Review: Eros and Civilization, by Herbert Marcuse

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(1904 - 1981)
Paul Mattick Sr. (March 13, 1904 – February 7, 1981) was a Marxist political writer and social revolutionary, whose thought can be placed within the council communist and left communist traditions. Throughout his life, Mattick continually criticized Bolshevism, Vladimir Lenin and Leninist organizational methods, describing their political legacy as "serving as a mere ideology to justify the rise of modified capitalist (state-capitalist) systems, which were [...] controlled by way of an authoritarian state". (From :


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Review: Eros and Civilization, by Herbert Marcuse

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, March-April, 1956;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

EROS AND CIVILIZATION. A PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY INTO FREUD. By Herbert Marcuse. The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, 277 pp., $3.95.

Marcuse’s book renews the endeavor to read Marx into Freud. Previous attempts, by Reich and Osborn for instance, failed miserably. Instead of overcoming a bewailed inertia, Reich’s theories hardly sufficed to sustain a ridiculous private racket. Osborn’s work, a product of the Stalinist popular-front period, designed to attract the petty bourgeois, was soon forgotten by both the Western petty-bourgeoisie and the bolshevik regime. Psychoanalysis did not become part of, or a new basis for, a radical doctrine but merely a way of transferring money from the analyzed many to the analyzing few. By providing a new terminology for the various social “ills,” the ideological inertia, as part of the general inertia of capital stagnation, could at least verbally be ended. The re-interpretation in psychoanalytical terms affected all and everything; literature, the arts, the social sciences and politics. Psychoanalysis, moreover, became an independent branch of social activity developing vested interests of its own. Once installed, it perpetuated itself in competition with other ideological instrumentalities by continuously re-creating “demand” for its services through the discovery of new and more “ills” falling into its domain. It is now part and parcel of the prevailing social structure which commercializes all ideas and makes a business out of tangibles and intangibles alike.

Psychoanalysis as business is of no interest to Marcuse. Like Freud, but more consistently, he distinguishes between Freud’s philosophy and his science. In Marcuse’s opinion analytical therapy may be successful even though it has no connection, or has lost its connection, with Freud’s “metapsychology.” He thinks that “the critical insights of psychoanalysis gain their full force in the field of theory, and perhaps particularly where theory is farthest removed from therapy.” Not being an analyst, Marcuse is undisturbed by the Freudian discrepancy between philosophy and science, undisturbed that psychoanalysis recognizes the source of individual sickness in the sickness of society and yet tries to cure individual sicknesses without curing that of society. The analysts, however, must talk this discrepancy away, which then constitutes Freudian “revisionism” — the sacrifice of theory to business.

Marcuse wants to resurrect the “explosive” revolutionary content of Freud’s theories. The “revisionists,” in his view, betrayed psychoanalysis by giving up Freud’s interpretation of concepts such as the death-instinct, the killing of the primal father, the function of the unconsciousness, the scope and significance of sexuality, the depth dimension of the conflict between individual and society, and so forth. In this way they returned to traditional pre-Freudian consciousness psychology which turns biological-material forces into ethical-moral issues and finds solutions in adjustments instead of oppositions. And Marcuse is right; the theory and practice of Freudian “revisionism” is reformist or non-revolutionary, which, under present conditions, means (as it often actively is) “counter-revolutionary.” But this must not be taken too seriously, for despite its widespread ideological application, psychoanalysis and the competitive struggles within its realm remain a tempest in a teapot.

“Explosive” theories have little cash value. With the rejection of the radicalism in Marxian terms, goes the rejection of Marxism in psychoanalytical terms. The flowering of psychoanalysis was possible only in its “revised” forms. In its “orthodox” form it tended toward sectarian dogmatism and became increasingly more untenable because of anthropological, sociological and psychological research that contradicted many of its assumptions. Aside from schisms due to ordinary competition within the field, psychoanalysis, in order to be widely acceptable, had to stress its therapeutic value. There is no market in despair; whereas the market in hope and health becomes the larger the greater the despair. And if behavior, hitherto considered “normal” and thus not considered at all, is suddenly declared an illness of the soul, there will be as many imaginary sicknesses as there are imaginary cures. Psychoanalysis is both a fashion and the expression of an increasing bewilderment within the growing social chaos of a society in transition.

Marcuse’s interpretation, too, is not strictly Freudian. What he reads into Freud would have surprised the latter. To be sure, the voluminous writings of Freud, the tentative character of many of his hypotheses, and the not infrequent retractions and contradictions that characterize the development of his theories, make it possible to find Freudian text for many different views. That Marcuse sees more in Freud than Freud saw himself is, of course, no argument against Marcuse, as people often say more than they are aware of and Freud, though unconscious of the specific revolutionary implications of his theories fathered them nevertheless. However, to regard Freud as a “revolutionist” is to regard him as a belated bourgeois revolutionist, who carried mechanical materialism over into psychology. With respect to the state of “psychology” from which Freud departed, he could consider himself a revolutionary innovator. Yet, from a position that demands abolition of present-day society, he appears no more than a disillusioned bourgeois. He did not see beyond his society, which simply was “society” to him and nothing could be done about it — according to his theories.

As in Hobbes’ perpetual war of each against all, to be held in check only through the intervention of state-authority, so in Freud’s theory, a full satisfaction of man’s instinctual needs is incompatible with the existence of civilized society. Instinct gratification must be subordinate to the requirements of the social system; culture is the methodical and rigidly enforced deflection of instinctual drives to socially useful ends. One can have either complete satisfaction of instinctive drives, but chaos, or civilization and therewith repressions of instinctive needs, but not both simultaneously. As people generally like to eat their cake and have it too, they are bound to be unhappy. Some are more so than others and should see an analyst. But the situation cannot be altered.

In Marcuse’s view, this pessimism is quite unwarranted and does not necessarily follow from Freud’s theory. Moreover, the theory itself implies a possible solution to the dilemma. The solution is Marx’s solution, even though Marcuse never mentions Marx. Capitalism appears in his writings either as “industrial civilization,” or simply as “domination”; exploitation as “constraints,” and so firth. Yet, his whole description of “society” is a politely veiled Marxian description of capitalism, its development tendencies, and its contradictions, which must be overcome to make a happier life possible. Although Marxian theory forms Marcuse’s unmentioned “starting point,” he tries to invoke the impression that because “psychological categories have become political categories” (whatever that means) it is now necessary to “develop the political and sociological substance of the psychological notions.” What is developed, however, has been there all along in the far less ambiguous language of Marxian theory.

However, it is only to the good when two different theories yield the desired single result, when, as here, psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism are both made to indicate the direction of social development toward a better life. Until recently, according to Marcuse, “scarcity” demanded and supported “repressions” in the interest of productive development. What is true in Marxian thought, namely, that socialism presupposes a high level of production, holds true also for psychoanalysis. The ending, or rather diminishing, of the unfortunate discrepancy between the gratification of instinctual drives and social order, presupposes a level of production and productivity which grants more time to the “libido,” allows for more play and less work. Exploitation, or rather “constraint,” is no longer justified. Yet, the social class-structure, or society’s “dominative” character, prevents the “sublimation” of excessive, i.e. natural libidinal forces, in libidinal activities in the form of more sociality and less-restricted sexual mores, which would eliminate or decrease the need for “sublimation” in the Freudian sense.

Whereas to Marx the history of society is a history of class struggles, Freud’s theory, according to Marcuse, is the history of man as the history of his repression. “Culture,” he says, “constrains not only man’s societal but also his biological existence, not only parts of the human being but his instinctual structure itself.” In Marcuse’s view, then, Freud takes in more than Marx, his “biologism” is “sociology” in a deeper and more comprehending sense. As such it does not contradict but verifies Marx’s radical social analysis.

It is conceivable, of course, to picture Marx a “Freudian,” just as Marx was a Darwinist without however accepting “social Darwinism.” And this would be so, even if Marx would have rejected the specific Freudian explanation of the repression mechanism. For he could surely have agreed that exploitation and oppression affect the whole of man and cripples him in every respect, including the gratification of his instinctual needs. But while there seems to be room for Marcuse’s “Marxism” in Freud’s philosophy, there is none for Freud’s classless socio-biology in Marx’s system. Man, for Marx, is an abstract term just as nature and society per se. What we have to deal with, in his view is historical man, and there again with classes of men according to the changing social structure, in a nature transforming itself and being transformed by the activities of men. To speculate about man, society and nature in a very general way has meaning only with respect to concrete situations in actually existing societies at particular historical periods, where such speculations, as researches into the past and future, may serve as media for the understanding and the solution of actually existing problems.

Where there is oppression there must be oppressors, not merely a “social need” to repress instinctual drives in the interests of civilization. If instincts are the same for all biological men, the degree, or the lack, of their gratification will still be diversified relative to positions in the social class structure. If this is not the case, as in Freudian theory, if the “tragical implications of civilization” hold equally true for everybody, this implies a large degree of “self-repression” on the part of the oppressing members of society. And they may, in fact, cause and suffer repression simultaneously but not because of a special concern for civilization but because they see in it an instrument of political rule or of capital accumulation.

In distinction to Freud, to be sure, Marcuse speaks of present-day society as susceptible to social change, and of social change that will relegate Freudian psychology to the past. Yet, by remaining in Freud’s “deepest biological layers” his call to opposition to present-day conditions remains a mere philosophical exercise without applicability to social actions. The sterility of “revisionism” is fully matched by the sterility of Freudian “orthodoxy,” even if it incorporates social class issues in its general theory of man as a contradiction between society and nature. What can be acted upon are only social class issues.

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