Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: The Death of Critical Thought

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man addresses political pessimism in the wake of fascism in Europe, and its devastating consequences for the possibility of progress.

Aug 18, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

herbert marcuse one dimensional man


One-Dimensional Man is Herbert Marcuse’s most extensive elaboration of his philosophical framework: a system of avowedly Marxist-Hegelian dialectics that places ‘critical reason’ at its center. The book draws on many of Marcuse’s psychoanalytic ideas from Eros and Civilization – particularly concerning the faults of what he usually calls ‘contemporary industrial society’ – but its philosophical program is deeply embedded in the work of other Frankfurt School thinkers, most notably institute director Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.


Retaining a characteristic focus on the individual psychological effects of changing material conditions, One-Dimensional Man is an analysis of technology and political thought; it seeks to explain why our ability to think critically and radically about our political circumstances has disappeared, and how we might get it back.


Who Was Herbert Marcuse?

Marcuse in 1968 via Encyclopaedia Britannica


Herbert Marcuse’s writing often straddles the concrete and the highly abstract, attempting to bridge Marx’s attentive writing on economics and Hegel’s more abstract philosophy of history. Thus, the one-dimensionality referred to in the title is double: on one hand, it is political theory’s reliance on ideas and standards already existing in the world, rather than those we can begin to imagine. On the other hand, it refers to the specific limitations of contemporary scientific and technological thought, of the kind critiqued in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The two are certainly entangled.


Marcuse thinks that our “technological rationality” is instrumental in limiting our political imagination, but the ambition of Marcuse’s project is to provide a concrete, contemporary critique of political thought and action as an immediate component of a broader philosophical system.

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Fascism and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

Photograph of Max Horkheimer in the 1960s, by Ilse Mayer.


One-Dimensional Man overlaps significantly with the project of Dialectic of Enlightenment, in attempting to theorize, without undermining Marxist theory, some of the ways in which the twentieth century had diverged from Marx’s predictions. In particular, Dialectic of Enlightenment represents an attempt to come to terms with the rise of fascism and its consequences on political thought.


Marx had predicted that rapid industrialization, automation, and massive increases in productive capacity (of the kind that Europe and America had seen in the inter-war years) would usher in revolutionary consciousness and eventually socialism, but in reality, the consequences appeared markedly different. Faced instead with the rapid ascendancy of totalitarianism, Adorno and Horkheimer attempted to draw a connecting thread between the values and approach of the European enlightenment, technological advances, and the cruelty of fascism.


Portrait of Karl Marx, by John Jabez Edwin Mayal, c. 1875. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Herbert Marcuse is also interested in the political implications of industrialization and technological development, but One-Dimensional Man focuses in large part on the world’s political outlook after the second world war. He focuses on the widespread pessimism of political thought in the wake of fascism, and ways in which that pessimism is itself politically and psychologically destructive.


Marcuse sees the one-dimensionality of capitalist production not only as a blight upon our psyches in its own right, but also as a force that recapitulates itself by limiting our capacity to imagine alternatives. The one-dimensional man is not only one-dimensional insofar as his life is blindly committed to labor, production, and proletarian survival, but crucially also insofar as he is incapable of imagining his way outside that narrow life – indeed, of using any political ideas that reach beyond existing society in order to critique it.


The book is concerned with political pessimism’s erosion of our critical reason: the capacity to imagine ideals and standards by which to critique the world we happen to live in. This critical reason, or ‘negative’ thinking, is precisely the dialectical engine of Marxist theory.


“Technological Rationality”

Mural of Theodor Adorno by Justus Becker and Oğuz Şen. Senckenberganlage, Frankfurt via Wikimedia Commons.


Though Herbert Marcuse definitively broke with Martin Heidegger after the latter’s declarations of support for the Nazis, Marcuse’s critique of what he calls “technological rationality” draws heavily upon Heidegger’s philosophy of technology. During the 1920s and early ‘30s Marcuse was heavily influenced by the phenomenological approaches of Edmund Husserl and Heidegger, finding in their philosophical approach a compelling alternative to the positivism of anglophone philosophy, which Horkheimer and Adorno would later associate with the authoritarian legacy of the enlightenment.


Heidegger’s critique of technology, not so much as a specific set of inventions, devices, or systems, but as a way of thinking about and practically approaching the world at large, echoes clearly in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.


Photograph of Martin Heidegger by Flicker René Spitz, 1959. Via the Prospect Magazine.


Heidegger describes technology as a way of thinking that reduces objects and phenomena to their usefulness. So, when we look at a river “technologically,” we instrumentalize it, see it only as a source of energy or transportation, rather than as something in its own right. For Heidegger this is significant in large part because it renders invisible to us the essence of things – we only ever see nature insofar as it might serve our ends – but for Marcuse the same analysis supports a different emphasis. Marcuse sees technological rationality as both necessary for the function of existing political systems (both western-capitalist and Soviet-socialist), as it ensures the total orientation of all human energies towards industrial production, and as an enormous obstacle to the construction of any political alternatives, which technological rationality invariably dismisses as utopian or unimaginable.


Much as Horkheimer and Adorno tried to demonstrate that enlightenment values were by no means ideologically pure, or strictly rational, Marcuse unpicks the ways in which technological rationality conditions our understanding of its effects. While technological rationality increases cultural and industrial production – and thus what we call an increase in quality of life – it also constructs the definitions and metrics with which we measure that quality of life, while occluding its oppressive and destructive effects. Marcuse writes:


We live and die rationally and productively. We know that destruction is the price of progress as death is the price of life, that renunciation and toil are the prerequisites for gratification and joy, that business must go on, and that the alternatives are Utopian. This ideology belongs to the established societal apparatus; it is a requisite for its continuous functioning and part of its rationality.

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 1964


Positivism and the Containment of Dissent

Max Horkheimer with Rose Riekher, 1958 via Wikimedia Commons.


Herbert Marcuse rails against what he perceives as the unambitious and unimaginative character of his philosophical contemporaries, and particularly political theorists. He suggests that in both the sciences and the humanities, “positive thinking” (in the sense of positivism, and particularly logical positivism) has almost completely overwhelmed the practice of “negative thinking” of the kind practiced by Hegel and Marx.


Marcuse saw tendencies in analytic philosophy, of the kind being written by the Vienna circle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin as symptomatic of a general decline in our ability to think in ways that contradict or undermine the status quo. Thus, for Marcuse, the dominance of ‘ordinary language’ philosophy in English universities was not only unambitious and boring in its painstaking attempts to map out the meanings we intuitively find in our language, but actively sinister and even destructive.


In “An Essay on Liberation” (1969), Marcuse deals with one of the important consequences of our deficient political imagination: the neutralization of dissent. While this work was written against the backdrop of 1968’s revolutionary ferment, Marcuse was nevertheless keen to stress the ways in which capitalist democracies are able to neutralize and assimilate attempts at radical political action. In short, dissent’s power to negate and alter the prevailing political conditions appeared to Marcuse to have been stunted. Deviation was tolerated and even tacitly encouraged within fundamental limits imposed by one-dimensional thought. Marx’s vision of a critical mass of class consciousness appears, on such an analysis, to be confounded by the release valve of permissible but toothless protest.


Herbert Marcuse on “The Chance of the Alternatives”

Barricades in Bordeaux, May 1968; Marcuse writes ‘An Essay on Liberation’ in the aftermath of the May 1968 protests (via Wikimedia Commons)


The last part of One-Dimensional Man elaborates the foundations of Herbert Marcuse’s dialectical alternative to positivism and instrumentality. Since our imaginations are themselves shaped and limited by repression and domination, the task of politics cannot simply consist in giving voice to what we can already imagine. So, the question remains: how do we escape our conditioned subjectivities and find meaningful political alternatives?


The first part of the solution Marcuse proposes is surprising even, in his own words, “paradoxical.” In order to even have a shot at liberation, political dissidence must indeed begin within the limits of one-dimensional thought, and rely upon the very machines that technological rationality constructs and powers. As in Eros and Civilization, Marcuse advocates for the large-scale automation of industry, and the orientation of production towards the universal provision of necessities. Crucially, this is not – for Marcuse – where political ideals end, but where they begin: only with the provision of necessities can people start to extend their imaginations beyond the purely instrumental.


English Front book cover; with title page of the French edition of One-Dimensional Man.


The second component necessary in the search for alternatives is the negation of the oppressive, or dominating, force that gathers with the growth of technological production. If the material circumstances that should provide the breeding grounds for liberation are poisoned by the rationality that produces them, such that they themselves become mere recapitulations of domination, then that rationality must be negated in order to access the liberatory potential of those conditions.


And so, we are left with Marcuse’s final imperative, the “absolute refusal of pure domination:” a politics of total negation. This, for Marcuse, is what is crucial in critical reason: the possibility of a total refusal, which in its very negativity makes it resistant to assimilation and absorption. The nature of this refusal, what it looks like to take part in it, and what follows from it are, necessarily, still out of sight at the end of One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse cannot offer a positive political program, much to the frustration of the hopeless reader, but he insists that some remnant of hope lies in the absolute refusal, whatever that looks like.

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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.