Herbert Marcuse

By: Mark Kingwell
July 19, 2015


There was a time when it was impossible to stroll past a yard sale without seeing a copy of the best-known work of German philosopher HERBERT MARCUSE (1898–1979), One-Dimensional Man (1964), on sale for a quarter or so. I acquired my own copy this way, in fact, and devoured Marcuse’s vivid denunciation of “false needs” in the developed world and his call for the coming “great refusal.” I resolved to break free of the bonds of production and consumption! To expand my consciousness beyond the single dimension of manufactured desire and its restless, constant dissatisfaction! Marcuse’s book was an unlikely intellectual best-seller, joining a small circle that embraces Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958), and Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) — which is to say, books that purport to show, in scholarly detail, just what ails us. But Marcuse’s critique, drawn from the same Frankfurt School wellspring of Kulturkritik that nourishes Adorno and Horkheimer, had the unfortunate philosophical achievement of leaving everything as it is. Indeed, in these days of routine media saturation and comprehensive capitalist eroticism, it can seem quaintly old-fashioned even to suggest that consumer society robs us of political agency. Yet it was true when Marcuse said so, and it is true still. Maybe there is no great refusal coming; but can there be one small refusal at a time? Yes. Just say no!


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Chester Himes, Max Fleischer, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).