Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: Is Repression Necessary?

Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization attempts to use Freud’s psychoanalytic understanding of society and its origins against Freud’s conservative conclusions. Marcuse advocates for an end to excessive repression.

Mar 8, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

herbert marcuse eros civilization


Are civilizations necessarily repressive? Herbert Marcuse’s tries to provide an answer in his Eros and Civilization, which is in large part a reply to Sigmund Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’. Marcuse attempts to reconcile the ongoing existence of civilization with greater possibilities for gratification.


Marcuse was a thinker of the Frankfurt school, whose work rests at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and socialist political theory. It is an avowedly political project, seeking new and freer possibilities within the framework of psychoanalysis, but it is not – in Marcuse’s estimation – a utopian one.


Marcuse does not directly contradict any of Freud’s core ideas; indeed, he is explicit about his opposition to revisionist accounts of Freud that really disfigure psychoanalytic theory beyond recognition. What Marcuse does, however, is challenge Freud’s conclusions about what is necessary about the structure of civilized society, and what its preconditions are.


The Role of Psychoanalysis in Marcuse’s Analysis

Max Halberstadt, Portrait of Sigmund Freud, c. 1921; Freud spoke of ‘kettle-logic’ in relation to the logic of dreams.


Psychoanalysis endeavors to explain human behavior using a limited set of basic drives and principles by which those drives are transformed. Thus, for instance, humans have ‘life instincts’, which – among other things – seek out immediate gratification, but we are also able to sublimate those instincts, relocating their energy from their original object to some other task or goal.

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On the individual, therapeutic level – the patient on the couch and the analyst in his or her chair – this toolkit of drives and transformations is intended to explain and, ideally, cure the analysand’s psychological symptoms or neuroses. Freud, however, was not interested only in the patient who seeks out psychoanalysis, or only in the individual psyche. The very drives and perversions; processes of sublimation and introjection; and foundational myths that Freud proposed as instruments to treat any one person are necessarily grounded in a theory of why everyone thinks and behaves in the way they do.


Taking human drives to be innate, Freud theorizes how and why they produced civilization in its recognizable forms: how the instinctual drive towards immediate gratification leads to a world of rigid responsibilities and strict laws. Freud tells his story of the origins of civilization in Totem and Taboo (1913), but his most complete theorization of the humans’ most basic drives, and their social and political organization is in the essay ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ (1930). Here Freud describes a fundamental conflict between the drives of the individual, and the interests of civilization as a whole, and comes to the conclusion that the life instincts, explained further below, must be repressed and sublimated in order to construct and maintain what we recognize as civilized society.


Life Instincts and Death Instincts 

Marcuse in 1968.


Freud’s theorization of the human mind and its subdivision into parts, or drives, undergoes a number of transformations over the course of his work. Perhaps the most famous is the id, ego, superego breakdown of the human psyche, corresponding to an unconscious seeking the total and immediate gratification of its desires (for sex, food, comfort, the mother); a conscious self, self-interested but also concerned with image, power, and social standing; and the authoritarian impositions of society and morality, the rules of the primal patriarch made eternal as law.


Later, however, Freud spoke more and more of life instincts and death instincts. Introduced in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), this opposition – not so much replacing the earlier taxonomy as marking a change of emphasis in Freud’s thought – had come to dominate Freud’s analysis of human behavior by the time ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ was published, a decade later.


It is this pairing – of life instincts and death instincts – that Marcuse takes as the basis of his thought in Eros and Civilization, discussing both their roles in the emergence of civilization, the consequences of their imbalance in repressive society, and their surprising convergence.


Marcuse’s political project is socialist, but his theoretical means are avowedly Freudian; John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Portrait of Karl Marx, 1875.


The life instincts, or eros, also used more or less interchangeably with ‘the pleasure principle’, are the instincts that lead us towards the acquisition of simple pleasure – the cessation of desire by the shortest possible route. The life instincts seek sex, food, and anything else we can more or less imagine an animal wanting, but – at least on Marcuse’s understanding of them – they also seek more complex forms of leisure and entertainment.


The death instincts, meanwhile, describe two distinct but importantly related tendencies in the human psyche. The first of these, which Marcuse usually calls the ‘Nirvana principle’ and which Freud also called the ‘death drive’ concerns the will to non-existence. Freud ties this impulse as much to a desire for the prenatal bliss of the womb as to a desire for death proper, but in any case, the Nirvana principle complements the pleasure principle in its search for the cessation of pain.


However, Freud identifies another set of behaviors as corresponding to the same death instincts. This set of behaviors, which for Freud are also symbolic attempts to return to a state before birth and traumatic separation from the mother, are aggressive and destructive. This destructive impulse, when directed outwards upon the world, is in Freud’s estimation – in ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ – the greatest threat to the creation and survival of civilization, and so any successful society must repress it.


Scarcity and Surplus Repression 

German title page of Civilization and its Discontents, 1930.


Much of Eros and Civilization is dedicated to unraveling why Freud reaches such profoundly pessimistic and conservative conclusion, and why – in light of new material conditions – those conclusions can be overturned. Freud is convinced of the necessity of widespread repression to civilization, and Marcuse believes that the changes in the mode and scale of production since Freud are sufficient to change the calculus.


As such, Eros and Civilization dedicates itself to the task of identifying and criticizing ‘surplus repression’, all the repression which goes on that is not absolutely necessary for the function of society (Marcuse believes that there remains some basic amount required). Scarcity, then, persists only because of the uneven distribution of resources, and the ideological reinforcement of the repressive society, rather than because of material limitations.


Freud believes that eros must be largely repressed because of its conflict with what he calls the ‘reality principle’: the demands placed on us by scarcity and danger. In short, if everyone were always seeking immediate gratification, engaging extravagantly in all manner of pleasures – says Freud – it would be impossible to produce enough basic goods for humans to not only survive but to build civilization. The scarcity of resources in the world demands that our desire for immediate and total pleasure be suppressed, and the energy we would otherwise invest in the pursuit of sex and pleasure be sublimated into productive work, growth: the ‘performance principle’.


Birth of Liquid Desire by Salvador Dalì, 1931-2, via the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.


Sexuality, therefore, is repressed into a highly constrained and limited expression. Freud imagines that in a state of nature, the libido would express itself as what he calls ‘polymorphous perversity’: the kind of varied, diffuse, creative, and ubiquitous erotic play that we might well want to celebrate. However, the performance principle requires that sexuality instead express itself in rigid pattern, with clear productive motivations.


Thus, the regime of sex as Freud knew it (and perhaps, in large part, as we still know it) is restricted to the monogamous, heterosexual marriage and justified only when reproductive. All the rest of the energy and creativity freed up in the move from polymorphous perversity to what Marcuse calls ‘procreative genitality’ is invested into useful labor and orderly, dutiful civic behavior.


Automation and Liberation

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, c. 1880 via the Getty museum.


Marcuse thinks that the crux of Freud’s conservatism lies in the reality principle, and in particular the parameters it sets for both scarcity of resources and labor required for society to function. Marcuse’s argument hinges in large part on challenging those parameters, rather than the reasoning that runs from them, and suggesting that the levels of repression and labor ubiquitous in modern, capitalist societies are dramatically excessive to what is necessary for civilization to function.


Marcuse points to automation, above all else, as enabling a sudden reduction in working hours, but crucially sees this reduction in the duty to work as freeing up much of the energy sublimated into labor for precisely the erotic purposes it originates in. Thus, Marcuse suggests, polymorphous perversity and immediate gratification can be given much more play than they are at present, the rigidity of the codes and institutions regulating sex and pleasure can be relaxed, and all without sacrificing the level of production and function requisite for the survival of civilized society.


Marcuse situates his project as particularly important because of the legacy of Freud’s thought on society and repression. In particular, he bemoans the tendency – in Freud as well as his followers – to treat the antagonism between the pleasure principle and the reality principle as necessary, or innate, when really it is contingent upon variables which have been radically altered in the space of just a few decades.


For this reason, Marcuse describes the history of revolutions as a history of temporary reprieves from surplus repression, always followed by its swift re-imposition. Rather than attributing this authoritarian backswing to any fundamental drive, Marcuse sees it as the ugly consequence of mistakenly believing in the mutual dependence of repression and civilization.


Guilt and War

The automation of many forms of work is central to Marcuse’s attempt to highlight surplus repression; Photograph of Control Room at Point Tupper Power Plant.


While the repression of the life instincts contributes to a general scarcity of pleasure and satisfaction, the death instincts go awry in opposite directions under civilization’s oppressive regime. On one hand, their exclusion from ordinary life – combined with the repression of the life instincts’ moderating effect on aggression – forces the death instincts outwards into ritualized, but ever grander, displays of destructive power. It is to this pattern that Marcuse attributes the escalation and irrationality of war, and other technologically facilitated instances of global violence.


There is, however, a perhaps even greater ill that emerges from the repression of life and death instincts alike, which is the turning-inwards of the aggressive instincts in the form of guilt, which Marcuse diagnoses as ubiquitous and acute in the modern psyche.


Guilt, Freud suggests, is the result of introjecting social laws governing aggression and sexuality, in the form of the superego, and sublimating the force of the destructive instincts into constant self-chastisement. Guilt mobilizes the death drive against life and death instincts alike, recapitulating the repressive word of law within the mind itself. 


Here, too, Marcuse sees a way out. If the Nirvana principle is one expression of the death instincts, and if what it seeks – rather than death as such – is the cessation of pain, then the very material conditions which allow the gratification of eros might also satisfy the death drive. The call, then, is indeed for destruction, but destruction of the very repressive structures which proliferate guilt and war.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.