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.

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QMS's picture

in who or what to follow is dangerous.
Many recognize the benefits of peace
and co-operation over war and competition.
As you say, it takes some imagination for
thinking minds to understand we do
have a choice.

Thanks for the essay.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@QMS

As you say, it takes some imagination for thinking minds to understand we do have a choice.

And indeed we must excavate the history of thought to stimulate the imagination, because it sure as snot isn't going to happen by watching CNN, MSNBC, or FOX.

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa

Dawn's Meta's picture

This brings to mind the old argument 'do you not listen to Wagner because he was anti Semetic? Or do you listen to his music in itself?" Where do we draw the line?

I have studied Wagner and the librettos of The Ring cycle of operas. Without the nationalistic context, they stand up well. Here's a quote

“To Richard Strauss, the composer, I take off my hat,” the conductor Arturo Toscanini once famously declared. “To Richard Strauss, the man, I put it on again.” Toscanini’s distinction between the individual and his work raises an age-old conundrum about art and morality which the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth this week brings into sharp relief. Should we allow the details of an artist’s biography to affect the way we view their work?

A Reluctant Nazi?

I'm now reading a most interesting book "Finks" by Joel Whitney. It uses "The Paris Review" as the hub of the use of art, writing, culture by the CIA for 'hearts and minds' in the Cold War against Soviet Russia. This along with "The Devil's Chessboard" raise many questions about how 'liberals' became enthusiastic participants in sometimes quiet disapproval to vehement screeds about the dangers of 'Marxism, Communism, socialism' and so on.

This subject is fraught with many political, social, emotional and historical points of view.

Like Naomi Wolfe talking on FOX with Tucker Carlson, we need to keep talking, thinking, discussing and if I can buy stuff without using Amazon, I will.

Great work in these essays. A new voice to understand. I do like the offer of a solution "The Great Refusal". I'll have some.

Thank you.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

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enhydra lutris's picture

student movement of the 60s as well, a great or quasi-universal NO. Not only repression and domination, but even the enhancement of production and productivity, improved standards of living and increased leisure and the like were to be subordinated and subservient to global solidarity, peace, abolition of poverty, exploitation and/or enslavement, and the like.

The goal is still worthwhile, and the tool or method is still viable, but it has to be widely and constantly practiced and it needs to spread and be spread. A decade of dedicated focus on "what's in it for me" is more than sufficient to derail the entire process indefinitely.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

QMS's picture

@enhydra lutris

interesting perspective .. or global control

A decade of dedicated focus on "what's in it for me"

speak your mind

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enhydra lutris's picture

@QMS

was/is first priority, then all the other "Nos"

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

QMS's picture

@enhydra lutris

well put

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Cassiodorus's picture

@enhydra lutris

A decade of dedicated focus on "what's in it for me" is more than sufficient to derail the entire process indefinitely.

The end-result of dedicated focus on "what's in it for me" appears to have been a public that no longer asks "what's in it for me" of their politicians, and so the vast multitudes no longer get anything out of politics.

More specifically: People knew well in advance of his election that Joe Biden was a habitual liar and that all of his promises of doing something for the public were therefore crap, yet nobody asked "what's in it for me" of electing such a creature because they were anxious to get rid of Trump and because nobody had any imagination left to see any other path forward.

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa