Janko Stojanow






Marcuse’s critique of modern “classless” society





Being closely associated with the worldwide known Frankfurt School of left-wing thinkers, who succeeded in creating A Critical Theory of Society as a Hegelian version of Marxism, much of Marcuse's theorising was in the spirit of the School. It was a great merit of Marcusean critical theory to have articulated the deficiencies of modern “one-dimensional” capitalist society, which eliminates individuality, dissent and opposition. There is no doubt that the rulers of each society tend to make it one-dimensional so as to force the subjects to obey and conform to existing ethical values, thought and behaviour. The life of the supposedly classless man in modern capitalist "classless society", which totally dominates the individual, deserves to be looked into critically. On the other hand, there is every reason to examine thoroughly the apparent fact that the working class is no longer revolutionary as Marcuse does in his contribution to the Critical Theory of Society of the Frankfurt School.

Marcuse decisively criticises the limitations of bourgeois democracy based on private property as well as social and economic inequality: “The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment…. its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.”1 For him, the atomisation and alienation of the working class, the legislation of the capitalist state created to defend private property and the function of the repressive state apparatus result in the violent restriction of any practical application of democratic rights and freedoms in the industrialised democracies.

Contrary to Douglass Kellner, the noted scholar on Herbert Marcuse, who claims in the introduction to the second edition that “One–Dimensional Man is perhaps Marcuse’s most sustained attempt to present and develop the categories of the dialectical philosophy developed by Hegel and Marx,”2 I will argue that Marcuse’s analysis fails to be dialectical enough; the very method of his critical theory is not truly dialectical, for it is not Hegelian - i.e. speculative, - enough. In fact, his philosophical project is more Marxian than Hegelian. It is fully justifiable to say that possessing an insufficient amount of Hegel’s speculative dialectics, the standpoint of Marcuse’s critique can only succeed in producing the apparent utopian character of his One-Dimensional Man.

I will try to examine thoroughly the reasons why Marcuse’s highly philosophical critical theory failed to inspire the “one-dimensional man,” whom Marcuse so brilliantly describes. I will also argue that - contrary to Marcuse’s thesis, - it is political rationality that has the necessity to develop its immanent rational volition to the point of including advanced technological rationality. True, Marcuse calls special attention to the changes in production, consumption and way of thinking of modern advanced society; yet, his technological society is not explicitly presented as the historical product of the class struggles of the pre-advanced society.  

Marcuse fearlessly criticises the official version of a classless capitalist society. Without question, he is profoundly interested in moving beyond capitalism. He strongly opposes the ideologists of modern capitalist society, who keep claiming that - contrary to what Marx thought, - the classless society is not to be achieved by liquidating the bourgeoisie by a revolutionary process, but by elevating the proletariat into the bourgeoisie by a process of reform. According to them the bourgeois values of individual liberty, limited government, and market economics, pushed to their logical conclusions, are able to produce and, in fact, have produced a classless society. Bearing in mind that Marxist socialism inspired large numbers of people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for it provided a vision of a classless society without a privileged class of people, the ideologists of Big Capital perspective on a classless society have acquired the idea and presented the latter as a society in which there is neither bourgeoisie nor a proletariat, a society which succeeded in pulling the proletariat up into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Undoubtedly, their approach to a modern classless society is congenial to the newly formed middle class mentality. Their zealous devotion forces them to define the category of class (as relatively bounded social groups defined by common economic positions) so narrowly and simplistically as well as one-dimensionally that Marcuse cannot help but criticise this advanced one-dimensional classless society. For him, the latter as well as the one-dimensional man living in it are void of real dialectical development.

Possibly influenced by this hostile environment, one of the most profound mistakes Marcuse makes is that he fails to examine the development of the real class relationships, which have always been an inspiration for fundamental social changes as well as an indispensable tool of analysis. As for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Marcuse claims: “In the capitalist society, they are still the basic classes. However, the capitalist society has altered the structure and function of these two classes in such a way that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation.”3 Marcuse is appalled by the fact that in the apparent absence of organised masses of people capable of manifesting their historical mission, his critical theory of society is doomed to remain at a high level of abstraction. He omits to realise that, in fact, not only does a new truly dialectical development evolves, but the latter is also above his critical theory. The task of each dialectically critical theory is to present this genuine development in its truth. 

Marcuse himself overtly admits the fact that his “critical theory is left without the rationale for transcending this society.”4 This is a great moment. Not only the advanced industrial society is to be changed but also there is a tremendous need the very categories of Marcusean critical theory to be changed for they “were developed during a period in which the need for refusal and subversion was embodied in the action of effective social forces.”5 His work is a brave attempt to recapture the critical meaning of a wide variety of categories such as “individual,” “class,” “private,” as well as “family.” He challenges directly the claims of prominent scholars that classes do not exist in America in any meaningful way; the point is, however, that he failed to revitalise the long-standing intellectual tradition of class analysis.

Yet, according to A. Buick One-Dimensional Man “has been described as "the most subversive book published in the United States this century". This is an exaggeration since a large part of it, including the title, must be incomprehensible to those unacquainted with the theories of Hegel. Hegel held that everything was in the process of developing into something else. A thing therefore had two dimensions; what it was at any given time (its positive side) and what it could become (its negative side). One-dimensional thought only sees what is and not what can and ought to be. Applied to social and political thinking it produces a man who sees no alternative to the present system.”6 True, Marcuse is known to be a Marxist, whose rhetoric is definitely Hegelian. Paradoxically enough, however, there is not much of Hegel in Marcuse’s “One dimensional man,” or at least he is not Hegelian enough.  On the contrary, not only is it difficult not to see the tremendous simplification of Hegel’s unrivalled philosophy in the quotation above, but in Marcuse’s book as well. The immanent contradictions of this supposedly one-dimensional – or classless, - society are not properly examined. The task of each objective and impartial investigation is to reveal these internal contradictions for they are the totally real and utterly powerful critique of the so-called “classless society.” The fact is that in Hegel’s truly speculative dialectics the categories of pure critical and “dialectical” thinking are not and cannot be genuinely true.

For Hegel the highest moment of thinking is the speculative, which always sublates its own dialectical moments in-and-through itself. Like Marx, Marcuse cannot apply successfully and develop Hegel’s dialectical method, for neither Marx nor Marcuse is able to show the dialectical as sublated by the speculative. True, the task of dialectical thinking is to “negate existing states of affairs that oppress individuals and restrict human freedom and well-being. Dialectical thought thus posits the existence of another realm of ideas, images, and imagination that serves as a potential guide for a social transformation that would realize the unrealised potentialities for a better life.”7 But the idea that pure critical thinking can postulate norms of criticism and carry them into practise is totally un-Hegelian.

Marcuse’s claim that “Hegel instituted a method of rational critique that utilized the “power of critical thinking” to criticise irrational forms of social life”8 is a far cry from being true. On the contrary, for Hegel what is actual is rational and what is rational is actual. As a matter of fact, critical thinking which is not capable of being speculative at the same time is absolutely powerless. Developing only the moment of negation without a genuine application of the speculative moment of the Absolute can unavoidably lead to a social critical theory which - to certain degree, - expresses the truth, but is incapable of grasping its actuality. His One-Dimensional Man apparently tends to be a utopian theory; we could not reasonably expect the practical-political development of modern technologically advanced society to be immediate.

In his critical social theory Marcuse aims at developing negative thinking, which negates the existing technological society from a higher standpoint. Yet, his critical philosophy failed to influence the working class of today. And for good reasons, for his one-dimensional man is a too abstract moment of the non-dialectical thinking of the Understanding; Marcuse is not able to achieve the higher standpoint owing to which he can provide significantly more than a mere political ideal for liberation of modern society from oppression and domination. One-dimensional Man, his magnus opus, omits to provide the norms for social criticism as well as the way for actual liberation through a positive change for contemporary society, which he aims at but cannot attain to. Consequently, the theoretical approach of his critical theory has failed to live up to its own expectations.

Outlining the main features of his One-Dimensional Man in his prospectus for the book, Marcuse writes: “The books deals with certain basic tendencies in contemporary industrial society which seem to indicate a new phase of civilisation. These tendencies have engendered a mode of thought and behaviour which undermines the very foundations of the traditional culture. The chief characteristic of this new mode of thought and behaviour is the repression of all values, aspirations, and ideas which cannot be defined in terms of the operations and attitudes validated by the prevailing forms of rationality. The consequence is the weakening and even the disappearance of all genuinely radical critique.”9 Marcuse has every reason to say that modern technological rationality has produced a system of totalitarian social control as well as domination. His social theory was deeply influenced by Marxism, but so was the very capitalism he was criticising. Yet, Marcuse omitted to realise that owing to the fights of working class totally inspired by Marxian socialism, classical capitalism had developed tremendously. Being profoundly influenced by moderate Marxist social-democratic parties, this modernised version of consumer capitalism is now able to deliver the goods for it has developed to welfare capitalism. This is the determinate standpoint of actual Reason of our time. Neither the contradictions of capitalism are so explosive now as they used to be when Marx was alive nor the proletariat – a huge part of which now belong to the middle class, - is the absolute negation of capitalism any more. Tomorrow’s genuine forces of progressive social change – organised and powerful enough to achieve their historical mission, - are still to evolve. Marcuse’s highly philosophical studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society, however, failed to define clearly this historical mission. 

Nonetheless, Marcuse's intellectual courage and integrity, his tremendous potential as well as talent for philosophising make him a thinker of great magnitude. He is bound to be an important and influential thinker in the times to come. To be sure, he does not seem to care much about political correctness. Without question, intellectual freedom is the absolutely indispensable condition for the adherents of any critical social theory. Marcuse’s view is that the adherents of his critical theory should keep alive the idea of an alternative society even if this is generally considered to be utopian. The point, however, is to develop a speculative theory of contemporary society which is both rational and actual, i.e. a theory which is not utopian at all. For only speculative reason is the absolute creative principle which actually develops the real society and refutes every abstract critical theory as long as the latter is a mere product of critical reason, which is neither dialectical nor speculative.

Beyond all question, Marcuse’s diagnosis is right all along. The newly evolved working class of today - enthusiastically presented by the ideologists of modern capitalism as a middle class, - live in a totally administered society, which Marcuse depicts as totalitarian. Due to the fact that this advanced society with its technological rationality totally overpowers and controls its subjects, it is a society without genuine opposition. Without question, achieving the most important and vital of its goals – relative welfare, - the working (“middle”) class is reconciled with its yesterday’s oppressors. It has to pay the price for sharing some of the benefits of the new technological actuality and sacrifice Freedom. The one-dimensional man surrenders his freedom and individuality for welfare based on advanced technology. Marcuse has every reason to claim that Freedom is on the retreat in the industrialised world. Universal Freedom of private property and its powerful administrative-bureaucratic apparatus dominates and organises the world of industrialised democracies.  

As Douglass Kellner puts it “Marcuse claims that metaphysics is superseded by technology, in that the previous metaphysical concept of subjectivity, which postulates an active subject confronting a controllable world of objects, is replaced by a one-dimensional technical world where “pure instrumentality” and “efficacy” of arranging means and ends within a pre-established universe is the “common principle of thought and action.”10 Being only a moment of the creative principle of the Absolute Rational Will, neither could Marcuse’s critical reason provide the necessary inspiration for his project of radical social change nor was it capable of developing the individual’s liberation and society’s advancement. Yet, the fearless attempt of the Frankfurt School to integrate philosophy, social theory and politics in a contemporary theory of social change was definitely a great achievement. 

According to Douglass Kellner Marcuse’s “One-dimensional man and one-dimensional society are the results of a long historical erosion of individuality which he criticised over several decades. One-dimensional Man can thus be interpreted as an extended protest against the decline of individuality in advanced industrial society.”11 There is no doubt that Marcuse’s critique is so brilliant as well as courageous that no matter how incomplete it is, it is still as true as it used to be in his time. He is deeply in favour of a society in which freedom and well-being are genuine.  

The fact remains, however, that not Marcusean critical reason but advanced modern Rational Voluntarism alone is fully capable of sublating and incorporating technology and its pragmatism into itself. As for the one-dimensional character of modern society, we have to have trust in the Absolute Rational Will; such is the power of the latter that the state of advanced society as described by Marcuse cannot continue to exist forever. It has in itself its strongest contradictions, which will change it and force to progress economically, socially and politically.  

All in all, Markuse’s concept of the Great Refusal of forms of modern domination is neither clearly defined nor mobilising enough to lead to a new era of social change. Yet Marcuse's way of philosophising is definitely in line with what Practical Philosophy is about. Not only does he deserve to be read carefully, but he also deserves to be criticised for what he failed to achieve. Marcuse was convinced that the immanent development of Western philosophy necessitated the transition to the critical theory of society. Like Marx, he did not want to interpret the world only but to change it. The task of our time is essentially not different – we have to understand the need for historical change, to express its categories clearly and teach the new existing agencies capable of achieving a qualitative change of the advanced industrial society in the foreseeable future.




1.               H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, with an introduction by Douglas Kellner, 2002, Routledge Classics, p. xliv 

2.               Ibid., p. xiv

3.               Ibid., p. xliii

4.               Ibid., p. vliv

5.               Ibid., p. vliv

6.               A, Buick, http://www.worldsocialism.org/marcuse.htm

7.               H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, with an introduction by Douglas Kellner, 2002, Routledge Classics, p. xvii

8.               Ibid., p.xvi

9.               Ibid., p. xii

10.          Ibid., p. xxvi

11.          Ibid., p. xxviii


Janko Stojanow

29 January 2004, Poland











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