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The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis

The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis

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Publication Date: February 28th, 2023
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How Marcuse helps us understand the ecological crisis of the 21st century

For several years after 1968, Herbert Marcuse was one of the most famous philosophers in the world. He became the face of Frankfurt School Critical Theory for a generation in turmoil. His fame rested on two remarkable books, Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. These two books represent the utopian hopes and dystopian fears of the time.

In the 1960s and 70s, young people seeking a theoretical basis for their revolution found it in his work. Marcuse not only supported their struggles against imperialism and race and gender discrimination, he foresaw the far-reaching implications of the destruction of the natural environment. Marcuse’s Marxism was influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, Hegel and Freud.

These eclectic sources grounded an original critique of advanced capitalism focused on the social construction of subjectivity and technology. Marcuse contrasted the “one-dimensionality” of conformist experience with the “new sensibility” of the New Left. The movement challenged a society that “delivered the goods” but devastated the planet with its destructive science and technology.

A socialist revolution would fail if it did not transform these instruments into means of liberation, both of nature and human beings. This aspiration is alive today in the radical struggle over climate change. Marcuse offers theoretical resources for understanding that struggle.

About the Author

Andrew Feenberg is the author of Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981), Critical Theory of Technology (1991), Alternative Modernity (1995), Questioning Technology (1999), When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The May Events of 1968 (2001), Transforming Technology (2002), Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History (2005), and Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity (2010), The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (2017), and Nishida, Kawabata, and the Japanese Response to Modernity (2019).

Praise for The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis

“A student and friend of Herbert Marcuse in the late 1960s, Andrew Fenberg gives in this new book an outstanding contribution not only to the knowledge of his philosophy, but also to the ‘ruthless criticism’ of advanced capitalism. Feenberg shows, with great insight, how Marcuse’s Marxism, rooted in Phenomenology, Hegelian dialectics, and Freudian Eros, was able to combine rationality and imagination, producing a radical version of Critical Theory which won the hearts and souls of the rebellious youth of the 1960’s. And which is still very much relevant in our times, because, as Feenberg concludes, climate change validates his revolutionary call for a new society, based on life-affirmative values.”
—Michael Löwy, author of On Changing the Word: Essays in Political Philosophy, from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin

“For a half century, Andrew Feenberg has tirelessly explicated, interrogated and applied the lessons of his controversial mentor, Herbert Marcuse. The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing is the culmination of these efforts, building on the strengths of Marcuse’s thought, while candidly confronting its weaknesses, in the hope of convincing a new generation of readers of its abiding relevance.”
—Martin Jay

“Andrew Feenberg’s new book is a tour de force. With detailed yet crystal-clear analyses of Marcuse’s major writings in their historical context, it reconstructs the implicit ontology of meaning that sustains Marcuse’s unique version of critical theory. Arguing that Marcuse’s embrace of phenomenology far outlived his break with Heidegger, Feenberg demonstrates its importance in chapters devoted to Marcuse’s reading of Marx, Hegel, and Freud, engaging unflinchingly, yet constructively, with the more controversial aspects of those readings and the famous debates they provoked. Two final chapters—on techno-science and on the environmental crisis—concretize the potential contained in Marcuse’s idea of ‘libidinous reason’ for tackling the ideological and structural impasses of our own desperate times.”
—Steven Crowell, Rice University

“The title of Feenberg’s book is to be taken literally: the ruthless critique of everything existing is today needed more than ever, and this critique has to denounce ruthlessly also the limitations of today’s forms of Leftist critiques of the establishment which de facto help the establishment to reproduce itself. Is political correctness the right way to undermine sexism and racism? Is the elevation of nature into Mother Earth the right way to prevent the destruction of our environment? In short, what we need is to repeat today what Marcuse, in his critique of traditional Marxism, did in the 1960s, and Feenberg does this at the highest possible level.”
—Slavoj Žižek