Marcuse as Feminist

Image_Elyeser Szturm

By Anderson Alves Esteves

Read an excerpt from the newly published book From Scientific Socialism to Utopian Socialism.

Em Counterrevolution and revolt (1972), Marcuse argued that the Women's Liberation Movement (Women's Liberation Movement) became a radical force; in failure of the new left (Scheitern der Neuen Linken?), that the movement was the “'third force' of the revolution”[I] (but without considering that women form a separate social class); in Marxism and Feminism (1974), considered that, in addition to being the most radical, perhaps the movement was the most “important”[ii].

Such would be the role of the women's movement for emancipation – of them, but also of men – that the Frankfurtian philosopher considered it to be related to the perspective of maintaining life on the planet, since the aggressiveness and brutality of society dominated by men had reached a destructive climax, impossible to be compensated for by the further development of productive forces and the rational control of nature: the insurrection of women against the role imposed on them would be denial of all levels (material and intellectual)[iii] of class and patriarchal society.

And as the aforementioned book and essays deal much more with North American reality than with Western Europe, the Third World or the former Soviet world, the discussion made by the Frankfurtian philosopher aims at the US feminist movement; it is also worth remembering that Marcuse's argument is based on an American author (teacher and militant of the Black Panthers and the United States Party) who had been his student, namely Angela Yvonne Davis, fundamentally in the essay Marxism and Women's Liberation and in the article Women and Capitalism – Marcuse's essay, Marxism and feminism, derives precisely from a passionate debate between Marcuse and the Women's Liberation Movement.

In the essay, Marcuse, resuming and updating the categories of eros and civilization, explains that the “income principle”[iv], characteristic of the monopoly capitalist society of the XNUMXth century, is a “principle of reality”[v] with admittedly masculine and aggressive attributes, against which the feminist movement is directed (productivity oriented towards profit, the search for success at all costs, efficiency, spirit of competition, functional rationality that rejects any passion, “work ethic” that leaves vast majority of the population under alienated and inhuman work, will to power, display of strength and virility[vi]).

Marcuse, however, does not raise the thesis of a matriarchal society that, with ideological images of female sweetness and motherhood, would replace patriarchal civilization and class society. The ideology of this thesis resides in basing the “feminine” in natural and biological traits allegedly above and beyond the historical, sociological and psychological differences between men and women; in turn, Marcuse's argument points to another treatment of the question, namely, that there was a millennial process of social conditioning that formed a "second nature"[vii] that does not automatically change through the stabilization of social institutions and that would only be resolved by overcoming patriarchal civilization, class society, the man-woman dichotomy and the long-term historical values ​​that sustain this dichotomy

Marcuse argues that, for thousands of years, physical strength as a necessary means for defending reality principles prior to the prevailing one reduced the role of women to the periodic activity of pregnancy and childcare; then, and keeping with these bases, male domination extended from the sphere of military origin to other social and political institutions; woman was considered an inferior being, an auxiliary, an appendage to men, a sexual and reproductive object, her body and her spirit were reified and sexuality was reduced to a means aimed at socially determined ends: procreation or prostitution[viii].

In effect, thinking of achieving complete equality of social conditions (economic, political and cultural) between the genders, under capitalism, is unfeasible, since class society maintains the domination of one over the other and embargoes emancipation. feminine as it touches on structural issues of society and demands the construction of another principle of reality.

What Marcuse proposes is the “ascendancy of Eros over aggression”, whether in men or in women: only in this sense would it be correct to consider that it would be necessary to feminize the male (decisive change in the structure of instincts – weakening of primary aggressiveness in patriarchal culture). Phenomena such as militarization, increased brutality, fusion between sexuality and violence, direct attack against the instinct of life that moves to preserve and rebuild the environment, attack against anti-pollution legislation and even the reduction of the image of socialism to mere productivism in competition with the capitalist world show how aggressiveness is channeled towards what is socially useful. In opposition to these dominant masculine qualities, peculiar to the income principle, Marcuse argues that the “feminine” qualities (receptiveness, sensitivity, non-violence, affection, etc.) would be the domain of Eros over Thanatos and destructive energy.

Indeed, the scope of the feminist movement is much greater than overcoming the male-female dichotomy within the established order (and the consequent equality between genders to compete with each other and bleed together, as the aggressive and competitive characteristics of men would be shared by women in order to keep a job and get a promotion), he would be a force to make life an end in itself, to develop the senses and the intellect without the link with aggressiveness, to free the sensibility and the intellect of the rationality of domination – this is the “receptive creativity opposed to repressive productivity”[ix] and to the income principle, the revolutionary role of women in building a qualitatively different society.

Drawing on Angela Davis, Marcuse argues that the women's liberation movement is the antithesis of the income principle.[X]. In terms of psychic economy, the primary aggressiveness would persist, but it would lose the specifically masculine characteristic of domination and exploitation: the “feminine” characteristics would cease to be specifically of a gender and would become an integral part of the infrastructure of society as a whole, material and economic. intellectually, and would be directed against exploitation and domination (which means that it would not be an apology for weakness and submission).

This is why Marcuse reckons that the Women's Liberation Movement has become a radical force: it transcends the sphere of aggressive need and performance, of social organization and the division of functions as established by the prevailing division of labor hierarchy; seeks equality not just within established society, but a change in the very structure in which neither men nor women are free. Thus, women's liberation would be far-reaching because it would break with the domination strengthened by the social use of their biological constitution (there is the assumption that pregnancy and motherhood are women's natural function - the same as being a wife, once that reproduction takes place within the structure of the monogamous patriarchal family. Outside this structure, women are seen as mere entertainment) and because it combats the degradation of women as sexual objects: sexual exploitation is a primary and original type of exploitation, just like Marxist theory explained it; the women's liberation movement fights it, but without falling into the illusion that bourgeois society would fight against it, since its continuation in force is the perpetuation of the “masculine principle”.

The market conveys the reduction of women (and men) to sexual objects even with (1) the historical decrease in the image of women as wives and mothers and with (2) the reduction of concrete individual faculties to the capacity for abstract work, which established abstract equality between men and women [in the case of women the abstraction was incomplete (they were bound to a lesser extent to the material process of production and were fully employed in housework)]. Under market society, the body continued to appear as a dehumanizing object (the woman appears to be taking advantage of the dominant male as an aggressive subject to whom she offers herself and, thus, is subjected; such an image neglects that, in a sexual relationship, the two genders are subject and object[xi], concomitantly), as mere publicity, as erotic and aggressive energy in both sexes and as a reduction of individual faculties to the capacity for abstract work.

“The current image of women as sexual objects is a desublimation of bourgeois morality – characteristic of a 'higher stage' of capitalist development. Here, too, the commodity form is universalized; it now invades domains that were formerly protected and sanctified. The (female) body as seen and plastically idealized by Playboy becomes a desirable commodity with high exchange value. Disintegration of bourgeois morality, perhaps... but take care? True, this new body image promotes sales and plastic beauty may not be the real thing, but it stimulates aesthetic-sensual needs that, in their development, must become incomparable with the body as an instrument of alienated labor. The male body also became the object of the creation of sexual images – also plasticized and deodorized… a clean exchange value. After the secularization of religion, after the transformation of ethics into an Orwellian hypocrisy – the 'socialization' of the body as a sexual object is, perhaps, one of the last decisive steps towards the conclusion of the exchange society: the conclusion that will be the beginning of the end ?”[xii].

Thus, the women's liberation movement, in denouncing the "masculine principle" in connection with bourgeois society, characterizes itself as a catalytic force for the emancipation of both women and men as it attempts to break out of the shackles of mere equality ( incomplete) of abstract work between the sexes: “The woman holds the promise of liberation. It is the woman who, in Delacroix's painting, holds the banner of the revolution, leads the people over the barricades. She doesn't wear any uniform; she is bare-breasted and her pretty face betrays no trace of violence. But she has a rifle in her hand – for there is still a fight to end the violence.”[xiii].

The free woman is the free society: the transformation of production and needs cannot occur without progress itself being (re)thought in terms of receptivity, the enjoyment of the fruits of work, the emancipation of the senses, the pacification of society and from nature; in short, the abolition of the patriarchal system. The opposition made by the Women's Liberation Movement is a feminine antithesis of masculine values, a social and historical alternative of construction in an emancipatory sense. Indeed, Marcuse projects a “female socialism”[xiv], a “feminist socialism”[xv]?

Em Counterrevolution and revolt, the Author considered the expression misleading: the abolition of patriarchal society does not demand the attribution of specific qualities, but rather promote qualities in all sectors of social life, at work and at leisure. Women's liberation would be men's liberation – a necessity for both. But in Marxism and Feminism, he is less reticent with the use of the expression and considers that it expresses the revolutionary role of the feminist movement: it gives it another meaning, since it does not reduce it to an agent for achieving equality between genders within the established order, but raises the flag of subverting the norms and values ​​of the principle of income and, thus, contributes to the construction of a new society governed by a new principle of reality. The movement thus links the demand for new sensibilities with the dynamics of society's productive capacities, utopia with reality; it also demands, in order to assess the possibility and necessity of this new principle of reality, criteria different from those peculiar to bourgeois morality.

*Anderson Alves Esteves is a professor at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo (IFSP).

Excerpt from the book by Anderson Alves Esteves, From scientific socialism to utopian socialism: Herbert Marcuse's emancipatory project – politics and aesthetics in the 1960s and 1970s. Curitiba, CRV, 2020.


[I] "'Troisième force' de la révolution”. MARCUSE, H. “Échec de la nouvelle gauche” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 30.

[ii] "Important”. MARCUSE, H. “Marxisme et feminisme” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 39.

[iii] MARCUSE, H. “Échec de la nouvelle gauche” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 31.

[iv] "prince of surrender”. MARCUSE, H. “Marxisme et feminisme” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 40.

[v] "Principle of reality”. Same, p. 40.

[vi] Same, pp. 44-45.

[vii] "second nature”. Same, p. 42 (in quotation marks in the original).

[viii] Ditto, p. 47.

[ix] "La creativité réceptive opposée à la productivité répressive”. Same, p. 50 (Author's emphasis).

[X] Ditto, p. 53.

[xi] “The male's plus-aggression is socially conditioned – as is the female's plus-passivity. But underlying the social factors that determine male aggressiveness and female receptivity is a contrast. natural: it is the woman who 'incarnates', in a literal sense, the promise of peace, joy, the end of violence. Tenderness, receptivity, sensuality, became characteristics (or mutilated characteristics) of her body – of her (repressed) humanity. These feminine qualities may well be socially determined by the development of capitalism. The process is truly dialectical”. MARCUSE, H. Counterrevolution and revolt. Trans. by Álvaro Cabral, Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1973, p. 79.

[xii] Same, pp. 78-79.

[xiii] Ditto, p. 80.

[xiv] "female socialism”. MARCUSE, H. “Échec de la nouvelle gauche” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 33 (in quotation marks in the original).

[xv] "'feminist socialism'”. MARCUSE, H. “Marxisme et feminisme” In: Current. Trans. by Jean-Marie Manière, Paris: Gaalilée, 1976, p. 55 (in quotation marks in the original).

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