Marginalia on Marcuse and The Counterrevolution

By Bernard E. Harcourt

I was struck, in preparing the seminar on the Frankfurt School and praxis, to reread Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, and to be reminded, once again, of how prescient Marcuse was regarding our present political situation under President Donald Trump. Marcuse virtually predicted the proto-fascist turn and Trump’s embrace of what I have called a neo-fascist, white-supremacist, ultranationalist counterrevolution.

By way of background, Marcuse identified, at the turn of the 1970s, the beginnings of a counterrevolution marked by the global use of torture, of extreme militarization, and of the brutal repression of student movements. “The Western world has reached a new stage of development,” Marcuse declared, opening his book on Counterrevolution and Revolt: “now, the defense of the capitalist system requires the organization of counterrevolution at home and abroad.” (1)

Marcuse emphasized the use of torture—“Torture has become a normal instrument of ‘interrogation’ around the world.” (1) He stressed the massacres and persecutions by the dictatorships in Latin American and South East Asia, and the repression of students “slaughtered, gassed, bombed, kept in jail.” (1) He pointed to the killings at Kent State and the assassinations of Fred Hampton and George Jackson.

By focusing on torture, Vietnam, and summary executions, Marcuse gave his notion of counterrevolution a counterinsurgency warfare character. Marcuse also spoke of the domesticationof those counterinsurgency techniques. “The Nixon Administration has strengthened the counterrevolutionary organization of society in all directions,” he noted. (24) And for Marcuse as well, it was a counterrevolution without a revolution: “Here, there is no recent revolution to be undone, and there is none in the offing.” (2) The result is what Marcuse called “the new counterrevolutionary phase” (24) – or what I call today “The Counterrevolution.”

Even more, Marcuse identified, within that “new counterrevolutionary phase,” a tendency toward fascism—suggesting that it would likely “prepare the soil for a subsequent fascist phase.” (24) The differences with Hitler’s Germany were clear; and Marcuse emphasized that “History does not repeat itself exactly.” (25) But, Marcuse warned, there was evidence of a proto-fascist “syndrome” on the horizon. The turn to law-and-order, the explosion of violence, the vindictiveness, the attack on the liberal arts—all these were signs of danger on the horizon. The counterrevolutionary forces would eventually turn to “proto-fascism,” Marcuse warned, as capitalism progressed beyond its most advanced stage of monopoly state capitalism. (24)

I am truck at how Marcuse almost foresaw, in his crystal ball, our current political predicament. Quoting William Shirer from the New York Times, Marcuse ominously wrote “we may well be the first people to go Fascist by the democratic vote.” (25)