Race, Sex and Social Justice: The Impact of Herbert Marcuse in America

Race, Sex and Social Justice: The Impact of Herbert Marcuse in America October 17, 2022

It seems redundant to point out that with every cry of racial injustice and every call to right racial wrongs, there is an equally forceful cry of sexual oppression and call for total sexual equality. This coupling of two very different aspects of the human condition: race and sex (or gender), has become quite commonplace. So much so that the idea of distinguishing between the two has nearly vanished in recent history. Making the obvious distinctions between the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and the ongoing Sexual Revolution has simply faded from our public conversation. To support one is to support the other.

Yet, if no distinction between the two is made, then the simple question is never raised: “why is the call for total sexual liberation equated with a call for racial equality?” Are they really one and the same? 

One answer might be that racial justice movements, at least some of them, may be far less interested in race than in sex. In other words, it could be that race merely acts as a front for the “making equal” of various sexual dispositions and behaviors. As I will argue, these are themselves far more fundamental to human beings than skin color, or some racialized identity. This may come as a shock to some. However, there is a philosophical connection between groups grounded in neo-Marxist social theory, yet who focus on different social phenomena. The ideas of one early neo-Marxist in particular—the German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse–form part of the glue that holds these otherwise distinct identity movements together.

The Sexualization of America

Should it strike us as odd that two generations after the “Sexual Revolution” our nation has had to grapple with the devastating aftermath of that revolution? This aftermath has been most poignantly revealed in justice movements like #MeToo and devastating, social endemics like fatherless homes.

As to the former, we hear story after story of sexual abuse, harassment, and rape. These come at us daily from every domain of American society: in Hollywood and Washington D.C., in professional & Olympic sports, on university campuses and in doctors’ offices, and, most egregiously, in the Church itself. We are bombarded by ever new allegations (most true, some unsubstantiated, yet believable) of inappropriate, or outright malicious, sexual deviancy. As to the latter, the statistics speak for themselves, as children without fathers suffer life-long consequences of life without a dad.

But, where did culture go so wrong? How is it that within such a short period of time, hardly three generations, we went from the sexual norms and ethics of the Greatest Generation to those of Generation Z? There are many names one could invoke to answer this question: Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault and John Money all come to mind. However, I want to focus on one philosopher in particular, the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse.

Marcuse, The Frankfurt School and The Sexual Revolution

Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin to highly educated Jewish parents, and earned two Doctorates in Philosophy before fleeing the Nazis and coming to the United States, where he taught at universities such as Brandeis, Columbia, and UC-San Diego. It was said of Marcuse in a 1968 New York Times Magazine article:

In terms of day-to-day effect, Herbert Marcuse may be the most important philosopher alive. For countless young people, discontented, demonstrating or fulminating, on campus or in the streets, here and abroad, this 70-year-old philosopher is the angel of the apocalypse.

Robert Marks, The Meaning of Marcuse, New York: Ballantine, 1970. 4

Important indeed, and impactful far beyond the notoriety of his name.

A proponent of Marxist economic thought, Marcuse, like his Frankfurt School colleagues, deviated from traditional Marxism with its emphasis on strictly material conditions. This deviation and modification emerged out of Marcuse’s unique synthesis of a Marxist approach to economics with Freudian meta-psychology. Marcuse’s particular critical theory, therefore, was fundamentally atheistic materialistic like Marxism, yet, unlike Marx, was oriented to the most basic psycho-physical features of the individual human agent. For Marcuse therefore, drawing from Freud, the most fundamental component of the purely physical human being was not his or her labor or relationship to it, but the drive for sexual gratification.

Unlike Freud, however, who thought that an unchecked release of such “libidinal energy” (i.e. the Id) would spell the death of civilized society, Marcuse thought society could return to a pre-cognitive and pre-moral state. In this state of being, the Id could be set free and, in being released, human beings could finally act as the sensate animals they truly are. The pre-cognitive, pre-moral state was, according to Marcuse, “polymorphous perverse” (Eros and Civilization, 49), meaning that the original sex instincts of human creatures were free from any spatial or temporal restrictions or boundaries. Restrictions and boundaries on sexual instincts and their pleasure seeking functions only became limited in light of what Freud called “the reality principle” and with the advent of rational thought.

In other words, Marcuse thought we could go back to a prior state of existence as pure, pleasure-seeking and pleasure-attaining creatures, yet without sacrificing our higher-order capacity to reason. In layman’s terms, we could “get it on” whenever, however, with whomever and with how many ever we wanted, and do so without any negative consequences. It was for this reason that Marcuse became the most well known philosopher of his day; at one point carrying the monikers “Father of the Sexual Revolution” and “Guru of the New Left.”

But, how did Marcuse think we could live as unrestrained seekers of sexual gratification without any damaging results?

Marcuse’s “Rational Sexual Hedonism”

Marcuse conjectured that human beings could develop what he called a “libidinal rationality,” (Eros and Civlization, 199) whereby human persons would easily engage in the “free play” of sexual gratification. According to Marcuse, this “free play” of sexual activity would also occur without any violation of the other person’s autonomy. The former restraints put on sexual activity by religion or ethics, something Freud considered necessary for civilization to sustain itself, could be done away with in this era of modernization and technology.

Given the technology and wealth modern societies possessed, the formerly repressed instinctual desires of its members could now be funneled back to their original intent: sexual pleasure. They need not be subliminated in order to ensure survival in the face of scarcity. Further, human beings could now be released from the mental, moral and institutional shackles developed by religious systems of a bygone, unscientific era and, in doing so, become totally sexually liberated. This all could happen, finally, without people sacrificing their reasonableness.

It was ancient systems of thought and society, e.g. Judeo-Christianity, or even Platonism, that had introduced, as part of the process of civilizing the human animal, “moral” notions associated with sexual desires, like guilt and shame. In addition, corresponding institutions, like monogamic, procreative marriage (Eros, 201) were developed for purely pragmatic reasons. These ideas and their institutions, however, were no longer needed in a modern and industrialized world. For Marcuse, then, it was not just the chains of a capitalist economy from which modern men needed to be liberated. It was from repressive thoughts and their related, religious institutions that modern man had to be set free. Alasdair MacIntyre summed up Marcuse’s vision in an early work:

Marcuse wishes to envisage a possible social order in which human relationships are widely informed by that libidinal release and gratification which, according to Freud, would spell the destruction of any social order.

MacIntyre, Herbert Marcuse, 48

One could argue this is exactly the state of affairs we see playing out in America today, as people of various social groups try to find ways of having the greatest number and variety of sexual experiences without reaping the consequences of those experiences. Of course, medical technology has advanced in such as way as to provide some escape from those natural consequences. In addition, the laws of the land have altered to fit the Marcusean ideological aim. Thus, ideology and technology have formed an unholy alliance to make possible the Marcusean dream, while politics, especially the policies of the Democratic party, support that alliance at all costs.

How To Achieve “Libidinal Rationality”

For Marcuse, since the scarcity of resources and a natural world that was “red in tooth and claw” had been by and large conquered by the ascendancy of technology, the pursuit of libidinal rationality could finally be realized. There simply was no longer an existential need for modern man to sublimate the natural, pre-moral sexual desires that dominate his or her inner life. Sexual drives no longer needed to be translated into grueling physical or mental labor. The Id no longer had to be subjected to some socio-economic struggle, i.e., to “climbing the social or corporate ladder.” Technology could and would fulfill every physical need that had in previous generations necessitated difficult manual labor or great mental ambition. Now was indeed the time to sit back and play.

Under optimum conditions, the prevalence, in mature civilization, of material and intellectual wealth would be such as to allow painless gratification of needs, while domination would no longer systematically forestall such gratification. In this case, the quantum of instinctual energy still to be diverted into necessary labor…would be so small that a large area of repressive constraints and modification, no longer sustained by external forces, would collapse. Consequently, the antagonistic relations between pleasure principle and reality principle would be altered in favor of the former. Eros, the life instincts, would be released to an unprecedented degree.

Marcuse, Eros, 153-154

This did not mean that sexual intercourse of various arrangements is all we would do. There would still be work, of a sort. But the “instinctual energy” diverted toward “necessary labor” would be almost negligible. Thus, most “work” would take on the form of artistic or aesthetic endeavors, say film-making or street performances; or even casual hobbies, like gardening or pottery.

Ultimately, however, the real liberation in life would come when we would finally see each others’ bodies as “object[s] of [libidinal] cathexis” and as “thing[s] to be enjoyed,” and as “instrument[s] of pleasure” (Eros, 201).  Only when we could see ourselves and others’ bodies as centers of sexual pleasure and libidinal release, and act upon those centers, would we be truly free creatures. 

However, to do this, society had to jettison the remnant hooks of Theology and pre-Hegelian philosophy that either promised an afterlife that never comes, or that posited a universal Reason which makes normative claims on our behaviors. If this Christian or even Aristotelian conception of reality could be finally put to death, then there would be nothing to stop a new human nature from emerging. This new human nature would be fully accepting of, and given over to, our most natural longings–the most powerful of which we all know to be sexual. This new human nature would be defined by, and actualized through, the lusts of the body. After all, our bodies are all that we are.

It was this vision of “libidinal rationality” that the culture of “free love” embraced. It is also the vision that continues to underlie our current mantra of “love is love.” It is a view of the human person that embraces sexual desire as our most fundamental and universal feature, far more than race, and far, far more than the original Marxist notion of mere economic class.

Marcuse’s Vision and The Christian Worldview

It is safe to say that there is little of Marcuse’s vision that is compatible with a historic Christian worldview. First, there is no God to speak of and, as such, no afterlife to be won (or accepted into). All life, all living, must be experienced in the here-and-now. Moreover, that here-and-now is a purely physical here-and-now. Gratification of desires can only be found in this chunk of reality, since this is the only chunk of reality that exists.

In one sense, what Marcuse proposes is a very consistent view if atheism is true. Why wouldn’t we explore every means possible to ensure a maximal amount and degree of sexual gratification, if, at bottom, there truly is no good and evil, no right and wrong, and no grand purpose or plan to our lives (to paraphrase Dawkins)? What else is as exciting, as stimulating, as fulfilling as sexual gratification?

Probably the only other thing that comes close to it in this life is war (I have written about this elsewhere). Of course, the whole idea Marcuse was proposing was summed up in the counter-cultural cry of the 1960’s hippy: “Make love, not war.” What that slogan meant literally was “engage in sex, not aggression.” This was to be the solution to the malaise of modern man.

Further, with regard to the various critical theories of our times, Marcuse’s version is far more penetrating than others. After all, different socio-economic features about ourselves, e.g. our race, our gender, our nationality or economic status, invariably seem to be downstream from the more fundamental drive of libidinal gratification. If we were to rally around our shared desire for sex, would it not be the case that these other barriers to social unity would finally crumble? Would anyone really care about blackness or whiteness, male or female differences, immigrant statuses or national backgrounds, if we were free to simply enjoy each other sexually?

While I do not know this to be the case, it does seem to me as an outside observer, that there is not much racism (or classism) within the LGBTQ+ community. Although, I could be wrong on that. Still, in the end, Marcuse’s view is certainly tempting, in more ways than one. Could the total equalization and pursuit of all sexual activity really solve the rest of our social ills? Might not transforming our society into one, long Bacchaen celebration, a protracted and ever-present “Pride Parade,” bring us into everlasting peace?

However, the question has been clearly begged. For the evidence not only from our own time, but from times long past, clearly shows that sexual gratification is not the summum bonum of humankind. If it ever was, then we would certainly wonder why men like Aurelius Augustine, after living a life marked by such libidinal freedom, wound up ultimately saying in his most heartfelt and personal writing, The Confessions, the following:

Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.

Confessions, Book I.1

Moreover, as we begin to see what is likely just the tip of the iceberg of the sexual damage that has been wrought since The Sexual Revolution, is it any wonder that we also see the number of suicides in our homeland at record highs? Is it not entirely evident that sexual brokenness and depression are inextricably linked? Do we not sense that we are all, in some way, damaged goods and that this is mostly on account of our vain, Marcusean attempts at the phantom of sexual liberation? Is it not obvious that “libidinal rationality” is not only a myth, but that even if it were not, it would always be subservient to our more innate sense of right and wrong? Are we not having to learn, yet again, that what human beings seek above all else is not sexual gratification, but love? 

And this is to say nothing of unwanted pregnancies, that one pesky natural consequence we still cannot seem to get rid of, no matter how many millions of babies we murder in the womb. Nor is it to mention the scourge of pornography, which in providing us with instant sexual gratification, has actually robbed us of the capacity to enjoy the real thing.

Ultimately Marcuse’s social theory was wrong because Marcuse was wrong, and Marcuse was wrong because he got human nature wrong. Thinking that human nature was as malleable as the cultures it creates, Marcuse thought he could force ideas that would change the very essence of man. Of course this is the problem with all social theories that assume man is his own creator. They always fail at the point of origin.

Conclusion: Race Is Not The Real Issue, It’s Sex

It should be no wonder then that in the doctrinal statement of a group like Black Lives Matter, the departure from Christian sexual norms and morays is explicit. It is also no wonder that the organization explicitly affirms transgender and queer relationships and lifestyles. At bottom we are not really as interested or as consumed with racial identity, or socio-economic class, as we are with our sexual identity.

It is our deepest sexual desires, our Id, which motivate us more than any other part of ourselves outside of the religious. That is true within any racialized or ethnic community and at the highest and lowest echelons of material wealth. Although, as we have already pointed out, our sexual desires are more expressible at the upper echelons of a rich society than among the abject poor, where the reality principle is still at work.

Apart from a religious identity, and the restraining hand of God, it is the Id that primarily shapes who we are and drives much of what we do. Freud, who obviously did not believe in God, thought this unrestrained energy would lead to the demise of culture itself, and that through an unleashing of violence. On this point, we might be wise to agree with the good doctor. The Apostle Paul put it this way when he argued that sexual sin, unlike all others, is a sin against one’s own body: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18).

Racism in a society can be overcome more easily than sexual immorality (although it isn’t overcome easily, only more easily). Disparities in socio-economic opportunity too can be overcome far more easily than sexual immorality. But, it is sexual immorality that permeates every mind and every heart of every man and woman. Not all are racists (despite what you hear). Not all are greedy capitalists (despite what some may say). Yet all of us struggle and strive with our own bodies, our own lusts and our own desires for pleasure at the expense of the other. This is where the real battle lies. This is why we see the extreme push for a sexual liberation that embraces the very thing that can destroy us all, and that regardless of the color of our skin or the amount of money in our bank account.

Nota Bene: For more on racial reconciliation ministries that do not push an agenda of sexual “liberation,” but are actually focused on race and poverty: see here.

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