1. A vision dominates Marcuse’s career, explaining both his hope and his despair. It derives from German Philosophy of History, from which he appropriated the conviction that the history of humanityfootnote1 can be read as the result of a great project, drafted and executed by a single agency, mankind. The content of the project varies. Immanuel Kant thought it was a movement towards perpetual peace. Hegel replaced peace by liberty, and for him history was the growth in man’s awareness of his freedom. Marx accepted both ends, but subordinated them to a larger goal he thought would guarantee them: the conquest of and reunion with nature, which was once so hostile that men had to separate themselves from it and wage a long technological war that reproduced itself in battles between and inside men.
Marcuse is a sponsor of the ends which terminate the stories the philosophers narrate. He thinks those ends are philosophic formulations of ordinary human hopes, and he regards the future as ‘the link between philosophy and the real
For unlike other guardians of or sufferers from the Hegelio-Marxian tradition, Marcuse cannot be described as ‘millenarian’. The Marxist tradition was faltering when it reached him as a student and scholar in mid- and post-First World War Germany. Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been murdered. Social democrats to whom the tradition had been entrusted announced that its grand goals were not important any more. The leaders of the Russian Revolution retained the goals, but many of them were insensitive to the dangers of prematurely trying to force their realization. Elsewhere, Fascism was capturing the zeal that had been devoted to the aims of the tradition, and directing it out of history and onto the soil of the Nation. It was time to rethink one’s faith in the promises the 19th century had made.
Marcuse remained committed to the aims which in the tradition move the historical process, but he was not convinced that the plans of Kant, Hegel and Marx would one day be accomplished. Throughout his work he bears witness against unlimited optimism.footnote2 Marx had said that even after communism is achieved a realm of necessity, toil and pain persists, though its scope gradually contracts. Marcuse magnifies Marx’s remark, withdraws it from its original context, and posts it up wherever his friends gather in the hope of watching the tradition culminate. He insists that Critical Theory—the outlook he came to call his own— ‘does not envision an endless horizon of possibilities’, and that there is no ‘social hereafter’. He issues warnings which belong on the wall beside every portrait of Ché Guevara, for the Left is so often handicapped by the unnecessary illusion that all problems are soluble. In Eros and Civilization, his most joyful book, he introduces the notions ‘erotization of reality’ and ‘libidinous work relations’, which denote sexual versions of the fulfilment of the tradition; but he treats them with a caution which entitles him, 12 years later, to reprimand Norman O. Brown for forgetting that only death can eliminate tension.
If Marcuse is unwilling to forecast a glorious future in which the aspirations of the tradition are realized, how does he relate to those aspirations, which he has never abandoned? The answer requires an account of the tradition’s conception of mankind’s progress to its destination.