Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Marcuse, Herbert (18981979)

core definition

Herbert Marcuse was a critical theorist who wrote critiques of capitalism and also developed a Marxist aesthetic.

explanatory context

Social Theory

Marcuse emigrated to the USA with the remainder of the critical theorists but, unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, he moved to the West Coast and when the others returned to Europe he stayed on in the USA. Marcuse's major contribution is a critique of the cultural forms of capitalism, expressed in Eros and Civilisation and One-Dimensional Man. This cultural critique is a powerful, if uneven, criticism of the process of industrialism and represents one of the major themes in Marcuse's work.

Marcuse's sees the proletariat potentially as a revolutionary force. However, the experience of Germany in the 1930's and the United States in the period from 1940 onwards reveals that the proletariat cannot be accepted uncritically as a force with revolutionary potential. Indeed the feature of the American proletariat is the extent to which they are embedded in the culture of industrialism.

Moreover, modern industrial society is organised according to the 'reality principle' i.e. the principle that insists upon 'work and discipline' rather than 'play and sensuousness'

The 'reality principle' derives in the first instance from Freud's distinction between life and death. Underlying these instincts of life and death are the libido, the ego and the superego. The problem for any industrial society is how to arrange the way of life, which is essentially a way of life of delayed achievement (or gratification), so that the various energies of ego, superego and libido do not interfere with the process of work. The initial libidinal desire for gratification located in the libido is controlled by the ego and organised in accordance with the social conventions contained in the superego. In societies that are not industrial the relationship between ego, libido and superego is one of equilibrium: the relationship between nature, human beings and society is such that the energies are balanced. Industrial society is marked however by a principle of repression that effectively engages libidinal energy by displacing this psychic energy into the activity of work. The consequence is that instant gratification is denied; the energy is displaced and ego and superego justify the displacement of gratification achieved by either delay or by the material rewards that will follow from such repressive displacement—deferred gratification.

Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man are both perceptive critiques of the ways in which industrial society engages the principle of repression, by replacing the reality principle for the pleasure principle. The consequence for Marcuse is that needs remain unfulfilled, repressed and displaced. What is more significant is that Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, does not see the possibility of transformation. In this, of course, he is similar to Weber and Weber's gloomy vision of the triumph of bureaucratic rationality.

On Art

Socialism, for Marcuse, involves a society in which people could enjoy more liberty and more happiness.

This goal is abstract and/or ideological because people are loathe to take or even think about revolutionary action.

Thus, Marcuse says, there is a clear relation between art and radical praxis, because both originate in given social relationships and both liberate individuals from these rrelationships.

'Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle.... The autonomy of art reflects the unfreedom of individuals in the unfree society.' (Marcuse, [1977] 1979, p. 72)

'If people were free, then art would be the form and expression of their freedom'.

But that is not the case and art achieves its autonomy by contradicting it (social 'reality). Art negates established reality principle but it is more than mere negation (as that would be utopian). Authentic art transcends naive utopianism by recasting the reality. It recollects and lays bear reality, rather than simply inverting it.

For example, authentic art does not provide 'happy endings'. Unmediated 'happy endings' stand in contradiction to the elaboration of the plot, are deliberately countered to the exposé of reality. (The happy end, as in Shakespeare, Goethe's (Iphigenie), Proust seem to be denied by the work as a whole. In Faust, for example, the happy ending is in heaven but yet the play cannot free itself from tragedy.)

There is no simple transformation of reality because the 'image of liberation' is 'fractured by reality'.

Authentic art rejects the easily made promise of the happy ending and must do so because the realism of freedom lies beyond simple negation. Art is not utopian but re-presents.

Art as revolutionary potential through re-presentation. [The role of avant garde in this? Presumably the avant garde is both authentic and inauthentic?]

Marcuse points to Balzac, a reactionary but authentic artist because his conservatism lays bear the dynamic of finance and entrepreneurial capitalism. His 'heroes' are representatives of the society of Balzac's era, they act and suffer and it is through them, through the individualisation of the social that Balzac achieves an aesthetic quality.

'In this transfiguration the universal in the fate of the individuals shines through their specific social conditions'. (Marcuse, [1977] 1979, p. 25).


Art in re-presenting, preserves but exposes.

Art promises happiness, it can enter the struggle to change the world (although is insufficient alone).

'Against all fetishism of the productive forces, against the continued enslavement of individuals of the objective conditions (which remain those of domination), art represents the ultimate goal of all revolutions, the freedom and happiness of the individual'. (Marcuse, [1977] 1979, p. 69).

This appears idealistic and earlier (pre-1968) Marcuse had a different perspective on art, one that approached a view of art as anti-revolutionary as a 'holiday of the soul'—a way to set aside (bracket) the factual world. The world of aesthetic pleasure as set against a practical world. Art has no end in itself. Art becomes a soporific—it pacifies rebellious desire. It affirms the dominant culture.

Marcuse basically argues that authentic literature is that which is critical and liberationist and not simply a negative analysis of class struggle.


First part of this analysis is based on lecture by Peter Tetley circa 1984-5

analytical review

The opening to Kellner's (undated) analysis of the contribution of Marcuse states:

Herbert Marcuse gained world renown during the 1960s as a philosopher, social theorist, and political activist, celebrated in the media as "father of the New Left." University professor and author of many books and articles, Marcuse won notoriety when he was perceived as both an influence on and defender of the "New Left" in the United States and Europe. His theory of "one-dimensional" society provided critical perspectives on contemporary capitalist and state communist societies and his notion of "the great refusal" won him renown as a theorist of revolutionary change and "liberation from the affluent society." Consequently, he became one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s...

Of One Dimensional Man Kellner writes:

This book theorized the decline of revolutionary potential in capitalist societies and the development of new forms of social control. Marcuse argued that "advanced industrial society" created false needs which integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption. Mass media and culture, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought all reproduced the existing system and attempt to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition. The result was a "one-dimensional" universe of thought and behavior in which the very aptitude and ability for critical thinking and oppositional behavior was withering away.

associated issues


related areas

See also



critical theory


Kellner, D., undated, 'Herbert Marcuse' available at, accessed 8 March 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Marcuse, M., 1956, Eros and Civilisation: A philosophical enquiry into Freud, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Marcuse, M., 1964, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston, Beacon.

Marcuse, M., [1977] 1979, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a critique of Marxist aesthetics, London, Beacon Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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