Marcuse, H  ( 1972)  Negations, Harmondsworth: Penguin University Books  

NB In the Foreword to this collection (written in 1965), Marcuse points out that these essays were written in the 1930s. He rates them as useful now only as a form of remembrance. He wrote them because he was beginning to see the need to focus on culture and though as the only source of freedom in contrast to the constraints on labour. Now ( in the 1960s) it is almost the reverse. Thought and culture are increasingly administered, while there are new possibilities for labour arising from automation [some hopes!]

The  Foreword is also concerned to rescue Hegelian Idealism from what might be seen as excessive critique. At least such Idealism did express ideas such as freedom, negativity, essence, happiness, theory and so on. This did help criticise existing reality by suggesting a contradiction to it -- but '[this was] giving [this contradiction] an ontological Hegelian philosophy...contradiction becomes the very form of truth and movement, only to be enclosed in a system and internalised' ( page xiv). This tends to happen in all scholastic disciplines in my view.

I think myself that these essays are very good examples of what a negative critique might look like, and I have chosen three crackers for Sociologists

Chapter I

Here we have an angle on the transformation of liberal concepts in specific social circumstances to arrive at unpleasant ideological conclusions. For Marcuse, the transformation is a very marked one — liberal concepts come to justify Nazi ideology in the specific circumstances of Germany in the 30’s. On the surface, totalitarian theories associated with fascism are completely opposite to liberal political theory — indeed German fascists specifically attack liberalism. However, Marcuse says it is a superficial liberalism that is being attacked, it is peripheral elements of liberal theory that are rejected. The central concepts of classic liberalism (largely its ‘natural law’ versions) are capable of justifying totalitarianism for Marcuse, and such are liberal fears of Marxism that actual liberals have even opted for fascism explicitly as a bulwark against bolshevik threats etc.

So: what are the central tenets of German fascist political theory —’heroic-folkish realism’?

(i)‘The heroizing of man’ — instead of petty bourgeois man bound by caution, rationalism and moderation, the new man is to be heroic — ‘the man who travels through.heaven and hell, who does not reason why, but goes into action to do or die, sacrificing himself not for any purpose but in humble obedience to the dark forces that nourish him.’ (Anyone recognise any modern counterparts of this hero?)

(ii)‘Philosophy of life’ Life has a force all its own, beyond mere reason. Such a view is found in German ‘political existentialism’ above all, as we’ll see.

(iii)‘Irrationalistic naturalism’ — this is self-explanatory really. The problem is to reconcile a belief in pure, original and non-rational ‘nature’ with the evidence of a huge economic and social apparatus that is clearly not ‘natural’ or ‘original’.

(iv)‘Universalism’. A belief in an abstract totality as ‘the true and the genuine’. It’s irrational, and its connection with individuals is, therefore, mystified. Specifically, the totality in fascism is ‘the folk’, a mystical naturalistic entity ‘that is prior to all social differentiation into classes interest groups etc.’ (cf ‘the community’)

How can all this be connected to liberalism ? Liberalism has as its root, a justification of private property, with state intervention as appropriate to regulate and defend civil society (as we have seen, no 7) Private property remains central - and this explains why liberals and fascists will unite against Marxist threats to it. In fascism, of course, it is monopoly capitalism that is being defended, not the classic capitalism that spawned liberalism in the first place — but the overall support for capitalism in both provides the real reason for their unity. Then, in these conditions:

  1. Natural law in liberal thought comes to justify fascist naturalism. Natural law did have a critical use originally (as we saw with France and the USA) —but its conservative, authoritarian side is now revealed — now it is the nature of the ‘folk’ that is the final arbiter

2. Liberal rationalism becomes irrationalism in fascism. Classic liberal theory does emphasise rational analysis, rational discussion among private individuals, rational social institutions, as we know. The snag is that this is a ‘private’ rationalism, about the action of individual agents.

The whole that harmonises these individual actions is non-rational — a natural harmony, a hidden hand (or a non-rational belief in science as ideology ?) When ‘natural harmony’ does break down, only irrationalist justifications are available to liberal thought (seems to fit Smith and Rousseau — but J.S.Mill?) Such irrationalist justifications can include an acknowledgement of ‘natural’ privileges and qualities — e.g. in ‘born leaders’, and, ultimately in the (charismatic authoritarian) leader.

However, the ‘ideological adaptation’ of liberalism cannot by itself explain fascism and its theory. ‘New’ elements are included, anti-liberal ones. These included irrational organic notions of the whole etc (as above) which specifically deny the relevance of economic and political attempts to rationally plan and control and change the real totality etc. An (appalling) naturalism (as above), used to justify the real social relations of advanced capitalism (using the familiar techniques of positing an abstract nature which is rapidly identified with the existing social relations etc). This ‘ideal’ utopian picture of social life is also used to attack demands for real improvements as sordid materialism. There is an appeal to ascetic sacrifice, to ’spirit’ etc (not of course in a genuine German Idealist way — because of the emphasis upon reason in such genuine philosophy, the real German Idealism must be attacked). ‘Heroic attitudes’ are to dominate - but ultimately even appeals of this sort are supported by straight­forward power. Thus woolly romantic ideals are used quite coldly and rationally to stabilise the current system — the ‘great ideas’ are ‘programmatically incorporated into the apparatus of a system of domination’. No genuine justifi­cations are available for such a system of domination --only an irrational justification provided by ‘political existentialism’ — ‘justification by mere existence’.

Existentialism — in German political thought, ‘existential’ means something that exists beyond all reason and restraint — some natural substratum that can only be experienced and never analysed. (Where have we heard this sort of argument these days ?) Such doctrines develop partly as a result of a flaw in philosophical existentialism. Heidegger, for example, did try to recapture the notion of a concrete subject against Husserl’s disembodied transcendental ego, but this concretisation stopped before actual historical and social individuals. Instead a curious abstract anthropology developed with special activities of the abstract individuals involved being dubbed ‘authentic’. Such activities did not include much room for science (dismissed as historically relative — quite correctly, but in a spirit of denying any rational critique of ‘existence’). Instead ‘action’ is celebrated as the only ‘authentic’ practice, action for its own sake, action as an irrational commitment. Guidelines for such commitment take the form of a ‘mandate’ issued by the ‘folk’, the folk’s ‘mission’ supplied by the natural forces of blood and soil.

Political relationships are justified as authentic existential ones — and again political life is mystified as irrational etc. Eventually, all private activity becomes geared to ‘total’ politics — and of course, no reason can restrain such totalisation. Such. widespread politicisation could be progressive. BUT:  the state becomes the ultimate expression of political existence and, of course, its activities cannot be in principle questioned or discussed — the ‘state becomes the bearer of the authentic possibilities of existence itself’, and it is personified in the Fuhrer as mystical interpreter of the ‘folk’ and its ‘mission’.

Existentialism began by emphasising the rights, freedoms and choices of the private individual. In Germany it led to the total replacement of the individual by the state as authentic subject. All the arguments rooted in the unique, non-rational, autonomous yet responsible individual became justifications for a total state, all without any guarantees from the state of freedom or fulfilling existence for individuals (such guarantees, and arrangements like constitutions etc would be unable to grasp the irrational mysteries of folk and nature). Heidegger’s existentialism led to total commitment to Nazi Germany: ‘Today and in the future, only the Fuehrer himself is German reality and law’. 


This article indicates how political and philosophical ideas can come to legitimate appalling systems of domination, even though such ideas may have been genuinely liberating at their inception. This occurs because of inherent flaws and omissions in such ideas. In the case of liberalism the relationships between individuals and the social totality were not analysed clearly. This led to a failure to appreciate that liberal political theory was in fact rooted in, and only possible in, definite social and historical circumstances, which in turn led to incomplete theorisation of ‘the whole’ and of rational organisation of it. The incomplete parts became filled in by references to the ‘natural’ such naturalism is, as always, two-edged — any form of social relationships can be defined and justified as ‘natural’. In some ways, monopoly capitalism, which is a more extensive totality than the totality of classic liberal thinking, can appear as the ‘natural harmony’, the ‘natural whole’ with much more plausibility. 

For existentialism, the same flaws appear. Beginning in the traditions of critical philosophy as an attempt to ground the abstractions of the transcendental ego, philosophical existentialism failed to examine the material social and economic context of human existence. Instead, an ahistorical ‘anthropological’ individuality was developed. The deliberate rejection, not only of science but of all reason as adequate to explain the mysteries of authentic existence was meant to defend the individual as subject and agent (presumably). However, the mysterious and irrational qualities of ‘authenticity’ again enable quite contradictory interpretations to be made, and in Heidegger’s case an easy accommodation occurred with Nazi mysteries like ‘the folk’ as irrational substratum, and total heroic sacrifice as the highest form of authentic autonomy and commitment. (I must confess, I don’t know enough about later Heidegger to be able to decide if such an accommodation is inherently inevitable or possible in his existentialism, or whether Heidegger himself was unable to stave off Nazi appropriations of his ideas.) 

So : what we have i5 a plea to realise that ideas and material social relationships are dialectically linked:

(a)Naturalistic abstractions from actual social contexts can occupy strategic positions in philosophical systems, especially those that dq not fully embrace critical, rational material analysis

(b)Social systems can develop and change in such a way as to make the political realisation of various philosophical ideas impossible, except by revolutionary activity directed at the social system (and above all its mode of production). The only place for such ideas is as a legitimation, a myth of a massively factual reality — the contradiction is contained.

(c)Progressive, critical elements in political philosophies like liberalism and existentialism can be used to support radical fascist political practice too. Again, inadequate critical analysis is to blame for this —in this article, the emphasis is on mistaking forms of rationality (e.g. positivist science or market economics) for reason itself, or on sloppy, residual, historically limited notions of ‘freedom’ substituting for a proper analysis of freedom and constraint in genuinely liberating political practices.

 This sort of analysis applies beautifully, in my view to modern celebrations or irrationality (‘experience’, ‘commitment’, the rejection of ‘Western thought’ in favour of Eastern mysticism, a belief in ‘spontaneity’ and so on), and to modern restrictions of the term ‘freedom’ to mean a purely private or leisure ‘non—political’ authenticity. Try it on your own examples.

 Finally It is interesting to compare Marcuse’s article with Habermas’s (in ‘Theory and Practice’). Marcuse points to modern irrationalism as one of the heirs of liberal thought. Habermas offers another possibility — liberalism leads to the ‘scientization’ of public life, economic growth as the operational definition of the public good etc (at least, that’s what I think he’s leading up to, although it’s not very explicit in that article). Why these apparently opposite conclusions ? Is it, maybe

(i) they’re talking about different social systems (Marcuse Germany in the 30s, Habermas USA and Europe in. the 60s)? What are the specific elements that explain the different outcomes of transformed liberalism ?

(ii) Perhaps scientization and irrationalism can (must ?) occur together (certainly a clear theme in other Frankfurt stuff). In this case we can simply ‘add together’ the 2 articles to get a total picture ?

(iii)Both authors do remind us that it is not only the classic theoretical concepts of liberalism that are crucial — but actual, specific inter­pretations of them in practice. How typical then are the German liberals who supported fascism, or the  American liberals who work within the framework of ‘natural rights’ these days? Are these anti-liberal trends inherent or conjunctural?

 Chapter IV

Originally, critical theory took the form of philosophical critique of consciousness in the Germany of the 1830s. Then it became superfluous as social and economic conditions were seen as responsible for such consciousness. This leads to materialism and the focus on economic and political change to achieve happiness. The pursuit of Reason becomes a matter of finding the most rational organisation for mankind. Philosophy becomes redundant, except where reason obviously seems to contradict reality.

Hegel's unity of reason and reality is a flawed one, since it is reality that is to be grasped as a concept. This can carry critical implications, even though it is an idealistic notion, since it can lead to demands that reality be brought to Reason and thus freedom, but there is no account of how to realise this freedom, and this leads, in Hegel's work to unfortunate accommodation with a 'bad present'.

Kant's emphasis on the transcendental realm of freedom similarly diverts attention from reality, and leads to an acceptance of bourgeois semblances of freedom and reason. It stresses the importance of privatised, internal achievements only, and thus, ironically, lease to a notion of freedom as involving the recognition of the necessity of present society. The necessary antithesis between freedom and reality is cancelled.

However, freedom is equated with necessity only when that necessity itself is free.

There is an inherent tendency towards accommodation in privatised Idealism. The truth is the subject's own achievement, seen best in Descartes’ or Kant's synthesis a priori. The subject becomes a guarantee for freedom, and this inevitably leads his tour support for private property. The community becomes secondary, constituted by monads, simply an unfolding of what is given for individuals. There is an inability to transform this idea of the social  (pages 138- 9).

In this way, 'idealist rationalism is a bourgeois philosophy'. However, it is more than a mere ideology  (defined, page 140, as set of ideas connected to a definite transforming political interest). Often philosophy is a mere ideology because it offers 'illusions about the socially relevant factors', but this is not so for Idealism:

(a) Idealism is correct as a form of consciousness in that it properly analyses 'the important features of bourgeois society -- abstract ego, abstract reason, abstract freedom'.

(b)  The focus on 'pure'  reason allows a 'bad facticity', but it does leave open the idea of human beings as more than 'Economic Man', as more than a unit of exchange. It is in this sense 'individualistic', although it fails to grasp the importance of social relations. It does transcend facticity, although it is again flawed because facticity itself is left uncriticised. However, Idealism has oppose the sacrifice of the individual to false collective interests.

Reason should be no longer restricted to a matter if thoughts alone, but should lead to demands for 'social organisations in which individuals can collectively regulate their life according to their needs'.In this way, philosophy becomes a social theory; ideals become practical struggles.

But  what if the struggles fail, if the transformation of social life fails?  In that case critical theory itself must change, and stress the potentialities rather than the concrete economic and political achievements, which might already have been granted. The emphasis should be on the ultimate goal, the achievement of real social relationships rather than abstract notions. It becomes necessary for critical theory to oppose the 'reality criterion'  of complacent positivism and to insist on relating goals and practices to concrete social situations. In this way, a Utopian element is necessary, given that the existing social order appears as the untruth. This is not a matter of 'whimsy or opportunism'  but an obstinate insistence upon confronting reality with his own potentialities.

So, new authoritarian states are to be critiqued as a distortion of economic concepts, as going beyond economic necessity to form an entire social totality full stop the economy is so dominant in modern societies that even the non - economic has become incorporated. The question now is how to subordinate economic tendencies to human needs. This may be an inversion of the notion that the base determines the superstructure  (page 144). The labour process is already regulated now, so liberal politics are irrelevant, and the question now is how to regulate the labour process in the interests of the freedom and happiness of the masses. The tremendous increases in production, and the steady abolition of private property still leads to unjust outcomes, unless the interests behind them are recognised and discussed.  The goal now is that 'total human relations are to be liberated',and this is inherent even in the earlier concept of materialist Critical Theory  [that is, orthodox Marxism].  This is no mere critique based on philosophy or social theology.: philosophical criticisms must be reawakened as oppositional critique. Factual criticisms, and scientific criticisms are relevant only if they are subordinated to these philosophical goals of transformation -- sciences always compromised by reality, more so even than Idealism, because it avoids the discussion of potentialities and accepts the confinement to what is given.

The division of labour between philosophical and practical struggles is necessary, and follows from the existing split between mental and manual labour, which philosophy alone cannot overcome.  Yet an adherence to the abstractness of philosophy is 'more appropriate to the circumstances, and closer to the truth, than the pseudophilosophical concreteness of  social struggles'. The categories of philosophy -- reason, morality, and so on -- must be preserved and renewed. The materialist approach to knowledge is not enough, and philosophical concepts as such must be discussed: philosophy is more than ideology, and it does have truths, although these are often distorted. Of course, all philosophy has a social element, which is found even in the forms of thought -- thus what appears as universal and abstract logic, depends on the logic of predication.  Further, the notion of philosophy as 'foggy ideas' is really traceable ultimately to the interests of domination. Nevertheless, philosophy contains certain truths which rise above the social determinants -- for example, insights into reason, knowledge, Psychology, logic, and epistemology. These are often disguised as universals, but they can be allocated to actual historical subjects in order to release the negative surpassing qualities and criticisms inherent in them.  

Critical theory concretises philosophy and shows formulations and solutions beyond the boundaries of ordinary philosophy. It points towards social totality:

  1. Iindividuals tend to be seen as private, separated from reality as a result of bourgeois economic conditions

  2. Thought can only abstract from individuality in some pure realm which becomes the monadic isolation of the bourgeois individual in the premises of Idealist thought – ‘this horizon of untruth bars the door to real emancipation'.

Philosophy ends in sterility, such as relativism, for example. This is because individual subjects are the guarantee of truth, and can only prove the truth of their ideas by the production of a world. However, they cannot really do this, since the world is constituted 'behind their backs'. Such construction only happens in the abstract. Social relativism has a point, but its criticism of the social determination of ideas ignores the potential of philosophical thought, and simply accepts relativism. Instead, a universal insistence that all human beings are rational, and deserve happiness and freedom, must be preserved as a concrete demand in societies, even those which give the lie to this proposition  (fascist ones, for example).

The flaws of traditional philosophy are summarised again on page 153 -- it leads to a 'bad materialism', or an other-worldliness; it is easily accommodated into bourgeois practice. It must be attacked by a materialist theory of society and a new emphasis on the centrality of domination. The goal of such an attack must be made clear --  there is 'an Idealism under a materialism'! Some sort of material utopianism must be preserved as an anticipation of a possible future, one which could be achieved rationally, and one which is possible thanks to increasing levels of technical development -- these already permits fantastic possibilities, and yet are real, since human beings can achieve them in practice.

Some sort of fantasy is essential to break the grip of the present, and help us focus on the future. A desire to be 'scientific' is not enough, and there are dangers in flirting with the methodology of science in other philosophies. Science is connected with domination, and there is a danger of 'fetishism of science'.Scientific objectivity can never correspond to the truth, since the truth often is found against the facts, and hidden behind them. Scientific predictions, even in socialist planning, operate with a flawed concept of man and the social totality  (seeing them as separate, for example).  Science and Technology arise according to associations of human beings  (featuring domination), and cannot be the model for those associations.

We need a new way to dominate economic forces by political ones, where political forces are defined as aiming at the abolition of the State and administering social wealth in the interests of liberated human beings.

One inheritance of materialist Social Theory is from rationalism, seen as involving a focus upon the individual as the seat of reason, but this can lead to a dangerous incorporation, as in Chapter 1 above. Conservative culture has already been abolished by fascism  [and modernity?], and individual prosperity has already been achieved. In these circumstances the old culture needs reviving! There is still some mileage in traditional economic demands, but above all, the potential of the existing social arrangements need to be contrasted with reality.

Chapter VI

 (This is a thorough critique of Weber, especially the idea of rationalisation). Weber supported rationalisation as a form of practical modernisation of Germany, which explains his attack on German socialists -- socialism was a crime against Weberian rationalism, against the necessity of reason. The issue shows some general interconnections in Weber's work between philosophical, sociological and political commitments. Even the commitment to value freedom means in practice that science should be 'free'  to accept externally imposed obligations. This is embodied in the idea of a value-free economy subordinated to nationalist politics. 'Is'  does not mean 'ought' in Weber's analysis, but this is achieved only at the expense of leaving the 'ought' outside the scope of science and reason. Anyway, this value-free stance is not sustained in Weber's analysis of rationalisation -- the description of what is becomes a form of value criticism. Finally, the abstract concepts in Weber, such as the ideal types, become more real to him than empirical descriptions of reality! 

For Weber, reason becomes rationality. There is a universal mathematicisation of life, based on the notion of rational experience in science, and the generation of the body of rational administrators. This becomes inescapable for Western existence. This last stage shows how for Weber rationality becomes capitalist rationality, as the taming of an irrational drive towards acquisitiveness, as a condition of profitability. Quality becomes reduced to quantity as a result of a universal ‘functionalisation’. An interesting culpability in efficiency becomes apparent in all areas. This involves the organisation and control of both things and human beings, spreading from work to include leisure. Why should this have occurred? With this question we bump into the limits of formal reason and the necessity of value judgments -- in Weber, via the assumptions that economic activity must be centred on private enterprise and profit, as pre-given historical facts. 

Does modern capitalism still require a bourgeoisie? Does it still arise from some inner- worldly asceticism?  Marcuse thinks not: the system is now completely irrational. Asceticism is even dysfunctional, since it reduces consumer demand, which threatens affluent society, with its planned obsolescence, its war economy and its 'total administration'.  In modern societies, capitalist reason leads to frantic over-production, and is thus irrational. This is implied in Weber, if not exactly forecast: it is inherent in his flawed notions of rationality and reason. Thus rationality was originally critical  (when used against the feudal system), then it became inexorable and apologetic, permitting the denunciation of any alternative as irrational. In this way, Weber's notion of reason is limited -- it is always bourgeois reason. 

Weber's abstract scientific definitions of capitalism as a matter of rational accountancy recognises the struggle and inhumanity that it involves, but fails to comment on it -- it is accepted as a part of the accounts. It is true that Weber contrasts formal against material or substantive rationality  [and in this way tries to separate out pure rationality from the highly impure forms of actual capitalist enterprises]. However, this distinction is not pursued far enough, since for formal rationality, as total calculation of costs and benefits, would lead to support for non-capitalist modes  [not calculations limited by the interests of private individuals]. The separation between the two types of rationality is technically necessary for Weber, since it permits capitalist domination to become formal rationality. Capitalist discipline becomes a necessary discipline, even in socialism, he was to argue. The only question remaining is to choose the most rational form of domination: the argument goes that the domination of man by man is necessary to allow man to dominate nature. Hence for Weber, formal rationality become subsumed under the rationality of domination, and this itself gets seen as external, necessary, a matter of  'fate'  [including the fate that awaits in the form of the famous 'iron cage'].  Thus the law of domination appears as objectively necessary, a kind of naturalism, which simply ignores all the potentials for change. 

Weber's whole career as a social scientist was linked to the attempts to separate fact and value. But this means we can only study facts if we agree to let facts be determined 'from the outside', from somewhere beyond our power. By contrast, a  real neutrality would resist such interference from outside: to accept the idea of the private individual and free labour as technical necessities is certainly not being neutral!

Domination itself is legitimated in Weber's theory of bureaucracy and its spread. Formal rationality takes on the role of Reason itself, but it is still only a rationality of means. Weber's assumed goal [for this rationality] -- the satisfaction of human needs -- is too general and abstract.  [Trying to specify these leads to an accommodation with the existing form of society, as with other abstract thinkers]. Certainly, needs are not coterminous with the ends of capitalist activity -- human needs exceed capitalist needs, and anyway, capitalism continues regardless of the needs of the population.  Otherwise, goals and ends are left to irrationalism again, for example they are dealt with under the category of charisma. 

Charisma itself is apologetic, helping to give any form of domination some sort of religious sanctification. The category is allegedly personal, and seems to be linked dialectically with bureaucracy, as when a charismatic leader gives way to a more routinised form of rule by committee. However, there are also cases where a bureaucracy submits to a charismatic leader. These cases show how formal rationality is vulnerable to claims made by irrational leaders. More generally it shows how capitalist rationality refuses to follow completely the implications of formal rationality, which should lead to the end of domination of the system by actual capitalists, and head towards a rational administration of things. It is in this way that particular interests are allowed to dominate, and become seen as general ones, necessary, somehow in the interests of the system itself. Those dominated are the people 'levelled' by bureaucratic administration. A real democracy is regarded as hopelessly utopian by Weber. 

In modern capitalism, the irrational use of rational bureaucratic power is at a maximum, seen clearly in the pursuit of systematic slaughter of the enemy in wars. This is both anticipated and apologised for by Weber -- of course the values at the top of bureaucratic organisations have to come from outside rationality itself: the people at the top who possess these values need no formal qualifications either  [unlike everyone else in bureaucracies]. In this way, the notion of 'value free'  administration and technology is a myth, even for Weber! 

The subordination to technology becomes subordination to domination as such. Weber's criticisms are pessimistic, but also fatalist -- he can see no alternative. Actually however, technology can also be used to liberate people. Here, Weber is insufficiently value free! What he takes as pure definitions are really capitalist ones. What he takes to be neutrality only helps to legitimate the system. 

Technical reason as a [Weberian? Capitalist? Conventionally-defined?] concept is ideological. Technology itself must involve the domination of nature and man: it is calculated and aimed at control. This is inherent in technology, not something added subsequently. Technology is always a project that follows the interests of rulers. In this way, the substantive elements are always present in the formal ones.  However, and turning away from Weber, technology [of this conventional kind] is really an historical process, reflecting particular interests, but domination is not necessary. When social reason changes [completely] so will its derivative technology. This is admittedly a Utopian analysis at present. Perhaps Weber should be read as being ironical?  Perhaps he was really asking: "Is this what you call reason?".