(Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation)

Franz Stark


Herbert Marcuse and Karl Popper, the "grand old men" of the two great currents of philosophy in our time that aim at changing society, have met only briefly. They have never really had a serious discussion together, and it doesn't look as though they ever will. Nevertheless, confrontation between them is imperative. Only a social theory that deals critically with the contradictions between a revolutionary socialism and a movement for evolutionary social reform, and to some extent overcomes these contradictions, can be a truly critical theory.

Through the medium of television Bavarian Broadcasting has attempted to stage the confrontation between Marcuse and Popper that did not take place. The editor of these texts [in the German edition] has interviewed both political philosophers in their present homes and has fitted their answers together in contrapuntal fashion.

It was not easy to get Herbert Marcuse's final agreement to take part. Only a preliminary conversation during a visit to Germany and half a dozen letters from Munich to La Jolla, the garden suburb of San Diego, California, where Marcuse lives, could move the 72 year‑old philosopher to a documentary self‑portrayal of his life and political philosophy. When, in November 1969, the television crew was at last able to track Marcuse down in his simple wooden house close to the campus of his last university and high above the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean, he proved to be most cooperative—and a master in the use of the medium.

Karl Raimund Popper—like his neo‑Marxist opponent, retired since 1969—immediately accepted the project. The scholar lives with his wife in seclusion in Penn, in the English county of Buckinghamshire. Four years younger than Marcuse, but in contrast to him not of robust health, Popper must have experienced the medium and its demands as something of a burden.

While Marcuse received world‑wide publicity in the mid‑sixties as a theorist of the international protest movement of the New Left, Karl Popper has been little known outside the academic field. And this, although Sir Karl Popper—he was knighted in 1965—is perhaps the most influential philosopher in Anglo‑Saxon and Scandinavian spheres of culture. In West Germany, students began to pay attention to Popper only after his confrontation in 1961 with Theodor Adorno in Tubingen, with which he rekindled the so-called "Positivismusstreit" in German sociology. That since then the dialecticians of the "Frankfurt School" label him a positivist is absurd, for as a philosopher of science, Popper himself has formulated the most acute and penetrating critique of the neo‑positivism. of Rudolf Carnap and the Vienna Circle.


More freedom, more justice, more humanity for the western democratic society and ultimately, of course, for the all societies of the world—this is the theme of both philosophers. When one carefully considers their contrasting plans for the future, one encounters first of all the diagnosis of present day society, the analytical core. Herbert Marcuse, who unlike traditional Marxists no longer deals exclusively with the political economy and class situation of society, but with the consciousness and instinctual structure of "One Dimensional Man," draws us a terrifying picture. But is our society in fact as repressive as the neo‑Marxist claims? That the overwhelming majority of individuals does not experience the situation in this way would not be an objection for Marcuse. He would say that the headlong progress of technology, productivity, and the living standards of even the underprivileged inwardly and outwardly mask the barbaric by‑products of late capitalism and deaden the consciousness of these individuals to such an extent that they can no longer comprehend their objective situation at all. As much sympathy as one may manifest for this theory, the question remains: how does Marcuse come to possess the criteria that distinguish "true" consciousness from "false" consciousness?

Nevertheless, if Marcuse's devastating critique were justified only in part, it would arouse mistrust of the relatively optimistic picture that Popper paints of this society. Admittedly, Popper recognizes throughout the injustice and inequalities that prevail. But he believes that, through state and social institutions, representative parliamentary democracy is ultimately in a position to defend its weak members against the strong ones.

The second stage in the plans of both philosophers is the aim of the society that they are striving for and the road to it. For Marcuse there is no doubt that his "New Society" will be socialist and that the road to it leads through the revolutionary overthrow of the late capitalist system. But differing once more from traditional Marxists, Marcuse demands first of all a radical transformation in consciousness, that is, in the "superstructure," before a revolutionary change occurs in the economic "base." This is socialism on a. biological foundation: it is, one might say, Karl Marx enriched with Sigmund Freud.

What Marcuse wishes to attain here is nothing less than the creation of a new man who is pleasure oriented, who does not know the murderous competitive spirit of capitalism, who has lost his aggression and instead acts in solidarity; a man who hates war deeply; a utopia of seductive style to which one would yield all too willingly.

But many questions remain open. How is an industrialized society to be organized? Would not the required permanent revolution in human consciousness result in the politicization of all social intercourse with the individual losing almost all his freedom? Furthermore, can one be quite sure that Marcuse's revolution will not produce a dictatorship that he himself does not desire? The neo‑Marxist replies: "There is no guarantee. History is not an insurance agency."

And as with his diagnosis of present day society, there arises with his plan for the "New Society" the question of what criteria justify the "correctness" of this society and how these criteria are arrived at. In the last analysis does there not lie hidden here a dogmatically elitist formula of "the idea of privileged access to the truth for those with the knowledge of salvation" (Hans Albert)?

Karl Raimund Popper, on the other hand, does not direct his gaze as far as utopia. His aim, the "Open Society," is the continuation of the progress of existing parliamentary democracy through social reform. For the neoliberal, every revolution carries the danger of "killing the revolutionaries and of destroying their ideals." Reforms, on the other hand, can be corrected if undesired consequences arise. The decisive question here, of course, is whether the "Open Society" can ever be realized if Marcuse's diagnosis of late capitalism is even close to being true. Moreover, Popper demands a rational adjudication of social conflicts; but aren't values and political attitudes at least influenced by prevailing social conventions?

It is also noteworthy that Popper's "Open Society" is not really described in any substantial way. The liberal democrat Popper has no image of a "correct" society. He only gives the rules that are to be abided by in social conflicts and the institutional safeguards that must function. What political objectives are finally to be aimed at in compliance with those rules is something that must be continually worked out and (provisionally) established through critical discussion.

But how can this consensus be found in a society of conflicting interests? Practically, only through the decision of the majority. Here at the very end there crops up again the doubt that Marcuse has sown about the autonomy of the consciousness of the individual.

That Popper's "Open Society" is ultimately devoid of content is a logical consequence of his philosophical and scientific tenets. While for Marcuse science "includes an analysis of tendencies, historical possibilities," and so asserts that social norms and political values are scientifically provable, for Popper there is no certain knowledge, not even in the field of the natural sciences. Our knowledge is critical guesswork. We employ hypotheses to explain problems and the task of the scientist is continually to try to refute them. We tend to trust those hypotheses and theories that withstand such attempts at refutation the longest. They have proved themselves for the time being. Nevertheless, they can be improved on at any time, and we must not rest from attempting this.

In consequence, the conflict between Marcuse and Popper, the neo‑Marxist and the social liberal, the "critical rationalist," as Popper would call himself, is rooted above all else in a different theory of science, in a conflicting image of science and its task for man.


As a contemporary whom knowledge of the immorality and inhumanity of the capitalist social order has not converted to Marxism, it seems to me that not only is Marcuse open to criticism from Popper (for example, by the convincing philosophy of science of critical rationalism), but Popper is also open to criticism from Marcuse (for example, from his very much more concrete and subtle diagnosis of our society and the chances in it for self-determination and realization—even if this diagnosis be exaggerated).

I am not sure if there can be a real synthesis be­tween the contrasting plans of Marcuse and Popper for the future. But I do believe that the theory that will form the foundation for a freer and more just society must borrow elements from the thinking of both philosophers. It is the aim of this confrontation to set out theoretically their conflicting programs in order to lay bare points from which an attempt at synthesis can be made.

SOURCE: Stark, Franz. "Afterword to the German Edition," pp. 105-111, of:.

Marcuse, Herbert; Popper, Karl. Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation. Ed. A. T. Ferguson; trans. Michael Aylward & A. T. Ferguson; intro. Frederic L. Bender; afterword to German ed., Franz Stark. Chicago: Precedent Publishing Co., 1976. Originally published in German as Revolution oder Reform? Herbert Marcuse u. Karl Popper. Eine Konfrontation, ed. Franz Stark, 1972.

Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation (Herbert Marcuse & Karl Popper): Contents

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage

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