Marcuse's children

While political ecology is still struggling to assert itself on the national scene, it is good to rediscover the Gorz/Marcuse dialogue, which a new edition places in the history of critical thought by exhuming rare if not unpublished texts from the two intellectuals of the new left.

We are all children of Marcuse. () Very few authors have had such a profound impact on their time, while being so little read and almost never cited.

This is the homage paid by Andr Gorz Herbert Marcuse in The new observer on August 6, 1979, a few days after his disappearance. The comment remains current. This underlines the importance of the exhumation work carried out by two heirs of Gorz, Christophe Fourel and Clara Ruault, in this collection of texts testifying to the fruitful dialogue existing between these two reference intellectuals of political ecology.

The work indeed constitutes a work of archeology of what was designated as the new left, an enterprise of reinterpretation of Marxism in the years 1960-1970, to which Marcuse contributed through a Freudo-Marxism founding a critical theory of needs. The texts it brings together come from the Andr Gorz collection of the Institute of Memoirs of Contemporary Edition (Imec). There we find a mixture of interviews, book reviews, conference presentations and posthumous eulogies. The preface is signed by Dick Howard, American professor of political philosophy and traveling companion of the two protagonists.

The two ecologies

The main scene takes place during a conference in June 1972 in Paris, from which the work took the title: ecology and revolution. Uniting the initiative of Gorz, Sicco Mansholt (president of the European Commission), Edmond Maire (general secretary of the CFDT), Edward Goldsmith (founder of the journal The Ecologist), Philippe Saint-Marc (senior civil servant), Edgar Morin and Herbert Marcuse, it is presented, all things considered, by the authors as the equivalent for political ecology of the Lippmann conference of 1938, which historians have made the inaugural act of neoliberalism.

If since the Meadows report of 1972 on the limits of growth and the declarations of the social democrat converted to ecology Sicco Mansholt in favor of a negative growth, ecology has become a major concern of public opinion, its politicization remains uncertain. The reports of IPCC are they enough to change capitalism? This is the whole question that Gorz raised concerning the ambiguities of the Meadows report, published the same year with the help of the automobile industry (Ford, Fiat, Volkswagen). Warning against the risk of ecology being co-opted by capitalism, he advocated the implementation of revolutionary reformsself-managing and decentralized, as Dick Howard recalls in his preface.

At a time when social democracy, of which he never despaired, has collapsed in France and where aspirations for radicalism are gaining momentum, Gorz's reflections appear very stimulating. In a context of energy crisis due to the Russo-Ukrainian war, purchasing power was the main driving force behind the left-wing vote during the last presidential election. And it is a more centralized political culture, focused on the state, which has once again imposed itself. To the great dismay of political ecology, which still lacked a social basis.

From the 1970s, Gorz saw this strategy of conquest of power as a dead end, a change of government not being enough to eliminate the capitalist way of life. Proposing to go beyond the unionism of the pay slip, he is the author of a critique of capitalist civilization, questioning the alienation of individuals assigned a role of producer/consumer which determines their needs. It is on this criticism of needs manipulated by capitalist ideology that he joins the analyzes developed in 1962 by Marcuse in The one-dimensional manof which he was one of the first readers in France.

A critical theory of needs

Marcuse, quoted by Gorz in his review, summarizes: Man is subject to his productive apparatus and all the more so as there is more freedom and comfort. Technological rationality multiplies false needs and anesthetizes the revolutionary force by integrating the working class into capitalism. Should we then despair of the proletariat? It is on this point that Gorz brings the contradiction. For him, Marcuse wrongly generalizes the American model. Old Europe, particularly Italy and France, would be less receptive to capitalist civilization thanks to a more acute class consciousness of the workers. It is not yet the Gorz making its Farewell to the proletariat in 1980. Remaining attached to openism, he tried to save the revolutionary subject.

Not finding a revolutionary subject is the challenge of the new left. But as Christophe Fourel and Clara Ruault point out, the two thinkers converged after May 68. They defended a synchronization between the objective factor of the revolution, in other words the working class, and its subjective factor represented by the new social movements (civil rights movement, youth movement, feminist movement). In short, the new social movements constitute the engine of the revolution, of which the working class remains the support. For Marcuse, the challenge now consists of bringing a protest that calls into question the very mode of production and the model of consumption.

Revolution is thus not only a matter of power relations, it first supposes changing man himself. In an exchange with Gorz in 1972, Marcuse stated: We cannot at all hope for a qualitative change caused by the revolution if the men who make the revolution are men conditioned and trained by class society. In this case, even in the transition to socialism, we will not have a change in the basic institutions, in the relations of production, without a qualitative change in men and in the relations of men with nature..

With essential needs covered, post-materialist values ​​appear. The opulent society carries within itself its contradiction. She does emerge a subversive experience, aspirations of subversive values, within the framework of capitalism itself. Marcuse mentions the refusal of young workers to work, the search for emancipation of Afro-Americans, and American utopian communities. All this results in a rejection of virilist values ​​through the invention of new lifestyles.

The conditions of the revolution

This new sociology calls for a new organization. Marcuse opens the perspective ofa united front of the different groups of the new left and the old left. But, far from conceiving a new mass party, marked by a certain state phobia, he imagines this junction happening from below, in a decentralized way. We can see there the strength of what Gorz called a political ecology advanceslocally experimenting with new lifestyles, but also the weakness of environmental parties in the face of centralized systems like the Ve Republic.

This Big refusal draws on critical thinking. Marcuse locates the origin: It is always in universities that we can become activists. It nevertheless calls for a major reform of the institution to put an end to the reproduction of the established order by means of a non-conformist education, which deals with social problems through the establishment of facts and the question of social change. It also entrusts intellectuals with the role of guiding the revolutionary movement, at the risk of an elitist approach according to which revolutionary action must be organized even if it revokes the Party, impliedly communist, to do so.

Marcuse embodies this role of intellectual demystifier with talent, which makes Gorz conclude that it is

a philosopher, that is to say someone who has acquired the power to express what the conditioned, mystified and oppressed individual can only sense intuitively.

Timothe DuvergerMay 30, 2022

To quote this article:

Timothe Duverger, The Children of Marcuse,

The Life of Ideas

, May 30, 2022. ISSN: 2105-3030. URL:

Nota Bene :

If you wish to criticize or develop this article, you are invited to propose a text to the editorial committee (redaction at the house of We will respond to you as soon as possible.