Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

January 27, 2006

Herbert Marcuse


The readings for this section are CST, Chapter 4 and pp. 1-18 of Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man.


Next day – Habermas.  Read pp. 76-87 of CST and section from “What is Discourse Ethics?”


a. Background


Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was of German, Jewish background and studied philosophy at Berlin and Freiburg.  He was a part of the Institute for Social Research in its early days in Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1934.  During the second world war, he worked in the Office of War Information and the Office of Secret Services of the United States, and after the war in the State Department.  In 1952 he became a professor at Columbia University, and later was associated with Harvard and Brandeis universities, and the University of California at San Diego, retiring in 1976. 


Associated with the Institute from the early days, he achieved fame in the 1960s, as a guru of the new social movements that emerged in the United States and Western Europe.  Of the original critical theorists, he was the only one who developed a relationship with the new left of the 1960s.  His writings provided a critical view of the capitalism and modernity that existed in the mid-twentieth century, with an historical and social analysis.  His focus was less philosophical and cultural and more concerned with analysis of practical and political developments as a theory of social change (Kellner, “Critical Theory Today”).  At the same time, in his major writings he did not develop a political or social guide for those who were resisting powerful forms of social control and limits on freedom.  But his critical analysis provided social movement activists with a means of analyzing problems of modern society.  Marcuse was generally sympathetic to the new social movements (student, anti-war, feminist, civil rights, gay rights) and became a sort of guru to the new left of the 1960s. 


Marcuse considered “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable” (Marcuse, 1964, p. 256) to possibly have a revolutionary potential for opposing the totalizing society.  While he recognized that it would be difficult to change the system, with respect to these outsiders he argued “the fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period” (Marcuse, 1964, p. 257).  At the same time, he did not pin his hopes for revolutionary change on university students (Calhoun, p. 525).


In addition to One-Dimensional Man (1964), the main writings of Marcuse were Reason and Revolution (1941), Eros and Civilization (1955), Soviet Marxism (1958), and An Essay on Liberation (1969).   Marcuse did not just critique western society but also Soviet society and the socialism of Eastern Europe.  His writings demonstrate a concern with issues of human liberation.


b. Psychoanalytic Theory (CST, pp. 70-71).


Marcuse argued that “capitalism and mass culture shape personal desires” so there is no essential or unchanging aspect to human nature.  Mass culture results in domination of “the inner world of the human subject” (Elliott, p. 139).  He used ideas, concepts, and analysis from Freud, connecting psychological repression with political repression and examining how human emancipation might be achieved. 


From Freud, Marcuse emphasized the unconscious, desire, sexuality, the erotic, and the search for pleasure and libidinal enjoyment (Elliott, p. 135).  For Marcuse, all societies require some repression – what Marcuse termed basic repression – but capitalism leads to crippling repression, or what he termed “surplus repression,” thus combining concepts  from Marx and Freud.  He argues that some repression of sexual and other desires is necessary for any society to operate [sexual repression as functional?].  But capitalism represses inner desires more than other systems through asymmetrical power relationships (dominant and subordinate) and limitations faced by individuals in a social system dominated by exchange values.  Changes in economy, technology, and culture have escalated repression, resulting in manipulation or destruction of the subject or the self.  The result is “an authority bound, easily manipulable modern subject” who is “subject to decomposition and fragmentation” (p. 140), so the person becomes merely a component of the system of domination.  Marcuse argues that the family is replaced by mass media and public education as the means of socialization of individuals.  “The experts of the mass media transmit the required values; they offer the perfect training in efficiency, toughness, personality, dream, and romance.  with this education, the family can no longer compete” (Marcuse, quoted in Kellner, 1989, p. 137).


For Marcuse, emancipation would be “reconciliation between culture, nature, and unconscious pleasure…‘libidinal rationality’” and by “overcoming the split between pleasure and reality…society can become re-eroticized” (Elliott, p. 140).  While Marcuse developed an excellent analysis of these problems, it is not clear from his writings how this authority and surplus repression can be ended. 


c. One-Dimensional Man


Background.  In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse addresses many of the same issues, but changes emphasis by examining the social forces associated with ideology, communication, public discourse, and critical thought (or the lack of it).  In this work he stresses the power of technology and rationality rather than the psychoanalytic, extending Weber’s analysis and that of earlier critical theory.  Marcuse appears to argue that instrumentally rational forms have taken over from more substantively rational forms.  While he employs a dialectical analysis in his approach, he argues that modern, capitalist society has become one-dimensional, a society without opposition, but dominated by organized forces that limit opposition, choice, and critique.  As discussed last day, this contrasts with earlier forms of reason, where critique, dialectic, and creativity constituted an essential part of reason.  Modern society is not obviously totalitarian, in that there appears to be democracy, liberty, and freedom, but true opposition and radical change are foreclosed because of the ways this society is organized – the society appears open and tolerant but is able to absorb dissent and opposition and make is socially useless or ineffective.  (See Farganis, Introduction to Chapter 15).


The working class (proletariat) and other oppositional groups within modern society are unable to form and exercise critical judgments and power, according to Marcuse.  The traditional Marxian agents of change are trapped within a dominant discourse of one-dimensional thought.  Marcuse worked within the “Frankfurt paradigm that expected radical change to emerge from radical negativity, from those most objectively disempowered by existing arrangements, those whose existence was most opposed to the established order” (Calhoun, p. 450).  As a result, Marcuse placed some hope on groups that were outside of the dominant discourse of the society, groups such as students, outcasts, and minority groups, and perhaps other new social movements.  While he was not as pessimistic and Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man he does not lay out a political program or a clear vision of social progress.


Notes on MarcuseCh. 1 of One-Dimensional Man.  “The New Forms of Control.”



  • Overpowering forces of technological and administrative order.
  • Potential for human freedom and how it might be achieved.
  • Shift from emphasis on economic power to the power of the technological and cultural order. 
  • Possibilities for progressive changes – but Marcuse ambivalent about these.
  • Influences of Weber, Marx, Freud and other classical social theorists. 
  • Continued work in the critical theory tradition, updated to the United States of the 1960s.


i. Technological Order or Organization.  Mechanization, concentration, regularization, curtailment, and coordination characterize an ordered society or an organized form of individualism.  While this may appear to be democratic, free, and rational, in fact the society and individuals in it are organized in a technical manner to suppress individuality. 


ii. Democracy and Progress.  Historically, freedom and democracy had a critical edge to them, so that they were part of social progress.  These ideas and forces helped to overcome traditional limits, presumably the limited possibilities associated with technology and the forces of production in the pre-industrial era, and the ideas and culture that formed part of these earlier social forms.  But these ideas of liberty and individual rights were so successful that they became incorporated into the institutions and structures of society – thus cancelling their premises (end of 2nd ¶).  Marcuse argues dialectically here, noting how a set of progressive forces develops historically, turning into its opposite. 


iii. Freedom from Want (pp. 1-2).  For Marcuse, the basis for true human freedom is to have an economic system which can provide sufficient goods and services to meet the needs (later in the chapter “true needs”) of members of the society.  Increasingly, societies are capable of providing this, much more so than earlier societies with their limited productive potential.  This would be associated with liberation from “the work world’s imposing…alien needs and alien possibilities” so the individual would be “free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2/3 down, p. 2)  Instead, the result is a blunting of the critical aspects of individuality, thought, and political opposition.  Dissent, opposition, and non-conformity become “socially useless” (top of p. 2) and can be accommodated within the system by limiting the range of alternatives that are presented to members of society.  While such limits on freedom may seem part of a totalitarian political and social structure, for Marcuse there may be little difference between nominally free and democratic societies and those that are totalitarian.


iv. Goals of Civilization (pp. 2-3).  The higher productivity of modern forms of economic production could lead to the possibility of real freedom – so people would not be limited by the requirements to produce the necessities of life.  Rather, such productive potential could produce a new form of human freedom, where the individual “would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own” (p. 2) and this would make true autonomy possible for the individual.  Note the similarity to the Marxian view of a communist society.  Also note a certain emphasis on individualism on p. 2, perhaps an essential one, so that the individual can truly be himself or herself in these circumstances.  This latter argument would seem asocial and might deny some of the social aspects of individuality and the self.


Instead, a totalitarian system emerges where the “apparatus imposes it economic and political requirements” (top of p. 3).  This is the totalitarian aspect of the administered society – that is, it is a total system in that there is “manipulation of needs by vested interests” so that needs, or the manner in which needs are met, are constrained within limits that prevent critique and opposition from emerging.  Aspects of the system that Marcuse identifies here are defense, more work, less free time, economics, politics, and “material and intellectual culture” (top of p. 3).  In such a system, there may be political parties, several news sources, or countervailing powers (middle of p. 3, a reference to a set of arguments concerning liberalism that was expressed in the 1960s), but this is not real critique or opposition, rather the boundaries of debate are closely circumscribed within certain legitimate limits.  Also note the functional and conspiracy aspects of this argument in that vested interests manipulate things with specific purposes in mind.


v. Political Power, Technology, and Dialectic (p. 3).  Marcuse emphasizes machines, technology, and science in this paragraph, coming close to a certain type of technological determinism associated with the efficiency and productivity of these technologies and their power in determining the direction of society.  However, he maintains a dialectical approach by noting that these technologies could form the basis for human freedom (again a technological argument, although in the reverse direction), but instead become a political instrument for maintaining order for the society as a whole.  Those who are dominant politically stress the need to work efficiently and productively and to adopt the new technologies; these act to organize the labour force and the whole of society to maintain and extend the administered form of organization. 


vi. Negations.  On p. 4, Marcuse develops the ideas on p. 3 by noting that freedom cannot be attained within the framework and limits of the organized, total, administered society.  Rather, freedom would be a rejection or a negation (Hegel and Marx) of economics, politics, and public opinion – “freedom from the economy,” “liberation of the individual from politics.” (top, p. 4)   It is economic and political forces that form the administered society and limit and constrain freedom and individual autonomy.  Marcuse notes that this may sound unrealistic, and this in itself is evidence of the totalizing nature of thought which forecloses even the imagination of alternatives.   But the power of machines and technology is really the power of humans (p. 3, bottom) in that humans conceived of these and built them, so they become “the potential basis of a new freedom for man.” 


vii. Needs.  On pp. 4-6, Marcuse introduces an important aspect of his work – the difference between true and false needs and the implications of this.  He notes that needs are always historically developed and also socially developed and constrained (critical standards – bottom of p. 4).  That is, while there are biological aspects to needs (food and shelter), the manner in which these are met is historically and socially constructed.  The social aspect of needs and their satisfaction is described in the middle paragraph of p. 5 – they are products of a repressive, dominant society even though the individual may identify with them. 


Near the top of p. 5, Marcuse argues that even though the individual may be euphoric, have fun, be able to relax, and be comfortable, so long as these needs are associated with advertising, consumer culture, and organized by the totalizing society, there are “false needs.”  Exactly how Marcuse makes this judgment is not clear – it almost appears tautological in that he argues that society creates these needs and, by definition, they must thus be false.   Perhaps the key is in the middle of p. 4, where Marcuse argues that it is the “implanting of material and intellectual needs” in people that is the source of the problem.”  That is, the creation of new needs and desire for new commodities can be continual and ever-expanding.   Also, he judges needs false when they impair the ability to understand them as such (p. 5, lines 7-8).


Not only are the needs false, they are repressive in that they repress some other needs and alternatives.  Exactly what these alternatives might be is not clear, although Marcuse states that vital needs include nourishment, clothing, and lodging.  He does admit that these must be met at the prevailing standard, and that these lead to other needs.  But exactly what vital and true needs are is not clear from this section of the chapter. 


At the same time, this is a critique of advanced, industrial, capitalist society, where artificial needs are created and where some forms of consumption and uses of society’s productive resources clearly are unnecessary.  Further, the view that needs are historically and socially constructed is an important one.  Near the top of p. 6 he argues that these could be determined by reason, but is this the same reason which led to the problems in the first place?


Later on p. 6 he argues that it is the individuals themselves who must decide, but then argues that they do not have the autonomy to do so.  He notes that even though a tribunal could not do this, the question remains.   In the end, there can only be a change if those who are in servitude recognize this and a new consciousness of the problems emerge (1st ¶, p. 7). 


viii. Suffocation of Liberating Needs (p. 7).    Marcuse appears to have a way out here – he argues that it is needs which would lead to liberation are the ones that are suppressed.  [What might some of these be?]   Instead, needs associated with destructive and repressive functions, wasteful activities, and excess work are maintained.  Marcuse argues that some of these are relaxation to soothe problems [drugs, alcohol].  He emphasizes the lack of true choice here – free press with limited range of information and different consumer goods and services that differ little in any true sense.  Further, it is the seeming availability of liberty and free choice that is itself an element of domination, and a very effective means for those administering society to maintain this administration.  Rather, the criterion for freedom is not the range of choice, especially where these “sustain alienation” (top of p. 8) but what can be chosen and what is chosen (last few lines on p. 7). 


Note the shift in emphasis from a Marxist perspective which concerns work and labour, along with the alienation and exploitation associated with these.  Near the bottom of p. 5 there is reference to “all those whose misery is the price of his satisfaction” and on p. 8 a reference to “a life of toil and fear.”  Also, on p. 8 he recognizes that class differences exist, but argues that they are not decisive.  For the most part, this is subsidiary and almost incidental, and Marcuse places great emphasis on consumption, needs, and choice, all elements associated with the consumption and distribution, not the production sector of society.  His administered and totalized society may have economic necessity behind it, or that is assumed, but the focus is clearly not on survival, but maintenance of social order and administration.  The one-dimensional society is administered so that issues related to critique, true needs, liberty, and autonomy do not emerge.  Some of these may be economic, but Marcuse places greater emphasis on politics, ideology, and consciousness.  Even compared with Adorno and Horkheimer, economic power does not have the same emphasis in this section of Marcuse’s analysis.


ix. Preconditioned.  Note how Marcuse follows up on the latter points on pp. 8-9 by de-emphasizing class distinctions, arguing instead that images, ideology, the media, social needs, etc. dominate.  Each individual is preconditioned  to accept the range of options presented in the media.  So it is in the lifestyle and consumption sphere, not in production, that the administered society finds it strength.  And even the media are not entirely to blame, since individuals are preconditioned and the “transplantation of social into individual needs is so effective that the different between them seems to be purely theoretical” (p. 8, near bottom).


x. Rational Irrationality (p. 9).  While Marcuse may have abandoned the productivist economic model of Marx, he does not abandon the dialectical aspect of Hegel and Marx.  Waste is turned into need (consumerism and throwaway society), destruction into construction (war, environment).  Even alienation is questionable since the mind and body become extensions of the social.  Within this society, Marcuse argues that consumption ends up becoming the means of finding self, so there is no separation of essence from humans, and “creativity” may be found in consumption.  This is a turning around of the aims of rationality, so that the seemingly rational becomes irrational, and the individual becomes so tied to the society that the new needs created by society become a means of social control and a means of self-identification and self-definition (1st ¶, p. 9), rather than needs being the source of competition and debate, as in earlier societies.


xi. Technological Control (p. 9).  Technical control was traditionally associated with the use of force but in modern society technology is associated with Reason which appears to benefit everyone.  How many times have we heard how the new technologies are more productive, efficient, and the means of human betterment – medicine, genetic engineering, communications, electronic technologies.  Opposing these seems to be irrational, in that opposition appears to oppose technology that seems progressive.  Those who oppose these new developments are often looked on as being backward and narrow.


xii. Protest? (pp. 9-10).  The result of these new forms of technological control are to make protest useless and neurotic.  Marcuse returns to these points on p. 14, where he argues that spiritual or lifestyle forms of opposition can do little to change things.  Rather, these become incorporated into the status quo.  Note that Marcuse argues on p. 14 that these forms of protest are “no longer negative” thus aligning his views with critical theory that the sources of change need to be a form of negativity toward the all-encompassing administered society.


xiii. Self.  On p. 10, Marcuse addresses the concept of self, one that is reminiscent of psychoanalytic approaches or of Mead.  He notes that the self usually developed through “relatively spontaneous processes” whereby there is an inner and an outer, a conscious and an unconscious.  This leads to a sort of inner freedom where an individual can be himself or herself.  This may have been the case in earlier periods, but Marcuse argues that this has changed to a system of mimesis (p. 11, mimic, imitation of actions of others) so that there is “an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole.”  This is a destruction of the self, or a new form of self, something like the evaporated self mentioned  by Giddens (later this semester).  Marcuse (bottom of p. 10) argues that this may have existed in earlier forms of society, with association or mechanical solidarity.  What is different is its re-emergence in the modern, whereby there are forces that organize this – scientific management (advertising, management of consumption, e.g. theme parks, popular culture).  Again Marcuse notes how the negative of critical thinking is denied (dialectic).  This negative thinking is the power of Reason, but is lost in modern society (p. 11, top).   


xiv. Alienation. On p. 11, Marcuse argues that alienation has reached a new stage, whereby there is alienation, but the subject does not recognize this.  Alienation is the separation of human essence from the individual, either in psychological or material form.  But when reality is identification of individuals with the organization imposed on them, and their selves are tied up in such identification, this is no longer the alienation described by Marx.  That is, the supposedly alien is no longer outside and separated from the individual, but becomes part of the individual.  As a result there is no more false consciousness, whereby the objective interests of people differ from what they perceive to be their interests.


xv. Ideological.  Some liberal writers in the 1960s, such as Daniel Bell, noted much the same thing, and argued that the old ideologies of Marxism and anti-Marxism were now irrelevant.  In contrast, Marcuse argues that the process he describes has become even more ideological in that it is not limited to the realm of ideas, justification, and politics.  Rather, ideology and justification of the system have become part of the productive apparatus itself.  The needs associated with production become the needs of the members of society, and the two are bound together in a way that is one-dimensional and “militates against qualitative change” (p. 12).  Note that Marcuse does not argue that this creates scarcity, inequality, or suffering – rather, this whole effect results from a certain degree of plenty and it is in many ways a good way of life.


xvi. Critique of Science.  On pp. 12-14, Marcuse outlines a critique of operationalism, behaviorism, and empiricism in the various sciences, thus restricting meaning and creativity.  This mode of operation eliminates troublesome questions and accommodates different aspects that might initially seem threatening.


xvii. Politics and Media (p. 14-15).  Here Marcuse critiques the supposedly free societies of the west, and contrasts them with the supposedly totalitarian socialist societies.  But Marcuse is critical of both, noting certain similarities.  Certainly he is critical of the limited forms of freedom which characterize the west.


In earlier periods, there was scarcity, misery, and injustice which provoked rebellion against the dominant discourse.  In a sense, the problems of society kept the rulers honest, in the sense that they had to pay attention to these various forms of opposition.  This has now more or less disappeared.  On p. 15, Marcuse returns to the critique of science and operationalism.


xviii. Progress  (p. 16).   Marcuse discusses the meaning of progress, attempting to return to the victory of the struggle against nature predicted by Marx.  However, Marcuse argues that what counts as progress in contemporary society actually limit rationality, so the nature of progress will have to change in a radical manner – although exactly what this is, is not outlined in this chapter.


xix. Technological Rationality.  On p. 17, Marcuse notes the importance of technological rationality and how the social institutions and structures actually limit it.  He regards this rationality as irrational.  Here he returns to the Weberian distinction between rationality of means and ends.  The rest of the chapter furthers this argument, noting how technological rationality is concerned with domination and can become totalitarian.


xx. Conclusion on Chapter 1.  In this chapter, Marcuse does not offer anything in the way of solution, almost arguing that the radical negativity associated with earlier forms of progress is not possible in contemporary modernity.  He echoes the themes of the critical theorists concerning organized, administered society and its all-encompassing effects on society, individuals, the self, and communication.  As source of this he identifies instrumental rationality and a form of technological rationality as the driving force toward uniformity, creation of needs, perpetuation of this rationality, and leading to a one-dimensional form of society that is ultimately irrational.


To the extent that Marcuse does identify a solution, some of the solution also appears technological – freeing people from alienating labour but also “qualitative change also involves a change in the technical basis on which society rests” (p. 18).   That is, part of one-dimensionality is the political technology, and this must change. 


Another guideline comes from later in the book where Marcuse argues that there is need for a “new historical Subject” and this might create a rational and free society (p. 252).  He argues

Self-determination will be real to the extent to which the masses he been dissolved into individuals liberated from all propaganda, indoctrination, and manipulation, capable of knowing and comprehending the facts and evaluating the alternatives. (p. 252). 


In terms of a specific program, he argues that the “outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the exploited, the unemployed and the unemployable.”  These people are outside the system of domination and “their opposition if revolutionary” (p. 256).  These groups are not subject to the internalization of system needs, their opposition comes from outside the system, and they are not part of the game” (p. 257).  “When they get together and go into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones, and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death” (p. 257).  That they are not allowed to be part of the system may mark “the beginning of the end of the period” (p. 257).



Elliott, Anthony.  2000.   “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory,” second edition.  Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers.

Farganis, James. 1996. Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.  from Illuminations,

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London and New York: Routledge.

Marcuse, Herbert.  1964.  One-Dimensional Man.  Boston, Beacon Press.

Ritzer, George. 1996. Sociological Theory, fourth edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf. 1999. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition, fourth edition.  Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall.



Last edited January 27, 2006