The Realm of Freedom and the Realm of Necessity:
A Reconsideration

Herbert Marcuse

San Diego

I was very happy to hear that my friend Norman Birnbaum in his paper this morning spoke of utopian concepts and of the way in which allegedly utopian concepts were translated into reality, or were at least in the process of being translated into reality by the events of and June in France,

I am equally happy and honored to talk to you in the presence of Ernst Bloch whose work »Geist der Utopie«, published more than forty years ago, has influenced at my generation, and licks shown how realistic utopian concepts can be, lose to action, how close to practice.

I want to follow this road here. I will not be deterred by one of the most vicious ideologies of today, namely, the ideology which derogates, denounces, and ridicules the most decisive concepts and images of a free society as merely »utopian« and »only« speculative. It may well he that precisely in those aspects of socialism which are today ridiculed as utopian, lies the decisive difference, the contrast between an authentic socialist society and the established societies, even the most advanced industrial societies. I think what we are witnessing today is a revolt against tabooed aspects and ideas of socialism, an attempt to recapture repressed aspects and images of socialism which are coming to the fore again and which are being kept alive and activated by the student movements.

I would like to take as a motto of my talk one of the inscriptions on the walls of the Sorbonne in Paris, which seems to mark the very essence of what is going on today. The inscription said: »Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!« Let us be realistic, let us ask for the impossible. I believe that this inscription marks a turning point in the development of the established societies, and perhaps not only in the capitalist societies, and I believe that in view of this fact no re‑examination of Marxian concepts today is possible without reference to the student movements.

In the first place I do not think that the students by themselves constitute a revolutionary force. I have never maintained that the students today are replacing the working class as the revolutionary force, that of course is nonsense. What the student movement represents today is not even an avant-garde behind which revolutionary masses are marching, but a leading minority, a militant minority which articulates what is still unarticulated and repressed among the vast majority of the population. And in this sense of an intellectual, and not only intellectual avant‑garde, the student movement today is more than an isolated movement; it is rather a social force which is perhaps (and I hope will be) capable of articulating and developing the needs and aspirations of the exploited masses in the capitalist countries.

The student movement in these countries illuminates the gap that separates traditional ideologies, even socialist ideologies (reformist as well as radical leftist ideologies) from the reality in which we live today. The student movement has revealed the inadequacy of the traditional concepts of the transition from capitalism to socialism and the inadequacy of the traditional concept of socialism in view of the real possibilities of socialism today.

The student movement has redefined socialism, and we had better come to terms with this redefinition because it corresponds to the possibilities of constructing the socialist society at the attained level of the material, technical and cultural development. This redefinition of socialism takes into account forces and factors of the development which have not received adequate attention in Marxian theory and strategy. These factors and forces are not extraneous events, they are not surface and superficial developments but are rather tendencies inherent in and resulting from the very structure of advanced capitalism. They must be incorporated into Marxian theory if it is to continue its task of guiding radical and revolutionary action.

I would like to stress from the beginning, that this redefinition of socialism, this re‑examination of Marxism is not adequately described as »socialist humanism«.

There is in the student movement a sharp criticism of the concept of humanism, even socialist humanism as a bourgeois ideology, a critique which is easily misunderstood. Humanism, according to this criticism, is the term for an ideal which still smacks of repression, though of refined and sophisticated repression, of internalization, sublimation of freedom and equality. The militant young of today sense in the idea of humanism a degree of sublimation which they no longer want to tolerate, because it is no longer necessary for human progress. It is no longer necessary either for the emergence of a free society nor for the emergence of free individuals. To these young militants the term humanism is inseparable from the affirmative higher culture of bourgeois society. It is inseparable from the repressive idea of the person or personality who can »fulfill himself« without making excessive demands on the world, by practicing the socially required degree of resignation. To them humanism remains an idealistic concept which minimizes the power and the weight of the brute matter, the power and the weight of the body, of the mutilated biology, of man, of his mutilated life instincts.

It goes without saying that this criticism does not apply to that socialist humanism which has become a political weapon in the struggle against oppressive modes of socialist construction. There, socialist humanism may well emerge as a material force of liberation.

To the militants of the New Left the content of socialism is preserved,— aufgehoben, in a more radical, a more »utopian« and at the same time more realistic concept of a free society, a vision of socialism which may perhaps be best characterized by a new relationship between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity, which differs from the classical conception of this relationship in Marx’s Capital.

I recall to you briefly the classical Marxian conception. Human freedom in a true sense is possible only beyond the realm of necessity. The realm of necessity itself forever remains a realm of unfreedom, and the optimum that can be achieved there is a significant reduction of the working day, and a high degree of rationality and rationalization. Now this conception epitomizes the division of the human existence into labor time and free time, the division between reason, rationality on the one band, and pleasure, joy, fulfillment on the other hand, the division between alienated and non‑alienated labor.

According to this classical Marxian concept, the realm of necessity would remain a realm of alienation, no matter how much the working day is being reduced. Moreover this conception seems to imply that free human activity is essentially different, and must remain essentially different from socially necessary work. Nor does the earlier Marxian, notion of the all‑round individual who can do one thing today and another tomorrow seem applicable to a highly developed industrial society. For there would be hundreds and thousands of people who would want to go fishing at the same time, or go hunting at the same time, who would want to write poems or who would want to criticize at the same time. These conditions do not exactly convey the image of freedom.

I am aware of the fact that there is still another Marxian concept of the relation between freedom and necessity in the famous and often quoted passage from the Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Oekonomie. This concept envisages conditions of full automation, where the immediate producer is indeed »dissociated« from the material process of production and becomes a free »Subject« in the sense that be can play with, experiment with the technical material, with the possibilities of the machine and of the things produced and transformed by the machines. But as far as I know this most advanced vision of a free society was apparently dropped by Marx himself and no longer appears in the Capital and in the later writings.

The classical conception in Capital is part of the basic Marxian notion according to which the unfettered development of the productive forces is a precondition and token of socialism. This assumption subordinates freedom to productivity, to constantly rising productivity: freedom, the attainable degree, extent and level of freedom would depend on the attained degree of productivity, the attained level of the development of the productive forces. But what kind, what mode, what direction of the development of the productive forces? This is no problem, at least does not seem to be a problem as long as scarcity and poverty prevail: their abolition is the primary goal. But then, the achievements of technical progress open another aspect.

In the so‑called affluent societies, the technically developed capitalist societies, we see a twofold development. On the one hand, capitalist progress constantly augments the quantity of necessary commodities available on the market for the available purchasing power. This means in these countries an increasing rate of production of so‑called luxuries, including the so‑called defense industry, and an increasing production of waste and gadgets while retaining large sectors of poverty and of misery even within the borders of the society.

It means furthermore the extension of the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Ever more gadgets, ever more so‑called luxuries, ever more leisure commodities and services have to be bought in order to attain that level of existence where you have the privilege, by virtue of your purchasing power, of at least a modicum of freedom within the framework of capitalist society. In this sense, we can say that, in advanced capitalism, development of the productive forces is equal to the development of voluntary servitude, voluntary of course in an ironical sense. The new automobile you have to acquire every second year, the new television set you have to buy in order to be able to keep up with your neighbours and peers, all these instruments and commodities increase and intensify your dependence on the ever vaster apparatus of production and distribution, controlled by the ruling powers.

But there is yet another aspect of this development, The growing productivity of labour tends to transform the work process into a technical process in which the human agent of production plays increasingly the role of a supervisor, inventor and experimentor. This trend is inherent in, and is the very expression of the rising productivity of labour. It is the extension of the realm of freedom, or rather the realm of possible freedom to the realm of necessity. The work process itself, the socially necessary work, becomes, in its rationality, subject to the free play of the mind, of imagination, the free play with the pleasurable possibilities of things and nature.

Now these two trends, the one extending the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, the other the possible extension of the realm of freedom, to the realm of necessity, express the basic contradictions of capitalism at the stage of competitive technical progress: the conflict between the increasing standard of living by extending the commodity form of men and things, the American model of progress on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the increasing potential of freedom within the realm of necessity, namely, the possible transformation of the realm of necessity by men and women determining their own necessities, determining their own values, determining their own aspirations. In other words, not only reduction of the working day, but transformation of work itself, and not only by the basic production relations and institutions of socialism (which remain the prerequisite for any free society), but also by the emergence and education of a new type of man free from the aggressive and repressive needs and aspirations and attitudes of class society, human beings creating, in solidarity and on their own initiative, their own environment, their own Lebenswelt, their own »property«.

Near the end of the first volume of Marx's Capital, socialism is defined as the restoration of individual property on the basis of the socialized means of production and the soil. I think we should understand this strange and today rather neglected re‑introduction of the concept of individual property into the very definition of socialism as a vision of one of the most essential features of socialism—the vision of a new mode of life.

The Subject of a socialist society must be the Subject of a new sensibility. There is such a thing as an instinctual root of freedom in the individual itself, and if this instinctual root cannot grow, the new society will not be free, no matter what institutions it will provide. This instinctual root of freedom in the individual, for example, would venerate a biological need for silence, solitude, peace; a need for the beautiful and the pleasant—not as passing moments of relaxation, but as qualities of life, to be incorporated into the mental and physical space of the society. This, and only this would be the definite »negation«, the rupture with the entire universe of domination and exploitation and with the repressive development of the productive forces. The socialist society as a qualitatively different society would be the achievement of men and women who have liberated themselves from the material and intellectual culture of class society, and who are free to develop a language, art, and science responding to and projecting a free society.

Let us not forget that domination and exploitation perpetuate themselves not only in the institutions of class society, but also in the instincts and drives and aspirations shaped by class society, also in that which the people, that is to say the managed and administered people, love, hate, strive for, find beautiful, pleasurable and so on. Class society is not only in the material production, 'it is not only in the cultural production and reproduction, it is also in the mind and body of the subjects and objects of the system.

We all know this truism, but only the student of rebellion has articulated it in theory and practice, has »incorporated« the idea that the revolution, from the beginning, must build a qualitatively and not only quantitatively different society. The student movement has articulated what, in an abstract way, has been known to all of us, namely, that socialism is first of all a new form of human existence. I said from the beginning, but can we really dare to say »from the beginning?« To be sure, the abolition of scarcity, the elimination of inequalities, the raising of the standard of living remain and must remain the primary goals of every and any socialist society, but I think that the effort to attain these goals would not be encumbered by the weight, the dead weight of the American model of industrialization and modernization, the American model of raising the standard of living. Industrialization and modernization can be kept à la mesure de l’hommme, that is to say can avoid the massive, noisy, ugly, joyless, competitive features of capitalist production and consumption, and can construct an environment in which the human sensibility, the human body, the life instincts of man can finally find that universe which the attained and the attainable level of technical progress makes possible today.

In conclusion, I would like to offer two remarks which refer to the discussion that has already taken place here and, which I hope, will continue. I have spoken of self‑determination as the qualitative difference of a socialist society; I would like to emphasize: self‑determination, is not adequately described as »Selbsverwaltung«, »autogestion«. These terms designate a different form of administration; they do not articulate the content and goals of administration. A mere change in the form of administration is not yet the qualitative difference. Even if the change in administration replaces one class by another, or rather by certain groups of another class, it is not yet a qualitative change, as long as the new class perpetuates the aspirations, and values of the established society, as long as capitalist progress remains the more or less hidden model of progress. Decisive, at the first stage, is not so much the form of administration as what is going to be produced, for what kind of life it is going to be produced, and what priorities are set and translated into reality. Only if production itself is guided by men and women with new goals and new values, only then can we speak of the emergence of a qualitatively different society.

Secondly, the question must be asked whether the destructive competitive co-existence between socialism and capitalism which marks the content of our period is not an insurmountable obstacle to the emergence of socialism as a qualitatively different society. Does not this competitive co‑existence impose upon the socialist societies ways and modes of production, ways and modes of administration which militate against the transition to a free society, moved by new goals and new aspirations?

This competitive co‑existence is the basic factor of our period. It cannot be minimized, it cannot be neglected, it cannot be left out of any consideration of socialist strategy and socialist theory. But then we have to ask whether this destructive competition, aggravated by the terrible head start of the developed capitalist societies, cannot somehow be broken. And I would suggest that the possibility lies in the different vision of socialism and in a praxis which strives to translate this vision into reality. And I believe indeed that the events we have witnessed during the last months have shown that this hope is not entirely utopian.


SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. “The Realm of Freedom and the Realm of Necessity: A Reconsideration,” Praxis, 5, no. 1 (1969): 20-25.


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