Ideology | Political sadomasochism: Herbert Marcuse and the making of the contemporary left

Tom X Hart
May 30, 2017 · 15 min read

This is a story about inversion. It’s a story about how the Western left abandoned the working class as the agent for revolutionary change in society, as told through the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.

It’s a story about why the Western left no longer shares the same life-world as the working class, even though it largely has their votes — as such it’s a story about the current realignment in Western politics, the rise of the alt-right and the concerns of contemporary leftism.

Leftist intellectuals have been made television celebrities from the medium’s earliest days. I suspect this is because the contemporary ruling classes in Western countries are masochistic rather than sadistic.

Senior executives are less like the Duke of Wellington — flogging subordinates for not wearing the right hat — and more like the clientele at Madam Whiplash’s dungeon.

There’s pleasure in being told that you’ve been very, very bad indeed — and that you’re going to be punished.


This is the role that leftist intellectuals play in media land. Jean-Paul Sartre made a reputation calling violence liberation — if it was committed by colonised people against the coloniser, which is to say against the people he taught, and even against himself.

Sartre was far from alone. Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Frantz Fanon, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Erich Fromm, Susan Sontag, RD Laing — the list goes on until the current day, with Slavoj Žižek being the brightest star in the contemporary leftist media firmament, though not quite as bright as the ruby stars that still top the Kremlin.

This is appropriate in a technocratic, bureaucratised and corporatised world. Media production is controlled by people who have spent years abasing themselves in the corporate hierarchy, as such they have become quite used to bullying and bullshit as a means to advancement. The more self-abasement and humiliation one can tolerate the higher one may raise in the hierarchy.

The leftist intellectual represents the ultimate bully who must be bullshitted towards, for leftist intellectual would destroy the whole system itself. The board and company shareholders would not go so far, thus a television executive creates a double masochism: a lifetime spent serving the corporation’s inane, profit-seeking demands followed by a stern, guilt inducing lecture from a leftist intellectual about how television executives are raping non-Western countries and must be eliminated along with the corporations they serve.

The market for rightist intellectual media stars is never so large because rightist intellectuals do not make us feel bad about being rich, or our country’s history. The rightist will tell us to enjoy our money, or be proud of our country — it’s not as enjoyable.

The only real pleasure the rightist intellectual can provide is telling us that the world has gone to the dogs. This is another, less pleasurable form of masochism, where we lament everything we have lost and how we have been victimised in our own country.

This is probably less pleasurable because the leftist tells us that we our powerful, and must feel bad for being powerful whereas the rightist tell us that we have lost our power, and have become victims.

Noam Chomsky sells a great many books because — although he is always critical — he tells the United States that it is the most powerful country in the world, and that almost everything bad that happens in the world is due to a malign US foreign policy, the true intentions of which are concealed from the general public.

This is a heady message, for it is flattery disguised as criticism — he in fact presents the US as far more powerful and omnipotent than the most patriotic rightist intellectual, who will usually be sceptical as to the state’s power and efficiency.


Germany trained Marcuse, but the United States made him. Marcuse came to the States as an exile from Nazi Germany. He served in the Office of Strategic Services — the forerunner of the CIA — during the Second World War, and subsequently worked at Brandeis University and the University of California, San Diego.

And it was in the United States during the 1960s that Marcuse rose to significance as a media leftist — both as a demon, and saint. The late Sixties saw an upsurge in leftist student activism with the May ’68 protests in Paris perhaps the best exemplar of a phenomenon which took place across the world.

The reasons for this are not my concern here. A youthful demographic, welfare policies, an opening of higher education to working class children, the Vietnam War, new forms of popular music, changes in sexual morality, a loosening of social class relations and (in the US) racial politics all played a role.

What matters is that large sections of university populations across the world were ‘in revolt’ against the establishment — a revolt that seized university buildings, and would eventually spawn terrorist organisations such as the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and the Red Armee Faktion.

For the last few years there has been a preoccupation with the perceived generational struggle between Baby Boomers and Millennials, with the latter losing out to the former. The late Sixties was the Boomers’ moment of generational struggle, but it was far more violent and overtly political than the current divergence in generational interests.

The “generation gap” was discussed in the media, with the emphasis being less on economic differences — as today — and more on incomprehension between the generations with regards to mores and culture.

Economically, the situation was the reverse of the gap between the Millennials and Boomers — the Boomers grew up protected in welfare states with growing economies while their parents were forged by the Great Depression and the Second World War. Millennials have grown up in stripped welfare states during the Great Recession.

One explanation for the youth revolt suggested by rightists was the influence of leftist academics — Marcuse among them. Marcuse was thus both demonised as the wicked foreign professor behind the youth revolt, and also lionised by the youthful revolutionaries.

The suggestion made by the right that a few intellectuals were responsible for the leftist youth revolt is too simplistic — a complex social movement cannot be reduced to one man’s activities.

But Marcuse’s thought did have an influence on this generation in revolt, an influence that was carried beyond the Sixties when the youthful revolutionaries tempered their politics and became the technocrats, bureaucrats and administrators the universities trained them to be.

Why was Marcuse so influential in the Sixties youth revolts? And how has his thought influenced the subsequent development of the left?

Western Marxists faced a problem in the post-war political environment. Marx has suggested that capitalism would lead to the immiseration of the working class. Capitalist exploitation would continue to reduce the working class — the class responsible for producing value in a capitalist society, and who owned no property themselves — to a subsistence level of existence.

As more and more people fell in economic status to working class level due to capitalism’s unstable boom and bust nature the working class would expand — eventually it would be the most powerful class, with nothing to lose but its chains. The result would be revolution.

During the Great Depression this analysis seemed plausible. Western capitalist countries saw mass unemployment and a decline in living standards.

But post-war everything changed in Western countries. Full employment, welfare states and consumer capitalism were the order of the day. The end of post-war austerity saw huge numbers of people access televisions, cars and other consumer goods that were previously the reserve of the economic elite.

Marx’s predictions were being undermined. The proletariat was becoming wealthier and not poorer. The revolutionary class who would be motivated to overthrow capitalism due to their incredibly poor standard of living was in fact vanishing.

The credit for this increased prosperity went in part to socialist and liberal welfare state policies, but for Marxists committed to eliminating capitalism the contentment of the proletariat was not sufficient; it was only a step towards socialism and communism.

Marxists took this view because Marx’s critique of capitalism was more than an attack on an economic system that he regarded inefficient and exploitative — a system that in utilitarian terms created more pain for more people than pleasure.

Marx also attacked capitalism as process where human consciousness was distorted — ‘alienated’ in the jargon — from itsself by production techniques such as the factory system, and also by the dynamics that sustained ruling class power — such as ideologies that told people there were, for example, differences between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

Socialism is the first step to communism in the Marxist framework, and these are more than economic systems that work ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than capitalism. The goal is to return human beings to an unalienated state of consciousness, and since consciousness is determined — according to Marxists — by a person’s relation to the means of production, the ownership of the means of production (i.e. who owns what in a society) must be changed in order to make humans completely human again.

In this sense Marxism is more about a reordering of power relations than a system for producing ‘more’ or ‘better’ products.

If we think about a hipster barista in his craft coffee shop and why he finds this more rewarding than working for Starbucks we can better understand this division between ‘alienated’ and ‘natural’ labour.

Hipster barista finds his coffee shop superior because he enjoys more autonomy to create a product using more of his own initiative than he would at Starbucks. The Starbucks product must conform to very strict rules developed to ensure maximum profit. Hipster barista is still motivated by profit but he is freer to develop his product in his own way and (customers allowing) in his own time.

He is a little more than a wet robot working to make the shareholders in Starbucks richer.

Of course, hipster barista is still a capitalist — he is still an exploiter if he owns his own coffee shop, or exploited if he works there in the Marxist schema.

But this difference gives you an indication of the alienation Marxists wish to abolish — their socialist or communist society would see people working in a way closer to the hipster barista (even more liberated, Marxists would say) than the Starbucks barista.

A world of autonomy, self-direction and meaningful work not constrained by economic exploitation.

Doesn’t sound too shabby, huh?

The problem is that every attempt to build such a society by revolutionary means has ended in concentration camps and brutal political repression.

Marcuse was among the Marxist theorists in the West who grappled with the new prosperity, alienation and what this meant for the revolution. He was not alone — Sartre, Adorno, Fanon and Fromm among many others developed responses to this change, and attempted to develop Marxism to meet the new conditions.

What worried Marxists at this point was that there would never be a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The proletariat had been bought off with consumer goodies. There were still rich and poor, true — but nobody wants to lose his life in a revolution when he has a suburban home and a car because he cannot have a Rolls-Royce, if he was starving and a few bossy people were driving around in Rolls-Royces then maybe he’d consider a revolution.

But why not take it easy now? La dolce vita.

This was not a new concern for Marxists. Lenin had observed that there existed in the Western countries a ‘labour aristocracy’, a working class segment bought off with higher wages from imperialist exploitation overseas. This kept the working class above the subsistence level predicted by Marx and staved off the revolution.

Marcuse took a different approach to explaining how the revolution was contained — possibly because in Western societies the post-war prosperity was so great that it could no longer be compared to the piecemeal “buying off” described by Lenin.

The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before — which means that the scope of society’s domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before. Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living. One-Dimensional Man (1964), p. x

Capitalism, Marcuse admits, has brought material prosperity for all but the most marginalised social groups. But it has done so at the expense of greatly increasing alienation, and technocratic control.

The primary problem with capitalism is now not that it is reducing most people to a propertyless proletariat, but that it is making people labour when they do not need to do so — and in making them doing so it is oppressing them.

Marcuse targets relative novelties, such as designed obsolescence, practises that create for the sake of consumption. The endless chase for new iPhone iterations exemplifies what Marcuse is critiquing, for the actual technological advances with each iteration are relatively small and the phone’s lifespan is not more than a year and a half. The result is a stressful environment where people work hard to purchase goods that are disposable, and all coordinated through an aggressive advertising technocracy.

This critique — I dub it ‘the hippy critique’ — of capitalism is now so familiar to us that we almost cannot conceive it was once a new idea. It has been repackaged and resold to consumers at various times, Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) is one such rehash for a popular audience, and there have been others connected to the Occupy movement.

The critique inverts the traditional leftist complaint against capitalism. Once capitalism was condemned for immiseration, now it is condemned for prosperity.

A problem with this critique — as with all critiques of the consumer economy — is that it is hard to say what ‘excess consumption’ constitutes. We may agree that a person does not need four cars, a seven bedroom mansion and a speedboat for themselves alone, but it’s hard to say whether a family of four needs a five bedroom house, or two cars when one would suffice — or even a car at all where there is a functioning public transport system.

Since Marxism is hostile to traditions and customs that might tells us how much is enough (such as religious strictures on consumption), Marcuse does not really offer a solution to the conundrum of consumption. All he can do is observe the negative effects consumer capitalism wrought upon the American people, and claim that there is really no need to work as hard as they do.

Following Marx, subsistence level existence is not enough — but how much more than that is is sufficient remains ambiguous.

Further, the new abundance rests on a technocratic, managerial elite along with ever-advancing forms of social control and manipulation.

“The liberating force of technology — the instrumentalization of things — turns into … the instrumentalization of man. One-Dimensional Man (1964), p. 159

Humans, Marcuse says, have become subordinate to our technology. Working conditions in factories may have improved compared to the 19th century — factories have in fact disappeared from many countries that have become post-industrial — but the means to control human life have become ever more oppressive.

In our contemporary world the proliferation of cameras, government snooping on Internet communications and ever more perfectly honed algorithms to serve up content demonstrate the way luxury, technological efficiency and a limitation of human experience go together.

People are left choosing between six brands of deodorant while feeling completely unfree and manipulated — micromanaged as a marketing statistic down to the fragrance on their armpits and the beer in their stomach.

The conclusion Marcuse drew from this was that the working class could no longer be counted on to lead the revolution against capitalism, for not only had the working class been brought up to a privileged status economically — their consciousness as “good consumers” had thoroughly absorbed them into the capitalist system.

Liberation from capitalism could no longer come from the working class alone. The initiative must come from those still outside the system. And who are they?

A varied coalition: ethnic minorities, immigrants, students, women, criminals, and the lumpen proletariat, young people, the unemployed and the bohemian, religious and sexual minorities.

Marx had been rather contemptuous of the lumpen proletariat. This is what he wrote on the subject in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)

“Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.” (Chapter V)

And it is the coalition Marcuse — among other leftist thinkers — supported that has come to dominate the political strategies pursued by leftist political parties across the world.

As the Sixties student radicals moderated they became the technocrats and administrators of the social democrat and socialist parties. Working class support for these parties was taken for granted, and was even being lost to an extent as Keynesian economics appeared to lead to economic crisis.

The answer was to build political coalitions with ethnic minority groups, women, the long-term unemployed, sexual minorities and bohemians. Accordingly, social democratic parties began to prioritise these groups as the primary beneficiaries from a new form of socialism, a socialism that was less about ensuring material plenty for the working class and more about granting special privileges to different social groups based on their race, sex, sexuality and bohemian social goals.

The strategy even informed projects such as New Labour in the United Kingdom, which was seen by many traditional socialists and social democrats as a surrender to neo-liberal values.

What New Labour took from Marcuse was the coalition strategy, with its emphasis on gay rights and increasing immigration — along with a focus on trying to change how the economy was managed rather than worrying about material goals.

For example, New Labour was keen on community enterprises, which aimed to harness the efficiency of capitalism to socialistic type goals. Indeed, the term ‘community’ came to prominence in technocratic-speak during this time — this was, ironically enough, a co-option by the technocracy of a Marcuse-like goal to create unalientated labour relations, but through the medium of capitalistic, technocratic control.

A similar strategy was pursued to a lesser extent in the Western European communist parties under the rubric “eurocommunism”. Eurocommunism was hostile to both Western capitalist states and the Soviet Union, and sought to construct the broad alliance described by Marcuse and others to revolutionise rather than reform Western states.

This strategy has ultimately led to the communist, socialist and social democratic parties becoming unmoored from their working class base who no longer feel connected to the political process.

The perception that elites in metropolitan cities do not care for indigenous working class people on the periphery is heightened by the strategy, for the bohemian technocrats who lead the leftist parties are alien to the traditions, and way of life of the working class. Their politics leads them to pursue issues, such as gay marriage, that are of little practical relevance to people struggle to find work in a post-industrial economy. Their promotion of immigration — which serves both a practical purpose in swelling their electorate, and conforms to the strategy’s overall concerns — further alienates the left from their traditional base.

A further problem emerges with this strategy because the leaders of the leftist parties believe that theirs is a liberatory strategy, as the left’s projects always have been. When the working class sneer at the strategy and rebel through events like Trump’s election and Brexit the left assumes that these people are reactionaries, and condemns them in these terms. Thus the social class that built the left has become its enemy: ‘racists’, ‘homophobes’, ‘reactionaries’, and so on.

What has changed since Marcuse developed his strategy is that consumer capitalism in the West no longer provides the stability in homes, employment and income distribution that came about in the post-war boom, although it still provides adequate consumer goodies.

Leftists need to reconsider the Sixties strategy in an era when capitalism has returned to its traditional characteristics of employment instability, and considerable inequalities of wealth. The technocratic control systems identified by Marcuse remain untouched, but the coalition of marginalised no longer makes sense for many groups within that were once marginalised — for example, gay people — now enjoy prestige status in Western countries whereas fifty years ago they were a deeply marginalised group.

In addition, new immigrants into Western countries have become a nucleus for fresh racial divisions, ghettoisation and religious tension. Indeed, those with traditional religious views on issues such as sexual morality will eventually be at odds with a strategic coalition that pushes for gay rights, transsexual rights and a libertine approach to sexual morality.

I do not mean to lay all responsibility for the left’s drift from the working class with Marcuse. He was one person thinking upon these lines at the time, and there were wider forces in play than simply ideas. But his thought provides one insight to the development of the contemporary left. His insights into the problems of bureaucratic, technocratic societies are more urgent than ever — but his analysis of the social forces, and critique of capitalism have reached almost total entropy.

Marcuse said the working class were oppressed by material wealth. He said the working class could no longer drive history. He said that all the opportunities offered by Western capitalism were oppression.

This was an inversion, perhaps it is time for a reversion?