Marcuse in the 21st century



The decline of interest in Marcuse parallels the decline of the utopian capacity of societies

Herbert Marcuse was perhaps the most popular and influential philosopher in the 60s and 70s of the last century, in the heat of countercultural movements and the so-called New Left. Why did his reading decrease today?

We venture the following: the decline of interest in Marcuse is parallel to the decline of the utopian capacity of societies. In other words, to the triumph of what is today called “capitalist realism” and which repeats the following: what there is is what there is.

In critical thinking itself, a certain wallowing in impotence prevails: we enjoy the endless description of our submission to the devices of power and how every attempt at liberation is redirected to the interior of the system (“you see? I already told you”).

The position of victim before the world is today hegemonic: victim criticism doesn't really want to change anything, but simply has the satisfaction of “bothering” those responsible for what is happening, as if it had nothing to do with us.

We will find none of this when reading Herbert Marcuse, a thinker committed throughout his life to finding “escape routes” that would allow us to unblock seemingly dead-end situations.

He called these paths, using the term from his colleague Ernst Bloch, “concrete utopias”. Concrete utopias are not speculations about the future, nor ideal plans or systems, but rather “potentials” already inscribed in the present and pregnant with other possible futures, but which the state of affairs represses and suffocates.

For Herbert Marcuse, theorizing is opening your ear to these potentials and helping to unfold them with thought: accompanying them with names and concepts, ensuring their contagion through words, discussing their strategic problems among those involved. He found these potentials in the realm of drives, aesthetics and political movements of his time.


One hundred years after Freud's discoveries, the number of supposedly critical sociologies that develop as if the lives of human beings passed entirely within the scope of the explicit and transparent, the rational and conscious, of mere belonging to the social class and its interests is astonishing.

Herbert Marcuse thinks not only from Marx, but also from Freud. He accepts that the human being is first and foremost a “desiring animal” structurally constituted by two drives – life and death, Eros e Thanatos –, open to society and history, that is, whose objects and channels change with each era.

Only with this connection between the psychic and the social can we penetrate the secret of “voluntary servitude”: why do human beings fight for their slavery as if it were their salvation? Revolutions are not only defeated from without, but also from within. They know, says Herbert Marcuse, their own “psychic thermidor”.

What the German philosopher finds in socialization under the capitalist system is an “excess of repression” that leads to a severe mutilation of sensuality and the pleasure principle. The body and its drives are viewed with suspicion by the Western tradition in general, as that which must be repressed to create humans that revolve, essentially, around the need to work.

If this “excessive repression” once had a reason for being, for reasons of struggle for existence, this is certainly no longer the case. There is a material abundance that could not only be better distributed, but also serve as a basis for the desire for a different life, whose central values ​​were not productivity, performance and competition.

According to Herbert Marcuse, among the main objectives of political movements is, therefore, the reactivation of sensuality and pleasure as ways of relating to the world. How does this sound to us today? Is it a hedonistic proclamation like we usually hear from a neoliberal politician like Isabel Díaz Ayuso [a political figure on the Spanish right]?

Nothing to see. Our societies are addicted to the joy of consumption: forms of addiction and compulsion, substitute and compensatory satisfactions for a mutilated life. All the great industries in our world – from tourism to narcotics, drinking, sex or sports – are businesses, not in pleasure, but in tranquilizers, relief and relief. For a moment, they plug the bottomless pit of dissatisfaction.

The reality principle continues to be commanded by mandates: yesterday, the mandate of the superego of authority, religion or morality that says “don’t do it!”; today, the superego imperative of performance, productivity and competence that says “do it!”. Both, as in so many mandates, equally mortifying. Hence the need for compensatory impulses.

The release of sensuality and pleasure, the strength of Eros, has nothing to do with increasing opportunities for consumption or sexual encounters (which are often the same thing), but rather with activating a loving relationship with the world: creative and non-alienating work, autonomous free time, a relationship care for the natural and social environment.

Only the political defeat of the collective projects of the 1960s and 1970s explains why today the liberation of Eros reduces to a problem of personal and private choices: polyamory, criticism of monogamy, multiplication of sexual partners, etc. For countercultural movements it was about “making love” with work, the city and the cosmos. Reinvent the relationship with the entire reality based on a sensitive bond. What Herbert Marcuse called “creative sublimation”, different from repressive or compensatory sublimation.

But the instinctual body is not just Eros, but also Thanatos: destructive energy, aggressiveness, death instinct. Herbert Marcuse accepts this Freudian duality of instinctual principles and concludes: only Eros is able to subject Thanatos, only the strength of Eros is able to put Thanatos to work in your service, as aggressive energy of defense or resistance.

A society that represses Eros is condemned to see the logic and passion of sacrifice reproduced everywhere: in nature, in social bonds and in life itself. Only the reactivation of erotic energies can deprive the fascisms of yesterday or today of the emotional fuel they need. Desire is the battlefield.

Politics is social therapy: reactivation and retraining of human beings’ erotic and desiring capabilities.


How to establish another relationship with the world? Not because of mandates or imperatives of what “must be done”, even if they are rational or ideological, nor because of aggressive impulses of domination and control. Herbert Marcuse's answer is sensitivity.

Social transformation consists of moving from a culture of conquering reality (through force or instrumental reason) to a culture of welcoming the world (through sensitivity). An individual and collective activation of the ability to receive. Creative receptivity against repressive, mandatory productivity, as a new way of living.

The organ of this receptivity, explains Marcuse following Kant and Schiller, are the senses. Sometimes they are passive and active: they record the impressions that the world leaves us and give them a non-coercive form. Perception is a political question: what we see and the experience associated with that vision.

For Herbert Marcuse, aesthetics is also organized as an area of ​​art and fiction. This scope must be autonomous. In other words, art and fiction are not and should not be any “reflection” of reality, but rather propose “forms” that stylize and intensify it. Art is political because of its ability to break our stereotypical representation of the world and propose another through the forms it creates.

Art is emancipatory not because it confirms what we already feel or think, but rather because of its ability to give us something new to see and something new to think about. The political experience of art is the expansion of our senses, not the confirmation of our ideas. Reducing the political nature of art to its message or content is a mutilation of its emancipatory virtues.

Herbert Marcuse debates the Marxism of his time. This reduces the work of art to its social determinations: it judges the author by his economic and social origin, the characters as an expression of structural determinations, etc. However, for Marcuse, the power of art always goes beyond its context, it gives form to desires and tragedies that are part of the human being, it is aimed at anyone.

Today we seek to reduce art and fiction to meaning and message based on identity logics that are not only class-based, but also gender or race-based, but the problem is the same: celebrating or condemning fictions according to whether they reflect or adapt to values ​​or content judged correct, regardless of the material configuration of the work, where its emancipatory power actually resides.

Finally, the artistic form, this stylized and intensified presentation of reality, is subversive because it keeps alive the “promise of happiness”: the longing for a life not divided between pleasure and reality, between reason and sensitivity, between body and the idea. A longing that, for Herbert Marcuse, is rooted in the childhood memories that we always carry with us – like an open wound.

Politics is social aesthetics: rupture of stereotypical perception, enrichment and expansion of the senses.


Herbert Marcuse was always concerned, as each intervention and interview shows, with the most basic political issues: abolition of poverty, civil and social rights, material progress, etc. For him, the struggles of desire (cultural revolutions) do not deny, but radicalize and expand the struggles of interest. It is the abundance that seeks scientific and technical development that enables and gives way to the utopian project.

Social transformation is “one more effort”: it not only improves the distribution of wealth, but also the birth of another conception of wealth or good living. Socialism, as a society qualitatively different from capitalism, is the creation of a “second nature”: another relationship with language, the body, work, life and death. The configuration of physiologically and psychologically different beings.

Among the movements of his time that manifested utopian potential, there are two that resonate strongly in the present: environmentalism and feminism.

What does Herbert Marcuse say about environmentalism that can inspire today? He emphasizes that environmentalism should not only be concerned with “outer nature” but also with “inner” nature. While capitalist society seeks repressive domination of both drives and the physical world, social transformation must care for and protect both. One depends on the other.

Environmentalism is also a matter of sensitivity: its challenge is to transform social perception so that the world does not appear before us as an object of possession and conquest, but as “a cosmos with its own potential”. What does it means?

The things of the world are forces in themselves, they have their inherent measure and their own “truth”. The senses, if we refine them to do so, can discover these immanent possibilities and work from them. We will then relate to the world like a craftsman with his material: without forcing, but listening to his own inclinations.

Not to conquer, not to dominate, not to violate, but to listen and develop qualities immanent to existence. Nature, according to Herbert Marcuse, is also waiting for the revolution: the updating of the possibilities it contains and which only a new sensitivity can detect and awaken. Human beings and nature can meet again in the aesthetic dimension.

And in relation to feminism, what does Herbert Marcuse say? From a careful and affected observation of the women's movements of his time, Marcuse thinks about revolutionary politics as politics in a feminine key. He finds in traditional feminine images the germ of this new sensitivity based on Eros. Protective care for life, attentive listening to physical and material needs, creative receptivity instead of productivity, competition, war.

But wouldn't these images of the feminine be constructed from a male gaze? This is the discussion that Herbert Marcuse had with his fellow feminists of the time.

Yes, it is true, he responds, but “the image projected by men turns against the creators of images”. Instead of rejecting the qualities historically attributed to women, Marcuse commits to seeing and valuing them as powers, wielding them as tools of transformation, socializing them and universalizing them as values.

Politics is social anthropology: the emergence of a new type of human being, capable of establishing a different relationship with the world, with others and with oneself.

Lucidity and utopia

Social change does not depend on titanic and heroic efforts, nor on radical and violent modifications, but on more humble and simple dispositions: listening to the potential for liberation that is expressed in minute details and often goes unnoticed. Utopia is not active, the conception and execution of ideals and programs is actually passive: sensitivity, acceptance and attention to what is already happening.

Naive Marcuse? Certainly yes. But with that “naivety” of those who pursue what their time deems “impossible” and which is the only force that has always made the world progress in terms of freedom and equality. Many things in his thoughts must be discussed, all must be updated, but we can certainly be inspired by his “utopian ear”: the ability to capture current trends that can transform reality and interpret them.

Something within the things around us moves and we have to respond to it. What is stirring is not “message” – meaning, ideology, identity, content – ​​but energy, potential, possibility. It still has no shape. It's up to us to build it. So that the force passes, happens and can change the world.

*Amador Fernández-Savater He is a journalist, editor and social activist. Author, among other books, of Fuera de Lugar (A. Machado Libros).

Translation: Rony Rodrigues to the website Other words.

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