HIST 357 Assignment 3

The Failure of the New Left?

Author(s): Herbert Marcuse and Biddy Martin

Source: New German Critique , Autumn, 1979, No. 18 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 3-11

Published by: Duke University Press

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/487843

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New German Critique

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The Failure of the New Left?*

by Herbert Marcuse

Before discussing the reasons for the failure of the New Left, we must
address two questions: first, who and what this New Left is, and second,
whether it has in fact failed.

To begin, some comments on the first question. The New Left consists of
political groups that are situated to the left of the traditional communist
parties; they do not yet possess any new organizational forms, are without a
mass base and are isolated from the working class, especially in the United
States. The strong libertarian, anti-authoritarian moments that originally
defined the New Left have vanished in the meantime or yielded to a new
“group-authoritarianism.” Nevertheless, that which distinguishes and
essentially characterizes this movement is the fact that it has re-defined the
concept of revolution, bringing to it those new possibilities for freedom and
new potentials for socialist development that were created (and immediately
arrested) by advanced capitalism. As a result of these developments, new
dimensions of social change have emerged. Change is no longer defined
simply as economic and political upheaval, as the establishment of a
different mode of production and new institutions, but also and above all as
a revolution in the prevailing structure of needs and the possibilities for their

This concept of revolution was part of the Marxian theory from the
outset: socialism is a qualitatively different society, one in which people’s
relationships to one another as well as the relationship between human
beings and nature is fundamentally transformed. Pressured by the economic
power of capitalism, however, and forced into co-existence, the socialist
countries seem to have been damned over time to an almost exclusive

emphasis on developing the means of production, on expanding the
productive sector of the economy. This priority has necessarily perpetuated
the individual’s subjugation to the exigencies of his/her work (a subjugation
that, under certain circumstances, can be “democratic” and can mean a
more rational and more efficient form of production, as well as a more
equitable distribution of goods).

* This is an expanded version of a lecture given in April, 1975 at the University of
California, Irvine. A German version appeared in Zeit-messung (Frankfurt am Main, 1975) and
is published here with the permission of the Suhrkamp Verlag and Erica Sherover Marcuse.


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4 Marctuse

The premise that a surplus of material goods is the pre-condition for
socialism means postponing the revolutionary transformation of society
until doomsday or harboring the undialectical hope that a new quality of
social life and interaction will evolve as a by-product of the quantitative
growth in the economy. The emergence of the New Left in the 1960s
challenged quite vigorously this concept of socialism and the strategies it
involved. A gradual shift in the focal point of the revolt grew out of the
experience of contradiction between the overwhelming productivity of
monopoly capitalism on the one hand and the powerlessness of the large
socialist and communist apparatus to transform it into the productivity of
revolution on the other.

The movement mobilized and organized forces that the traditions of
Marxist theory and praxis had ignored for the most part up until then. It
represented an attempt to totalize opposition –in counter-offensive
against the totalization of repression and exploitation in monopoly
capitalism. As the manipulation of needs by the capitalist power apparatus
became more evident and far-reaching, revolutionizing those needs in the
individuals who reproduce the status quo appeared increasingly vital:
rebellion and change in human existence both in the sphere of production
and in the reproductive sphere, in the infrastructure and the “superstructure.”
The movement took the form, then, of a cultural revolution from the very
beginning; it conceived of the revolution of the 20th century as one in which
not only political and economic demands, but also radically other desires
and hopes would be articulated: the desire for a new moral sense, for a more
human environment, for a complete “emancipation of the senses” (Marx),
in other words, a liberation of the senses from the compulsion to perceive
people and things merely as objects of exchange. “Power to the imagination!”
The New Left was concerned with the emancipation of imagination from the
restraints of instrumental reason. In opposition to the alliance between
realism and conformity, the forces of the New Left created the slogan: “Be
realistic, demand the impossible.” This is where the strong aesthetic
component of the movement originated: art was seen as a productive
emancipatory force, as the experience of another (and ordinarily repressed)

Was all of that the expression of romanticism, or indeed elitism? Not at
all. The New Left was simply ahead of the objective conditions, insofar as it
articulated goals and substantive challenges that advanced capitalism had
made possible but had channeled or suppressed up until then. This insight
and concept were illustrated in strategy as well: there is an inner connection
between the struggle of the New Left against outmoded forms of opposition
and the oppositional tendencies of class struggle that gained ground within
the working class itself: autonomy versus authoritarian-bureaucratic
organization. Since the 1960s, the occupation of factories as well as
concepts of self-determination in production and distribution have become
meaningful once again.

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The Failure of the New Left? 5

Now we come to the second point concerning whether the New Left has
really failed. This question has to be answered on several different levels. In
part, the movement was co-opted or openly suppressed by the establish-
ment; in part it destroyed itself by failing to develop any adequate
organizational forms and by allowing internal splits to grow and spread, a
phenomenon that was linked to anti-intellectualism, to a politically
powerless anarchism and a narcissistic arrogance.

The suppression of the movement by the existing power structures took
many forms. It was violent, but also, so to speak “normal”: infallible,
scientific mechanisms of control, “black lists,” discrimination at the work-
place, an army of spies and informers – all of these things were set up and
mobilized as instruments of repression, and their effectiveness was
enhanced by the Left’s continued isolation from the rest of the populace.
This isolation has its roots in the social structure of advanced monopoly
capitalism, a structure that has long since integrated large portions of the
working class into the system. Of course, the domination of politically anti-
revolutionary unions and reformist workers’ parties presents an additional
problem. Such tendencies and problems reflect the relative stability of
capitalism with its foundations in neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism and
its overwhelming concentration of economic and political power.

Because of the enormous conglomeration of power that is the capitalist
totality, revolts against the system were necessarily taken up and carried out
by minority groups that exist outside or on the margins of the material
production process. In this context, one can indeed speak of “privileged”
groups, of an “elite” or perhaps of an “avant-garde.” On the other hand, it
was precisely these privileges – the distance from or the lack of integration
into the production process – that hastened the development of a radical
political consciousness, that transformed the experience of alienation into a
rebellion against the obsolescence of the existing material and intellectual

Of couse, it is for this very reason that the revolt did not completely
succeed; the counter-cultures created by the New Left destroyed themselves
when they forfeited their political impetus in favor of withdrawal into a kind
of private liberation (drug culture, the turn to guru-cults and other pseudo-
religious sects), of an abstract anti-authoritarianism and a contempt for
theory as a directive for praxis, of the ritualization and fetishizing of
Marxism. A premature disillusionment and resignation was expressed in all
such forms of withdrawal.

The New Left’s insistence on the subversion of experience and individual
consciousness, on a radical revolution of the system of needs and gratifica-
tions, in short, the persistent demand for a new subjectivity lends
psychology a decisive political significance. The manipulative social controls
that have now mobilized even the unconscious for the maintenance of the
status quo make psychoanalysis an object of extreme interest once again.
Only the liberation of repressed and sublimated impulses can shatter the

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6 Marcuse

established system of desires and needs in the individual and create a place
for the desire for freedom. Of course, the mere recognition and validation of
these impulses cannot fulfill this function; the process of release must lead to
criticism, to self-criticism of needs in reaction to socially manipulated and
internalized desires; such internalized desires and needs continue to act as
barriers to liberation, for their gratification guarantees the repressive
reproduction of the commodity world. It is the critical analysis of needs that
constitutes the specifically social dimension of psychology.

Certainly, the psyche also has a super- or, to be more precise, a sub-
social dimension of instinctive needs that are common to all social forma-

tions: the dimension of primary sexuality and destruction. The conflicts that
have their roots in this sphere would exist even in a free society: jealousy,
unhappy love, and violence cannot simply be blamed on bourgeois society;
they express the contradiction inherent in the libido between ubiquity and
exclusiveness, between fulfillment in variation or change and fulfillment in
constancy. However, even in this dimension the manifestations of instincts
and the forms that their gratification take are largely societally determined.
Even here, the general manifests and works itself out in the particular; of
course, here, the universal is not the social or the societal in individuals, but
rather the primary structuring of instincts in socially determined human

Beyond this primary dimension is the realm of psychic (and physical)
conflicts and disturbances that are of a specifically social nature, determined
in their particular manifestations and substance by the social system and its
mechanisms of repression and de-sublimation. Certainly, the difficulties
between the sexes, between generations and in self-definition (identity
crises), all difficulties that are very much in discussion at the moment, belong
to this category – phenomena that are often too quickly classified as
individual alienation. In this psychic realm, society and its reality principle
constitute the commonality and are that which is central in the particular
conflicts and disturbances that emerge; therapy, then, becomes a matter of
political psychology: the politicization of consciousness and of the
unconscious, and the counter-politicization of the super-ego are political

The close structural relationship between these two realms lends itself to
the interpretation of important political problems as private problems of the
psyche. The result is the transference of the political into the private sphere
and the sphere of its representatives and analysts. (The unorthodox use of
the concept “transference” is legitimate in the sense that the satisfaction of
repressed impulses follows from such a transfer: the repression or transfor-
mation of the radical political impulses of the counter-culture after their
supposed failure, for example: in this transformation they take on the
character of infantile desires.)

The insight that “Depth Psychology” is decisive in the concept of
advanced monopoly capitalism has been very important for the New Left.

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The Failure of the New Left? 7

The New Left understands the nature of integration in this society as a
mechanism that depends primarily on the internalization of social controls
by individuals, who then learn to reproduce the existing system and their
own domination. Social reproduction, in other words, is guaranteed in large
part through the systematic manipulation of libidinal needs and gratifica-
tions: through the commercialization of sexuality (repressive de-sublima-
tion) and the unleashing of primary aggression, not only in imperialist wars
(the My Lai massacre, etc.), but also in the intensified criminality and
brutality of everyday life. As political therapy and education, then, non-
conformist psychology serves the politicized psyche. The privatization and
the conformist business of psychology are increasingly confronted with
attempts at a radical therapy: the articulation of social repression still active
on the deeper levels of individual existence.

Back to the New Left. In spite of everything, I think it is wrong to speak
of its “failure.” As I have tried to show, the movement is rooted in the
structure of advanced capitalism itself; it can retreat in order to form itself
anew, it can, however, also become the victim of a neo-fascist wave of

For all that, there are indications that the “message” of the New Left has
spread and been heard beyond its own spheres. There are, of course,
reasons for that. The stability of capitalism has been upset, and indeed on an
international scale; the system exposes more and more of its inherent
destructiveness and irrationality. It is from this point that protest grows and
spreads, even if it is largely unorganized, diffuse, unconnected and still
without any evident socialist aims at first. Among workers, the protest
expresses itself in the form of wildcat strikes, absenteeism and in undercover
sabotage, or appears in flare-ups against the union leadership; it appears as
well in the struggles of oppressed social minorities and finally, in the
women’s liberation movement. It is obvious that there is a general disinte-
gration of worker morale, a mistrust of the basic values of capitalist society
and its hypocritical morality; the overall breakdown of confidence in the
priorities and hierarchies set by capitalism is apparent.

There is a very plausible explanation for the fact that the deeply-rooted
social dissatisfaction that I have tried to indicate remains, in spite of every-
thing, unarticulated, unorganized, and limited to small groups. Unfortu-
nately, the great mass of the population equates every socialist alternative
either with Soviet Communism or with a vague utopianism. Obviously there
is a widespread fear of a possible change in society so radical that it could
fundamentally transform traditional ways of life, could undermine the
puritanical morality that is now hundreds of years old and end the alienation
in our lives. These are conditions that have long been accepted or forced on
people; we have been taught that lifelong drudgery and oppression are
unchangeable, that they are, in fact, nothing short of religious law. Subjuga-
tion to a constantly expanding production machine has been seen as the pre-
condition for progress.

It is possible that this oppression was really necessary for a time in order

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8 Marcuse

to win the struggle against economic lack, to hasten the mobilization of the
work force and the domination of nature; in fact, technical progress led to an
enormous upswing in the development of the means of production and to
constantly growing accumulation of societal wealth. On the other hand,
however, these achievements were used in increasingly brutal ways to
perpetuate shortages, to maintain oppression, to rape nature and to
manipulate human needs – all of this with the single goal of perpetuating
the prevailing mode of production and the existing social hierarchy or
expanding their basis.

Certainly today it is abundantly clear that the triumphs of capitalism
cannot continue within this repressive framework: the system can now
develop only if it destroys the means of production, even human life itself,
on an international scale. It is true that capitalism has elevated its own
negation to a principle. Against this backdrop, the historical significance of
the New Left becomes much clearer. The 1960s mark a turning-point in the
development of capitalism (possibly in that of socialism as well); and it was
the New Left that put an all-encompassing, if forgotten and suppressed
dimension of radical social change on the agenda; it was the New Left that
inscribed on their banners – even if in a chaotic and somewhat immature

form – the idea of a revolution in the 20th century that would be specific to
its time and distinct from all preceding revolutions. This revolution would be
appropriate to the conditions created by late capitalism. Its bearers would be
an expanded working class with a changed social existence and different
consciousness, an expanded working class that would include large segments
of the once independent middle classes and intelligentsia. This revolution
would find its impetus and origins not so much in economic misery, but in
revolt against imposed needs and pleasures, revolt against the misery and
the insanity of the affluent society. Certainly, late capitalist society also
reproduces economic pauperization and the crudest forms of exploitation,
and yet, it is clear that the forces of radical change in highly-developed
capitalist countries are not recruited primarily fom the “proletariat,” and
that their demands are oriented toward qualitatively different ways of life
and qualitatively different needs.

The New Left totalized the rebellion against the existing order in its
demands and its struggle; it changed the consciousness of broad sectors of
the population; it showed that life without meaningless and unproductive
work is a possibility, life without fear, without the puritanical “work ethic”
(that has, for a very long time, not been a work ethic at all, but simply an
ethic of oppression), life without rewarded brutality and hypocrisy, life
finally devoid of the artificial beauty and actual ugliness of the capitalist
system. In other words, the New Left has made that which has long been
abstract knowledge concrete with its assertion that “changing the world”
does not mean replacing one system of domination with another, but rather
a leap to a qualitatively new level of civilization where human beings can
develop their own needs and potential in solidarity with one another.

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The Failure of the New Left? 9

How, then, should the New Left prepare itself for such a radical transfor-
mation? (Given the limitations of space, I cannot really take up the problem
of organization here, but will necessarily limit myself to a few tentative and
general remarks.)

First of all, we have to be very clear about the fact that we live in an epoch
of preventive counter-revolution. Capitalism is prepared both for civil and
imperialist war. Because of capitalism’s global machinery of control, the
New Left – isolated from the conservative mass of the population – is left
for now with the minimal-strategy of the united front: the cooperation of
students, militant workers and left-liberal (even unpolitical) persons and
groups. Such a united front is faced with the task of organizing protests
against certain especially brutal acts of aggression and suppression by the
regime. In general, the prevailing integration seems to preclude the
formation of radical mass-parties, at least for the time being; the primary
emphasis of radical organization would be, then, on local and regional bases
(in the factories, offices, universities, apartment complexes); the task would
include articulating the protest and mobilizing for concrete actions. Radical
organization would not be concerned with organizing actions for the transi-
tion to socialism; nothing has hurt the Marxist groups in the New Left more
than their language of reified and ritualized propaganda that assumes the
existence of precisely that revolutionary consciousness it should be
developing itself. The transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the
counter-revolution is dominant. Under these circumstances, a struggle
against the worst tendencies becomes the focal point. Capitalism exposes
itself daily in deeds and facts that could serve the ends of organized protest
and political education: the preparation of new wars and interventions,
political assassinations and attempted assassinations, brutal violations of
civil rights, racism, intensified exploitation of the work force. The struggle
will ordinarily emerge first in bourgeois-democratic forms (the election and
support of liberal politicians, the distribution of suppressed information, the
protest against environmental pollution, boycotts, etc.). Demands and
actions that have been legitimately condemned in other situations as
reformist, economistic, bourgeois-liberal politics can have a positive
importance right now: late capitalism boasts a diminished tolerance

The expansion of the potential forces of revolution corresponds to the
totalization of the revolutionary potential itself. I have indicated that in its
heroic phase, the New Left was permeated with the conviction that the
revolution of the 20th century would advance into dimensions that leave
behind all that we know of earlier revolutions. On the one hand, it will
mobilize “marginal groups” and social sectors that have not been politicized
up until now; on the other hand, this revolution will be more than an
economic and political revolution; it will be above all cultural. The vital need
to revolutionize those values that have characterized class society are
articulated in this new type of revolution.

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10 Marcuse

In this context, the Women’s Liberation Movement could become the
“third force” of the revolution. It is clear, of course, that women do not
constitute a separate “class”; they belong to all social sectors and classes,
and the opposition of the sexes is biologically rather than class based; at the
same time, of course, this opposition unfolds within a socio-historical

The history of civilization is the history of male domination, of
patriarchy. Women’s development has been determined and limited not
only by the demands of the slave-owners, the feudal and bourgeois societies,
but also and equally so by specifically male needs. It is clear that the male-
female dichotomy grew into the opposition masculine-feminine. At the
same time that women were being integrated on an ever-expanding scale
into the process of material production as objects of exploitation and
representatives of abstract work (unequal equality of exploitation), they
were still expected to embody all those qualities of pacification, humanness,
and a self-sacrifice that cannot develop in the capitalist work world without
undermining its repressive basis, specifically the functioning of human
relationships according to the laws of commodity production. For that
reason, the domains and the particular “aura” of the feminine had to be
strictly separated from the production sphere: “femininity” became a quality
that was validated only within the four walls of the private dwelling and in
the sexual sphere. Naturally, even this privatized sector remained part of the
structure of male domination. This division and allocation of human

resources was ultimately completely institutionalized and reproduced itself
from generation to generation. Of course, these antagonistic social
conditions then took on the appearance of a “natural” opposition: the
opposition between innate qualities as the basis for a supposedly natural
hierarchy, the domination of the masculine over the feminine.

We are at a moment in history when the aggressiveness and brutality of
male-dominated society has reached a destructive high point, which cannot
be offset through the development of the means of production and the
rational domination of nature. The revolt of women against the roles forced
upon them necessarily takes the form of a negation in the context of the
existing society: it is the struggle against male domination waged on all levels
of material and intellectual culture.

The negation is, of course, still abstract and incomplete at this point; it is
a first and indeed essential step toward liberation; it is in no way liberation
itself. Were the emancipatory impulse to remain on this level,- the radical
potential of this movement for the building of an alternative socialist society
would be suppressed – in the end, the movement would have achieved
nothing more than equality of domination.

The system itself would change only when women’s opposition to
patriarchy became effective on the basis of society: in the organization of the
production process, in the nature of work and in the transformation of
needs. The orientation of production toward receptivity, toward the

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The Failure of the New Left? 11

enjoyment of the fruits of laboring, toward an emancipation of the senses,
toward pacification of society and nature would remove the foundation of
masculine aggression in its most repressive and most profitable, productive

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