Revisiting Marcuse and the Efficacy of Phenomenological Reduction

Notes for a Work in Progress



It is known to scholars of Marcuse that his engagement with Heidegger by taking the phenomenological route laid out by Husserlian phenomenology had rekindled his waning Marxist sensibility in the wake of the totalitarian atrocities of Soviet Marxism. This essay takes a view of Marcuse’s early turn to phenomenology as providing Marcuse the perfect opportunity to develop a new theory of socialism, but failed to radicalize in the end. The crux of the matter is that he later rejected the phenomenological reduction (cf. Andrew Feenberg, Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History, 2005) that had once provided him a close reading of Heidegger’s text essential in reconfiguring his socialist instinct.

We proceed, hence, with the question: If he was able to restore his Marxist sensibility through an engagement with (Husserlian) phenomenology (culminating in his appropriation of Heidegger) why would he reject the phenomenological reduction later, around the period of the publication of his second book on Hegel, Reason and Revolution? In this work, Marcuse is still reconciling Marx and Heidegger through the lenses of Heidegger charging Hegel (this time, a more serious accusation that Heidegger originally labelled against Hegel) of simply repeating what Aristotle had already said. We may speculate here, not without a basis, that Marcuse is seeking to distance Marx from the influence of Hegel who appeared to have lost originality, therefore preparing the clearing, untouched by Hegel, for the ultimate version of Heidegger-Marxismus. On both occasions, however, Marcuse would not have done anything possible for articulating Heidegger-Marxismus without the phenomenological reduction.

If our conjecture is right, Marcuse would have dispensed with Hegel whose notion of historicity (which he must have assumed Heidegger lacked, which is of course wrong; Heidegger had developed one of the most original conceptions of historicity) had given him philosophical leverage to critique orthodox Marxism (which is right). Here, Marcuse is faced with a dilemma which as one could notice started to arise with a simple shift in his thinking, that is to say, his rejection of phenomenological reduction. We think that this dilemma actually shaped his contradictory embrace of freedom as an end in itself (especially in works such Eros and Civilization and One Dimension Man) which he draws from Hegel as we will try to show in the succeeding discussions.

Confused Marxist sensibility

Marcuse had intuited something of crucial weight to Heidegger-Marxismus (though failed to radicalize, least to say, detected what it was in its determinate form) when he was apparently seeking to distance Marx from Hegel (unlikely, on Heidegger’s prodding as Heidegger was known for his aversion towards Marx and his rather little opinion of Hegel). Hegel’s notion of freedom is problematic for Marx, though you will be surprised what it actually was in Hegel that Marx saw. Marx had only intuited it yet had never developed into a full blown theory. If, again, our conjecture is right, both Marx and Marcuse failed to fully comprehend that Hegel’s notion of freedom is problematic because of its exclusive nature as desire that is resistant to a notion of end. Yet, this failure has to be qualified.

Marcuse failed in his appropriation of Hegel’s notion of freedom by taking it as a positive affirmation of hope for the future of humanity when in fact Hegel took freedom to be the desire for no end, freedom being an end in itself. Freedom has no future, plain and simple.

For his part, Marx failed to see in Hegel what he must see, that freedom is a trap he could get away with from his first attempt at breaking with Hegel’s notion of freedom, that is, a productive principle that knows no end (recall Marx’s critique of the insatiability of bourgeois economy) but eventually held by it as the trap appeared in a better disguise. We are referring here to Marx’s challenge to the production principle of Hegel that dismisses any end, that is to say, his proposition that capitalism will actually end by self-destruction. Here, we are digressing a bit into Marx who is undeniably an important influence on Marcuse.

When Marx expressed his conviction that capitalism would self-destruct by inventing a new labor, a new subjectivity, or the proletariat that would bring it to its knees, he forgot (and he forgot even his own formulation as we will see) that by having invented a new labor and a new subjectivity, which Marx called real subsumption of labor, capitalism has completely broken with the past (or so Marx thought). Capitalism needs to break with the past to deprive the vestiges of the old to disrupt the new order which could still challenge its self-determination. The proletariat who displaced the slave from the old order can therefore be viewed as particularly designed to sustain and perpetuate the new order. In this theoretical sense, capitalism has no rival within history. The bourgeoisie’s fate is sealed.

Theoretically it would follow that the real self-destruction of capitalism, or the possibility of it, was already superseded by real subsumption of labor, or the invention of labor itself, which could continue infinitely. This earlier period in the stage of capital accumulation may be referred to as the time capitalism was still expropriating the existing labor of the old world, dependent on it, the remnants of feudalism or the labor of the slave in relatively advanced form. Marx took a high risk when he discouraged communists to seize power when the mode of production or capital accumulation was still dependent on expropriation of old labor. Politically, nonetheless, that is the perfect opportunity to seize power when capitalism was actually self-destructing, unaware that the labor of the old world could combine against it. Our model is Lenin who was the first to understand the Hegelian mechanism at work in Marx. The moment capitalism surpassed this precarious stage in its history, the world would never be the same again. Once and for all, Marx, a true Hegelian, did not wish the socialist revolution to overtake capitalism. We are not saying it was deliberate on the part of Marx to deceive the communist movement. Rather, it was a simple case of a lingering Hegelianism that shaped his uncanny philosophical militancy.

With Hegel prodding him, Marx got it wrong when he declared that the proletariat is the nemesis of capitalism. The real nemesis of capitalism is the bourgeoisie itself that has perfected the production principle as desire that knows no end. But as nemesis, the bourgeoisie is the perfection of the Hegelian notion of negativity. It does not actually rival itself by opposing itself seriously. This is the rule of the negative—nothing oppositional should be actually sustained; every opposition should be restored to its negative unity. We can qualify the production principle of bourgeois economy then as self-destructive. But it is not actually self-destructing, in the Hegelian sense. Here, we cannot doubt that Marx took the logic of self-destruction (to refer to the positive self-destructing logic of capitalism) from Hegel’s (negative) dialectic. But did Marx intend to radicalize this dialectic to mean actual self-destruction? This we are no longer sure anymore. We may grant an affirmative answer to the question, yet Marx again is mistaken when he chose a wrong agency that could induct capitalism to self-destruction.

On this aspect, Marcuse intuited this new agency in his conviction that capitalism could be challenged from the outside; an agency which refuses to be governed by capitalism. He is right to our estimation. From the outside should mean also ‘not the proletariat’ as it is ingrained in the system itself. It should also be outside of the economy, an aneconomy, so to speak. Perhaps, outside of the capitalist economy, a non-capitalist economy but because it is an absurdity (a non-capitalist economy is no economy at all) let us propose rather an oxymoron, a socialist economy.

Socialism (which is a non-economy) is rather taken here by means of a political act as the economy, the economizing of what is viewed (starting in Hegel) as the foundation of the economic (the insatiability of freedom or desire). This is the kind of socialism we can assert against the Hegelian socialism of Marx. (The scope of this paper, however, dictates us that this aspect should be reserved for a separate topic). Marcuse is a socialist but his socialism due to his misplaced understanding of Hegelian notion of freedom as production is not the socialism that could have been his best theoretical contribution. Owing to this, Marcuse’s self-contradictoriness, which starts with his rejection of the phenomenological reduction, takes an even more unimaginable turn as he proceeds to elaborate his positions. When we turn to his appropriation of Freud’s alleged theory of Desire this has never been more glaring.

The Hegelian ‘Freud’ of Marcuse

In strictly Freudian terms, instincts or drives exhibit unique plasticity in the sense that they can substitute their aims for another, in a way keeping the instinct or drive alive and out of reach by death. In a manner of speaking, instincts are intelligent creatures which can manage to fall apart without actually going into pieces (and they really display some intelligence if by intelligence we can assign an aim-directed energy which involves a considerable amount of calculation). Yet, we have to be careful in equating instincts to desire. Desire is another matter for Freud.

Call it a metaphysical conatus, but Freud understood it quite differently from his fellow Jew, Spinoza. Freud was a serious reader of Schopenhauer and this basically anticipates Freud’s conception of desire vis-à-vis Hegel with whom Schopenhauer had more than a professional issue to settle. Suffice it to say that Freud understood desire according to its representations, its objectifications. Freud has no formal account of desire except when he talks of instincts and drives which point to something no analysis can reach (in the same way, Schopenhauer tells us that the closest we could divine of the will is its representations). But instincts or drives already presuppose of a source which even if science has identified it as somatic is still a qualified statement. Instincts presuppose of a source that is beyond examination for they can surely tell us that they are a product of a long evolutionary pre-history of the species that did not self-originate.

Freud started to tell us a bit of this complicated issue in evolution in his later re-examination of the psychopathology of hysteric patients. Freud observed in his patients a compulsive obsessive tendency to re-experience painful memories. He surmised (this is the controversial death instinct) that this is a sign of a larger than life force which reorients the organism back to an original state of constancy. This force remains enigmatic for Freud, a theoretical compliment of Schopenhauer’s concept of willing, bordering in esoteric Buddhism.

What we are telling here is that Desire for Freud has a more enigmatic origin than the drives whose source of excitation is somatic. Freud however has arrived at this notion of Desire on the strength of observable psychic behaviour which gives us a model of how drives are enigmatically oriented to a larger than life force, but more importantly how drives can be manipulated to orient themselves to a false end or termination in the guise of reconstructing an original state of happiness as is humanly possible. For Freud, the enigma of Desire exacts contradictory demands on our instincts (id) that we find ourselves vulnerable to manipulation without actually being aware of it (where the function of the superego is taken to excess [guilt formation] in the absence of a social relief from those contradictory demands). This leads to his recommendation that a necessary amount of repression is permissible in society to allay the turbulence especially of the ego which is tasked to balance the contradictory demands of the instincts, metaphysically, the demands of life and death.

We know that Marcuse takes this theory of the instincts quite differently from Freud (cf. Eros and Civilization). For Marcuse, banking on the unlimited potential of desire for free creation, instincts should be given leeway to express themselves freely. Marcuse’s conviction rests on his assumption, quite liberally taken from Marx, that the liberation of Man consists in reuniting Him with Nature in the unfolding of a sensuous culture (equivalent to Marx’s species-being). The conditions of possibility for such sensuous culture to be established are already available in the margins of capitalist consumerism. The task of critical theory is to extract, and here we are using Althusser’s notion of determination in the last instance, the hidden or repressed positive kernel of the present historical condition to deliver it to the satisfaction of all (by which Marcuse meant the sensuous deliverance of desire from false gratification which for Marcuse is not sensuous enough, its orientation driven to satisfying false needs).

The aim of capitalism is for gratification not to penetrate deep into the energy pool of instincts where real potentials for free creation, least to say, capacities for destroying a repressive system of gratification, are systematically kept untapped and on purpose as these instincts are being pressed upon with contradictory demands. Marcuse believes that society has long been repressive enough but also at the same time inversely creating perfect opportunities for the instincts to self-manage and self-administer thereby also empowering themselves with little opportunities they have for gratification. These potentials have already matured to take on the responsibility of transforming the social body. Marcuse is critical of Freud’s recommendation for society to repress the instincts on the grounds that Freud misunderstood their self-creating potential. Marcuse draws on Marx on this aspect. In a passage from Marx’s early writings the founder of modern communism says: “Production does not only produce man as a commodity …. Its product is the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” (As a digression, we can glimpse in Marx the beginnings of an object-oriented ontology much in fashion in Philosophy today; cf. Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, 2005, although it differs in scope from Marx). In this passage it is clear that Marx understood that no matter how repressive it is the system cannot totally reduce labor into a mere commodity, an object or thing. Insofar as the commodity is a product of his labor, the commodity assumes Man’s potentiality in a new form—that which he could freely enjoy if only the system allows him so. Obviously, this is a needed corrective to Freud’s pessimistic theory of the instinct.

Back to Phenomenology

So far so good. But where did Marcuse get it all wrong? The answer lies in his wrong notion of Freud’s notion of Desire as if Freud had a formal concept of it. He in fact attributed to the instinct what he should have attributed to Desire, except that, as we are arguing, desire is absolutely anterior and ulterior to signification. Marcuse’s notion of instincts as freely creative and resistant to Ananke (necessity) misplaces Freud’s emphasis on instincts. Freud avoided the metaphysical dilemma intrinsic to Desire which explains his focus on the instincts as phenomenologically observable. We are not saying here that Marcuse misread Freud. The crux of the matter is his reading of Freud’s theory of instincts under a Hegelian lens. We recall here that Hegel viewed freedom as desire as self-production that knows no end, the void of negativity. In other words, Hegel’s notion of freedom surreptitiously seeped into his reading of Freud, in that he mistook Freud to be referring to desire when he is referring to the instincts.

Blame it rather on his Marxist sensibility. Again, we can recall here that even Marx fell into the Hegelian trap. As for Marx’s own issue with Hegel, we can reserve it for another discussion. Suffice it to say here that for us Marcuse’s problematic appropriation of Freud can be traced to his problematic relation to phenomenological reduction. Through the phenomenological reduction, he was able to renew his Marxist sensibility, but rejected it later in the attempt to strengthen this Marxist sensibility, this time purifying Marx of Hegelian influence, assuming that he was able to suspend (epoche) the actual influence of Hegel on Marx. Theoretically, this makes for a sound argument in light of the Heidegger-Marxismus where Hegel is apparently relegated to the margins if not completely silenced. But why would he need to silence Hegel? He did not actually silence Hegel, as he wrote another book on Hegel (Reason and Revolution) after his dissertation (Hegel’s Ontology and Theory of Historicity). We claim rather that he was consigning to silence something in Hegel and this is his theory of freedom (as desire that knows no end). He was able to do this—to keep Hegel’s theory of freedom under the radar of critical analysis—by also leaving no trace of the process under which Hegel’s theory of freedom was secretly smuggled into his theory of instincts. We are referring here to his rejection of the phenomenological reduction.


Slavoj Zizek has criticized Marcuse’s appropriation of Freud along similar lines we have taken so far vis-à-vis the theory of instincts and therefore we do not intend to repeat what he has said in his admiringly comprehensive book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. We agree with Zizek’s critique except that Zizek did not provide us a genealogy of Marcuse’s appropriation of Freud, which to us stared with his problematic relation to phenomenology. On this aspect of Marcuse we are taking the cue from Andrew Feenberg in his book Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History (2005) where he mentioned Marcuse’s problematic relation to phenomenological reduction, though, again, did not offer a deeper genealogical background for such problematic appropriation. This essay intends to broaden this cue by revisiting the path Marcuse had taken since his encounter with Heidegger until his turn to aesthetics, as briefly as it could be done here.

On the larger background, our critical analysis of Marcuse along the lines we intend to explore more is rather taken from a more invasive theory of Desire (traversing Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Deleuze) that we are working on for some time, preceding my interest in Marcuse. (My intended study here is to locate Marcuse within this larger background, so logically Marcuse would occupy a critical section). Marcuse is viewed by many, even within critical theory, as already dated. But they are wrong. Critical theory is in fact wrong. And if we look at the background of Critical Theory’s appropriation of Freud through Hegel (especially the early Frankfurt School), we can say that Critical Theory itself is problematic, not that it is entirely wrong.


My thanks to Jeffrey Occay (Ph.D., University of Macquarie) for rekindling my Marcuse from my former student activism days. Attending his course was well worth braving the untold passion of a mighty Sun going amuck over my side of the world.

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