Looking Back: Herbert Marcuse

I attended a conference on computer interfaces the other week. This provided a mix of the stimulating and not so stimulating, but above all it was a break from education based research. There I found unexpectedly frequent references to the Frankfurt school [1] including one reference to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man [2]. ODM was published back in 1964. It created a stir in its day and I was prompted to recall what Marcuse had to say and ask about its relevance now.

ODM is a critique of mass society, very much focused on the USA of the 1950s and 1960s. For Marcuse the so-called consumer society was malign – we were being manipulated by mass media into wanting things we should not want and did not need. This lead us to be complicit in a comfortable consensus in which dissent and counter cultural ideas were absent. All this is summed up by the idea of society as irrational and in which:

productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence–individual, national, and international. (pp ix –x)

Thus if society is repressive (and for Marcuse it was) the problem was ‘Technology rather than Terror’; technology subdues us through an ‘overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living’. If there was hope of change it came from those outside the system, those who find themselves more marginal, for example the young, radical intelligentsia, the women’s movement. Marcuse rather portentously finished the book citing Benjamin that ‘It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us’.

Marcuse was not of course alone in offering this kind of extreme – I would say romanticised – pessimism and some of the key themes were, for example, presaged much earlier, in Riesman and Glazer’s more restrained and readable Lonely Crowd [3] and for that matter in anti-utopian novels of the period.

In my late teens I thought ODM was great (this was the mid 1970s and more than ten years after it was first printed). Here was someone from an older generation speaking to me and saying ‘yes you are right, the world you have been born into is irrational, the older generation is deluded and it is up to you to change it’. At least this is how I read the book and how it was read by any of my peers who had bothered to read it. How Marcuse intended ODM to be read is of course a different and more controversial question. There is a short clip on You Tube of Marcuse at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London 1967. This was a meet up of a counter culture constituted in the main by left wing academics and students, poets, writers, artists, plus the odd celebrity. In the clip you can see the suited figure of Marcuse offering, what seems to me, a pedantic discourse on dialectical liberation while the audience looks in a mix of reverence or polite disinterest. To be honest a fair number look half stoned [4]. It is all very odd and who knows what Marcuse makes of it.

I came back to ODM twice more. The first time was in the 1990s. I was talking to a colleague who had told me how important she still found Marcuse and I wondered why this was. I reread the first couple of chapters and could get no further. I was taken aback at how much I disagreed with it. I had an interest in technology by now and Marcuse’s views seems determinist, pessimistic and out of date. His writing was horribly sanctimonious too. For example, Marcuse lays into advertising:

the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society. Deprived of his false fathers, leaders, friends, and representatives, he would have to learn his ABC’s again. But the words and sentences which he would form might come out very differently, and so might his aspirations and fears (pp 245-6).

This resonated with me as, in the spirit of Marcuse, when we took our teenagers on holiday we would ask for televisions to be taken out of the cottages we rented in order to give us all a break from the media and indeed the adverts. (Mobile phone coverage tended to be poor and there was no wifi). However this did not leave us in a ‘traumatic void’ and I would never write about the viewers or readers of advertising as though they were idiotic in the way that Marcuse describes.

It was with low expectations that I went back to ODM. I dipped in and out and to be fair I found things to value in it. For example, the picture of technology he offers is more sophisticated than I had realised. It was not technology itself which was oppressive but our attitudes to it. In particular we had internalised an instrumental mentality through technology in which we took the goals of efficiency and output for granted. This left technological controls appearing to be:

the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible. (p9)

But Marcuse does recognise that there were other ways of using technology that ‘might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity’.

Marcuse also spent a great deal of time in ODM as elsewhere arguing for an space for independent thought and dissent, he valued:

the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies—an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior. The idea of “inner freedom” here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain “himself.” Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. (p10)

His argument is long and complex but there are echoes here of the contemporary critique that networked technology has left us with the sensation of being always online, always monitored and uncomfortable with our own thoughts.

Is there enough in my rereading of ODM to reverse my opinion of ODM? Well no and perhaps the harshest thing I can say is that ODM is an example itself of one dimensional thinking. If you are going to critique society you should deal fairly, or try to deal fairly, with the pros and cons of what you see in front of you. Show understanding but remember others will see things differently. Of course there is a space for a sustained, more rhetorical critique, but it is has got to be engaging and for me best lightened with irony if not humour. Instead ODM feels like a rant, and Marcuse’s underlying argument could be summarised as a tabloid headline: ‘We are going to hell in a handcart’.

My judgement of ODM is, as I say, harsh. Marcuse is serious scholar who writes in a dense and erudite way. However in ODM you feel assailed rather than enlightened. Part of the problem is that he shows little engagement with empirical research other than to cherry pick evidence to support his argument. But my greater complaint is that when he writes of people he lacks imaginative empathy or even curiosity. Here he is bemoaning contemporary materialism:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality…….The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced. (p. 8)

By all means critique consumer society but show you understand why people might be happy watching television, driving cars, or listening to music on the hi fi even if you want to show there are contradictions in what they say. Unable to engage with people as they are, Marcuse resorts to finding that they are wrong and he is right:

Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. (pp. xiii-xiv)

Oh dear.

So the same book has over time given me a spirit of rebelliousness; provoked a critique and finally a more balanced view alongside an enduring discomfort. Will today’s youth find the same in Marcuse as I did? Well, he is singularly ill suited for the climate of austerity in which we live but this will change one day and I don’t see why his time won’t come again.


[1] Frankfurt school: These were theorists who were based at the Goethe University in Germany who took a critical stance capitalist and indeed communist systems in the interwar years of the last century. Leading theorists escaped with the rise of Nazism.

[2] Marcuse, H. (2013 [1964]). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Routledge.

The text can be found online at


[3] Riesman, D., & Glazer, N. (2001 [1953]). The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character. CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society” (1967) – YouTube [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQLpqno6J_g