Marcuse’s dialectics of liberation

Excerpt of “Liberation from the Affluent Society”
by Herbert Marcuse (1967)

We all know the fatal prejudice, practically from the beginning, in the Labour Movement against the intelligentsia as a catalyst of historical change. It is time to ask whether this prejudice against the intellectuals, and the inferiority complex of the intellectuals resulting from it, was not an essential factor in the development of the capitalist as well as the socialist societies: in the development and weakening of the opposition. The intellectuals usually went out to organize the others, to organize in the communities. They certainly did not use the potentiality they had to organize themselves, to organize among themselves not only on a regional, not only on a national, but on an international level. That is, in my view, today one of the most urgent tasks.

Can we say that the intelligentsia is the agent of historical change? Can we say that the intelligentsia today is a revolutionary class? The answer I would give is: No, we cannot say that. But we can say, and I think we must say, that the intelligentsia has a decisive preparatory function, not more; and I suggest that this is plenty. By itself it is not and cannot be a revolutionary class, but it can become the catalyst, and it has a preparatory function – certainly not for the first time, that is in fact the way all revolution starts – but more, perhaps, today than ever before. Because – and for this too we have a very material and very concrete basis – it is from this group that the holders of decisive positions in the productive process will be recruited, in the future even more than hitherto. I refer to what we may call the increasingly scientific character of the material process of production, by virtue of which the role of the intelligentsia changes. It is the group from which the decisive holders of decisive positions will be recruited: scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, even psychologists – because psychology will continue to be a socially necessary instrument, either of servitude or of liberation.

This class, this intelligentsia has been called the new working class. I believe this term is at best premature. Its members are – and this we should not forget – today the pet beneficiaries of the established system. But they are also at the very source of the glaring contradictions between the liberating capacity of science and its repressive and enslaving use. To activate the repressed and manipulated contradiction, to make it operate as a catalyst of change, that is one of the main tasks of the opposition today. It remains and must remain a political task.

Education is our job, but education in a new sense. Being theory as well as practice, political practice, education today is more than discussion, more than teaching and learning and writing. Unless and until it goes beyond the classroom, until and unless it goes beyond the college, the school, the university, it will remain powerless. Education today must involve the mind and the body, reason and imagination, the intellectual and the instinctual needs, because our entire existence has become the subject/object of politics, of social engineering. I emphasize, it is not a question of making the schools and universities, of making the educational system political. The educational system is political already. I need only remind you of the incredible degree to which (I am speaking of the United States) universities are involved in huge research grants (the nature of which you know in many cases) by the government and the various quasi-governmental agencies.

The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy. And in this sense we must meet this society on its own ground of total mobilization. We must confront indoctrination in servitude with indoctrination in freedom. We must each of us generate in ourselves, and try to generate in others, the instinctual need for a life without fear, without brutality, and without stupidity. And we must see that we can generate the instinctual and intellectual revulsion against the values of an affluence which spreads aggressiveness and suppression throughout the world.

4 Responses to “Marcuse’s dialectics of liberation”

  1. Janina Ciezadlo Says:

    Very useful for people working against precarious academic labor.
    The unions seem to just slow us down, Marcuse reminds me that we need to find new forms. And if it was not true that the “intelligentsia was the new working class” in 1967, part-time college faculty certainly are now. In fact they must work so hard to put together a living that they cannot generate ideas, participate in community: they are effectively silenced. Not many “pet beneficiaries” left and perhaps that could be a good thing for social change. Although hyper-competitive individualism is still rewarded. thanks…

  2. Suzaan Boettger Says:

    Would appreciate citation of source when quotations are posted so readers can find full text.

    • Brian Holmes Says:

      You know, readers can use search engines quite easily, just paste in a sentence. But you can also use this link, which I simply forgot to put:
      Generally speaking, everything in this blog is linked, footnoted, credited, double-checked etc. I am not really sure whom I do it for, but if it is for you, then make use and ask for more when needed!

      best, BH

  3. William Viney Says:

    In case anyone is interested in knowing more about Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation, then Malcolm Miles has just published a book dedicated to the subject: Will

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