Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

Laurence Davis: “Only a Bold and Popular Left Radicalism Can Stop the Rise of Fascism”

March 11, 2017

Written by Laurence Davis and published on Open Democracy, 12 February 2017

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition.


Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Some right reserved.

Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.

The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.

They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.

The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.

The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939

Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.

The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.

By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.

This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.

Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse is now available in hardcover from Brill Academic Publishers.  Being the eighty-sixth title in the Studies in Critical Social Sciences (SCSS), this 400-page political and intellectual biography examines Marcuse’s life, focusing on the German critical theorist’s contributions to the realms of philosophy, radical politics, and social revolution, while also reflecting on critiques made of Marcuse and the continued relevance of critical theory, libertarian communism, Marxist-Hegelianism, utopian socialism, radical ecology, and anti-authoritarianism today.

The volume will be republished in paperback in a year’s time with Haymarket Books.

For review copies, please contact Anne Tilanus:

For author inquiries, contact

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

John Bellamy Foster: “The Great Capitalist Climacteric”

November 6, 2015
Ongoing Indonesian fires clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

Ongoing Indonesian fires, worsened by this year’s El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), are clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

This is a link to John Bellamy Foster’s new essay on “The Great Capitalist Climacteric: Marxism and ‘System Change not Climate Change,'” published in the November 2015 issue of Monthly Review.  While we disagree with Foster’s endorsement of Naomi Klein’s criticism of capitalism–in the sense, that is, that Klein is not in fact critical of capitalism as such, as Paul Street discusses–and do not accept the MR editor’s defense of “second-stage ecosocialism,” which distorts Karl Marx’s record on industrialism, Prometheanism, and the domination of nature, the issues of climate destruction and exterminism are self-evidently severe enough to merit reproduction of the analysis and recommendations Foster sets forth this month.

‘The 2°C “guardrail” officially adopted by world governments in Copenhagen in 2009 is meant to safeguard humanity from plunging into what prominent UK climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change has called “extremely dangerous” climate change. Yet, stopping carbon emissions prior to the 2°C boundary, Anderson tells us, will at this point require “revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony,” going against the accumulation of capital or economic growth characteristics that define the capitalist system. More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum—moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an “outside chance” of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex I) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.

Yet, despite the widespread awareness of the planetary emergency represented by global warming, carbon emissions have continued to rise throughout the world. The failure of capitalism to implement the necessary cuts in carbon dioxide can be explained by the threat that this poses to its very existence as a system of capital accumulation. As a result civilization is faced by a threat of self-extermination that over the long run is as great as that posed by a full nuclear exchange—and in a process that is more inexorable. The present reality of global capitalism makes it appear utopian to call for a revolutionary strategy of “System Change Not Climate Change.” But the objective of stopping climate change leaves the world with no other option, since avoiding climate-change disaster will be even more difficult—and may prove impossible—if the global population does not act quickly and decisively.

[…] conventional thought, with only minor exceptions, has virtually no serious social scientific analysis on which to rely in confronting today’s Great Capitalist Climacteric. Those who swallow whole the notion that there is no future beyond capitalism are prone to conclude—in defiance of the facts—that the climate crisis can be mitigated within the present system. It is this social denialism of liberal-left approaches to the climate crisis, and of the dominant social science, that led Naomi Klein to declare in This Changes Everything that “the right is right” in viewing climate change as a threat to capitalism. The greatest obstacle before us, she insists, is not the outright denialism of the science by the far right, but rather the social denialism of the dominant liberal discourse, which, while giving lip service to the science, refuses to face reality and recognize that capitalism must go.16

If conventional social science is crippled at every point by corrupt adherence to a prevailing class reality, the postmodern turn over the last few decades has generated a left discourse that is just as ill-equipped to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric. Largely abandoning historical analysis (grand narratives) and the negation of the negation—that is, the idea of a revolutionary forward movement—the left has given way to extreme skepticism and the deconstruction of everything in existence, constituting a profound “dialectic of defeat.”17

Although some hope is to be found in the Green theory or “ecologism” that has emerged in the context of the environmental movement, such views are typically devoid of any secure moorings within social (or natural) science, relying on neo-Malthusian assumptions coupled with an abstract ethical orientation that focuses on the need for a new, ecocentric world-view aimed at protecting the earth and other species.18 The main weakness of this new ecological conscience is the absence of anything remotely resembling “the confrontation of reason with reality,” in the form of a serious ecological and social critique of capitalism as a system.19 Abstract notions like growth, industrialism, or consumption take the place of investigations into the laws of motion of capitalism as an economic and social order, and how these laws of motion have led to a collision course with the Earth system.

It is therefore the socialist tradition, building on the powerful foundations of historical materialism—and returning once more to its radical foundations to reinvent and re-revolutionize itself—to which we must necessarily turn in order to find the main critical tools with which to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric and the problem of the transition to a just and sustainable society.’

In his conclusion, Foster also sets forth strategic recommendations, particularly with regard to a “two-stage theory” of transition that incorporates an “ecodemocratic” and then “ecosocialist” phase.  His characterization of the former phase bears reproduction here:

‘In the ecodemocratic phase, the goal would be to carry out those radical reforms that would arrest the current destructive logic of capital, by fighting for changes that are radical, even revolutionary, in that they go against the logic of capital, but are nonetheless conceivable as concrete, meaningful forms of struggle in the present context. These would include measures like: (1) an emergency plan of reduction in carbon emissions in the rich economies by 8–10 percent a year; (2) implementing a moratorium on economic growth coupled with radical redistribution of income and wealth, conservation of resources, rationing, and reductions in economic waste; (3) diverting military spending, now universally called “defense spending” to the defense of the planet as a place of human habitation; (4) the creation of an alternative energy infrastructure designed to stay within the solar budget; (5) closing down coal-fired plants and blocking unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands oil; (6) a carbon fee and dividend system of the kind proposed by Hansen, that would redistribute 100 percent of the revenue to the population on a per capita basis; (7) global initiatives to aid emerging economies to move toward sustainable development; (8) implementation of principles of environmental justice throughout the society and linking this to adaptation to climate change (which cannot be stopped completely) to ensure that people of color, the poor, women, indigenous populations, and third world populations do not bear the brunt of catastrophe; and (9) adoption of climate negotiations and policies on the model proposed in the Peoples’ Agreement on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. Such radical change proposals can be multiplied, and would need to effect all aspects of society and individual human development. The rule in the ecodemocratic phase of development would be to address the epochal crisis (ecological and economic) in which the world is now caught, and to do so in ways that go against the logic of business as usual, which is indisputably leading the world toward cumulative catastrophe.’

Foster’s close is as bleak as it is true:

‘In 1980, the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote a cautionary essay for New Left Review entitled “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization.” Although directed particularly at the growth of nuclear arsenals and the dangers of global holocaust from a nuclear exchange in the final phase of the Cold War, Thompson’s thesis was also concerned with the larger realm of ecological destruction wrought by the system. Rudolf Bahro later commented on Thompson’s ideas in his Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, explaining: “To express the exterminism-thesis in Marxist terms, one could say that the relationship between productive and destructive forces is turned upside down. Marx had seen the trail of blood running through it, and that ‘civilisation leaves deserts behind it.’”63 Today this ecologically ruinous trend has been extended to the entire planet with capitalism’s proverbial “creative destruction” being transformed into a destructive creativity endangering humanity and life in general.64 […]

Turning this economics of exterminism around, and creating a more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet is our task in the Great Capitalist Climacteric. If we cannot accomplish this humanity will surely die with capitalism.’

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

Call for Papers for Conference on Fiftieth Anniversary of One-Dimensional Man at Columbia University Libraries

June 14, 2014

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY 2014 Marcuse Conference Call For Papers

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), and in parallel to a similar conference being held at Brandeis University later the same week for the same reason (“The Many Dimensions of Herbert Marcuse”), the Columbia University Libraries are hosting a one-day conference on 29 September that will be dedicated to reflecting on the legacy of One-Dimensional Man and Marcuse’s critical theory generally.  This call for papers is made toward the end of having an open and participatory meeting, in contrast to the framework of the Brandeis conference, which will feature only a select few panels on ODM, besides plenary speeches given by Douglas Kellner and Martin Jay.  All are encouraged to consider making a proposal to contribute to the important discussion that will be taking place at Columbia in September. 

Please note that the deadline for abstracts will be in about 2 weeks’ time, on 30 June.

Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse

November 20, 2013


NB: This is a slightly revised version of the paper I presented at the Fifth Biannual International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference at the University of Kentucky 

In essence, I wish to examine the treatment of imperialism and ecology in the thought of Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse precisely because of the continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day, some three decades now after Marcuse’s death. The importance of the philosophies of these three thinkers to my own development aside, I believe their critical-dialectical perspectives to hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together. 

On Empire, or Imperialism

Marx’s views on imperialism are variable: though they generally can be said to be humanistic, they are also at times vague and outright problematic. For example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian [sic] nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”1

Similarly in Capital, Marx notes that the “more industrially developed country only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”2 Thus is seen the modernist progressivism which underpins a great deal of Marx’s thought, from its early stages in 1848 to maturity some twenty years later. However, providing an alternative perspective in Capital, Marx definitively identifies the original brutality through which the capitalist system arose, as in his concept of primitive accumulation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3

This insurrectional sort of humanism previously had informed some of the journalism Marx had engaged in for the New York Tribune from 1853 to 1858, when he examined from afar the dialectical processes taking place in British-dominated India. Though Edward W. Said famously included Marx’s articles on India within his condemnation of Orientalism, he seems indeed to have overlooked the humanism which pervaded Marx’s analyses in part: as Aijaz Ahmad notes, Marx was entirely precocious even compared with Indian nationalists in his call for an independence struggle against Britain in 1853, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny.4 Indeed, as noted Indian Marxist E.M.S. Namboodiripad argues, in light of the putatively ongoing stagnation of Hindu society in the centuries before the Raj, British colonialism served as an “unconscious tool of history” which might have accelerated the dialectical negation of class and caste—this being a perspective he takes from Marx.5 In his writings on India, Marx was clearly influenced by Hegel, given his claim that life in India was “stagnatory and vegetative,” and that “Indian society has no history at all.”6 With regard to developments in India, Marx favorably welcomed the British introduction of the telegraph, the “free press,” “private property in land,” modern science, and railroads; moreover, he applauded the actions taken by individual British governors to suppress the sati custom, whereby Hindu wives were forced to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands.7 Elsewhere, though, Marx compared Britain’s victimization of Indians to that of the Irish under the British boot, and he claimed the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan [to be] of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”8 Even before largely inverting his uncritical take on the Raj with the coming of the Sepoy Mutiny four years later, Marx would already see confirmed in British colonial rule in India the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization.”9 Later in life, moreover, Marx committed himself to engaging in extensive anthropological and historical investigations of different regions of the world—Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia, and ancient Greece, among others.10 In a famous exchange of letters with Russian militant Vera Zasulich (1881), Marx in fact endorses an alternative path to communism different from the seemingly deterministic model he had previously favored—that is, capitalist industrialization as pre-requisite for communism—in light of the regard in which he held the Russian mir.11 With Engels, Marx writes in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that, to truly “pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership,” the Russian people must be aided by proletarian revolution in Western Europe.12 Given this comment, the two were rather prescient in forseeing the future of the Russian Revolution 35 years later, given the suppression of the German Revolution and numerous other antagonistic social movements in Central Europe in the years following WWI. On this point, whether Marx would have welcomed the ideology and tactics of Leninism and the course of the Russian Revolution before Stalin’s ascendancy is a debatable question, though I tend to hold that the anarchism which permeates Marx’s work—from the 1844 Manuscripts denouncing Hegel’s accommodation with State and capital to his libertarian analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871)—would likely have led him to have some trepidations about the Bolshevik line.13

Adorno, though greatly marked by Marx’s work and Marxist critique, does not share the humanism which led Marx to take a dialectical view of imperialism, nor is it evident that he integrated much concern for the exercise of domination over non-European peoples in his day from other critical sources, such as Rosa Luxemburg. In general terms, it would seem that Adorno concerned himself principally with the question of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence amidst the evidently traumatic experience of the Nazi regime and the Shoah. If we consider Adorno’s psychological and sociological studies of prejudice and racism, moreover, his revolutionary contributions should not likely be doubted: with Horkheimer, he frames the fascist hatred of Jews as emanating from pre-existing liberal-capitalist society in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and his later investigations into the Authoritarian Personality (1950) are similarly radical in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist terms. Hence it is somewhat strange that Adorno never extended his concern for racism and prejudice to analyses of global capitalism, material inequality, and the clearly brutal exercise of Euro-American power against non-European peoples in the two and a half decades following WWII, a timeframe corresponding to the remainder of Adorno’s lifetime. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the continent of Africa is mentioned in a thoughtful reflection on the domination exercised against non-human animals—under imperial capitalism, herds of elephants and giraffes are reduced to mere “obstacles to the landing of bombers in the latest war”—yet Adorno and Horkheimer make no direct mention of Africa’s humans here.14 In a less than liberatory fashion, Adorno begins his 6 June 1967 lecture by mentioning the “terrible threat to Israel” and the “countless Jews [there] who have fled a horrifying fate” as posed by the beginning of the Six-Day War; it does not seem to occur to this critical theorist par excellence that the war in fact began with Israeli aggression against Egypt.15 But perhaps such a culturally nationalistic perspective could already be seen in his and Horkheimer’s denunciation of Gamel Abdel Nasser as the “fascist chieftain who conspires with Moscow” following the 1956 Suez Crisis.16 In less reactionary terms, though, two years after the Six-Day War Adorno discusses the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and in his lectures on metaphysics he clearly locates the U.S. devastation of that country and its people as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz.17 Such statements on Adorno’s part demonstrates the profound disregard in which he held U.S. militarism, and his position here is undoubtedly more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who defended the U.S. war effort as a means of inhibiting the expansion of Maoist influence in the world. This is not to say that Adorno expressly supported the Vietnamese resistance, given his criticism of the “unspeakable Chinese-style tortures” performed by the Vietcong, as communicated in correspondence to Marcuse in 1969; unlike Marcuse, Adorno never translated his repulsion at the war in Vietnam into concrete resistance or activism.18 This marked failure on Adorno’s part may well have had to do with the tumultuous relationship he and Horkheimer were experiencing at that time with contemporary radical-left movements in Germany, which for their part overwhelmingly seem to have aligned themselves with the Vietnamese Communists. Then, in August 1969, Adorno died unexpectedly.

As is well-known, Marcuse for his part considered many of the national-liberation efforts of his day to be principal factors in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. A number of his most famous books and addresses positively cite the revolutionary developments in Cuba and China as encouraging signs of progress—in this sense, it would be interesting to see how Marcuse might have reacted to the increased Stalinist/Maoist bureaucratization of those societies. Another question is to what extent Marcuse was aware of highly negating developments such as massive famine under Mao, or how well-known such realities were at the time—for this I have no answer. Self-evidently, Marcuse is very famous for his passionate activism against the Vietnam War during his tenure as professor at UCSD—an effort for which he suffered considerably, given the numerous death-threats directed against his person, which in fact led his graduate students to rotate shifts as his protection detail.19 On the question of Israel, Marcuse may well be termed a Zionist, though not in the fascist-aggressor sense we see today: for him, the foundation of Israel, which he felt sought to “prevent a recurrence of the concentration camps [and] the pogroms,” forms “part of the struggle for liberty and equality for all persecuted racial and national minorities the world over.”20 Marcuse visited historical Palestine with his wife Inge in 1971 to expressly study the Arab-Israeli conflict at first hand, and rather than limit themselves only to engaging with Israel and Israelis, the pair traveled to Nablus to discuss matters with Palestinian intellectuals under occupation.21 Raymonda Hawa Tawil, a Palestinian who observed these interactions, paraphrases Marcuse as saying that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”22 Indeed, in the article which he composed for the Jerusalem Post after his visit, entitled “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede,” Marcuse clearly acknowledges the great “injustice done to the native Arab population” in the founding of the Israeli State: born through the “displacement of the Palestinian people,” the power of settler-colonial Zionism “proceeded without the rights and interests of the native population” in mind.”23 In this sense, Israel’s genesis was “not essentially different form the origins of practically all states in history: establishment by conquest, occupation, discrimination.”24 Moving forward in practical terms, Marcuse in this essay calls for a peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Republic (Egypt & Syria) which would entail the latter’s recognition of Israel and a “settlement” of Palestinian refugees, whether that be in pre-1948 Palestine or in a Palestinian State existing alongside Israel.25 Though his terms for peace include full Western access to the Suez Canal, Marcuse’s recommendations are not the standard liberal-colonialist tripe of his day (or our own), for he argues that the shape and direction of a future Palestinian state must be decided through Palestinian self-determination. Marcuse sees his recommendations as “interim solutions,” and he ultimately expresses hope for an “optimal solution” whereby Arabs and Jews would live together as “equal partners” in a Middle Eastern “socialist federation.”26 Finally in these terms, one of Marcuse’s very last lectures in life was given in the Mexican bordertown of Mexicali—a destination which the septuagenarian Marcuse reached with his Mexican assistant after a “trip which few Norteños of any age would have made,” according to George Katsiaficas.27

Ecology and Nature

In recent years, a great deal of focus has been placed on Marx’s supposedly critical insights into environmentalism, his humanistic exposition of capitalist alienation and its dialectical transcendence through communism aside. The main theorist pushing this alternative reading of Marx has been John Bellamy Foster, author inter alia of Marx’s Ecology (2000), The Ecological Revolution (2009), and The Ecological Rift (2010). In my view, Foster’s argumentation is far from convincing in terms of claiming Marx as an ecologist. Notwithstanding the critical importance of the anti-capitalist analysis of environmental destruction which Foster advances, his assumptions seem greatly to exaggerate the extent to which Marx concerned himself with ecological questions. Most of Foster’s elucidations of Marx’s supposed contributions to environmentalism are composed of a few passing comments the communist theorist makes regarding the adverse effects capitalist agricultural processes have on soils—yet no attempt is made to supply more varied and consistent utterances on Marx’s part which concern themselves with environmental matters, because such an effort would prove largely fruitless.28 True, the young Marx does favorably cite Thomas Münzer’s declaration that, under the rule of private property, “all creatures have been turned into property,” while they must “become free”—he even argues that the capitalist “view of nature” implies “real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.”29 But this statement is rather peripheral to the argumentation in the essay in which it is found, “On The Jewish Question.” While Marx evidently defines communism in his 1844 Manuscripts as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between [humanity] and nature” as well as among humans, one should likely make a distinction between the young Marx and his mature self in these terms, for references to environmental issues account for only a tiny fraction if we consider Marx’s ouevre as a whole.30 In my view, communist humanism vastly outweighs concern for ecology in the primacy of Marx’s social philosophy. Instead of an ecologist, on my account, Marx was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—that is, uncritical—view of industrialism; I believe Adorno was right to declare that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”31 It is not for nothing that Marx condemned the “brutalizing worship of nature” he claimed as being evident in the traditional village life of pre-Raj India; he was clearly offended that in Hindu society, “man, the sovereign of nature” would “f[a]ll down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”32 It is important not to confuse Marx’s modernist progressivism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller.

Adorno’s philosophy is manifestly permeated with concern for the destructive effects capitalism and civilization have had on non-human nature. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer claim the effort to dominate external nature to have been central to the very emergence of human reason: subjected to the exercise of reason, nature is degraded to “mere material, mere stuff to be dominated.”33 The result is that the animal comes to “know only irrational terror and the urge to make an escape from which he is cut off”; subjected to human dominion, “[t]he whole earth bears witness to the glory of man [sic]”:

“Unreasoning creatures have encountered reason throughout the ages—in war and peace, in arena and slaughterhouse, from the lingering death-throes of the mammoth overpowered by a primitive tribe in the first planned assault down to the unrelenting exploitation of the animal kingdom in our own days.”34

Adorno and Horkheimer clearly express their disgust with vivisection, consumption of animal flesh, zoos, and loss of biodiversity; using the example of captive circus lions who perish in a fire, they denounce the instrumentalization of animal life, noting prevailing bourgeois standards to consider such deaths as mere “capital losses to their owners.”35 Adorno will carry on such critical animal-liberationist perspectives throughout his lifespan, coming to endorse vegetarianism in his 1963 summer lectures.36 Indeed, in his celebrated 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of historical progress, whereby this is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which allows it to “becom[e] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[g] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”37 Lastly, in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno continues with these utopian socialist musings, noting that the experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination”; moreover, he notes that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants .”38

As Michael Löwy notes, Marcuse undoubtedly shares the “romantic revolutionary” perspectives of his comrade Walter Benjamin, and Adorno to a degree—for he expresses a “nostalgia for precapitalist Kultur” as a cipher which rejects industrial-capitalist technology and the destruction of nature.39 This concern can be clearly seen in Marcuse’s earliest written work, his dissertation on the German Artist Novel (1922). Though Marcuse seems to have suppressed environmental concern in some of his work in the 1930s—his treatment of the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) is far from critical—it is very clearly evident in Eros and Civilization (1955), wherein Marcuse integrates Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable: they are simply to be treated as “’just what they are,’ ‘being-there,’ existing.”40 Marcuse is famous for his advancement of such a romantic image of liberation as advancing sensuousness and tranquility; it is indelibly linked to his concern for humanity’s reconciliation with nature. Like Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964) argues for overthrowing human cruelty to animals, naming their “ill-treatment” as part of the capitalist “Hell.”41 In Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse dedicates an entire chapter to the question of “Nature and Revolution”: here, he advances the puzzling idea that “to campaign for universal vegetarianism” would seem misguided amidst the depth of suffering “inflicted by man [sic] on man.”42 Yet he argues reasonably that “no free society is imaginable which does not […] make the concerted effort to reduce consistently the suffering which [humanity] imposes on the animal world.”43 Generally, Marcuse in “Nature and Revolution” comes to identify the non-human world as an “ally” in the struggle against the triple domination exercised by capitalism: that over self, other humans, and nature.44 Endorsing the concept of the “liberation of nature,” Marcuse joins Adorno in arguing for the re-orientation of science and technology toward the end of assisting it, and, though he clearly prefers the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature” to capitalism’s destruction of it, he nonetheless criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled.45 He here restates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature, as originally formulated in Eros and Civilization.


1Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), available online at

2Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition,” Capital Vol. 1 (1867), online at

4Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (London: Verso, 1992), 236.

5Ibid, 238.

6Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1974-2004), 132, 217.

7Ibid, 218, 181.

8Ibid, 126.

9Ibid, 221.

10Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 196-236.

11Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

12Marx and Engels, “Preface to the 1882 Russian Edition,” online at

13Maximilien Rubel, “Marx, theoretician of anarchism” (1973), online at

14Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 251.

15Qtd. in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 452.

16Ibid, 413.

17Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 1, no. 233 (January–February 1999): 127.; Adorno, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (1965; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 101.

18Adorno and Marcuse, op. cit, 127.

19Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 93.

20Ibid, 54.

21Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.

22Ibid, 232.

23Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 54.

24Ibid, 54.

25Ibid, 56.

26Ibid, 56.

27Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, p. 197.

28John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Global Ecological Rift,” MRZine, 28 November 2007, online at

29“On the Jewish Question” (1844), available online:

30Qtd. in Lawrence Wilde, “The creatures, too, must become free: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction” (2000), available at

31Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.

32Marx and Engels, op. cit, vol. 12, 132.

33Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 97.

34Adorno and Horkheimer, op. cit, 245-6.

35Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 208-9.

36Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002)

37Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.

38Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.

39Michael Löwy,“Under the Star of Romanticism: Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse,” in Revolutionary Romanticism, ed. Max Blechman (SF: City Lights, 1999), 209.

40Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 165.

41Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 237.

42Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

43Ibid, 68.

44Ibid, 59.

45Ibid, 61, 69.