The Obsolescence of Marxism

Herbert Marcuse

I feel that I have to begin by objecting to the title given to my paper. A most important thing was omitted—the question mark. For me, this question mark is the most condensed symbol of the dialectic in Marxian theory, but specifically it is symbolic of the fact that it is obsolete precisely to the degree to which this obsolescence validates the basic concepts of the theory. In somewhat plainer English: the factors which have led to the passing and obsolescence of some decisive concepts of Marx are anticipated in Marxian theory itself as alternatives and tendencies of the capitalist system. Therefore a reexamination and even reformulation of Marxian theory cannot simply mean adjusting this theory to new facts but must proceed as an internal development and critique of Marxian concepts. In my presentation I do not make the distinction that some of my colleagues make, between Marx and Engels themselves and later Marxian theory. Rather I consider for example Rosa Luxemburg’s, Hilferding’s and Lenin’s theory of imperialism as genuine developments of the original Marxian theory. A third and last caveat: since I was introduced as a philosopher I should like to apologize for taking up very concrete and immediate political problems and conditions.

The title of my paper is not supposed to suggest that Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system is outdated; on the contrary I think that the most fundamental notions of this analysis have been validated, and they can be summarized in the following propositions.

1) In capitalism the social relationships among men are governed by the exchange value rather than use value of the goods and services they produce, that is to say their position is governed by their marketability.

2) In this exchange society, the satisfaction of human needs occurs only as a by-product of profitable production.

3) In the progress of capitalism, a twofold contradiction develops:


between a) the growing productivity of labor and the ever growing social wealth on the one side, and their repressive and destructive use on the other; and b) between the social character of the means of production (no longer individual but collective instruments of labor) and their private ownership and control.

4) Capitalism can solve this contradiction only temporarily through increasing waste, luxury and destruction of productive forces. The competitive drive for armament production profit leads to a vast concentration of economic power, aggressive expansion abroad, conflicts with other imperialist powers and finally to a recurrent cycle of war and depression.

5) This cycle can be broken only if the laboring classes, who bear the brunt of exploitation, seize the productive apparatus and bring it under the collective control of the producers themselves.

I submit that all these propositions with the exception of the last one seem to be corroborated by the factual development. The last proposition refers to the advanced industrial countries where the transition to socialism was to take place, and precisely in these countries, the laboring classes are in no sense a revolutionary potential. This falsification of one of the basic Marxian concepts calls for an analysis of the international situation in which the advanced industrial societies develop.

The Marxian concept of the transition from capitalism to socialism can be meaningfully discussed only within the international, global framework in which the system of advanced capitalism actually operates. Within this framework, the following conditions can be ascertained. The continually rising standard of living in the developed industrial countries is due not only to “surface” phenomena but to the overflowing productivity of labor and to the new means of profitable waste open to the advanced industrial system.

Another factor which promotes the unification and integration of the society is a highly effective scientific management of needs, demand and satisfaction. This scientific management, which operates most forcefully in the publicity and entertainment industry, has long since ceased to be merely a part of the superstructure; it has become part of the basic productive process and of the necessary costs of production. Vast quantities of goods would not be purchased were it not for the systematic, scientific management of needs and scientific stimulation of demand.


These factors have made possible the continued growth of capitalism, and the vital need for revolution no longer prevails among those classes that as the “immediate producers” would be capable of stopping the capitalist production. Marx’s conception of revolution was based on the existence of a class which is not only impoverished and dehumanized but which is also free from any vested interest in the capitalistic system arid therefore represents a new historical force with qualitatively different needs and aspirations. In Hegelian terminology, this class is the “definite negation” of the capitalist system and the established needs and satisfaction. But the emergence of such an internal negative force whose existence and action would demonstrate the historical necessity of the transition from capitalism to socialism is blocked in advanced industrial countries—not by violent suppression or by terroristic modes of government but by a rather comfortable and scientific coordination and administration. The internal historical link between capitalism and socialism thus seems to be severed, not only ideologically but also practically as a result of changes in the very basis of the system.

I would like to mention briefly two attempts to save this endangered Marxian conception of the transition to socialism. There is first the theory of the labor aristocracy, which maintains that the integration of labor into the capitalist system actually affects only some privileged groups of workers, those in the trade union bureaucracy and those who control the party machines whereas the rank and file are not subject to this integration. I consider this theory outdated; the integration is by no means confined to the small minority of a labor bureaucracy but extends to the rank and file. The underprivileged groups that bear the brunt of exploitation remain outside organized labor. Secondly, there is the theory of the “temporary stimulization” of capitalism and of “relative impoverishment.” In regard to the notion of a temporary stimulization, one can only remark that, as far as is known, everything in history is temporary; moreover from a semantic point of view the concept does not make much sense—for how long is “temporary”? “Relative impoverishment” is a meaningful concept both logically and sociologically but is insignificant in the context of the revolutionary preconditions for the transition to socialism. If one can still speak of impoverishment when the laborer has not only one automobile but two automobiles, not only one television set but three television sets, this may still be impoverishment,


but I do not think anybody can maintain that this kind of impoverishment activates the vital need for radical thought and action.

Has Marxian theory been invalidated by this breakdown of the classical conception of the transition from capitalism to socialism? In answering this question I shall begin by referring to a passage in the Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1857). The importance of this passage consists in the fact that Marx apparently attempts to “abstract” from the revolutionary proletariat and to focus entirely on the internal technological-economic tendencies in capitalism that would provide the disintegrating tendencies of the capitalistic system.

As large scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended than on the power of the instruments set in motion during the labor time. These instruments, and their powerful effectiveness, are in no proportion to the immediate labor time which the production requires; rather their effectiveness depends on the attained level of science and technological progress or the application of science to production. . . . Human labor then no longer appears as enclosed in the process of production; rather man relates himself to this process merely as supervisor and regulator. He stands outside of the process of production instead of being its principal agent. . . . In this transformation the great pillar of production and wealth is no longer the immediate labor performed by man himself, nor his labor time, but the appropriation of his own universal productivity (creative power), that is, knowledge and his mastery of nature through his social existence, in one world: the development of the social (all-round) individual. The theft of another man’s labor time on which the social wealth still rests today then appears as a miserable basis compared with the new basis which large scale industry itself has created. As soon as human labor, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labor time will cease, and must of necessity cease, to be the measure of wealth; and exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value. The surplus labor of the mass [of the population] has then ceased to be the condition for the development of social wealth, and the leisure of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the universal intellectual faculties of men. The mode of production which rests on exchange value then collapses. [1]

Nothing is said here about class struggle or impoverishment; the analysis of the collapse of capitalism is focused entirely on the internal

[1] K. Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, (East) Berlin 1953, p. 592 ff.


“technical” dynamic of the system, in a word, on the basic tendency of advanced capitalism toward automation. In the images and notions of this passage (man no longer enclosed in the process of production, standing outside, relating himself to the process of production), Marx has expressed his most progressive and most radical vision of socialism.

What are the implications of this passage? The technical development of the productive forces within the capitalist system attains a level at which the use of physical human labor as instrument of production becomes all but unnecessary. However techniques by themselves accomplish nothing; the transformation of the capitalist into the socialist operators of production would still require a revolution. But the level of capitalist development on the eve of the revolution would be such that it would call for a different ideal and reality of socialism. In other words, it appears that Marx’s own idea of socialism was not radical enough and not utopian enough. He underrated the level which the productivity of labor under the capitalist system itself could attain and the possibilities suggested by the attainment of this level. The technical achievements of capitalism would make possible a socialist development which would surpass the Marxian distinction between socially necessary labor and creative work, between alienated labor and nonalienated work, between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. In Marx’s time, this vision was indeed premature and unrealistic, and therefore his basic concept for the transition to socialism remained that of the development and rationalization of productive forces; their liberation from repressive and destructive controls was to be the first task of socialism. But in spite of all qualitative differences this concept of a “development of the productive forces” establishes a technological continuity between capitalism and socialism By virtue of this continuity, the transition from capitalism to socialism would at first be a quantitative change, greater productivity. Then the passage from quantity to quality, the determinate negation, was to be the redirecting of the productive apparatus toward the all round development and satisfaction of human needs and faculties.

It seems to me that this conception corresponds to a stage in the development of the productive forces that is already being surpassed by the advanced industrial societies. In these societies what is gradually reduced is: a) physical labor power as producing commodities; b) machines as mere instruments of individual or group labor; c) scarcity due to a low degree of productivity and to the drive for


maximization of profit; and d) the need for abolishing exploitation of organized labor.

These are the possibilities of the advanced industrial society and especially of the “affluent society” (I shall use the term in an ironical sense). The affluent society indicates the passing of the stage of the development of the productive forces that Marx considered as the inner limit of capitalism. It has surpassed these conditions in spite of the poverty prevailing in this society. For the Marxian concept implies the identity of the impoverished classes with the basic immediate producers, that is, with industrial labor. Such is hardly the case in the affluent society, for this society has surpassed the conditions of classical capitalism in spite of the destructive and wasteful use of the productive forces which, according to Marx, was one of the unmanageable contradictions leading to the final crisis of capitalism. Moreover the affluent society seems to have mastered this contradiction because the destructive and wasteful use of the productive forces proves to be profitable and promotes prosperity. Has the affluent society indeed succeeded in the containment of radical social change? Or, has it succeeded in containing the revolutionary potential?

This question calls for a re-examination of the transition theory in view of the prevailing historical factors. I would like to offer some suggestions for such a re-evaluation by distinguishing between the advanced industrial countries, the less advanced industrial countries and the backward countries and by indicating very briefly the situation in these three categories with respect to the socialist potential. To phrase it differently: can we today identify in these three types of societies the forces (political, economic and cultural) which, in terms of the Marxian conception, may be explosive by operating in the direction envisaged by Marxian theory?

I should like to start with the relation between the less advanced and the advanced industrial countries, The question here is: can we say that the affluent society, that is, contemporary American society, will provide the model for the development in the still more backward capitalist societies such as France and Italy and even Germany? Those arguing against this assumption usually emphasize the existence of a still powerful political labor movement in France and Italy and its new strategy, “autogestion,” that combines Marxist and traditional syndicalist elements. This movement aims at gaining, within the capitalist system, extended influence and power for labor in the


management of the key industrial and other establishments and is supposed to lead to gradual control by the workers themselves.

In my view this new strategy can be effective only after the revolution, but not before it. Prior to the revolution, and carried out within the framework of a still healthy capitalist system, this strategy would in all likelihood promote the creation of vested interests on the part of labor in the capitalist system itself. The argument for the assumption that the American society will provide the model for the more backward capitalist societies finds support in the Marxian notion that the most advanced and most productive modes of labor will sooner or later have a “model effect” on less advanced countries.

Let me now comment, equally briefly, on the situation in the backward countries. I think that in the militant underdeveloped countries today at least one series of objective prerequisites for socialism prevails.

1) The majority of the “immediate producers” live in conditions of misery and intolerable exploitation, and the abolition of these conditions would involve the abolition of the established social system.

2) The small ruling classes are evidently incapable of developing under their own direction the productive forces; indigenous exploitation is thus protected and perpetuated by foreign powers, and the social revolution would coincide with national liberation.

3) An advanced militant leadership is active in the work of organizing the underlying population and developing its consciousness. To be sure, the ruled classes are not an industrial but an agrarian proletariat; however as such they are the “immediate producers” who, by virtue of their function in the productive process, constitute the social basis of the established system, and it is on these grounds that, according to Marxian theory, the proletariat becomes the historical agent of revolution.

Moreover in these countries there is the possibility of skipping the stage of repressive capitalist industrialization, an industrialization that has led to increasingly more powerful domination of the Productive and distributive apparatus over the underlying population. Instead the backward countries may have the chance for a technological development which keeps the industrial apparatus in line with the vital needs and freely developing faculties of human beings. However this historical chance of skipping preceding stages of repressive development seems to be overshadowed by the fact that these countries depend, for the capital requirements of primary accumulation, on the advanced


industrial societies and their imperial interests.

Thirdly, and lastly, there is the situation in the affluent society itself. I repeat that in my view the affluent society corroborates rather than refutes the internal contradictions which Marx attributed to capitalist development. It is true that these contradictions (which I have outlined in the beginning) are suspended and “managed,” but they are not solved by the welfare or warfare state. For this state is faced with the increasing difficulty of absorbing the rising economic surplus, which is itself a result of the rising productivity of labor. Temporarily this difficulty is overcome by the intensified productivity of labor, by the reproduction of a huge military establishment, by planned obsolescence and by scientific stimulation of needs and of demand. But these integrating and cohesive tendencies are counteracted by the progress of automation which tends toward technological unemployment, a trend which can be arrested only by producing more and more unnecessary goods and parasitarian services.

Within the system of repressive affluence, a conspicuous radicalization of the youth and of the intelligentsia takes place. This is far more than a mere ideological phenomenon; it is a movement which, in spite of all its limitations, tends toward a fundamental transvaluation of values. It is part of the human or social forces which, on a global scale, resist the oppressive power of the affluent society.

I submit, in concluding, a summary identification of these forces within the international and global framework. For only within this framework can we discuss the question, whether the advanced capitalist system is facing a “final crisis” as Marxian theory maintains. What happens in Asia or Africa is not external to the system but has become an integral part of the system itself. Taking this into consideration, one may sketch the following syndrome of a revolutionary potential: first, the national liberation movements in the backward countries; secondly, the “new strategy” labor movement in Europe; thirdly, the underprivileged strata of the population in the affluent society itself; and fourthly, the oppositional intelligentsia. To these four categories may be added one which I shall not discuss here, namely, the established Communist societies as powers which may sooner or later clash with the capitalist societies. Are these established Communist societies active opponents, are they neutral observers or are they physicians at the sick bed of capitalism (that is to say does the very existence of Communism stimulate the growth and cohesion of capitalism)?


Among the four tendencies which I have called the syndrome of a revolutionary potential, the major catalyst seems to be the first: the national liberation movements. In fighting against the wars of liberation, the affluent society fights for its future, for its potential of raw materials, cheap labor and investment. To be sure, the classical concept of imperialism is outdated; there are certainly no basic United States economic interests that would explain the war in Viet Nam. However Viet Nam has to be seen in the global context: a triumph of the national liberation movement there may well be the signal for the activation of such movements in other areas of the world—areas far closer to home where basic economic interests are indeed involved. Compared with this threat, the radicalization of the intelligentsia, especially among the youth, seems to be a very minor event. However I suggest a broader aspect. The historical dialectic here affects dialectical materialism itself. To the degree to which critical consciousness has been absorbed and coordinated by the affluent society, the liberation of consciousness from the manipulation and indoctrinations imposed upon it by capitalism becomes a primary task and prerequisite. The development not of class consciousness but of consciousness as such, freed from the distortions imposed upon it, appears to be the basic prerequisite for radical change. And as repression is flattened out and extended to the entire underlying population, the intellectual task, the task of education and discussion, the task of tearing, not only the technological veil but also the other veils behind which domination and repression operate,—all these “ideological” factors become very material factors of radical transformation.

SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. “The Obsolescence of Marxism,” in: Marx and the Western World, edited by Nicholas Lobkowicz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), Chapter 18, pp. 409-417. (Papers presented at an international symposium held at the University of Notre Dame, April 1966, and sponsored by the Committee on International Relations, University of Notre Dame.)

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