Social & Political Philosophy 13 – Marcuse’s Reason & Revolution

For this lecture, read Marcuse’s Reason & Revolution, section IV.


Hegel (1770-1831) is one of my favorite philosophers.  In order to understand Hegel we study Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, the book that got me and others such as Angela Davis into Hegel.  In the first part of Marcuse’s book he examines Hegel’s philosophy as it developed throughout Hegel’s life (a very Hegelian method), and in the second part he examines Marx’s philosophy and later Marxist theorists building on while transforming Hegel’s philosophy.

marcuse photo

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), whom some call the father of the New Left (progressive thought since the 60s), was born in Berlin, where Hegel taught and the center of Hegelian thought and the Young Hegelians such as Marx and Engels.  Marcuse worked in publishing until returning to graduate school to study philosophy, particularly Hegel, under Husserl and Heidegger.  Unfortunately, Marcuse and Husserl were Jewish, unlike Heidegger, and in 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi party and took the position that Husserl, his old professor, was kicked out of by the incoming regime.  Marcuse and his fellow Jewish intellectuals Adorno and Horkheimer formed the Frankfurt School which moved from Berlin to Geneva in neutral Switzerland in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power and then to New York where their school became affiliated with Columbia University.  The Frankfurt School began an ongoing project known as Critical Theory, an open-ended engagement with dominant forms of human thought and power inspired by Hegel’s idealism and Heidegger’s phenomenology.


Marcuse began writing on Marxism and the new situation of corporate capitalism, inspired by his criticism of fascism and the Nazis.  Marcuse became a US citizen in 1940, the year he published Reason and Revolution, and he never lived in his native Germany again.  In fact, he worked with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, on anti-Nazi propaganda campaigns for use in Germany and Eastern Europe.  After the war in 1945, he worked with the US State Department as head of the central Europe branch.

russian communist poster

In 1952 he left, just as China became communist and the cold war began to intensify, to teach at Columbia, then Harvard, then Brandeis, and finally UC San Diego.  Throughout this time, he identified himself as a Hegelian and a Marxist.  Marcuse was critical of both capitalism and communism for failing to live up to their ideals, comparing both with Nazi fascism.  His Eros & Civilization, One Dimensional Man, and Essay on Liberation were revered by the 60s New Left and the hippie movement.  He was an influence on countless left wing thinkers and artists, notably Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman.

One dimensional man marcuse

Marx argued that capitalism alienates labor through industrialization, objectifying labor and turning people into objects and tools much like Aristotle speaks of slaves and feminists speak of the objectification of women.  Marcuse took this idea and applied it to post 50s consumerist America.  In One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, he argues that people are being turned into automata, into machines, finding their meaning of life in their car, television and commercial products.  Critical of both US capitalism and Russian communism, he argued that people are being alienated and objectified by capitalism and technology such that they increasingly identified with the consumer products more than they did with each other, making them increasingly incapable of resisting fascist tendencies of society.  Recall, Marcuse saw the Nazis rise and take over his own country of birth.


Consumerism, according to Marcuse, is a form of social control that creates false needs through mass media and advertising that bind individuals to maintaining the modes of production and make them fear social revolution and critical thought.  Like Thoreau, Marcuse argues for radical refusal of participation in society for social change, as well as skeptical rationalism that challenges positivism, capitalism and authoritarianism.  Like Gramsci, he criticized orthodox Marxism’s reduction of class struggle to a single labor-capitalist struggle and argued that minorities and other marginalized outsiders are valuable for the generation of critical thought and social progress.

an essay on liberation marcuse

  In An Essay on Liberation, published in 1969 at the height of the 60s counter-cultural movement, Marcuse argues that corporate capitalism is a neo-colonial empire that has socialism on the defensive.  In Asia and Latin America and in the student movements (Marcuse was known to speak at student protests of the time) there are movements for social liberation under the red flag of socialism and the black flag of anarchism, but the fortress of corporate capitalism is only slightly strained.  Marcuse dedicates the work to the student protests in France of 1968/69, and suggests they are a step towards a new liberation that is needed before a free society can be established.


How can individuals satisfy their needs without harming, alienating and enslaving themselves and others?  The needs and structures of society, the “Establishment”, must be transformed such that domination and brutality are no longer tolerated.  Marcuse argues with Saint-Simon (though opposed to his positivism) that technology has acquired a stage that makes such a transformation possible such that it bridges the gap between middle class student protests and the struggle for survival of “the wretched of the earth” (a phrase borrowed from Fanon, who we will study under Post-Colonialism, to describe the people of the third world impoverished countries).


The understanding of obscene must be revealed as repressive and reversed such that war and poverty, not nudity, is obscene to us.  Even so, it is possible for society to use sexual liberation for its own solidification and the furthering of domination rather than counter-cultural criticism of war and economic slavery.  In this, Marcuse is on both sides of the sexual liberation debate between Michel Foucault and Wilhelm Reich, with Reich arguing that sexual liberation would bring about a fundamental change in society and Foucault arguing that humanity and human sexuality are always bound up with power.  Marcuse argues that our understandings of the “natural” and biological must be criticized, as consumerism becomes an extension of humanity and a natural need.

marcuse-and-davisIndividuals must be rounded out such that they can participate in many various activities, not specialized the way Plato and Aristotle thought proper.  We must turn our conception of causation from necessary causation to free causation, symbolized in art as the turn from realism to surrealism.  In the final words of the essay, quoting a “young black girl” who very well may be Angela Davis who met Marcuse at a protest at Brandeis and became his student, one of the only black girls on campus at the time, Marcuse says that when we have obtained a free society, “we shall be free to think about what we are going to do.

In college, I took a class on Hegel from a visiting German professor.  I did not understand Hegel reading Hegel, but later in graduate school I read Marcuse’s book and got into a somewhat Hegelian view of the mind and reality.  Hegel argued in his major works that thinking evolves over time through the opposition of one perspective against another, and if you bring all of the perspectives together, you have a skeptical and subjective theory that can work itself into the complete objective set of all possible perspectives, or as Hegel calls it, “self-completing skepticism”.  American and British schools neglected the study of Hegel until after the fall of the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union promoted the study of both Hegel and Marx as the science of history.  Marcuse’s book is a post-Marxist socialist rescuing of Hegel from theorists such as Karl Popper who argued that Hegel was a fascist and his ideas lead to Stalinist dictatorial communism.

French Revolution Assembly Left Wing Right WingAs mentioned already, Hegel was a teenager during the French Revolution, and like his fellow German and European youth he watched with great anticipation, hoping for radical change of tradition in the name of reason and rationality.  Recall the Cult of Reason that Robespierre tried to install.  Many scholars have argued that this dialectic in Hegel’s own opinions was formative for his understanding of history and philosophy.  By the time Hegel wrote his major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind, he believed that Napoleon was a hero who embodied a new stage of history on horseback, and that Napoleon was a transition to the final form of politics embodied in the German and Prussian state governments that balanced authority with rights and liberties.  As we will see when studying communism, Hegel went from believing in continuous revolution like Trotsky to conserving the established state like Lenin.

tuebingen_grossHegel began his academic career much as Nietzsche, Heidegger and other German philosophers did: studying to be a theologian and Lutheran minister.  Nietzsche wrote that one only has to mention the College of Tubingen (where Hegel began study) to know what German philosophy is at bottom: a cunning theology.  Hegel studied Christian Neo-Platonism (the central philosophy of the European middle ages) and the Platonic idea of dialectic.  Hegel argued that the process and evolution of history is that of humanity building stage by stage the full understanding and reason of the human mind, which is the unfolding mind of God in human history.  Marx took up this idea but famously “stood Hegel on his head” by taking Hegel’s system of dialectics and arguing that it is not the mind of God but the material progress of politics being established according to the necessary process of reason, taking Hegel’s idealistic theism and making it materialistic atheism.

french revolution painting chargeAs a youth, Hegel thought that reason and freedom were the true forces of good in the universe, sounding much like a Jacobin.  After watching the collapse of the French Revolution, he continued to view reason and freedom as the forerunners of human achievement but came to see understanding and necessity as counterweights that cause history to sway in a back and forth manner that Hegel identified with the Socratic and Platonic method of dialectic, of arguing both sides of an issue back and forth to achieve greater truth.

Kant Königsberg Monument StatueIn 1801, just two years after Napoleon’s coup in France, Hegel began his academic career as a professor of philosophy in Jena.  At the time, Kant was the rage in German philosophy, and Hegel’s philosophy developed in dialogue with Kant and others in vogue at the time.  Hegel particularly took up Kant’s idea that understanding and reason are oppositional forces of the human mind and conceived of all history, including philosophy and politics, to be a dialectical evolution between these two forces.

Fichte ProfileBetween Kant and Hegel is Fichte, Hegel’s teacher and later colleague.  Like Hegel, Fichte argued that self-consciousness is a social, not merely individual, phenomena, critical for future Continental philosophy.  For post-Hegelian Continental thought, reality is a social construct, a synthesis of individuals and social movements.  Reality is intersubjectivity.  Objectivity is collective subjectivity.  Fichte argued that it is through others that we find ourselves called to obedience as well as freedom.  Being, as self-consciousness, is a calling or summons, Aufforderung in the German, a term taken up later by Heidegger.  The individual, the “I” (Das Ich), asserts itself, and this assertion, drive and direction is the existence of the “I” as well as its basic activity.  It is in accord and against this assertion of self that additional activity, additional phenomena, take place for the self.

Sigmund_Freud_1926This became a central idea important not only for Hegel but later for Freud and Psychoanalysis.  While the ‘I’ starts out unlimited, it comes to discover its limits through its interactions with others.  The self learns what it is through resistance (Anstoss) of others.  Just as Berkeley argued that we recognize others by their ideas, which resemble our own, for Fichte we set up the presence of the other as ourselves but against ourselves, to explain the resistance we find in others.  Hegel’s view of history, particularly his master/slave dialectic which we will soon consider, is founded on this idea of recognition evolving through a process of resistance.

Piñata Hanging in a treeI am reminded of an experience I had as a preschooler at a friend’s birthday party.  After the piñata had been thoroughly dismembered, my friend had a whole leg to herself.  Without thinking about her perspective or desires I reached out to grab it.  She shrieked and pulled it out of my grasp, which shocked me into recognizing that I had not bothered to think beyond my own perspective and desires.  There is a story in the Daoist work Liezi about a man who sees gold in the marketplace, grabs it and runs.  When asked later by the police why he would do such a thing in broad daylight, he told them that at the time he did not see the people, only the gold.  Developmental psychologists tell us that in preschool, as we begin to socialize, we begin to represent the perspectives and desires of others to make sense of conflicts between ourselves and others.

DarwinHegel has two major ideas that became very influential.  The first is historical explanation or explanation by process.  Hegel argues that things are not simply what they are at once, but evolve through stages to become what they are, and the process by which they evolve show us how the things essentially work.  Also, things are not simply what they are in themselves but are what they are in a situation with other things by which they become what they are.  After Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and Freud were major thinkers who overturned old theories of static order with new theories of process to explain the workings of the mind and society. Consider that Newton thought God made the earth at the very beginning in an instant, while most believe today that there was a process by which our planet, the solar system and the galaxy formed.  Consider the controversy about evolution and Darwin, and how this questions our human-centered understanding of reality.

Newton's CradleHegel’s second major idea, the mechanism or motion of evolution over time, is dialectic.  Dialectic is a Greek term for arguing back and forth, for and against a position, to come to greater understanding.  Socrates and Plato believed dialectic was the superior method of acquiring knowledge, and Plato’s dialogues present Socrates arguing against others and himself in this way.  Hegel argues that all things are made of oppositions or contradictions (contra-diction means “arguing against”, like arguing both sides, the pros and cons, of a particular thing), similar to Newton’s idea that for every force there is an equal but opposite force.

Dialectic of Hegel Thesis Antithesis SynthesisHegel’s dialectic works in a three stage pattern of positive, negative and synthesis.  Consider the French monarchy and feudalism, the French Revolution, and Napoleon.  Consider the hometown conservative, the college liberal, and someone trying to find the overall truth after taking both sides.  Hegel presents ideas as starting out positive (dogmatism), flipping and becoming negative (skepticism), and then reaching a resolution of positive and negative as a joined whole which then goes on to become the next positive or dogma for another stage of evolution.

800px-Bell_telephone_magazine_(1922)_(14733423296)Hegel argues that by looking at things as evolving over time in a situation, not immediate and isolated, and looking at things as two sided and in opposition to themselves and others, rather than categorical and without tension, we can come to understand how things actually are, which is a union (while an opposition) of how they are in the mind and world.  In the course of the history and evolution of politics and philosophy, thought has to gather everything into a universal whole while at the same time dividing everything up into their particular parts.  It does this with the two opposite forces or faculties of understanding and reason.

Dogmatism & Skepticism Arrow

Dogma by Viktor SafonkinUnderstanding, the anchor and stability of the mind, has two jobs: keeping thought the same and keeping conceptions separate.  Reason, the motion and freedom of the mind, also has two jobs, which are naturally opposite those of understanding: continuously changing thought and uniting conceptions together as a whole.  This is the reason that dogmatic and conservative thought wants to keep traditions and ideas as they are and prevent them from getting mixed up, while skeptical and liberal thought want to change traditions and ideas and criticize the separate categorical differences of the understanding with inter-relativity.  While everyone uses both understanding and reason continuously everyday and at every stage, dogmatists and conservatives prefer set understandings to fluid reasoning while skeptics and liberals prefer fluid reasoning to set understandings.

Jung Painting TreeFor Hegel, at each stage in any area of thought (religion, politics, philosophy, science etc) understanding  provides the stable ground for the back and forth positions of reason.  Philosophies, political positions and scientific theories reason against each other even as they share the common understandings of the time and place.  Theologians fight theologians in the name of religion, lawyers fight lawyers in the name of law, philosophers fight philosophers in the name of philosophy, and scientists fight scientists in the name of science.  For Hegel there really is only one tree-like being which is mind/spirit, and the philosophies are views, perspectives within the one dialectical course of things which is thought.  Many have written a good deal about Hegel and Marx each coming to set understandings and then being contradicted and developed by later thinkers in the names of Hegel and Marx themselves.

Napoleon crossing the alpsRemember that Radin argued there are philosophers in all cultures, but they are rare.  Hegel argues in his Logic that revolutionary thinkers are rare because most get stuck in a one-sided understanding either on the side of dogma/understanding or skepticism/reason, and it is only the rare individual who can see the latest stage’s contradiction on both sides and become the understanding of the next stage (just like Napoleon).  As Marcuse sees it, dialectic is not giving us the unopposable truth, but powerful new truths that will be opposed but also  supported by others in the continuous evolution/revolutions of truth and history.  Recall Thoreau wondering about American democracy and whether this is the final form of government.

Hegel Phenomenology of SpiritHegel’s history of thought is found first and foremost in his major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, also translated as the Phenomenology of Mind, as the German word for spirit, mind and soul is Geist, of the same root as our word ghost.  I am critical of much of the work, as it is quite simplistic and Eurocentric, but it is an excellent introduction to Hegel’s thought, showing the dialectical framework that Hegel tries to fit everything under the sun into working in three stages to complete itself as a union of contradictory sides.

thothFor Hegel, the first stage of history is “the Orientals”.  Hegel uses this term as it was used until recently, before the 1960s, to refer to everyone who is not European, including Egyptians and Native Americans.  As archaeology in Hegel’s time had revealed the ancient glory of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, Hegel puts this as the first and basic starting stage in human development.  It is good that this is the non-European start, but unfortunate that all further development is European (first Greek, then German) and the development is a course of Europe becoming different from others.  For Hegel, but not myself, the Orientals understand objectivity, the state, and science, but they do not question as subjective individuals.  They get objectivity, but not subjectivity.  It is the Greeks, and specifically Heraclitus, who Hegel argues make this next leap and become the second stage of history.

Greek-Temple-Segesta-SicilyIn the second of Hegel’s stages, the Greeks rise above the Orientals to grasp the opposite of Being as Non-Being, the opposite of the state in the individual, and the opposite of objectivity as subjectivity.  Just as the Orientals understood the positive, the Greeks understand the negative, the temporary, the subjective and perspective.  Thus, the Greeks are the birthplace of not science, but philosophy, the deepest of questioning.  Hegel sees this as Heraclitus bringing Being and Non-Being together as Becoming, and then understands Plato as placing the ideal unchanging truth of Being itself outside the Heraclitean cave of shifting shadows.  However, this is not the last stage because the Greeks, like Plato, still put Being off in another world apart from this one.  While Hegel believes that the Greeks are the first to make it to the stage of subjectivity, it is far less Eurocentric to say that the Sumerians and Egyptians had a decent understanding of subjectivity and the individual, and that the Greeks were not alone during what Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age, the era when the Indian and Chinese philosophers were asking and debating similar questions.  Remember that Radin has shown it can be found among the simplest of tribal peoples.

Flag_of_GermanyIn the third and last of Hegel’s stages, the Germans understand the unity of objectivity and subjectivity, state and individual, necessity and freedom, and, politically, of laws and rights, to complete the course of thought.  Hegel leaps over Islam in a page, giving them no credit at all for developing and advancing ideas.  Hegel believes that history is almost at its completion in his time with his own philosophy and the politics of the German parliamentary state which balances collective objectivity with individual subjectivity, balancing authority with rights, liberty and property as Locke argued it should.

haitian revolution slave revoltOne influential idea of Hegel’s that appears early in the Phenomenology is the Master-Slave Dialectic which Hegel uses to describe the earliest evolution of human culture.  At first, being (which can be an idea, individual or culture) goes out into the world and discovers that there are other beings out there with opposing points of view, creating a tension between self and other.  If I want cake, and there are others that want cake, this seems stupid to me, as their interests are opposite my own.  The self, Fichte’s Ich, wants to eliminate the others in order to establish itself not as merely another subjectivity, but as objectivity itself.  However, if the self eliminates its other, the other is no longer around to recognize the self as objective and supreme.

throneChanging strategies, the self decides to show restraint and conquer the others rather than eliminate them, enslaving them as master, as it wants to prove its view, its subjectivity, to be objectivity.  This is similar to maturing from a fundamentalist who wants to convert everyone to their own position to a politician who can use opposing views to support their own.  The slave does everything for the master, and develops while the master stagnates and grows lazy.  The slave comes to realize that things can be done for another as well as oneself, such as making the master breakfast to avoid death, a lesson the master never has the opportunity to learn.  Eventually, the situation becomes unsustainable, and the slave revolts, becoming a more developed and skilled master.  This is Hegel’s explanation for why the Orientals failed to discover subjectivity and philosophy, the Greeks failed to discover the unity of subjectivity and objectivity.  The Greeks were slaves and servants of the Orientals, just as the Germans were of the Greeks!

angela-davisThe Master/Slave dialectic had a great influence on many thinkers, especially progressive left-leaning political thinkers such as Hegel’s student Marx.  Marx argued that just as the French Revolution threw off the old masters, the clergy and nobility, the coming communist revolutions would throw off the new masters, the industrial capitalists.  Feminist Hegelians use the master/slave dialectic for women, like Simone de Beauvoir did in ‘The Second Sex’.  Post-Colonialists use the master/slave dialectic for oppressed minorities, such as Franz Fanon did in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, as did the Black Panther, activist and professor Angela Davis (who went to Germany to study Hegel before going to jail for providing two shotguns to Black Panther party members in Oakland during the 60s).  Considering that class, race and gender are the ‘big 3’ issues in academia since the 60s, Hegel is quite influential.

Hegel LogicAfter writing the Phenomenology, Hegel came to realize that he had not described the inner workings of the dialectical process of history to his liking.  Hegel believed the world consisted of ideas, so he leaves history behind and turns to the workings of ideas in the mind.  To show the inner psychology at work in every stage of historical development, he wrote his Logic, which like the Phenomenology unfolds in three stages as positive, negative and synthesis, but instead of Orientals, Greeks and Germans, the three stages of the Logic are Being, Essence, and Concept.

Adam and Eve thrown out of the gardenWhy is thought opposed to itself?  Where did this come from?  Hegel writes that we need to start with the “legend” of the “Fall of Man”, of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden.  Hegel says the inner meaning is what is important.  This is entirely in the vein of Enlightenment Deists reading the Bible as a work of philosophy and psychology rather than literal history or religious authority.  When Adam/consciousness, falls into the divided world and out of the unity of paradise, he/it falls into oppositions and tensions, polarities that present one side and hide the other.  Just as Adam and Eve have to toil for food and survival once out of Eden, knowledge and wisdom must be gained by effort and the process of history.  Hegel argued that work and labor are a contradiction of subject and object, of ideal and actuality, of the mental and the physical.  Marx entirely follows Hegel on this point, and both see the work (modes of production) of each age as a revealing of another level of truth through history.  In the Logic Hegel writes:

hegel upsidedown

However reluctant Understanding may be to admit the action of Dialectic, we must not suppose that the recognition of its existence is peculiarly confined to the philosopher.  It would be truer to say that Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience.  Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic.

Mikhail BakhtinHegel writes that the feeling of being alive is to feel contradiction within oneself, at rest in itself but at the same time moving itself beyond itself.  It both wants to stay and go at once, and does.  Similarly, the Soviet literary critic and thinker Bakhtin said that when we think we are in dialogue with ourselves, are opposed to ourselves on opposite sides.

Karl MarxMarx was deeply influenced by Hegel’s Logic, which gave him a social process of opposites resolving in unity.  Marx wrote that Hegel’s Logic is by nature revolutionary and thus a scandal to the well positioned (the middle and upper classes).  Marx argued that the bourgeoisie were trapped in their middle-class roles just as understandings are trapped in isolation, and that Hegel’s Logic separated his own thinking from that of other academics who were complicit with the status quo.  Just as Hegel said the average person cannot comprehend contradiction and thus remain stuck in their undeveloped understandings, Marx saw the middle and lower classes as stuck because they cannot see the problems and contradictions of their position and labor.  However, through a process identical with the master/slave dialectic, Marx believed this would eventually result in a greater understanding by way of reason and the political arrangement of the communist international state.  Not only would the contradictions between classes be transcended, but also the contradictions between nation-states.

buisness manBoth Hegel and Marx saw the business class as embodying a new synthesis of laborer and capitalist that creates new contradictions.  Hegel was aware of the misery of the working class in Germany and England under rising industrialism and manufacturing, and spoke of these contradictions in his lectures even though he was not arguing for a communist revolution but rather a resolution in the form of the German state.

LeninIn 1914, just as WWI was being declared, Lenin (who was in neutral Switzerland along with other influential figures such as the Dada artists who kicked off much of modern art) studied Hegel’s Logic intensely to comprehend Marx.  Lenin, like Marx, saw Hegel’s Logic as bringing the abstract and ideal down into unity with the material.  For Marx and Lenin, this was a call to materialism and a recognition that ideas exist by way of the historical and material.

RousseauMost importantly for this class, Marx and Lenin followed Hegel in his criticism of Rousseau: it is not simply the arbitrary individual will that binds everyone together in the general will and the social contract, but rather the understanding/reasoning of individuals that determines the community and draws individuals together in groups and classes.  Thus, Marx and Lenin saw communism as political science, as a result of ages of understandings/classes developed through reason/revolution.  This is complimenting Rousseau’s romantic will with rationalistic reason.

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