity College
University of Toronto
March-April 2000
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