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Review of Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical

Inquiry into Freud. London: Alan Lane: The Penguin Press, 1969

Reviewed by Robert M. Young

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We now have essays on the social meaning of biology appearing from left, right and centre, and this seems a suitable occasion to comment on the genre and the issues which it raises. The latest entry is an important, honest book, and at first glance it seems a shame that it appears in Britain at a time when it will almost inevitably be absorbed in the current maelstrom of pseudo-biology.

However, its publication is timely, since this is probably the best place for the middle-aged to begin to understand Marcuse. Most of us are reading him backwards: we met him in The Times 'Diary' where his essay on 'Repressive Tolerance' (1965) was cited as the manifesto of the Dutschke left. Then One-Dimensional Man (1964) appeared in paperback. Historians and political theorists had long known his Reason and Revolution (1941) and Soviet Marxism (1958). Thus, Marcuse is an historian of ideas turned guru. The-connection between these issues and current pop science is not immediately obvious, and one suspects that the appearance of a serious, highly sophisticated and elegant book of the Freudian era of the 1950's , fourteen years after it was published in America (where there has been a paperback edition available since 1962), is a consequence of the impact of Marcuse on the student power movement on the Continent, in America and (less so) in Britain. Nevertheless, it is ultimately right that Marcuse should be considered in this context, since his theme is the relationship between nature and culture, though his idiom is psychoanalytic and Marxist, while his rhetoric is decidedly Hegelian. His conclusions, however, are part of the general phenomenon of social and political extrapolation from alleged biological facts. While geneticists and ethologists draw our attention to supposed biological constraints on deliberate political and social change, Marcuse sets out to loosen these constraints and calls for 'a fundamental change in the instinctual as well as cultural structure'. 'A new basic experience of being would change the human existence in its entirety.'

He begins with the conflict postulated by Freud in Civilisation and Its Discontents between human instincts and the necessary repression brought on by the socially-acquired conscience (or superego). Freud claimed that the history of man is the history of his repression and that 'Our civilisation is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.' Sublimation of sex produces the energy for progress, and the price of progress is the substitution of guilt for happiness. Freud thought that this was due to an inevitable biological clash between Eros and civilisation. Marcuse argues that 'the irreconcilable conflict is not between work (reality principle) and Eros (pleasure principle), but between alienated labour (performance principle) and Eros.' He believes that a socialist society could engender 'non-alienated libidinal work', 'a non-repressive civilisation based on 'non-repressive sublimation'.

The argument depends on the theses that instincts are subject to historical modification and that repression is largely an historical phenomenon. Thus, putative biological necessities are redefined as historical contingencies. This, of course, is the precise opposite of the recent views of Professor Darlington and Dr. Desmond Morris. Marcuse concludes that biological repression itself is not the problem but that our troubles stem from the additional 'surplus repression' produced by the specific historical institutions of our own period. The result is that Freud is converted in to a sort of eroticised Marx.

One-Dimensional Man is an indictment of the social order of advanced industrial societies, where man is reified (dehumanised) by institutions which mystify him and contain all social change by means of repressive tolerance. In an epilogue to this edition of Eros and Civilisation Marcuse adds a devastating attack on the 'adjustive success' advocated by neo-Freudian revisionists in America (Fromm, Horney and Sullivan). He accuses them of confusing ideology with reality and of minimising the biological sphere. These charges apply equally well to Marcuse, but at least he is explicit in claiming that the distinction between psychological and political categories has been made obsolete by the condition of man in the present era. He is also frankly ideological in his polemicism and biologism. At the end of One-Dimensional Man he foreshadows the creative intolerance which was transformed into a political programme for youth in 'Repressive Tolerance'. 'We have been reduced to that frankness which no longer tolerates complicity,' says a radical. Marcuse comments, 'The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period. This is the 'Great Refusal' which lies behind the deliberate obscenities of students, hippies and yippies. However, Marcuse is as ready to base his appeals on biology as are his opponents. In a new preface to Eros and Civilisation he assures us that: ’Their protest will continue because it is a biological necessity. "By nature" the young are in the forefront of those who live and fight for Eros against Death... Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.’

He has certainly made a strong case against the oppressiveness, repressiveness and violence of many aspects of the 'tolerance' of liberal establishments. It might be suggested, even so, that someone who has himself been a victim of Nazi intolerance and has written on Stalinism might join others in thinking very hard before jettisoning the mixed blessing of liberal tolerance. It is difficult to share his Olympian, Hegelian certainty that he has grasped the Holy Grail of reason and progress when he concludes: ’If they use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one. Since they will be punished, they know the risk, and when they are willing to take it, no third person, and least of all the educator and intellectual, has the right to preach abstention.’

A recent reviewer of Eros and Civilisation (whose own book on Nature and Human Nature has appeared in paperback) said in the Guardian, 'It is a pity that Marcuse himself is not up in ethology.' (When Marcuse's book first appeared, ethology had offered nothing more pretentious at the popular level than Lorenz's charming anthropomorphic reminiscences in King Solomon's Ring.) Alex Comfort would like to unify ethology with Marcuse's psychoanalytic critique so that we can learn if man can transcend his instinctual nature and live uncompulsively. Similarly, a professor of ethology, in his review of The Human Zoo, regrets that Morris did not write on the generation gap. However, Professor Lorenz provided an ethological 'explanation' of this at a recent congress at Rennes and again at the Nobel jamboree in Stockholm, and this was conveniently summarised on the Observer's 'Back Page'. A few days earlier, in New Society Professor Eysenck made trenchant criticisms of Morris's latest effort while assuring us in passing that it is all explained by 'conditioning' and can be put right by 'behavioural therapy'. But Arthur Koestler and his co-authors of Beyond Reductionism tell us that it is not so, and a deeply religious professor of ethology, W. H. Thorpe, brings the authority of a Fellow of the Royal Society behind this book in the pages of the New Scientist. (Professor Thorpe's scientific eminence is largely based on his researches on bird songs.) Finally, Morris's human ape recovers his dignity and his soul at the hands of Dr. Bernard Towers, a Catholic Teilhardian, and John Lewis, formerly a Unitarian minister and more recently a Marxist. Towers has since done a dismissive review of The Human Zoo in the New Scientist, while the Times Literary Supplement assures us of Towers's scientific qualifications. (He is a professional anatomist.)

It's all a bit heady, but one common theme emerges. These writers span the whole political and religious spectrum, but each is committed to some ideology, and each supports it with the supposedly dispassionate authority of science. One would expect the political columnists to join in next, and sure enough Peter Evans has done a column in The Times on 'Tribal Custom in the Human Jungle'. Morris's theories are used to give scientific sanction to African, Welsh, Basque, Irish, Israeli, Black Power and football fan ’tribalism’. The piece ends with a quotation about the limitations on political ideals due to 'those tiresome biological facts'.

We have had these crazes before with phrenology, evolutionism and psychoanalysis, and there are important interconnections between these movements and the current debate. But surely it is high time that a qualified and dispassionate person provided an extensive critique of the current biologising fad. For reasons which lie deep in the philosophy of scientific explanation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the whole spectrum of disciplines, from genetics to psychology and psychiatry to the social sciences, is not value-free. Consequently, as the recent effusion of books and articles shows, they are available for ideological exploitation. This need not preclude extrapolations to social and political issues, if standards of evidence and inference are established and maintained. However, it is essential that everyone sees that the debate is ideological and ceases to be blinded by 'Science' It is probably the case that all 'facts' are theory laden, but it is certainly true that some facts are more theory-laden than others. The reader who comes to these popularisations for guaranteed social and political wisdom supported by the authority of science is making a very grave mistake. Let us have the debate on the social meaning of biology, but we must strip it of the specious aura of scientific objectivity.

1635 words

Reprinted from New Statesman, vol. 78, 7 November 1969, pp. 666-67.

Copyright: The Author

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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