From Marx to Freud

In 1969, Herbert Marcuse's ‘Essay on Liberation’ combined Marx and Freud, and inspired thousands of radicals. How liberating is it fifty years later?

Angela Davis decided to study philosophy with Herbert Marcuse after encountering him at a rally during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Many years later, she reflected that just as it’s important ‘to understand the deep connection between his writings and the political conflicts of the late sixties’, it’s necessary to guard against nostalgia. ‘An Essay on Liberation’ was published when the German critical theorist’s fame among young radicals was at its peak. Marcuse was writing when the possibility of a post-scarcity society seemed to glimmer on the horizon, so his anxieties that working class peoples’ increased leisure time bred complacency about exploitation may seem remote from today’s economic and political situation But ‘An Essay on Liberation’ is especially concerned with combatting what Marcuse calls ‘voluntary servitude’, which sees people internalise the values of the dominant society.

In 2009, Mark Fisher defined ‘capitalist realism’ as ‘the widespread sense that … it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it [capitalism]’. In a similar vein, Marcuse describes capitalism as ‘second nature’, a concept formulated by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács to describe how changing and changeable historical processes come to be mistaken for natural and eternal conditions: ‘bourgeois existence’ comes to ‘acquire the patina of an eternal law of nature or a cultural value enduring for all time.’ But as the chapter title ‘A Biological Basis for Socialism’ indicates, overcoming internalised capitalist values for Marcuse requires more than people changing their minds or gaining class consciousness – it involves ‘instinctual transformation’. 

Once upon a time, Marcuse suggests, humanity had a moral, peaceful character and a natural predisposition to solidarity. In the year ‘An Essay on Liberation’ was published, Marcuse had a heated exchange with his former Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno, challenging the latter’s decision to call the police on his protesting students. In the essay he goes further, arguing that activism and forms of cultural rebellion, which he terms ‘The Great Refusal’, activate humanity’s ‘foundational, organic elements’, a ‘good’ instinctual substratum buried underneath ‘bad’ layers of oppressive history. Marcuse claims that excavating submerged aspects of human nature could lay the foundations for ‘a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence’, and where the distinction between art and life would dissolve. This all sounds nice enough, so what’s the catch?

As in Eros and Civilization (1955), Marcuse’s understanding of the instincts is drawn from psychoanalysis. In Freud’s definition Eros, or the life instincts, which Marcuse argues would form the basis for an aggression-free socialist society, seek to preserve life. But the unifying life instincts Marcuse celebrates are, for Freud, inseparable from the death instincts which seek ‘to restore an earlier state of things’ and are inherently conservative. Marcuse’s optimistic re-working of Freud is grounded in a faith that transforming social relations would transform humanity in turn, a common move among Marxist theorists of psychoanalysis, but one Freud firmly rejected. 

Why, though, did Marcuse feel the need to ground his future liberated society in a vision of human nature situated in an imagined past? A rejection of nostalgia for Marcuse’s work should be combined with a rejection of the nostalgia within it. Lukács suggested a sentimental attachment to ‘first nature’ was a symptom of ‘second nature’, a product of alienation and the experience of a ‘self-made environment as a prison’. To fight for a sensuous, playful, calm and beautiful world, for a world without prisons, as Davis continues to do, need not rely on an appeal to some lost biological state, but, as Marcuse noted of protest songs, can still begin from a ‘refusal of the actual.’