The Freudian Moment: Reflections on Herbert Marcuse

By Christian Garland


“The idea that man could receive intimation of his connection with the
surrounding world by a direct feeling which aims from the outset at
serving this purpose sounds so strange and is so incongruous with the

structure of our psychology that one is justified in attempting a psychoanalytic, that is genetic explanation of such a feeling”

“Sometimes one imagines one perceives that it is not only the oppression of culture, but something in the nature of the function itself that denies us full satisfaction and urges us in other directions (…)”


According to such wisdom there is an inherent, and irreconcilable conflict between the insistence of the pleasure principle and that of overarching necessity defined and circumscribed by reality; indeed the entire passage of civilisation has, according to Freud, been marked by this inescapable fact. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud contended that the basis of civilisation, i.e. that which allows its very existence, is repression of the natural instincts of human beings. According to Freud’s highly influential later theory, there is a continual violent struggle between the Life Instinct or Eros, which has as its goal the preservation and enrichment of life and the Death Instinct or Thanatos, which manifests as the destructive-aggressive impulse aiming for a return to the non-existence of death. This conflict is itself a permanent determining factor within all individuals, as for society, in which the absolute necessity of taming the Death Instinct is its repressive internalisation. For Freud, Eros is no less of a socially disruptive force, even if it does not have death as its ultimate end. However, left untamed-that is without its affective sublimation by the disciplinary force of culture, it would all but destroy civilization. Freud was adamant to stress that Eros has no organic sociality but is a violent, anarchic power continually seeking outlets for its own gratification.

Against this unfortunate but widely held assumption on the origins of human development, Marcuse sought to make a ‘philosophical inquiry into Freud’ that would engage with the conceptual theoretical methods of his broad meta-psychology with the purpose of critically evaluating its conclusions. As early as 1938, twenty years before this would be fully explored in the monumental Eros and Civilisation, Marcuse was already developing his analysis of “the inner connection between happiness and freedom” in works such as the essay On Hedonism. In his later philosophical ‘inquiry’ Marcuse set out to uncover what he called ‘the hidden trend in psychoanalysis’, namely the hidden tensions in Freud’s theoretical categories, and the ideological suppositions on which many of their conclusions are based.

In giving a materialist grounding to psychoanalytic categories, the task for Marcuse was to uncover the “explosive contradiction” in Freud’s thought, in keeping with the original aims of Critical Theory and its commitment to ideologiekritik, he attempted a radical assault on the closed ideological discourse of psychoanalysis. Its straightforwardly conservative nature was visible not only in the famously defensive disciplinary orthodoxies, but in the fixedly determined narrative it assumed over the social world, and human history; Marcuse was also quick to recognise the obvious political conclusions to be drawn from such a position.

In Freud we find a sustained assault on the idea of human reason as the defining force of history, and indeed civilisation. There is a certain affinity here with other ‘founding’ thinkers in the social sciences where the foundational claims of theory are based in large part on what may be called a ‘mythology’ of human history. This is most obvious in Hobbes (Political Theory) in which ‘reason’ is merely the violent trajectory of the will seeking ‘felicity’: accordingly, his hypothetical ‘state of nature’ is barbarism, and can be avoided only by the operation of an aggregate of calculating self-interest that results in the establishment of an-all powerful ‘sovereign’, Leviathan. This is a view of ‘human nature’ that is closely paralleled in Smith (Economics), where its ‘unalterable’ certainty is recognised as the basis for the competitive struggle for existence embodied in the market. The point of these comparisons with Freud is to illustrate the similarities they share in their belief that human beings have an ‘unchanging’ apparently invariant character; whatever insights can be gained from such theories are not in question here, but the completely fallacious ideology that they form. Just as Darwin’s discoveries would be regularly warped into a pernicious often invisible influence on the twentieth century, Freud’s own science makes the same unintentional and deliberate errors: by situating human beings in an a-social, a-historical vacuum, at the same time it uncritically embraces as ‘given’ that form of society of which it is itself part.

In his analysis of Freud’s account of the unhappy course of civilisation, Marcuse set out to investigate the grounds on which a non-repressive society might be based; crucial to this is Freud’s distinction between the ‘reality principle’ and the ‘pleasure principle’. The pleasure principle is only concerned with gratification, however this runs up against the harshness of its immediate social environment, and the accompanying difficulty of fulfilling the pleasure-impulse. The initial realisation that unlimited gratification of needs is not possible, results in the reality principle shaping behaviour in accordance with its demands:

“Under the reality principle, the human being develops the function
of reason: it learns to “test” the reality, to distinguish between good
and bad, true and false, useful and harmful. Man acquires the
faculties for attention, memory and judgement. He becomes a
conscious thinking subject, geared to a rationality which is imposed
on him from outside” (Marcuse, EC 1969).

Accordingly, the individual develops a highly tuned rationality and moral sensibility, in which the ‘external’ demands of reality become introjected as ‘second nature’; therefore Freud’s theory is in every sense an historical and social theory, in spite of his apparent belief that it occupied the realm of ‘pure science’. For Marcuse, the repressive hold of the reality principle is historically specific, just as there is a crucial distinction to be made between what he famously identified as ‘basic’ and ‘surplus’ forms of repression. Put simply, this distinction is a critical ‘drawing out’ of the historical and social implications of Freud’s theory: basic-repression is that socialising and developmental form which represses blindly instinctual gratification- necessary for the preservation and reproduction of human society; whilst surplus-repression can be defined as the social imperative of hierarchical domination. In keeping with this unnecessary form of repression, advanced capitalist societies function according to Marcuse’s theory, under a historically specific form of the reality principle, which he identifies as the performance principle.

One of the most important features of Marcuse’s Marxian rendering of Freud, is his recognition that capitalism demands an imposed logic of scarcity in order to successfully reproduce itself. This can be elaborated with an example, by employing a later concept from the Essay on Liberation that of ‘obscenity’. In the global economy overproduction of food results in the destruction of the surplus, whilst a modest estimate puts the numbers of those on the brink of starvation in the third world at 800 million, with a further 500 million chronically malnourished. An example of human suffering on such a scale as this seems so obvious as to be self-evident but the political dimension, the fact that such a condition remains unnecessary and imposed is continually absent from even the most heartfelt effort to comprehend it, in this sense ideology successfully reproduces an identification with the ‘reality principle’ of the present order.

As Marcuse argues in Eros and Civilisation the imposition of scarcity, is historically rooted in capitalism, it is not the eternal struggle for existence Freud believed in typical fashion to be ‘inescapable’, but rather “a specific organization of scarcity, and of a specific existential attitude enforced by this organization”. As Marcuse explains, there remains a ‘realm of necessity’, but this diminishes quantitively, to the point where its qualitative super session becomes a real possibility. Such ‘progressive alienation’ i.e. the overcoming of scarcity, marks the historical limits of the need for toil and in fact labour itself -the dream of all utopias. It is such an historical disjuncture between the actual and the possible that Marx himself obviously had in mind, when he talked about the ‘abolition of labour’. There can be little doubt that the initial conflict with the elemental forces of nature, and against hunger, poverty, and disease that have so apparently determined the conditions of human existence, were a protracted historical struggle with necessity; but it is just this ‘progressive alienation’ that creates the possibility for an entirely different world, in which freedom-in its fullest sense becomes the determining force.

Marx of course, sketched the possibility of the historical convergence of freedom and necessity in the recognition that only through the overcoming of material scarcity, and the elimination of toil, is humanity really free. Marcuse took this proposition into previously uncharted realms, beyond the mere ‘economic’ diagnoses of Marx whilst obviously sharing many of the same foundational premises. In his analysis of the possibility of life beyond the established reality principle Marcuse outlines the concept of a ‘really free’ humanity, far beyond Marx’s original formulations. In Marx it is not always clear whether socialism would bring about the inauguration of ‘complete’ freedom, in which the totality of existence would become the continual unfolding of creative human essence; or whether their would remain an ‘inescapable’ ‘realm of necessity’; before freedom could truly begin. There seems a parallel here with Marcuse’s notion of ‘surplus repression’ which is necessary for the overcoming of scarcity, and as such, may be an historically ‘painful’ necessity, but one that is only temporary in order to move toward a qualitatively high, freer existence. In The German Ideology Marx talks about ‘sensuous’ and ‘practical’ activity, by which he means the realm of human freedom, but as far as can be guessed this can hardly be taken to mean emptying bins or manning a production line, rather it would imply the human knowledge to devise some way of eliminating these activities, or at least the capability to rationally co-ordinate them so a minimum amount of energy and time is wasted. The ability to overcome the struggle for existence, to go beyond the imperatives of mere survival, and live beyond the ‘realm of necessity’ is a defining feature of Marcuse’s historical critique of Freud, what Marx meant by ‘labour’ that has “created the subjective and objective conditions for itself”. Such a distinction can be further observed in Marx, in the third volume of Capital when he uses the composing of music as an example of “really free work”, but nevertheless describes it as “at the same time the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion”; added to which, he no doubt had in mind the writing of Capital. This description has a definite echo in Marcuse’s contention that a free humanity would no longer have its existence shaped according to material imperatives, but would be able to live a life that was characterised by the full development of all human faculties- intellectual, aesthetic, and sensual.

It is in this ontology of freedom, that Freud necessarily believed to be at fault, that we find the capacity in Marx’s phrase for ‘practical-sensuous activity’: the ability to recreate ourselves in the world, remaking it according to our needs; consequently, it is the capacity and force of reason- manifested in earliest form as ‘basic’ repression in Marcuse’s rendering of Freud, which in the course of its historical development “creates the material means and the nucleus for relations that permit this surplus labour to be combined, in a higher form of society, with a reduction of the overall time devoted to material labour” (Marx, Capital Vol. III, available at


In the course of Eros and Civilisation Marcuse is careful to explain that the rule of the reality principle based on the capitalist performance principle is not simply a ‘material’ or ‘economic’ problem. Indeed across the entire breadth of his work and in keeping with the best traditions of Critical Theory he displays a relentless hostility to vulgarly deterministic Marxism. The question of domination, and the extent to which individuals are made apparently complicit in their oppression are key elements in Marcuse’s Freudian Critical Theory. Likewise this is not a simple matter of the straightforward rule of force, but a complex relation of social processes that together reproduce ‘advanced servitude’: coercion with a smile. As Marcuse maintained in his later Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society, what constitutes ‘normality’ in advanced capitalist society is essentially destructive to the mental and emotional well-being of its members, even if they do not immediately recognise this as such. The perpetuation of domination is made in accordance with a ‘rational’ order-but rational only in the sense of its own functional reproduction. Under such instrumental prerequisites, human beings are subsumed by forces beyond their control in which the world remains external to their own lives: Freedom in this sense is defined as the extent to which they can retreat from it. As Marcuse further notes in the same work, life under such a system is characterised by the manipulation and reproduction of anxiety in accordance with submission, just as this is demanded as necessary for survival. From ‘Reality TV’ to the use of psychometric testing for recruitment purposes, the necessity of “continuing the struggle for existence in painful, costly, and obsolete forms” (Marcuse, 1968, pg. 256) finds its functionally representative form in an individual and social mindset that is in Marcuse’s words, characterised by a feeling of “being ready for anything at the expense of everyone else”(Ibid, pg. 262).

Such a society remains structured by class divisions based on exploitation for profit, in which a majority of the population must engage in wage labour in order to survive, this ‘material’ alienation can be viewed on a more universal scale as the permanent alienation of human beings from their own essential ‘being’; in that their ‘life-activity’ as the process by which they recreate themselves in the world, is estranged by the social relations of capital as a power against them. It is the extent to which the antagonism between historical possibilities and reality is exacerbated by the frustrations and miseries of living in advanced capitalist societies, that for Marcuse could signal the emerging development of a consciousness radically opposed to the existing social order, that is felt with all the urgency of a ‘biological’ need. Marcuse’s use of this term in his 1969 Essay on Liberation, designates the sum total of human functions in relation to the social world: feelings, inclinations, personal behaviour, hopes, etc. It is the extent to which these needs are frustrated and blocked, or manipulated into coercive ends that holds definite possibilities for catalysing revolt. This proposition goes beyond the immediate New Left context of the time, as a particularly incisive, and explicitly political continuation of the themes developed in Eros and Civilisation. Marcuse further contends that:

“Prior to all ethical behaviour in accordance with specific social
standards, prior to all ideological expression, morality is a
“disposition” of the organism, perhaps rooted in the erotic
drive to counter aggressiveness, to create and preserve “ever
greater unities of life” (Marcuse, 1969, pg. 10)..

This quote illustrates well Marcuse’s conviction that Freud’s theory has an emancipatory moment, that is, the possibility for the development of the human ‘organism’ into a state whereby a non-aggressive, non-repressive reality principle is the norm; in the sense that ‘biological’ means the very depths of being-intellectual, emotional and physical- this would tend to become ‘instinctual’. The Freudian equation of civilization equals repression, conflates the historical specificity of those ‘basic’ developmental and socialising forms of repression, with repression per se as the eternalising and unquestionable feature of civilisation. For Freud, the impossibility of a non-repressive reality principle was the only alternative to barbarism, indeed his work is textured by the same mixture of forbidding pessimism and steely moral resolve, he believed were the hallmarks of theoretical integrity.

For Marcuse, the recovery of real needs for themselves would necessarily bring them into conflict with the existing reality principle, since this reality principle in spite of its cosmetic appearance, remains one that is based on domination and hierarchy, fear, ignorance, dependency and aggression. Such features are not of course unique to advanced capitalism and pre-date both it and Freud, but they are not inescapable. When Marcuse published Eros and Civilisation in 1958, the emerging technological-consumer society was in its very early stages, but the features he identified, no less than the contradictions and tensions they uncovered have only further been proven correct in the intervening four decades, albeit in many directions that could not have been anticipated.

One of the most theoretically sophisticated, and indeed subversive of Marcuse’s concepts is his notion of Eros as an “eternalising” force, demanding permanently expanding, and intensified fulfilment in a self-sublimated order. As he makes clear, this would imply sexuality “growing into Eros”, and would demand non-repressive conditions to successfully emerge: that is, it retains such a possibility within its negative relation to existing reality, as the need to alter it. In the subversive power of sexuality there is an obvious affinity with the early work of Wilhelm Reich we find the first concerted radical assault on accepted-indeed undisputed- Freudian wisdom. His early theories, which cannot be underestimated, still retain a certain revolutionary import in their reversal of the Freudian concepts of repression and neurosis, with the idea that sexual fulfilment must form one of the functional bases of any given society, in his own words: “To define freedom is to define sexual health”. The significance of his discovery that sexual repression is-in some sense at least-a cause, rather than merely a symptom of neurosis, offers a striking theoretical proposition, namely that it is the inherited feelings of guilt and shame, that haunt individuals, no less than the socially determined forms that the reproduction of this repression may take. Reich’s theory suffers however from several major deficiencies, firstly the apparent bio-determinism of his belief that all human happiness is predicated on genital sexuality if this could only be properly freed from mentally and socially repressive forms.

Against such a reductive, and ultimately conservative theory, Marcuse posited the notion of a ‘polymorphous’ sexuality that finds its fulfilment in a myriad of erotic possibilities. In spite of the emancipatory content, Reich’s theory remains fundamentally at odds with the notion of a creative Erotic life-instinct that would remake the whole of reality in accordance with human happiness, and not merely as Reich supposed, within a moderately liberalised sexual sphere. It should be made clear here, that the lasting importance of Reich’s concerted efforts during the 20’s-whilst still a Marxist- to give an explicitly political momentum to his theories, cannot be ignored: both his recognition of the repressive function of monogamic marriage, and the patriarchal-nuclear family, in reproducing the repressed individuals that in turn reproduce a repressive society, remain essential to any critical attempt to construct a theory of emancipation, using Freudian conceptual categories. During the relatively brief early period, in which his revolutionary works were produced, Reich was committed, for a time at least, to a position similar to Marcuse’s: the idea that any revolution would inevitably fail if it did not recognise the primacy of the individual’s life-experience as a foundation for socialism: that is the necessity of developing a liberatory practice in accordance with this end. As he rightly noted, in works such as The Sexual Revolution, The Mass Psychology of Fascism and the infamous Sexual Struggle of Youth, any given social order creates those corresponding character forms it requires for preservation, consequently a hierarchical society such as capitalism, requires a majority of the population to exist in a state of dependency and conformity in accordance with is successful reproduction; inculcated as generic character traits at the earliest possible stage. In spite of his obvious theoretical shortcomings Reich is notable for making one of the first serious attempts to recognise the political in the everyday, bringing him into immediate and bitter conflict with an uncomprehending and hostile Communist Party. Therefore it is in his early radical use of psychoanalytic categories, and recognition of the emancipatory potential they hold, that he retains historical significance, even if many of his theoretical conclusions were somewhat mistaken.

Under repressive conditions, the ‘Erotic’ remains narrowly confined to the sexual, as a repository of limited gratification, a temporary reward for the endurance of reality; beyond this repressive containment, Eros must remain permanently absent. The apparent rationality on which this is based is, according to Marcuse, in fact a form of irrationality, since it remains in historical stasis, unable to recognise the possibilities it has unleashed, to the point where civilisation appears to be locked in the circumnavigation of its own past. It is the incompatibility of happiness with existing reality that Marcuse identifies as the explosive dynamic of Eros. A new rationality would recognise itself in the transformation of reality in accordance with human happiness

Similarly it is in the aesthetic dimension of human experience that we find a further critical and disruptive potential that is fundamentally at odds with reality-although one that must leave the merely ‘aesthetic’ sphere for that of the political. Marcuse makes effective use of this proposition, in both Eros and Civilisation, and the chapter in One Dimensional Man, in which he explores late capitalism’s channelling of this negative energy into forms of repressive de-sublimation. The radical possibility that is contained in the aesthetic realm is, in Marcuse’s words, “ a “cultural repression” of contents and truths that are inimical to the performance principle”- that is, a sphere separated by its opposition from reality. Marcuse traces the definite contemporary meaning ascribed to ‘the aesthetic’ back to Kant’s division of human reason into ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ forms. According to such a division, ‘practical reason’ is the realm of morality, whilst ‘theoretical reason’ can be defined as ‘descriptive’ knowledge of the laws of nature under causality. Consequently, as Marcuse notes, in this framework there must be a third ‘faculty’ in which the basically antagonistic categories of practical and theoretical reason- in which are included the same dichotomies of sensuousness and intellect, desire and cognition- can be mediated. For Kant then: “the faculty of judgement mediates between these two by virtue of the feeling of pain and pleasure. Combined with the feeling of pleasure, judgement is aesthetic, and its field of application is art”. In effect the ‘lower’ faculties of sensuousness are linked to the higher faculties of morality via such mediation. Since the aesthetic dimension is the realm of imagination and creation it follows that such faculties have the power to remake the world with universal and objective principles, in so far as “pleasure is constituted by the pure form of the object itself” It is the essential qualities of beauty and freedom that hold “the essence of a truly non-repressive order”. In the sense that the object is ‘without purpose’ i.e. it has no instrumental utility, it represents a freedom incompatible with given reality:

“Imagination comes into accord with the cognitive notions of understanding,
and this accord establishes a harmony of the mental faculties which is the
pleasurable response to the free harmony of the aesthetic object. The order
of beauty results from the order which governs the play of imagination
This double order is in conformity with laws, but laws that are themselves free:
they are not superimposed and they do not enforce the attainment of specific
ends and purposes; they are the pure form of existence itself”(Marcuse, 1969, pg. 178).

As the Western conception of reason became recognisably established, the aesthetic was relegated to a subordinate role beneath ‘rationalistic epistemology’. Marcuse is keen to point out that it is the separation of the aesthetic from reality, and its containment as an acceptable adjunct transcendent of reality, which is the strength of its truth. To “establish it as an existential category” is to set it against the existential reality from which it is banished. Art and culture insist on a logic, which is radically at odds with the existing reality principle, that of sensuousness and pleasure, the possibility of happiness and the refusal of suffering. As Marcuse points out, the origins of art lie in sensuous gratification, and are forever returning to this creative source for their inspiration; but according to the imperatives of the reality principle, such original purpose must be repressed; gratification appears only in “the pure form of the object”. As such art and the critical-imaginative freedom it invokes is ‘beyond’ reality, effectively becoming ‘unreal’. When this relation is brought into the open, it assumes a political urgency: it indicts human suffering as unnecessary and unbearable and makes human liberation its primary task: such is the field of Critical Theory. Against Freud’s diagnoses of the inescapable necessity of repression and the unalterable nature of a society based on hierarchy, conformity and fear, Marcuse posits the necessity of breaking this continuum, of re-establishing the idea of human freedom and happiness as the determining forces of existence. Such a project cannot be conceived as Marcuse notes, by recourse to a “transcendental” or “inner” intellectual freedom but as “freedom in reality”: In the extent to which a transformation of reality is possible according to these principles, justification of the existing reality principle becomes redundant. It becomes apparent in Marcuse’s conception of freedom, that this must be a ‘universal’ principle capable of recognising itself ‘in the world’, that is, as the transformation of reality according to its logic: the elimination of want, toil-labour as such- the end of a society based on anxiety and fear, and hierarchy domination, and conformity. Marcuse set himself the task of sharpening the antagonism between such possibilities and existing society, what Adorno defined as ‘displacement’ or estrangement. The purpose of theory in such a situation is to maintain the possibility of a different order in its negative relation to that which is ‘given’:

“It is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve
historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian
possibilities –(it is) his task to break the concreteness of
oppression in order to open the mental space in which this
society can be recognised as what it is and what it does” (Marcuse, 1965, pg. 95).

The aesthetic dimension shares with sexuality the potential to transform the world according to a non-repressive reality principle, in which the free play of human faculties comes into its own. For Marcuse, there is no inherent contradiction in the concept of freedom, which he sees as having a dialectical quality: it does not divide into irreconcilably hostile forms that only exist separately from each other, but has a dynamic interplay of qualities.
Taking as his model, the isolated bourgeois subject, Freud constructed his theory of the individual on the same foundational premises. The apparent a-historicity of such a theory is apparent throughout all of his work, in which the ‘essential’ character of human beings is apparently already set in early childhood, to be followed by the same process of mental and social development that is identified with the functional necessities of civilised society; accordingly in Freud’s wisdom, the individual must carry the accumulated burden of a human history defined by domination and submission, socially mediated by repression. It is the task of the psychoanalyst to recognise and explain the difficulties of individual adaptation and reconciliation to this schema, and to explore their possible resolution in therapy. As Marcuse rightly noted, it is in fact Freud’s “metapsychology”, that is, the theoretical and foundational assumptions which his science is constructed on-rather than the clinical prescriptions- that necessarily enter the field of theory, and as such, contestation; consequently it is the “social character” of Freudian categories that hold a critically explosive potential. Against Freud’s especially bleak diagnoses of the limits of humanity to overcome aggression and violence-made in the long shadows of the First World War-as much as the “moralistic philosophy of progress” of the later Neo-Freudians; Marcuse refused both the former’s a-historical fatalism, and the latter’s fatuous optimism, in his formulation of a Critical Theory that gave a crucial historical depth dimension to the work of Freud. Marcuse maintained that repression and domination may persist, but that they are not physical laws, the potential for a world radically and qualitatively different from that of the present is, however remote, a real historical possibility. The continuum of domination and repression may temporarily endure, but in Marcuse’s words as long as they do, “in and against this continuum the fight will continue” (Marcuse, 1969, pg. xx).


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