Eros and Civilization for a Jobless Future: Herbert Marcuse and the Abolition of Work

| Ryan Moore | Heathwood Press |


Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization envisioned a revolutionary society, one in which automation and growing productivity would enable the elimination of unnecessary labor. The reduction of the working day would enable a greater liberation from mental and physical forms of repression. Marcuse arrived at this utopian ideal through a dialectical reinterpretation of Freud. Emphasizing the growth of productive forces and freedom from alienated labor, Marcuse’s vision was thoroughly Marxist, but his reading of Freud also addressed psychological questions that Marxists had neglected. More than 60 years later, Eros and Civilization continues to be relevant for the Left. Some Left intellectuals have recently proposed alternatives to capitalism that would maximize automation, provide universal basic income, and minimize the need for human labor. Eros and Civilization should be revisited as a seminal work of critical theory that can illuminate these revolutionary possibilities, along with their implications for political and personal emancipation.


For decades, the Left floundered without a utopian vision of an alternative to capitalism, but this is starting to change. For instance, in Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2015) explore the possibilities for creating postcapitalist societies, which could be realized by accelerating automation, abolishing work, and demanding universal basic income. Their work builds on prior studies of the technological displacement of workers, which conclude that the Left should be struggling to create an economy that provides a minimal standard of living for all, while reducing necessary labor (Aronowitz and Cutler, 1998; Aronowitz and DiFazio, 1994; Weeks, 2011). This vision of post-work society extends the lineage of dialectical Marxist thinking about the contradictory, and potentially emancipating, consequences of the development of productive forces in capitalist societies.

Critical theory has a vital role to play in the long overdue reconstruction of utopian thought and practice. Here I consider Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization as one such work of critical theory that further illuminates the vision of a post-work society. Marcuse not only imagined the possibility of freedom from alienated labor, he outlined a grand image of total liberation that would finally reconcile the antagonism between intellectual rationality and libidinal sensuality. Eros and Civilization is typically associated with the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s, but at the core of Marcuse’s analysis is a Marxist ideal of freedom from work.

Marcuse and Freudian Marxism

Eros and Civilization represented Marcuse’s reckoning with the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Written during the anticommunist fervor of the 1950s, Marcuse never references Karl Marx by name in the text, yet Marx’s ghost haunts every page. At the time Eros and Civilization was published, Freudian psychoanalysis was making its widest impact on American society; meanwhile, the mere mention of Marx’s name was cause for state repression, or at least intellectual disdain.

In the context of Fifties repression and the “nuclear family,” the practice of psychoanalysis had made Freudian ideas into instruments of patriarchal control. Against the prevailing use of Freud for purposes of domination, Marcuse sought to reclaim the more radical and liberating implications of his thought. Marcuse used a dialectical method to read through and beyond Freud, just as he had done with Hegel in his earlier work Reason and Revolution (1960), and in the same spirit that enabled Marx to read through and beyond British political economy, French revolutionary politics, and German idealist philosophy. Marcuse read Freud against Freud by treating his concepts as historical and sociopolitical, instead of natural and timeless.

Marcuse used Freud to smuggle into the 1950s a Marxist utopian vision based on the growth of productive forces, freedom from alienated labor, and revolutionary liberation. But Marcuse also used Freud to shore up a major shortcoming of Marxist theory. “Marcuse told me that he turned to an intensive study of Freud,” Douglas Kellner (1984; p. 154) recalled, “because he was aware of the absence in Marxism of emphasis on individual liberation and the psychological dimension.” Indeed, orthodox Marxists did not merely ignore these psychological issues, they reduced them to economic or material factors and banished them from theoretical considerations. Marcuse turned to Freud as a means of expanding the revolutionary ideal of emancipation and liberation that originated with Marx.

Several German intellectuals had previously attempted to synthesize Marxist and Freudian ideas, especially in response to the rise of fascism and Nazism. Wilhelm Reich (1972) presented his first synthesis in the 1929 essay “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.” With Hitler’s ascent to power, Reich (1970) applied Marxist and Freudian concepts to an analysis of authoritarian ideology, racist nationalism, and sexual repression. Erich Fromm (1962; 1989a; 1989b) had also begun to integrate psychoanalysis with Marxism in the late 1920s. In Escape from Freedom, Fromm (1941) analyzed the psycho-political dimensions of fascism’s mechanical conformity and sadistic destructiveness, though his approach was less sex-centered than Reich’s.

In the final years before Hitler took power, the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt conducted empirical studies of authority and family through surveys of working-class Germans. Fromm had a central role in these early studies before he left the Institute in 1939, and Marcuse also took part in the research (see Jay, 1973; pp. 143-72). Survey research on social-psychological aspects of authoritarianism continued in the United States during the post-war years, culminating in The Authoritarian Personality, a two-volume work published by Theodor W. Adorno and three colleagues (1950).

Nevertheless, Eros and Civilization differed greatly from all these earlier Freudian-Marxist works. Marcuse had been very critical of both Reich and Fromm. He felt Reich was too focused on a narrow conception of sexual liberation, and that his linkage of fascism and sexual repression was reductionist. [1] At the same time, Marcuse (1966; pp. 238-74) criticized Fromm as one of a number of “revisionists” who dismissed Freud’s theory of the instincts. After a critical review of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse and Fromm engaged in a prolonged, and sometimes cantankerous, debate in Dissent magazine in 1955-56.

But above all, Eros and Civilization was different because it contained a vision of emancipation and liberation; it was more than a Freudian-Marxist analysis of authoritarianism and fascism. Marcuse utilized a dialectical Marxist method for reading Freud beyond Freud, and in doing so he discovered an emancipatory ideal of freedom. Marcuse’s utopianism was consistent with Marx’s theory, but also extended it to the liberation of individuals from psychic domination and libidinal repression.

Beyond the Reality Principle

Freud’s position was that the repression of humanity’s natural instincts is necessary for social order, productivity, and progress. Because civilization depends on the denial of full satisfaction, the instincts must be restrained and redirected to other activities or objects of desire. This entails obedience to what Freud called the reality principle and its values of restraint, productivity, and delayed gratification, in opposition to the pleasure principle of desire, play, and gratification.

Repression in society at large is reproduced in the psyche of individuals. For the sake of productivity, people learn to forget the joys of pleasure and play, and they repress their desires for satisfaction. The reality principle does not merely suppress the pleasure principle, it channels the desire for pleasure toward activities that are useful for the dominant social order. Unfulfilled needs are sublimated into productive, controllable endeavors. As Marcuse (1966; p. 13) wrote, “man learns to give up momentary, uncertain, and destructive pleasure for delayed, restrained, but ‘assured’ pleasure.”

Freud concludes that unhappiness and dissatisfaction—within the psyches of individuals, and in society as a whole—are necessary preconditions of civilization and progress. Marcuse challenged Freud’s pessimism with a dialectical approach that treated the reality principle as historical and contingent, rather than eternal and inevitable. For Marcuse, repression and domination are not timeless or unavoidable, they are products of society and therefore subject to struggle and change.

Marcuse based his hopes on the increasing forces of production. As he put it, “[M]uch of the toil, renunciation, and regulation imposed upon men is no longer justified by scarcity, the struggle for existence, poverty, and weakness. Society could afford a high degree of instinctual liberation without losing what it has accomplished or putting a stop to its progress” (Marcuse 2007; p. 163). The reality principle’s dominance over the pleasure principle becomes increasingly pointless as the forces of production develop to an extent that potentially surmounts scarcity. Individuals and society could be liberated from the need to sacrifice pleasure and satisfaction for the sake of work and productivity. As Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss (2007; p. 159) put it, “We now have enough. We can stop taking the economy to new heights of production and productivity. We can finally relax and enjoy what has been built over the years by so many who did not get the chance to enjoy it.”

Marcuse (1966; p. 35) introduced the terms “surplus-repression” and the “performance principle” to describe how a social formation shapes the character of domination. Invoking but never naming Marx, he analyzed surplus-repression as a form of exploitation, linking it to the concept of surplus-value in describing a total experience of domination and alienation. In distinguishing between basic and surplus-repression, Marcuse clarified that he did not believe it was possible or even desirable to completely eliminate repression. He defined basic repression as “the ‘modifications’ of the instincts necessary for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization” (Marcuse 1966; p. 35). With increasing economic and technological productivity, a greater portion of basic repression becomes surplus-repression.

Marcuse identified the performance principle at work in both capitalist and Communist forms of postwar industrial society. He introduced the concept of the performance principle to emphasize that the reality principle is historically and sociologically variable. As with repression, the point was not to wholly abolish the reality principle, but rather to transform its character in the process of liberating the pleasure principle.

Under capitalism, the performance principle takes the form of moral compulsion—the “work ethic.” The obligation to compete and perform—not only at work, but even in leisure activities and personal life—becomes inescapable in the social relations of capitalism. Marcuse (1966; p. 45) links his analysis of surplus-repression and the performance principle to Marx’s critique of alienation:

The performance principle, which is that of an acquisitive and antagonistic society in the process of constant expansion, presupposes a long development during which domination has been increasingly rationalized: control over social labor now reproduces society on an enlarged scale and under improving conditions….[T]heir labor is work for an apparatus which they do not control, which operates as an independent power to which individuals must submit if they want to live…Work has now become general, and so have the restrictions placed upon the libido: labor time, which is the largest part of the individual’s life time, is painful time, for alienated labor is absence of gratification, negation of the pleasure principle.

Surplus-repression and the performance principle compel people to internalize the constant drive to work, compete, and produce. They are also evident in the vehement hostility directed against individuals who refuse to work, appear to be lazy or unproductive, or seem generally free of social constraint. Surplus-repression and the performance principle are most apparent in conservative attacks on the welfare state, and they are well known to protesters who have been yelled at by passersby to “GET A JOB!” Social anxieties about pleasure and freedom proliferate, demanding submission to authoritarian forces of repression: “As the reality principle takes root, even in its most primitive and most brutally enforced form, the pleasure principle becomes something frightful and terrifying; the impulses for free gratification meet with anxiety, and this anxiety calls for protection against them” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 67).

Repressive domination by the performance principle is not inevitable. The dialectical irony is that capitalism increases the forces of production to the point that it becomes possible to abandon the performance principle—to reduce alienated labor and set free the pleasure principle. Beyond this historical moment, repressive domination by the reality principle is surplus-repression, which continues in the interests of domination, not from the necessity of survival.

Aesthetics and Marcuse’s Utopian Imagination

Marcuse sketches an image of liberation and non-repressive civilization in the second part of Eros and Civilization. Although the reality principle achieves dominance, its rule is never absolute. The pleasure principle endures in the subordinate realms of art and fantasy, periodically resurfacing in disruptive moments that Freud described as “the return of the repressed” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 144). The memory of an original state of happiness and harmony persists in the unconscious.

Marcuse argued that these insights of the unconscious were expressed in art, mythology, and philosophy, but also in more routine acts of daydreaming and fantasy. He maintained a lifelong interest— from his dissertation on the German novel to his 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” to his final book, The Aesthetic Dimension—in the capacity of art and culture to escape the repressive force of the reality principle. Throughout his life, Marcuse maintained that art reveals repressed, forgotten truths which cannot be adequately represented by language.

For Marcuse, imagination and aesthetic are “unrealistic” in the sense that they have maintained their freedom from the reality principle. The aesthetic dimension preserves the subordinated ideals of pleasure, sensuousness, and beauty against domination by the intellect, technique, and reason. Art reveals the possibilities for a happier civilization, but it does so through acts of negation, in memories of oppression and protests against the existing state of things. Marcuse (1966; p. 144) wrote, “The artistic imagination shapes the ‘unconscious memory’ of the liberation that failed, of the promise that was betrayed.”

In emphasizing the negative aspect of aesthetics, Marcuse maintained a close affinity with his Frankfurt colleague, Theodor W. Adorno. Reflecting on artistic protest against repression, Marcuse (1966; p. 144) quotes Adorno: “in a state of unfreedom, art can sustain the image of freedom only in the negation of unfreedom.” The aesthetic dimension represents the possibilities of freedom and pleasure by confronting the alienation produced by a repressive society—by negating what is, art illuminates what could be. Marcuse described this as a “Great Refusal,” which later became an influential idea within the New Left. As he introduced the term, Marcuse (1966; pp. 149-50) quoted Adorno again: “This Great Refusal is the protest against unnecessary repression, the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom—‘to live without anxiety.’”

The foundation for Marcuse’s ideal of non-repressive civilization is the increasing use of automation and the abolition of alienated work. He emphasized that this sort of society would satisfy human needs “without toil—that is, without the rule of alienated labor over the human existence” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 152). Minimizing work would ensure more free time for creative exploration and the pursuit of pleasure, and it would liberate the body from its function as an instrument of labor. Vanquishing capitalism’s performance principle and surplus-repression would release the pleasure principle, transforming its relationship to the reality principle: “the quantum of instinctual energy still to be diverted into necessary labor (in turn completely mechanized and rationalized) would be so small that a large area of repressive constraints and modifications, no longer sustained by external forces, would collapse” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 153). Marcuse made it clear that these possibilities were enabled by the automation of labor and the technological development of productive forces. The prospects of freedom were directly linked to mechanization and the end of unnecessary toil: “The more complete the alienation of labor, the greater the potential of freedom: total automation would be the optimum” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 156).

Marcuse’s utopian vision involved a reconciliation of reason and the intellect with pleasure and the senses. Under a repressive reality principle, these faculties are divided into an unequal dichotomy of higher and lower orders, with reason elevated to a position of dominance over the senses. Rather than simply inverting this hierarchy, Marcuse’s vision entailed an overcoming of the antagonism into a new form of synthesis which he called “sensuous reason” or “libidinal morality.”

As he speculates on the possibilities for creating this sort of synthesis, Marcuse (1966; p. 180) looks to Schiller’s ideal of aesthetic education, which “demonstrates the principles of a non-repressive civilization, in which reason is sensuous and sensuousness rational.” Schiller had imagined that the repressive force of reason could be transformed by a “play impulse” expressed in aesthetics, which would “abolish compulsion, and place man, both morally and physically, in freedom” (Marcuse, 1966; p. 182). Marcuse further links the ideal of sensuous reason to the Marxist vision of a revolutionary society organized “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[2] Marcuse (1966; p. 224) reconsiders Schiller’s aesthetic ideal from a Marxist, dialectical perspective on history, society, and revolution: “To the degree to which the struggle for existence becomes co-operation for the free development and fulfillment of individual needs, repressive reason gives way to a new rationality of gratification in which reason and happiness converge.”

With the reduction of the working day, Marcuse believed there would be a release of energy associated with Eros, the life instincts. The function of the body in society would shift from an instrument of labor to a means of pleasure. This would certainly involve the liberation of sexual energy, but Marcuse also maintained that the shape of eroticism itself would be transformed. Developing beyond “genital supremacy,” the body as a whole would become an object of gratification.

This is where Marcuse decisively differed with Wilhelm Reich. Marcuse (1966; p. 201) argued that liberation “involves not simply a release but a transformation of the libido: from sexuality constrained under genital supremacy to erotization of the entire personality.” This libidinal energy would be qualitatively different from the episodic release of suppressed sexuality that occurs within repressive societies, so often resulting in sadistic violence. In distinction from Reich, Marcuse (1966; p. 208) argued it was possible to create non-repressive forms of sublimation—sexual energy could be “gratified in activities and relations that are not sexual in the sense of ‘organized’ genital sexuality and yet are libidinal and erotic.” Liberated from its alienated, repressive form under capitalism,work and other forms of interpersonal activity could be re-energized by non-repressive sublimation.

From Eros and Civilization to the New Left

Marcuse became somewhat more pessimistic in the years following the publication of Eros and Civilization. Writing more than 10 years later, in his “Political Preface” to the 1966 edition of the book, Marcuse’s main self-critique was that he had underestimated the capacity of advanced industrial society to stifle the possibilities for liberation while reinforcing surplus-repression. Reflecting on the optimism of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse (1966; p. xi) wrote, “I neglected or minimized the fact this ‘obsolescent’ rationale had been vastly strengthened (if not replaced) by even more efficient forms of social control.”

One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964, diagnosed how advanced industrial society thwarted dissent, stifled individual freedom, and channeled the dream of emancipation into consumerism (Marcuse, 1964). Marcuse portrayed a stabilized form of monopoly capitalism that consistently “delivers the goods” to masses of consumers imparted with “false needs.” One-Dimensional Man put more emphasis on the forces of destruction and waste in an “advanced industrial society” that seamlessly integrated state capitalism, American militarism, and mass consumption.

One-Dimensional Man was a significantly more pessimistic work, though Marcuse never completely lost hope in the possibility of liberation.[3] He argued that the working class was no longer a revolutionary force—at least not in the subjective sense of being a “class for itself”—because it had been pacified by a higher standard of living, as organized labor was incorporated into the totally administered society. Marcuse continued to believe that the aesthetic dimension of art, literature, and other forms of high culture contained potentially subversive images of refusal and fantasy. But in One-Dimensional Man he also coined the term “repressive desublimation” to describe how such moments of dissent were defused and recuperated by consumer capitalism. Marcuse (1964; p. 57) lamented “the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality.” Likewise, repressed sexual energies were being released by advertising, consumerism, and the mass media, but in commodified forms that extinguished their emancipatory edge. Marcuse (1964; p. 78) maintained a critical, dialectical perspective: “This society turns everything it touches into a potential source of progress and of exploitation, of drudgery and satisfaction, of freedom and of oppression. Sexuality is no exception.”

It is therefore ironic and somewhat puzzling that One-Dimensional Man, more so than Eros and Civilization, would come to be considered a key text for the New Left in the late 1960s. After the worldwide student revolts of 1968, the news media promoted the idea that Marcuse was the New Left’s guru philosopher and that One-Dimensional Man its scripture. The media clearly overstated the extent of Marcuse’s influence, as few within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or other radical organizations had read him, and many had never even heard of him prior to the worldwide protests of 1968.[4] The growth of the New Left and the counterculture did, however, have a significant impact on Marcuse’s thinking in the late 1960s. If all hopes for a revolutionary proletariat had been lost, Marcuse could now identify new sources of opposition emerging in the social movements and cultural rebellion of the time. Indeed, the New Left seems to have influenced Marcuse more than Marcuse influenced the New Left.

In his 1967 lecture at the “Dialectics of Liberation” congress in London, Marcuse began talking about the hippie counterculture as the embodiment of a “new sensibility.”[5] He recognized that much of the hippie movement simply involved the harmless pursuit of private pleasure—speaking at the peak of “flower power,” Marcuse began by reminding his audience that “flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.” But he also saw “an inherent political element,” especially in more radical groups like the Diggers, that led hippies to create “new instinctual needs and values” while rejecting “efficient and insane reasonableness.” As Marcuse (1989) saw it, the counterculture was uniting sexual, political, and moral rebellion into “a nonaggressive form of life” with the potential to achieve “the demonstration of qualitatively different values.”[6]

Even if the young people of the New Left and the counterculture hadn’t read Marcuse, they seemed to be expressing and enacting many of his core ideas in their budding revolt. The 1950s and 60s were decades of extraordinary prosperity in the United States, and such conditions nurtured a new sort of youthful opposition. The revolts of the Sixties were as aesthetic and sensuous as they were political, expressed in experiments with art, theater, poetry and literature, film and photography, fashion, and especially music. Although there were fundamental conflicts between the New Left and the counterculture, in some instances they converged into a synthesis that hinted at possibilities for all-encompassing political and personal transformation.

In the second half of the 1960s, great numbers of young people not only protested against racism and the Vietnam War, they rejected advanced industrial society as a whole—its conformity, consumerism, exploitation, militarism, sexual repression, technical rationalization, etc. And yet the significance of “youth” in the Sixties was itself another product of this system of state-managed consumer capitalism. Courting an enormous generation of baby boomers with unprecedented amounts of disposable income, media and advertising appealed to a collective identity of youthfulness. Meanwhile, the federal government’s massive expenditures on higher education opened colleges and universities to millions of young people in the 1960s—here they would be trained to manage the corporations and state bureaucracies of the advanced industrial society. In the most general sense, “youth” became a symbol of the nation’s affluence and confidence to a degree that hasn’t been seen since.

The revolts of 1968 brought Marcuse into an international spotlight—in Paris and Rome, students carried banners and placards reading “Marx, Mao, Marcuse.” He revisited some of his more hopeful ideas in his lectures and a short work published in 1969, An Essay on Liberation. In considering whether there was a biological foundation for socialism, Marcuse returned to the notion of an instinctual drive for freedom and happiness that could only be fulfilled by a complete social transformation. Again, he emphasized it was the development of productive forces that made these radical changes imaginable. Young people were bearers of a new sensibility that could revitalize the values which the performance principle confined to the aesthetic dimension; they sought to reunite art and life. In Marcuse’s words, “The aesthetic as the possible form of a free society appears at that stage of development where the intellectual and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are available […] where the hatred of the young bursts into laughter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor” (Marcuse, 1969; pp. 25-6).

The connections with the international protests of 1968 drew major attention from the press,. Marcuse, then a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) became a target of right-wing retribution at the height of the Vietnam War.[7] In 1968, the American Legion launched an extended campaign, working in conjunction with San Diego’s local newspaper, to have Marcuse fired from UCSD. California Governor Ronald Reagan also publicly denounced Marcuse and pressured the UC Board of Regents in an unsuccessful effort to terminate his contract. Marcuse had to flee San Diego after receiving numerous death threats, particularly from the Ku Klux Klan, who threatened to kill him within a period of 72 hours; Marcuse and his wife Inge hid out on the central coast, where armed graduate students kept watch at night (Kātz, 1982: pp. 174-176). After the furor of 1968 had died down, Marcuse continued to attract controversy through association with his most famous graduate student, Angela Y. Davis— radical activist, former Black Panther, and member of the Communist Party whom the FBI placed on their Ten Most Wanted list in 1970. Davis had initially studied philosophy with Marcuse as an undergraduate at Brandeis, then went to Frankfurt to study under Adorno, and finally reunited with Marcuse to complete a master’s degree at UCSD while teaching at UCLA, at least until the Board of Regents (pressured again by Reagan) fired her (Davis, 1974; pp. 133-145).

Marcuse’s outlook soured with the violent state repression of the Nixon administration and the implosion of the New Left. His 1972 book Counterrevolution and Revolt bemoaned a “preventative counterrevolution” that was at work not only in the U.S., but in repressive regimes around the world. In contrast to One-Dimensional Man, in the early 1970s Marcuse saw capitalism as a failing system, one that was no longer able to satisfy the needs it had created. Marcuse (1972; p. 23) was witnessing the beginning of the end of the organized capitalist system instituted after World War II: “real wages are declining, inflation and unemployment continue, and the international monetary crisis indicates the weakening of the economic base of the empire.” Marcuse saw the capitalist system collapsing from within, but the social movements that had led the revolutionary surge of the late 1960s were now dormant. He noted that “activity on the campuses is stifled; the Black Panther party has been systematically chased down before it disintegrated in internal conflicts” (Marcuse, 1972; p. 24).

In the 1970s, however, Marcuse did identify new possibilities arising from the women’s movement. In a 1974 lecture at Stanford University, he declared: “I believe the women’s liberation movement today is, perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have” (Marcuse, 2005; p. 165). To Marcuse, feminism was emerging as a force to negate the performance principle that is essential to patriarchy—the women’s movement would replace its values with those of receptivity and non-aggression. Marcuse also continued to identify glimpses of liberation in art. He revisited this idea in the final book he published before his death in 1979, The Aesthetic Dimension. So long as it maintained its capacity for negation, Marcuse (1978; p. x-xi) argued that “every authentic work of art would be revolutionary, i.e. subversive of perception and understanding, an indictment of the established reality, the appearance of the image of liberation.”

Conclusion: Our Jobless Future

More than six decades after the publication of Eros and Civilization, contemporary left thinkers like Srnicek and Williams (2015) are imagining a world beyond work and the work ethic, where everyone receives basic income and economic activity is fully automated. This would be a radical reversal of the role automation currently plays under capitalism, in which technological displacement increases the reserve army of labor and management’s control over the labor process, thereby weakening the power of workers. In the 1990s, Aronowitz and DiFazio (1994) showed how computerization was remaking numerous professions to minimize the role of human labor in production, distribution, services, and communications. They found that automation had advanced far beyond basic industries like auto and steel production—it was eroding the autonomy of white-collar professionals in fields like engineering, science, education, and health care. Historically, capital has increased its investments in automation in response to the struggles of workers for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. Instead of resisting technological displacement, as workers have usually done, the Left could accelerate the pace of automation through class struggles for equitable distribution, greater autonomy, and a reduction of the working day.

Marcuse’s critical theory, especially Eros and Civilization, should acquire renewed relevance in this context. At one point he presents his utopian vision of a world which has eliminated alienated labor:

“Under the ‘ideal’ conditions of mature industrial civilization, alienation would be completed by general automatization of labor, reduction of labor time to a minimum, and exchangeability of functions. Since the length of the working day is itself one of the principal repressive factors imposed upon the pleasure principle by the reality principle, the reduction of the working day to a point where the mere quantum of labor time no longer arrests human development is the first prerequisite for freedom”. (Marcuse, 1966; p. 152)

Once again, Marcuse does not mention Marx, but he seems to be paraphrasing the well-known passage in the third volume of Capital where Marx linked “the realm of freedom” with the reduction of the working day:

“In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production […]. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite”. (Marx, 1967; p. 820)

Marcuse uncovered a revolutionary ideal at the core of Freudian theory, and it was a vision consistent with Marx’s dialectical view of history and emancipation. But Eros and Civilization also went beyond Marx in calling for the collective liberation of our senses, psyches, and libidos. Marcuse addressed questions of pleasure, aesthetics, and sexuality that most Marxists had neglected, but which later emerged as central issues for the New Left and the counterculture, and which any revolutionary movement of our time must also address. Marcuse’s influence on the New Left was certainly overstated, but we can hope that his ideas will be a guiding intellectual force in the next revolutionary movement.

[1] According to Kellner (1984; p. 155), “Marcuse said that he and other members of the Institute for Social Research believed that Reich ‘moved too fast from subjective conditions to objective conditions’ and ‘vastly oversimplified’ fascism in claiming that sexual repression created personalities who were suspectible to fascism, and in explaining fascism’s success through its ability to manipulate repressed personalities and provide sexual surrogates.”

[2] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program.” This phrase has been popularized by Marx, but it was originally written by the French socialist Louis Blanc.

[3] In the words of Glenn Parton (2015), “It is possible to view One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization as two sides, negative and positive, of a dialectical analysis of contemporary society rooted in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but the clues and concepts for a ‘solution’ to the vicious circle are to be found in Eros and Civilization.”

[4] See Wheatland, Thomas (2009). The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 311-26. The social historian Mike Davis, then a member of SDS, was one of the few who had digested Marcuse’s work, or at least tried. Davis told Thomas Wheatland, “I tried to read One Dimensional Man, but understood not a word….Most SDSers, especially the college drop-outs like myself, had too little background in theory to really appreciate Marcuse or even understand his location in the history of Marxism” (quoted in Wheatland, 2009; p. 321).

[5] This conference brought together an astonishing range of activists, artists, and intellectuals, including Julian Beck, Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Goldmann, Paul Goodman, Emmett Grogan, Thich Nhat Hahn, R.D. Laing, Ernest Mandel, and Paul Sweezy, as well as Marcuse. See Cooper, David, ed. (2015). The Dialectics of Liberation. New York: Verso.

[6] A short video and the full text of Marcuse’s lecture can be accessed at

[7] On Marcuse’s time in San Diego, see the documentary film, Herebrt’s Hippopotamus: Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise (1996), by Paul Alexander Juutilainen. Available at

After the critique he offered in One-Dimensional Man, it is extremely ironic that Marcuse wound up in San Diego, a city that at first glance may seem like a sunny beach resort but is in fact also a major hub of America’s military-industrial complex. Frederic Jameson (1971; p. 16) offered this image of Marcuse, then his colleague at UCSD, working to resuscitate utopian ideas during his time in southern California:

“[T]he philosopher, in the exile of that immense housing development which is the state of California, remembering, reawakening, reinventing—from the rows of products in the supermarkets, from the roar of the freeways and the ominous shape of the helmets of traffic policemen, from the incessant overhead traffic of the fleets of military transport planes, and as it were from beyond them, in the future—the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea”.


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Heathwood Institute and Press is a non-profit, critical theoretical organisation that was formed by a collective of academic researchers across a wide range of disciplines. Motivated and inspired by Frankfurt School critical theory, our aim is to investigate the root causes of social, economic and environmental inequality by offering foundational, holisitic social critique as well as promoting concrete, critical alternatives to the type of social policy symptomatic of today’s highly unjust societies. Learn more.


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