A Critical Evaluation of Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation

Robert Woods

Writer’s comment: I wrote this essay for my European Intellectual History class, 147C. Rather than do a research paper that relied heavily upon secondary sources, I chose a single primary work and attempted to really make a connection with the author, Herbert Marcuse. His book, An Essay on Liberation, was inspired by the international student resistance of the 1960s and is an excellent insight into some of the work of the Frankfurt School, a major source of highly intellectual social theory in the twentieth century.
      While fundamentally Marxist in origin, Marcuse draws heavily from Weber and Freud. It is the richness and complexity of his work that attracted me, yet he remains relatively accessible throughout (especially compared to the rest of the Frankfurt School). An Essay on Liberation contains one of the most intelligent and scathing critiques of modern liberal civilization that you are likely to read. While some of the material seems dated, it still raises some profound questions that should be of interest to today’s university student.
—Robert Woods

Instructor’s comment: Students were encouraged in all of their writing assignments to attempt a critical-comparative approach and to avoid repackaging the lecturer’s interpretations of the primary materials of the course. We were aiming at independent, rational expositions of various intellectual interpretations of twentieth-century historical processes and circumstances. Sometimes the subject matter was at its core irrational and quite dense. Unpacking the sometimes convoluted material and lucidly developing one’s own response is admittedly a challenge. A gratifying amount of the class met this challenge and mastered the course material. Robert Wood’s ability to hone his critical thinking skills in the midst of this particular learning experience is clear from his incisive and pungent essay.
—Lawrence M. Goldstein, Associate In, History Department


We know that the economic evolution of the contemporary world refutes a certain number of the postulates of Marx. If the revolution is to occur at the end of two parallel movements, the unlimited shrinking of capital and the unlimited expansion of the proletariat, it will not occur or ought not to have occurred. Capital and proletariat have both been equally unfaithful to Marx.      Albert Camus, 1953

      The validity of Marxist political theory has been seriously challenged by the realities of European civilization, both during the inter-war years and especially after WWII. The threat has been two-fold; on the one hand, was the refusal of capitalism to fail, a failure that Marxists had been predicting as immanent ever since the mid-twentieth century; on the other, was the failure of the Soviet Union to build a successful or humane society. Marxists living in the West, beyond the reach of Soviet suppression, have attempted to develop a comprehensive theory more in tune with the complexities of contemporary society than Classical Marxism.
      Most prominent among these “Western Marxists” is a group known as the Frankfurt School. An eclectic group of bright intellectuals who fled Germany in the 1930s, they have sought to develop a “critical theory” that blends Freud and Weber (among others) with Marx. Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation is an example of how they have attempted to keep their social and revolutionary theories relevant and vital. It deals with an increasingly complex society in an increasingly sophisticated manner. This effort creates an interesting historical tension within Marcuse’s work because the complexity of his analysis makes it impossible to adhere to Marx “in toto.” This paper will examine the extent to which Marcuse has forsaken his Marxist heritage and will also offer a critical assessment of Marcuse’s thought based on its own merits.
      Central to Marx’s economic model is the contraction of the capitalist class through the function of competition and the corresponding increase in the proletariat. This immizeration, coupled with the increasing degradation of the working classes, was to set the stage for the revolution. What Marx didn’t foresee was the pragmatic decision on the part of capital to allow the standard of living to rise among the workers, thereby easing tension and providing a market for their wares.1 Capitalism also became more complex structurally than the Marxist model. Public ownership of corporations via the stock market and the rise of a new class, the technician (brought about by an explosion in manufacturing technology), blurred the lines of societal stratification. To further complicate matters, liberal democracies began to manage national economies, thereby stabilizing the marketplace and apparently ending the old bust-or-boom business cycle. The oppressive nature of industrial capitalism seemed to be giving way before a more egalitarian consumer society, fueled by an ever rising standard of living. Put simply: capitalism was giving the people what they wanted. Or was it?
      Marcuse argues that the capitalist system gives people what it wants them to want, that it generates needs supportive of mass consumption rather than stimulating creative human development. He believes that the capitalist system is more oppressive than ever but that it now practices a more subtle form of oppression by manipulating our values. Modern capitalist economies are based upon a degree of production that can only be maintained through conspicuous consumption and a terrific degree of waste. It must therefore train its citizens to “need” the things it produces. We are conditioned to want the newest models and the latest innovations in a never-ending stream of gadgetry. It’s not sufficient that we buy cars; we are conditioned to want a new car every two or three years in order to maintain our “image.” In this way we are taught to associate our personal worth, our self-esteem, with the quality and the quantity of the inanimate objects we possess. This conditioning is achieved through a continual barrage of libidinal oriented advertising and the creation of the mythos that economic success is synonymous with a meaningful, happy existence. Our educational system plays a major role in conditioning young people to adapt to the types of discipline and stress that are the corollaries of a consumption/production based civilization. Marcuse sees our “false” needs as the chains that bind us to the system. He argues that our apparent freedom is an illusion, that we are so blinded by “introjected” needs and so busy struggling to attain those needs that we have forgotten what it really means to be human.
      This raises the question of just who it is that knows what our “real” needs are. Some might accuse Marcuse of presenting an extremely elitist position: that it is the leftist intellectuals who know what is best for us. This is a common and valid criticism of radical intellectuals who have historically imagined themselves as a guiding light for the oppressed masses. Marcuse’s position is a little more complex. While his conception of the popular mentality is quite condescending, it is, after all, not altogether unfounded. And, while he is quite critical of contemporary democracy, he blames the corrupting influence of capitalism and not Democracy itself. In fact, to the limited degree that he tries to articulate his social ideal, small, decentralized, democratic policies seem to figure prominently. Finally, he doesn’t try to tell us what our “real” needs are; in fact, he says it is impossible to know with any certainty what those needs are until we develop the “new sensibility” that will allow us to begin constructing a truly free society. With all of these factors taken into consideration, I don’t find Marcuse guilty of offering an elitist doctrine; certainly not in the sense that we in the twentieth century have come to understand the term.
      A more relevant question might be to what extent does Marcuse’s analysis of consumer society refute traditional Marxist theory? The most obvious difference is the relation between the workers and the “system.” Whereas Marx portrayed the workers as entirely alienated from the benefits of their labor until they finally had absolutely nothing to lose “but their chains,” Marcuse understands the workers to be entirely integrated within modern society. They may be the victims of “introjected” values and “false” needs, but nonetheless they work for and to an extent achieve those needs. Even if a revolution were to occur under these conditions (which is doubtful because the workers are busy acquiring), the people, having assimilated artificial consumption-based values, would only reproduce the repressive structure that had enslaved and conditioned them. There needs to be a shift in consciousness effected from outside of the working class and transferred to them. Only when the people have freed their minds can any material change be effected. This is the antithesis of orthodox Marxist materialist thinking, which posits all ideology as determined by the economic infrastructure. Marx claimed that only by changing men’s economic relations could you change their consciousness—Marcuse is saying that only when they have changed their consciousness will they be capable of changing their relations.
      Of course, you can argue that Marx himself was never a strict materialist, that he had always realized the numbing and degrading effects of poverty and accordingly foresaw the radical intelligentsia as a catalyst, bringing revolutionary insight to the proletariat masses. In this respect, Marcuse’s vision of the radical youth movement and the disaffected minorities (we’ll get to them soon) as the progenitors of today’s opposition is orthodox. The difference is in the nature of their revolutionary discontent. Classical Marxism portrays historical insight, realization of the class nature of historical conflicts and the recognition of the inexorable movement of history towards a classless society, as the incentives for action. Marcuse, though, describes the development of a “new sensibility,” of an aesthetic taste for freedom that once cultivated creates what he calls a “biological” need for freedom. A “proper” understanding of history takes a backseat to an aesthetic, erotic, instinctual “connection” with what it means to be a human being.

. . .[T]he masters have created the public which asks for their wares, and asks for them more insistently if it can release, in and through the wares, its frustration and the aggressiveness resulting from this frustration. Self-determination, the autonomy of the individual, asserts itself in the right to race his automobile, to handle his power tools, to buy a gun. (p. 12)

      So, paradoxically, the sublimated frustration channeled into consumption sustains the need for productive work. We need to work to be able to afford the objects that allow us to release the frustration caused by our work. Increasingly we purchase our identities making complete our submersion in the cash nexus.
      But sublimation is not the only means that the system uses to perpetuate itself. Establishment sanctioned forms of sensual release, what Marcuse calls repressive desublimation, complete our enslavement on the instinctual level. Vicarious enjoyment of violence (through TV and movies), relaxed social mores and commercialized forms of mass culture (professional sports, concerts, etc.) tie us libidinally to the system. After a weekend of such sensual release we return docilely to our work stations. We sin for pleasure and work for redemption,2 all within the parameters established by our “institutional fathers”:

The relaxation of taboos alleviates the sense of guilt and binds (though with considerable ambivalence) the “free” individuals libidinally to the institutionalized fathers. They are powerful but also tolerant fathers, whose management of the nation and its economy delivers and protects the liberties of the citizens. (p. 9)

      In painting this psychoanalytic picture of consumer society, Marcuse borrows heavily from Freud. He has expanded the Freudian concept of the “internalization of authority” from the individual to a cultural scale to explain how our instinctual erotic drives are transformed both through sublimation and repressive desublimation until the work ethic and perverted Pleasure Principle of the consumer society have become second nature: “biological.” It is on this same instinctual level that the “new sensibility” must be rooted if we are to successfully transform our reality.
      Not only has the proletariat been “unfaithful to Marx,” but the homogenizing capabilities of modern civilization, its ability to draw a wide variety of ethnic and ideological types into its world and then systematically introject its own values, threatens even the existence of revolutionary ideas. If the Revolutionary Spirit is to live on, it must be found in those segments of society that have not been successfully indoctrinated. Marcuse turns his gaze toward the Youth Movement and oppressed urban blacks. Since these players exercise no formidable economic power, their revolutionary weapons are not material but ideological, hence, the “new sensibility”:

. . .[T]he awareness of the transcendent possibilities of freedom must become a driving power in the consciousness and the imagination which prepare the soil for this revolutionÉ. The new sensibility, which expresses the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt, would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery. (p. 23-24)

      The awareness of which he is speaking is to come not through the rational interpretation of history but through the aesthetic. Simply put, Beauty will inspire man to pursue Freedom.3 Like Marx, Marcuse is being optimistic. Whereas Marx believed that the ground of human existence was our “species-being” and that no matter how distorted our nature may appear in the mirror of history, eventually the time would come when man would live in both inner and outer harmony reflecting the wholeness of his human nature, Marcuse believes that if that possibility still exists its seeds are to be found in aesthetic creativity.
      Marcuse believes that the repressive nature of modern consumer society has driven this aesthetic quest for freedom into the avant garde artistic movement. Unlike Soviet Marxism which vehemently suppressed artistic experimentation with form in favor of Socialist Realism, Marcuse sees even the most abstract artistic schools (like surrealism) as potentially liberating. Liberation occurs when aesthetic sensibilities escape the cloistered world of the artist and find expression in popular movements. Marcuse sees the aesthetically oriented, sexually liberated, irreverent, playful lifestyle of the hippie movement as just such as example of living art. Another example of a vital, thriving subculture is the Black Power movement. Both of these movements have developed a culture of their own (music, language, values, etc.) that acts as a barrier between them and the mass culture of consumer society. This creates a space for the free play of the creative imagination, and it is there that Marcuse is hoping for the birth of a new aesthetically oriented society.
      Marcuse’s ideal is a society in which art becomes so fully integrated into the productive and administrative modes of existence that it is impossible to determine where one begins and the other ends:

The liberated consciousness would promote the development of a science and technology free to discover and realize the possibilities of things and men in the protection and gratification of life, playing with the potentialities of form and matter for the attainment of this goal. Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated. (p. 24)

      I said that, like Marx, Marcuse was optimistic about man’s fundamental nature and his future. I need to qualify that. There is a great deal of ambivalence about Man in general and the Revolution in particular lurking between the lines in An Essay on Liberation. Marcuse’s entire thesis, the notion that man has the potential to adopt an aesthetic interpretation of reality that will resonate so strongly within him as to generate a “biological” need for freedom, stems from an enlightened attitude concerning human nature. But consider his analysis of contemporary society; man is an unwitting dupe of the System, trading his human dignity and potential for a new car and a microwave: not a very flattering picture. Similarly, Marcuse holds out the hope of a new sensibility as the catalyst leading to revolutionary change, but by no means is he as confident as Marx that this revolution is inevitable.
      As much as Marcuse wants to see the underground lifestyles of the sixties as the herald of a new age, I think a close reading of the text reveals some doubts on his part:
      1) Aesthetic expressions that are too erotically or sensually “free” may lead to the type of repressive desublimation that we discussed earlier. The psychedelic and sexual revolutions of the hippies may act as a cathartic release of tension that allows people to more easily accept the oppressive realities of the mundane world.
      2) Expressions of radical culture may be absorbed by the System and become commercial. Once a market develops for, say, rock music, it may quit being a genuine expression of revolutionary freedom and instead seek to profit from and perpetuate its market. In this way radical culture would actually serve as a bridge between the System and the subculture it once served. Instead of strengthening and helping an alternative interpretation of reality to survive, it would act as a point of contact from which the colonization of the subculture and the subsequent introjection of false needs and artificial values could begin.
      3) The two groups which exhibit the most potential, the Youth and Black Power movements, are separated by the racial barrier. It may well be that the question of race will prove insurmountable to the counter culture and that, hopelessly divided, their chances for survival are severely lessened.
      The most detrimental aspect of this ambivalence is that it renders Marcuse incapable of articulating any sort of pragmatic revolutionary theory. For all the subtlety of this social analysis, we must remember that he didn’t predict the rise of the counterculture—he wrote An Essay on Liberation after the fact. The events of the sixties are not signposts along a well-mapped revolutionary road but rather startling events that Marcuse has invested with symbolic meaning. One cannot escape the feeling that these potential heralds of a new age appear helplessly miniature next to the gargantuan image of corporate capitalism that Marcuse himself has so vividly drawn. Karl Marx’s greatest achievement was the fusion of the intellectual and the practical. He liberated social theory from the Ivory Tower and turned it loose in the streets. In this Marcuse has failed. He has failed to provide a system of implementation that would allow his vision to come alive.
      Marcuse’s analysis of the integration of economic base and ideological superstructure in the capitalist world is brilliant, but his failure to articulate a viable alternative leaves us with a sense of pessimism. This pessimism pervades the entire Frankfurt School and is commonly attributed to their disinherited political position. After the defeat of the communist party in Germany and the Frankfurt School’s subsequent exile to the U.S., they lost their connection with an active proletariat-based, working body politic. The pessimism and bitterness in their work is interpreted as a natural consequence of their political impotence. I think this is valid, but I also think that the problem goes much deeper than that.
      Karl Marx was a product of the Enlightenment. He believed in the basic goodness of human nature and the rational interpretation of history. His philosophy has a positivist, determinist quality to it. He believed a classless society was the inevitable outcome of history: right or wrong, he was certain. Certainty is a luxury denied inhabitants of the twentieth century. Two World Wars, genocide and fascism, make it hard to believe in the goodness of human nature. The same forces that gave rise to existential despair and the cult of the absurd have disassociated the Frankfurt School from their Marxist heritage. At one point Marcuse declares: “The search for specific historical agents of revolutionary change in the advanced capitalist countries is indeed meaningless.” Here there is a gap greater than the one hundred years that separate Marcuse and Marx. Marcuse is a citizen of the twentieth century whose perception of reality has been altered to such an extent by the events of this century that no amount of theorizing will ever reconcile his views with those of nineteenth-century Marxism. The twentieth century has been dominated philosophically by the loss of faith in Absolute values, the spread of relativity theory into all intellectual pursuits, and the potential meaninglessness of existence. This is not fertile soil for the cultivation of a comprehensive social theory of revolution. Only when the heirs of the Frankfurt School have found a new ground upon which to firmly stand will the bitterness and pessimism recede from their critical theory. Then it might regain the potential that nineteenth-century Marxism had to inspire men to fight for a better way of life.


1. The Ford Motor Company's “Five Dollar Day Plan” is an excellent example. By paying workers substantially more than existing standards and making part of the salary contingent upon job performance, Ford not only developed the loyalty of his workers and increased their production, but simultaneously created a new class of worker who could afford to buy a car.

2. Marcuse makes only a passing reference to the religious connection present in this process of social indoctrination. For a more detailed analysis of the connection, see Max Weber’s The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism.

3. This presupposes an objective link between Beauty and Freedom as well as the existence of “True Beauty,” an underlying factor common to the tremendous variety of arts that elicits a particular response from us, i.e., a response that we recognize as the appreciation of beauty. This aesthetic theory identifies Beauty as the sensual apprehension of balance between content and form—and interprets it as a reflection of the human potential to achieve a balance between the spiritual (world of the mind) and the material (the objective world). Marcuse mentions Kant, but this section of his work borrows most heavily from Friedrich Schiller’s The Aesthetic Education of Man.


All quotations and references are from Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Although no secondary works were used to prepare this paper, the following books provided the necessary background for my interpretation.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Aesthetic Education of Man. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

Tucker, Robert, ed. The Marx Engels Reader, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978.

Weber, Max. Essays in Sociology, eds. Gerth and Mills. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.