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Herbert Marcuse And The Endurance Of The 1960s For Political Theology (Roger Green)

There is no doubt that the cultural memory of the 1960s, not matter how mythically constructed to support the left or the right, in both their softer and harder forms, remains significant today. Part of this is certainly in the increasing retirement of baby boomers, especially within academia in the United States. Part  is also the legacy of May of 1968 in continental thought.

François Cusset’s coverage of the “paradigm shift” where the “death of humanism” reached the U.S. with the invention of poststructuralism is apt: “and if there was ever a time when the various projects aiming to decenter the question of meaning or to make a certain de-semanticization operative within the human sciences – whether in linguistics, history, or psychoanalysis – were for a moment in solidarity with one another, it was this time.”(28)

Cusset also notes that between Hitler’s claiming of power and the liberation of France at least 150,000 French and Germans sought refuge in the U.S., and “aside from religious leaders, the only refugees the American administration allowed to enter the country in excess of quotas were university professors. Thus, from the mid 1930s, American institutions of higher education created lasting ties with European intellectual circles.”(19) Among these ties was the formation of the New School under Alvin Johnson and an association with Columbia University where exiled Europeans came to be known as the Frankfurt School.

Despite hostility within academia toward the heady theoretical language that followed these ties to European intellectuals, creating allergies to “theory” or claims to the “death of theory,” these thinkers have been persistently influential. European thinkers like Marcuse and other critical theorists came to have a controversial impact on U.S. thought. Anyone tempted to write the influence off as “academic mumbo jumbo” need only look at an event on April 4, 2016 put on by the Washington D.C. –based, Christian conservative group, Family Research Council (FRC).

The FRC event addressed the legacy of critical theory to promote Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. In their advertisement for the public event, FRC quotes Walsh’s preface:

In the aftermath of World War II, America stood alone as the world’s premier military power. Yet our sense of cultural inferiority remained.  Many of our elites embraced not only the war’s refugees, but many of their ideas as well. Some of them argued that truth was only a social construct and that meaning was based on what the individual wanted.  As a result, although we had just won a war against the forces of nihilism and fascism, the New Nihilists set about dissolving the bedrock of the country, from patriotism to marriage to the family to military service; they have sown (as Cardinal Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – once wrote of the Devil) “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny” – and all disguised as the search for truth.

However academically esoteric or elitist the academics who study critical theorists may appear to be, their work can at least be justified by the fact that groups like Family Research Council also believe critical theorists from the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse are historically important.

While the Christian right may condemn critical theory as nihilistic Satanism, more astute critics than Walsh have actually seen much more theological carryover in thought of the Jewish born Marcuse. Stock descriptions of thinkers influenced by the Marxist tradition unfortunately often assume hostile positions toward religion.

Those on the Christian right might be surprised by the fact that one of early critiques of Marcuse were that his thought verged on religion, confusing “politics’” and  “religion.”  R. N. Berki wrote in 1972:

Marcuse sharply distinguishes between Freudian psychoanalytic science and Freudian “metapsychology,” criticizing Freud’s own secularist beliefs about the truth of science and religion, and asserting that today “the function of science and of religion has changed” and “where religion still preserves the uncompromised aspirations for peace and happiness, its illusions still have a higher truth value than science which works for their elimination.” (74)

Marcuse tended to push his location of radicalism further back historically than the American and French revolutions, to the ascetic impulse of Christian Freedom in Lutheran Protestantism, yet the relation of Marcuse to religion has been too often de-emphasized by the assumptions that leftism is always secularist.

In their chapter on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the edited collection, The Sixties Papers, Judith Clare Albert and Stewart Edward Albert write that Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man “provided a philosophic rationale for those in SDS who believed that American society was unreformable.”(174) They add, “For Marcuse, American society was, in its essence, rigidly authoritarian.” This is a gloss almost as difficult as Walsh’s association of critical theory with the devil.

In contrast to Walsh and Albert, the once avowedly radically left journal, Telos, (binary political spectrum distinctions with its current editorial position are confusing and unhelpful) offers much more erudite criticism. In 2013 the journal devoted an entire issue to “Marcuse after Secularism.” The issue is filled with a number of interesting readings on the continuing relevance of Marcuse for political theology today. I will rely heavily on Annika Thiem’s “Beyond Bad Conscience: Marcuse and Affects after Secularism” in what follows, but the rest of ths issue is equally worthy of note.

Critiques of Marcuse and the left often center on the issue of tolerance. Marcuse’s famous 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” is quoted by Yippie founder and SNCC activist, Abbie Hoffman to frame his 1969 book, Woodstock Nation, which he hastily wrote to enhance his PR campaign between the festival and the upcoming Chicago Seven trial.  Marcuse dedicated “Repressive Tolerance” students at Brandeis University. It opens as an examination of tolerance as a value in advanced industrial society with the claim: “today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period — a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice.

Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression”.

Critics on the right constantly use tu quoque arguments to claim that for those on the left the value of tolerance is a double standard. For Marcuse, two forms of tolerance exist: one subversive, the other oppressive. These forms exist within the Protestant psyche and are accentuated over time as the liberal value of tolerance becomes bound up in the confusing legal situations of both the American and French revolutions.

For Marcuse, the practice of tolerance was originally liberating, but by the mid 1960s, the actual practice of such tolerance had become status quo and uncritical. Marcuse is then quick to assert he is fully aware that, at present [the mid 1960s], no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice, but he believes that it is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities–that it is his task to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.

For practical critics like Berki, Marcuse’s thought is “neutralized by tergiversation”: “to those about to storm their Bastilles, even well-meaning talk about psychic Thermidors may justifiably look ridiculous, if not offensive.”(94)

Despite Marcuse own claims that some groups wrongly implemented his intellectual critique as practice, some saw him as a predecessor to their actions, whether they were white rock and rollers or the later Red Army Faction in Germany. In both cases, as well in the recent critiques by the right above, more attention to Marcuse’s engagement with religion would have been more productive.

Instead, interpreters of Marcuse have focused on the aesthetic dimension of his thought, without qualifying that it was both critical of and supportive of liberalism at various points in his career. Abbie Hoffman clearly took it upon himself to carry on Marcuse’s intellectual task and duty as expressed in “Repressive Tolerance,” but he attempts it as an aesthetic task.

The specific Marcuse quotation that Hoffman uses to open Woodstock Nation comes from a later point in the essay where Marcuse is laying out the aesthetic “origins of the modern period,” with reference to Charles Baudelaire in particular. Marcuse describes the dialectical idea that a “benevolent neutrality” in consumer culture dilutes the revolutionary potential of Art in the same way that tolerance as a liberal ideal becomes a dogmatic mode and, ceasing to resist oppression, becomes the tool of oppression. For Marcuse,

Art potentially stands against history in the sense that it withstands history which has been the history of oppression, because art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to the laws of the Form which creates a different reality–negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality. But in its struggle with history, art also subjects itself to history. History enters the definition of art itself and enters into Marcuse’s distinction between art and pseudo-art. Thus it happens that what was once art becomes pseudo-art. Previous forms, styles, and qualities, just as previous modes of protest and refusal, cannot be recaptured in or against a different society.

Part of this passage indeed is reminiscent of earlier aesthetic critiques such as Kandinsky, who in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” critiques “castrated” attempts to mimic earlier artistic periods; or John Dewey’s famous lamentations in Art as Experience that art which is “objectified” loses its aesthetic (and therefore critical potential) qualities when divorced from experience.

Dewey’s concern in the early 1930s was that “the trouble with existing theories is that they start from a ready-made compartmentalization, or from a conception of art that “spiritualizes” it out of connection with the objects of concrete experience. Marcuse, in contrast to Dewey’s “becoming” conception, historicizes the critical power of aesthetic experience by placing it within a larger continuum. He does this by building his famous idea of aesthetic sublimation as an extension and critique of Sigmund Freud’s Reality Principle, especially in Eros and Civilization.

As Annika Thiem has helpfully described, Marcuse moves from a biological critique that characterized Freud and Nietzsche to a critique that includes culture as well. This conception is built in his Study on Authority, written in the late 1930s in which he examines the Protestant Reformation.

For Marcuse, Luther’s ascetic theology has a dual conception of freedom. The internalized freedom through the realization of Christ actually allows for an externalization freedom that neglects social circumstances. This creates a separation between the individual who is free internally, something Kant would later see as transcendental freedom, and worldly authority figures who may do as they please. Culture and civilization for Kant is built on misanthropy, which Freud later picks up and articulates as repression. As Thiem notes,

this separation between the office [of authority] and the person in it harbors a conservative tendency, because the office and positions of authority themselves remain respected without being subjected to deeper scrutiny. Failures and shortcomings of those in positions of power and authority tend to be regarded as individual failures instead of systemic problems.(28)

In Eros and Civilization, as Thiem again summarizes, Marcuse moves beyond Freud’s reality principle, in which the super ego mimics the repressive authority of the father, saying that the strong authority figures have generally “dissipated into institutions and faceless social norms.”(32)  The dissemination of the critique of the father dramatizes St. Paul’s universalizing event as described by Alain Badiou. Christopher Schmidt has argued that one cannot understand Marcuse’s relevance without attention to the eschatological critique that underwrites his oft misinterpreted concept of eros and “the deep eschatological dimension of eros’s autonomization.”(89)

Marcuse’s leftist critique of liberalism is a counterpart to the conservative Carl Schmitt’s concerns in Political Theology that liberalism lacks a strong authority figure . Both Marcuse and Schmitt are concerned with depoliticization from differing angles. Without strong authority figures, or with such figures being dissipated into institutions in what Foucault would later call governmentality, people are thrown into what Annika Thiem describes as “an intensification of competing and comparing themselves with others and the subsequent reactions by others, because the evaluative standards now can only be ascertained by looking at others.”(34)

The cartoonish depictions of left-right politics in the U.S. obscure the fact that liberalism was being critiqued from both the left and right in Weimar Germany, and that especially for Jews like Marcuse there was a valid critique for weak liberalism, according to Victor Geogehan.(67)

Marcuse, however, sees a possibility for hope in aesthetics, and as Thiem describes, he does this through theological language of redemption. Far from exhibiting a traditionally Marxian allergy to religion, Marcuse’s concerns, according to Thiem, offer a postsecular critique ahead of its time, one that is particularly relevant to psychedelic aesthetic performances of spirituality. I quote her at length:

In late capitalist consumer societies, the emphasis on personal spirituality participates in intensifying rather than relieving the social pressures of functioning as an employee and consumer. If we read Marcuse’s critique of capitalist society as likewise a critique of secularism, the foremost issue from Marcuse’s perspective is not directed at the implicit Protestant presumptuousness of a model of political and social acceptance of religion that tolerates religion as long as it is most importantly an expression of inner beliefs and possibly only privately exercised; instead, Marcuse’s critique focuses on the tendency for spiritual practice to be treated as yet another consumer good and for involvement with social justice issues to become an exercise in one’s personal self-improvement.(35)

At the same time, there remains something within the internal turn of the Reformation that liberated the internal to criticize authority, “it also relativized all worldly claims and validation and so intensified the uncertainties about any individual’s place in the world.”(37) The consequence of this is a kind of fugue state where one can be radically anti-authority while being simultaneously complacent with respect to transforming social conditions.

Radicalness loses its edge with an emphasis on inner transcendence reinforced by the shadow text of Protestant Christianity. This does not mean that Marcuse is against religion, however. He sees the disruptive potential of aesthetic experience to sublimate reality and thus sublimate the reality principle.

In Marcuse’s optimistic view for the potential of aesthetic experience, which certainly not all art achieves, is in its ability to disorient one from the status quo bourgeois reality. This is in line with Marxist theatrical techniques employed by dramatists like Berthold Bercht. As Thiem notes, however, in later works like The Aesthetic Dimension, “Marcuse takes up theological tropes to describe the critical force of art in its ability to fan hope against hope, to reveal the world as it is as broken and unredeemed, to stoke the fire of redemption by bringing about freedom and happiness.”(43)

Thus, for Thiem, “Marcuse’s understanding of radical political imagination stands in a relation that is at least indebted to, if not ingesting, theological sensibilities.” But his “faith” in art is not in a direct participation between aesthetics and politics but rather, similar to Alain Badiou, in art as “metapolitics.” Thiem notes that Marcuse was critical of white rockers but saw potential in folk music and black culture for revolutionary aesthetics for its emphasis on community.(45)

Rather than lamenting the devilish intent of critical theory for the demise of the west, the ongoing importance of Marcuse on both the left and the right situates him more accurately within a prophetic critique as old as scripture itself. Marcuse’s worries that soft liberalism could too easily lead to authoritarianism were firmly grounded in his experience in Weimar Germany, experiences which led him to the U.S. to work on anti-Nazi propaganda and research for the Office of Strategic services.

If we are to look at the theological importance of Marcuse’s aesthetic emphasis, we would to best to focus as he suggests, on community and the representational place of the subject within it.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

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