Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas

By Joan Alway | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Marxism Revisited: Marcuse's Search for a Subject

Thus the question once again must be faced: how can the administered individuals--who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions, and thus reproduce it on an enlarged scale--liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is it even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?

Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man, 250-51

Marcuse's efforts to understand how administered individuals could "liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters"--his efforts to conceive of how the vicious circle might be broken--made him one of the best known of the critical theorists. He wrote and spoke extensively on the possibilities and problems of radical politics in advanced industrial countries, and in addressing the concerns and interests of the burgeoning political movements of the 1960s, became known as the "father" of the New Left. 1

In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse not only remained doggedly hopeful about the possibilities for radical social change, he also remained clearly and deeply committed to the Marxist project. As opposed to renouncing it for having failed to deliver on its promise, or rejecting its essential political elements altogether, Marcuse engaged in reconstructing Marxism. His effort to develop a dialectical phenomenology, his exploration of Marxism's philosophical roots and defense of Hegel, and his incorporation of Freud were all elements of this undertaking. The results of his efforts are evident in the significantly modified model of the subject and conception of history that underlie his analyses of contemporary conditions and his views on agency and radical social change. As with Adorno, albeit for different reasons, Marcuse's emancipatory vision allows for a diversity of agents and actions. A

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