Now, however, this threatening homogeneity has been loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into the repressive continuum.  This alternative is not so much a different road to socialism as an emergence of different goals and values, different aspirations in the men and women who resist and deny the massive exploitative power of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and liberal realizations.  The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms. 

Herbert Marcuse, "Preface," An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. vii.

The search for specific historical agents of revolutionary change in the advanced capitalist countries is indeed meaningless.  Revolutionary forces emerge in the process of change itself; the translation of the potential into the actual is the work of political practice.” 

Herbert Marcuse, "Preface," An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 79.

In this transformation, the Women’s Liberation Movement becomes a radical force to the degree to which it transcends the entire sphere of aggressive needs and performances, the entire social organization and division of functions.  In other words, the movement becomes radical to the degree to which it aims, not only at equality within the job and value structure of the established society (which would be the equality of dehumanization) but rather at a change in the structure itself (the basic demands of equal opportunity, equal pay, and release from full-time household and child care are a prerequisite). 

Herbert Marcuse, “Nature and Revolution,” in Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss, eds., The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse, Boston: Beacon Press, 2007, p. 246.  [Note:  This essay, "Nature and Revolution," first appeared in Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt, Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.]

Herbert Marcuse gained world renown during the 1960s as a philosopher, social theorist, and political activist, celebrated in the media as "father of the New Left."  University professor and author of many books and articles, Marcuse won notoriety when he was perceived as both an influence on and defender of the "New Left" in the United States and Europe.  His theory of "one-dimensional" society provided critical perspectives on contemporary capitalist and state communist societies and his notion of "the great refusal" won him renown as a theorist of revolutionary change and "liberation from the affluent society."  Consequently, he became one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s. And yet, ultimately, it may be his contributions to philosophy that are most significant and in this entry I shall attempt to specify Marcuse's contributions to contemporary philosophy and his place in the narrative of continental philosophy.

Douglas Kellner, Illuminations  http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell12.htm

Marcuse, on the other hand, constantly advocated the "Great Refusal" as the proper political response to any form of irrational repression, and indeed this seems to be at least the starting point for political activism in the contemporary era: refusal of all forms of oppression and domination, relentless criticism of all policies that impact negatively on working people and progressive social programs, and militant opposition to any and all acts of aggression against Third World countries.  Indeed, in an era of "positive thinking," conformity, and Yuppies who "go for it," it seems that Marcuse's emphasis on negative thinking, refusal, and opposition provides at least a starting point and part of a renewal of radical politics in the contemporary era.

Douglas Kellner, Illuminations  http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell13a.htm

…Marcuse always attempted to link his critical theory with the most radical political movements of the day and to thus politicize his philosophy and social theory.  Thus, I am suggesting that Marcuse's thought continues to provide important resources and stimulus for radical theory and politics in the present age. Marcuse himself was open to new theoretical and political currents, yet remained loyal to those theories which he believed provided inspiration and substance for the tasks of the present age.  Consequently, as we confront the theoretical and political problems of the day, I believe that the works of Herbert Marcuse provide important resources for our current situation and that a Marcusean renaissance could help inspire new theories and politics for the contemporary era, providing continental philosophy with new impulses and tasks.

Douglas Kellner, Illuminations  http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell12.htm 


               As I understand it, critical theory is a normative reflection that is historically and socially contextualized. Critical theory rejects as illusory the effort to construct a universal normative system insulated from a particular society.  Normative reflection must begin from historically specific circumstances because there is but what is, the given, the situated interest in justice, from which to start.  Reflecting from within a particular social context, good normative theorizing cannot avoid social and political description and explanation.  Without social theory, normative reflection is abstract, empty, and unable to guide criticism with a practical interest in emancipation.  Unlike positivist social theory, however, which separates social facts from values, and claims to be value-neutral, critical theory denies that social theory must accede to the given.  Social description and explanation must be critical, that is, aim to evaluate the given in normative terms.  Without such a critical stance, many questions about what occurs in a society and why, who benefits and who is harmed, will not be asked, and social theory is liable to reaffirm and reify the given social reality.

         Critical theory presumes that the normative ideals used to criticize a society are rooted in experience of   and reflection on that very society, and that norms can come from nowhere else.  But what does this mean, and how is it possible for norms to be both socially based and measures of society?  Normative reflection arises from hearing a cry of suffering or distress, or feeling distress oneself. The philosopher is always socially situated, and if the society is divided by oppressions, she either reinforces or struggles against them.  With an emancipatory interest, the philosopher apprehends given social circumstances not merely in contemplation but with passion: the given is experienced in relation to desire.  Desire, the desire to be happy, creates the distance, the negation, that opens the space for criticism of what is.  This critical distance does not occur on the basis of some previously discovered rational ideas of the good and the just.  On the contrary, the ideas     of the good and the just arise from the desiring negation that action brings to what is given. 

         Critical theory is a mode of discourse which projects normative possibilities unrealized but felt in a particular given social reality.  Each social reality presents its own unrealized possibilities, experienced as   lacks and desires.  Norms and ideals arise from the yearning that is an expression of freedom:  it does not  have to be   this way, it could be otherwise.  Imagination is the faculty of transforming the experience of    what is into a projection of what could be, the faculty that frees thought to form ideals and norms.

           Herbert Marcuse describes this genesis of ideals from an experience of the possibilities desired but unrealized in the given:

            Now, there is a large class of concepts—we dare say, the philosophically relevant  concepts—where the quantitative relation between the universal and the particular assumes a      qualitative aspect, where the abstract, universal seems to designate potentialities in a concrete, historical sense.  However "man," "nature," "justice," "beauty," or "freedom" may be defined, they synthesize experiential contents into ideas which transcend their particular realizations as something to be surpassed, overcome.  Thus the concept of beauty comprehends all the beauty not yet realized; the conception of freedom all the liberty not yet attained.


            Such universals thus appear as conceptual instruments for understanding the particular conditions of things in light of their potentialities. They are historical and supra-historical; they conceptualize the stuff of which the experienced world consists, and they conceptualize it with a view of its possibilities, in the light of their actual limitation, suppression, and denial.  Neither the experience nor the judgment is private.  The philosophic concepts are formed and developed in the consciousness of a general condition in a historical continuum; they are elaborated from an individual position within a specific society.  The stuff of thought is historical stuff—no matter how abstract, general, or pure, it may become in philosophic or scientific theory. 


             {Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Society, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964, pp. 214-215.}

Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 5-6.

Although American Society invented itself by exploiting certain social groups, it is still an experiment, an unfinished project.  One of Marcuse’s great gifts was his ability to see the potential for a qualitatively different form of life in the very social structures which he viewed as oppressive.  Marcuse’s form of dialectical or negative thinking is as vital today as during his lifetime.  Marcuse never tired of looking for the revolutionary subject.  For this reason I think that it is important to put him in conversation with the new revolutionary subjects in philosophy.

Arnold L. Farr, Critical Theory and Democratic Vision: Herbert Marcuse and Recent Liberation Philosophies, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009, p. 10.

This new social order requires an alteration of the instinctual structure of human beings in oppressive and repressive societies.  The alteration of society and of the human instincts must occur simultaneously in a dialectical relationship.  That is, one does not necessarily precede the other.  What is required for the actualization of such a vision is a new orientation in thought, a new model for education, and the development of more of what Marcuse called catalyst groups.  We must continue to struggle in hope that the specter of liberation that haunts Western philosophy and society will eventually dwell among us in the flesh.

Arnold L. Farr, Critical Theory and Democratic Vision: Herbert Marcuse and Recent Liberation Philosophies, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009, p. 178.

Once capitalism invades the whole of life, then struggle involves the whole of life.

Rick Roderick, "The Emancipatory Challenge of Critical Theory," Video Interview of Rick Roderick by Ann Buttimer at University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1987. 

Not every problem someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production.

Herbert Marcuse, The Listener [magazine], 1978.

Marcuse combined a wonderful European intellectual heritage drawn from Marx and Freud with a love and appreciation of American popular culture.

Rick Roderick, "The Emancipatory Challenge of Critical Theory," Video Interview of Rick Roderick by Ann Buttimer at University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1987. 

… to study Critical Theory as a way of escaping the isolation of disciplines within universities and as a point of struggle within the university system and trying to make link-ups with alternatives in the working class movement at large.

Rick Roderick, "The Emancipatory Challenge of Critical Theory," Video Interview of Rick Roderick by Ann Buttimer at University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1987. 

What makes theory critical? In 1929 Herbert Marcuse was a graduate student in a seminar of Martin Heidegger's called "Introduction to Academic Study." Marcuse took notes almost verbatim of Heidegger's discussion of Plato's myth of the cave: "Today we do not even know what we are to be liberated from. Yet it is exactly this knowledge that is the condition of every genuine emancipation."* I argue that critical knowledge is knowledge that enables the social negation of the social negation of human life's core activities, the most central of which is creative labor. Any refusal to engage in just this sort of critique — taking refuge instead in the philosophical distance found in art or glorious academic alienation — is precisely what genuine critical thinking must refuse to do. This is the sense in which critical theorizing becomes the source of a social intelligence that inspires the ingenuity and the action required to advance politically toward the non-alienated character, conscience, and culture which is humanity's birthright.

Charles Reitz, "Liberating the Critical in Critical Theory:  Transcending Marcuse on Alienation, Art and the Humanities," Paper presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts, August, 1998 [The Paideia Archive / Philosophy of Education].

    *Martin Heidegger in Marcuse's notes to seminar, "Heidegger, Einfuhrung in das akademische Studium. Sommer 1929" Herbert Marcuse Archiv of the Stadt- und Universit.            tsbibliothek, Frankfurt, Catalog # 0013.01, p. 6. 

The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.  

At the beginning of the fascist era, Walter Benjamin wrote:

            Nur um der Hoffnungslosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben.

            It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p. 257. [the closing portion of the book]

Today, the organized refusal to cooperate of the scientists, mathematicians, technicians, industrial psychologists and public opinion pollsters may well accomplish what a strike, even a large-scale strike, can no longer accomplish but once accomplished, namely, the beginning of the reversal, the preparation of the ground for political action. That the idea appears utterly unrealistic does not reduce the political responsibility involved in the position and function of the intellectual in contemporary industrial society. The intellectual refusal may find support in another catalyst, the instinctual refusal among the youth in protest. It is their lives which are at stake and, if not their lives, their mental health and their capacity to function as unmutilated humans. Their protest will continue because it is a biological necessity. “By nature,” the young are in the forefront of those who live and fight for Eros against Death, and against a civilization which strives to shorten the “detour to death” while controlling the means for lengthening the detour. But in the administered society, the biological necessity does not immediately issue in action; organization demands counter-organization. Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.

Herbert Marcuse, "Political Preface," Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), xxv.