Herbert Marcuse's ideas of political strategy
First let me start with a principle: the point of being a philosopher is not to be a good person. This principle becomes an issue if people don't understand it. Philosophers can be saints, but they don't have to be, just as saints don't have to be philosophers. A lecture on this principle appears necessary given that so many people "don't get it."
I saw an important example of this "not getting it," recently, on Facebook. A marxist Internet archive recently asked its Facebook subscribers if it should display the writings of George Orwell. Some people responded immediately: "George Orwell was an asshole!" These criticisms were and are entirely beside the point. So what if George Orwell was an asshole? People don't read Orwell to discover the secrets of sainthood. People read 1984 to discover the idea of dystopia, they read Politics and the English Language to discover how political language works, they read Burmese Days to discover what it was like to be an imperialist oppressor, they read Homage to Catalonia to find out what it was like to fight in the Spanish Civil War (and to be shot by a bullet), they read Animal Farm to find out how political life can be made into a parable. Roger Waters (once of Pink Floyd) read "Animal Farm" so he could figure out how to compose the album "Animals." Those who are still concerned about the relevance of reading George Orwell novels in the 21st century (and here I mean a lot more than using the word "Orwellian" for any government behavior you don't like) should read Emma Larkin's (2006) fascinating book Finding George Orwell in Burma. The question to ask is not whether they're assholes, but did you get something out of reading them. If you want to read Orwell, start here. Okay?
Moreover, I have to wonder if the voices which ask "why do we have to read this stuff, why can't we just talk about politics?" aren't themselves mere symptoms of what I've been calling the failure of political imagination. In our era we are compelled to think and to do the inanely simple because real political solutions would require imaginative faculties we're not using. A current example demonstrates this point: So you didn't like Donald Trump? Me neither. But the geniuses who decided Trump's fate decreed that we were all to call Trump a "fascist" because the idea of "right-wing libertarian promoting a sort of neoliberal todestrieb" was too complex, and they decided we were to run Obama's VP against Trump because it was too hard to imagine "electability" with Bernie Sanders anyway. The end result: not a lot changed, maybe a few things changed, but the big problems are all still here. As George W. would say, "mission accomplished!" Or "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" So that's why we read this stuff -- to avoid descending into the vortex of imagination-free "solutions" into which our politics has gone.
So as another protest against Teh Stupid and its domination of our political brains, here I am going conduct a reading of some of Herbert Marcuse's contributions to the art of political strategy. We are, once again, going to scavenge writings from long ago in the hopes of retrieving something lost. (People who want my quick-and-dirty summary of Marcuse should read this other diary.) What I think especially needs retrieving, in this era, is the idea of political strategy.
Political strategy is pretty important these days; not only don't we have one, but we can't even imagine having one. Much of what counts as "politics" has been reduced to looking kewl while being self-disempowering. For instance, the nice liberal political commentators of our day have started, after the election as before, with the notion that "we're going to pressure Joe Biden," without the least thought as to how this is to be done. Maybe we can sign a petition or send an email or something before we vote for him or for Harris in 2024. In short, what substitutes for strategy today is noise. This needs to change.
A word needs to be said abut what Marcuse wanted to do, given his influence upon that most interesting of political eras, the 1960s. From Douglas Kellner's (1984) book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism:
He (Marcuse) constantly argued that since the problems in the existing society could not be solved by piecemeal reform, a new society is needed to provide maximum human freedom and well-being. He remained an intransigent revolutionist who believed that it was necessary to have in view the goals of liberation to produce political theory and action which would not simply reproduce the oppressive features of the existing society. (320)
This actually seems like a reasonable goal for politics today, given the straitened circumstances in which the human race finds itself today and the difficulties perpetually to be found by those who try to change things. The most recently-updated examination of this goal appears to be this excellent book, which has some wonderful updates on the idea of the "Great Refusal."
Here is the quick definition of what the "Great Refusal." In the 19th and for part of the 20th centuries the idea of "revolution" became the notion, eventually attributed to "Marxism," that the working class (or its agent in the Communist Party) was going to rise up and take control of government, expelling the owning class from power. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this idea seemed rather remote from reality. The idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," moreover, had stopped being attractive, as the end-product was something Marcuse had denounced in a book titled Soviet Marxism. Moreover, Marcuse thought that capitalist "prosperity" had gotten the working class to like its servitude (to some extent). So he argued for a new pretext for "revolution" -- end capitalist repression, exploitation, warfare. Within this category of "repression," Marcuse argued, was capitalist injustice, so end capitalist injustice too. How, you might ask, did Marcuse think the people were going to end capitalist repression and injustice? This, then, was what was behind the "Great Refusal" -- people would simply stop participating. I suppose this would happen most effectively through some sort of vast wildcat strike. In his book "An Essay on Liberation," Marcuse suggests that the Great Refusal could take "a great many forms": guerrilla war, urban uprising, student protest being three examples (vii-viii -- from the Preface).
We need a Great Refusal today. It will probably happen in much the way in which recent wildcat strikes of teachers have occurred -- by the efforts of dedicated participants who have simply had enough.
Another concept of importance to be found in Marcuse's writing is that of the "long march through the institutions" -- this idea comes from Marcuse through Rudi Dutschke, a participant in the student movement in West Germany in the 1960s. This is from his book Counterrevolution and Revolt:
To extend the base of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions, working against the established institutions while working in them, but not simply by "boring from within," rather, by "doing the job," learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera) and at the same time preserving one's own consciousness in working with the others).
The long march includes the concerted effort to build up counterinstitutions... (55)
It would appear that the most difficult parts of the long march through the institutions would be in "preserving one's own consciousness" and in "build(ing)up counterinstitutions." There remains the possibility of being co-opted. And do people join counterinstitutions? At any rate, this counts as a strategy of sorts. We can see that the point of reading Marcuse is to enrich our own vocabularies toward the end of deciding, for ourselves in our own time, what we ought to do.