Monday, 5 October 2020

Book Review – Ecology and Revolution: Herbert Marcuse and the Challenge of a New World System Today


Written by Javier Sethness and first published at Marx and Philosophy

The cover art for Ecology and Revolution, centering Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, is a fitting representation of Charles Reitz’s concept of the common human essence: “sensuous living labor.” In his development of this idea, Reitz contests masculinist, militarist, and state-apologist accounts of human origins in pre-history, by instead centering cooperation, care, interdependence, partnership, hospitality, communal labor, and humanistic communication as emergent powers that have ensured our survival from our collective birth millions of years ago to our own day.

In this sense, the critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno were right to observe that “all reification”—all ossification of authority, all dehumanization, “is a forgetting.” Ethically, Reitz counterposes egalitarian partnership power as an institutional-cultural practice that can prefigure a future community characterized by solidarity and difference without inequality, in place of the various hierarchies that dominate the world today.

Furthermore, he recovers Herbert Marcuse’s philosophy of labor against reductionist and disingenuous accounts that misinterpret the theorist’s works as being elitist and pessimistic. Dialectically, then, Ecology and Revolution is a fitting testament to Marcuse’s legacy of championing classical education, as based on the hope that the humanities can inspire students to contemplate the meaning of life and mobilize to transform the world.

For Reitz, sensuous living labor has ensured that humanity has endured through the ages, and it portends future global self-emancipation through an anti-racist, feminist, green commonwealth. This proposal for a commonwealth, which for Reitz would amount to a Hegelian “determinate negation,” is the author’s answer to “the challenge and necessity of building an alternate world system today.”

Reitz’s project, like Marcuse’s, is therefore “multi-dimensional, dialectical, realistic, and normative,” as well as politically therapeutic: as Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm did in the past, so Reitz today seeks to wield critical theory to “actually eliminate” the exploitation, “injury[,] and suffering,” “economic want, political unfreedom, and ecological distress” all endemic to capitalist, racist, and sexist domination and the growth fetish (6-11, 37).

Following his collective mentors, the Frankfurters, Reitz avows that the supreme duty of the intellectual is to investigate human (self)destructiveness, and to agitate for a liberated world in which life is to be enjoyed for all, rather than constrained along the existing social gradient. Hence, his proposed Green Common-Wealth Counter-Offensive against ecological ruin and the “preventative counterrevolution.” (Marcuse anticipated Reaganism before his death, which is now enshrined in Trumpism and global authoritarian-populist reaction.)

This commonwealth as ideal also communicates the Marcusean concept of the Great Refusal, namely, the “activist opposition to needless institutional destructiveness and advocacy for goals connected to utopian practices of human freedom,” defined concretely by Reitz as “a global alliance of transformational forces in pursuit of a life-affirming and humanist future of intercultural solidarity within a new eco-socialist political order” (2, 12).

The struggle to realize such a commonwealth is not without its challenges. Besides the threats of statist-militarist repression or homelessness and premature death with which workers, youth, and oppressed people must grapple when contemplating direct action as redress, proponents of this commonwealth confront the one-dimensionality of capitalist “culture,” which reduces the human experience to a one sidedness that serves the exigencies of profit. Workers and oppressed people thus have their attention diverted by the machinic grinding of a false society (Gesellschaft) and an economic, even libidinal, fixation on “subtle (and harmless) banalities” coordinated by vested interests (7, 83).

As a result of this one-dimensional coordination (Gleichschaltung), which originated with Nazi expectations of socio-political conformity, and which also resemble the Stalinist concept of a “party line,” the second—or aesthetic—dimension is eclipsed, with human consciousness and the possibilities of a new, human community (Gemeinschaft) blunted.

However, even within the “totally administered society” of globalized monopoly capitalism, art still retains the promise of protest against dehumanization, and the specter of liberation, by confidently inspiring a new sensibility, according to Adorno and Marcuse. The depressed and/or protesting artist, youth, worker, and/or racial, gender, or sexual minorities of our day subversively personify the “unhappy consciousness.”

As a central feature of Gleichschaltung, Marcuse identified a tendency toward “repressive desublimation,” by which he meant a process whereby erotic and psychical energies are “satisfied,” and the capitalist system reproduced, through the fetishism of commodities and the reification of social life. (As dysfunctional means of compensating for one’s individual and collective exploitation and alienation, indeed, Facebook and Trumpism provide especially dangerous contemporary examples of this dynamic.)

Through his late engagement with Rudolf Bahro, Marcuse reinterpreted the problem as a struggle between emancipatory and compensatory needs, and a “counter-” or “surplus” versus affirmative consciousness, akin to the Freudian dance of Eros and Thanatos.

In Ecology and Revolution, Reitz rescues the Marcusean philosophy of labor against bad-faith attacks on the critical theorist’s supposed rendering-invisible of workers. Reviewing the record, Reitz shows how Marcuse retained a Marxian faith in socialism, understood as workers’ self-organization for emancipation, while radically deprovincializing post-war U.S. society through cultural critique and political activism. Similarly turning received opinion on its head, Reitz discusses how the world of work should be overhauled, given that employees effectively pay their employers! 

In fact, in 2014, capital was shown to be appropriating three times (75%) as much as labor received (25%) of the total value added in U.S. manufacturing, while the richest one-fifth of U.S. households were found in 2012 to own 85% of all wealth (31-5). As Reitz comments, these brutally oligarchical wealth distributions have persisted almost unchanged since the onset of Reaganism and the neoliberal era.

Thus far, Reitz and I are in full agreement about the critical importance of Marcusean philosophy, partnership power, and the cooperative green commonwealth. However, I would be remiss to avoid discussing some theoretical critiques and disagreements in this review.

First, as regards Reitz’s commitment to racial equality, I question whether Lukács was an anti-racist (9). How so? I appreciate his critique of Friedrich Nietzsche’s irrationalism as effectively functioning as apologism for Nazi imperialism, together with his deconstruction of commodity fetishism in History and Class Consciousness.

As with Vladimir Lenin, though, Lukács’ aristocratic and ahistorical view of the limits of workers’ “mere spontaneity” (16), and his attendant prescription for a vanguard party in this early text, are commensurate with the Stalinism he espoused in his later years, after participating in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Reitz’s engagement with Lukács raises the questions of revolutionary strategy and transition: whether these should be libertarian or authoritarian.

In parallel, Reitz presents Marcuse as echoing Nietzsche’s “cultural radicalism” with his affirmation of a transvaluation of values and a new sensibility, but also dismisses Nietzsche along with Max Stirner and Ayn Rand as an egoist (23, 109, 150). Given Marcuse’s commitment to humanism, idealism, and rationalism, such a discrepancy requires further clarification. Nietzsche’s neo-fascist enthusiasts of today, such as Richard Spencer and Alexander Dugin, would likely contest Reitz’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s ostensible call for “the supersession of masters and slaves,” raising difficult questions about the causes of gender and racial equality, the liberation of labor, leisure, abundance, and peace (119-120; Beiner).

Moreover, the author arguably inflates Lenin’s theoretical importance by alluding to “What Is To Be Done?” (1902) without mentioning its 1863 antecedent novel of the same name, written by the anarcho-Populist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Ecology and Revolution too lacks the unambiguous critiques of Leninist despotism, and of the obvious continuities between Leninism and Stalinism, that Marcuse features in Soviet Marxism. In a similar vein, Peter Kropotkin is not mentioned once—this, despite the fact that the Freudo-Marcusean emphasis on Eros, Reitz’s concept of sensuous living labor, and the call for partnership power and commonwealth are entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s account of mutual aid.

Reitz’s enthusiastic citation of Che Guevara’s thoughts on love from “Socialism and Man in Cuba” is puzzling (93, 107-8), considering that Fromm’s humanistic concept of love as a productive character orientation is far superior to Guevara’s own. Whereas Reitz sees Guevara as an advocate of platonic political love and, presumably, a principled revolutionary, the contradiction between expressing affection for one’s fellow 
guerrilleros and the tactical and strategic advocacy of sadomasochistic hatred, bureaucracy, and militarism should be striking (Fromm; Guevara).

Continuing with the question of revolutionary strategy, it bears noting that Marx summarily expelled the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1871, wrecking the organization in the process (Berthier; Graham). That Reitz guards silence over this destructive historical episode, while praising past authoritarian-populist and neo-extractivist “Pink Tide” governments in Ecuador (led by Rafael Correa) and Bolivia (led by Evo Morales), shows the poverty of statist approaches (Tilzey).

Moreover, if it is true that the differences between Marx and Bakunin were not just political and strategic, but also sexual, in that Bakunin may have been expelled at least in part over a rumored gay affair with Sergei Nechaev (Kennedy), this would further undermine the credibility of the stated commitment to sexual diversity made by critical Marxists such as Reitz—beyond the distrust already engendered by idealizing open heterosexists such as Guevara.

In contrast, I consider Marcuse a steadfast LGBT ally, particularly given his avowal of an “Orphic Marxism” in Eros and Civilization. Furthermore, Reitz’s endorsement of Kohei Saito’s attempt at defending Marx against the charge of Prometheanism is unconvincing, as Marcuse himself recognized the “hubris of domination” toward nature evident in Marx’s work in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). Still, the author’s incorporation of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is to be commended as a necessary corrective.

Perhaps most importantly, from the perspective of a collective survival strategy for humanity, Reitz outlines the meaning of his proposal for a Green Common-Wealth Counter-Offensive through calls for “shared ownership, democratized ownership, common ownership,” and “stewardship,” together with a newfound honoring of treaties with Indigenous peoples, restitution of lands, and reparations, and generalized decommodification through basic incomes (36-9, 69, 160). This is all very much welcome.

My main question is whether the green commonwealth envisions wielding the State to achieve its goals. At one point, Reitz defines commonwealth as “as a governmental and economic power,” and declares that he finds “desirable” Immanuel Wallerstein’s goal of “socialist world government,” but then he praises Marcuse as a council communist and uses the modifier “self-governing” to describe the “cosmopolitan green commonwealth” (31, 40, 46n3, 106, 113, emphasis added).

The resolution of such ambiguities is critical for the actual project of organizing this much-needed Green Common-Wealth Counter-Offensive, considering that advocacy of a statist strategy—even “transitional”—would contradict the critique of dehumanization and reification, not to mention inevitably undermine the delineated goals, as the historical experiences of social-democrat, Pink-Tide reformists and bureaucratic, state-capitalist regimes like the Soviet Union have shown us.

In conclusion, Reitz in Ecology and Revolution provides readers with convincing arguments for the “ongoing validity of Marcuse’s Great Refusal”; the place of sensuous living labor in sustaining and remaking the world; and the importance of intercultural solidarity, emancipatory needs, the second dimension, and counter-consciousness (180).

The project of creating a liberatory commonwealth will be expansive and multi-faceted, and it can benefit from engagement with proposals like green and community syndicalism, anarchism, social reproduction theory, and artistic movements such as solarpunk. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, upending the normal operation of capitalist exploitation, the “reification of the proletariat” is increasingly less apparent. But will the “global self-conscious subject” succeed in organizing itself to intervene before it is too late? Only future historians will be able to tell.


  • Ronald Beiner (2018) Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Rene Berthier (2012) Social-Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association, 1864-1877. London: Merlin Press.
  • Erich Fromm (2006) The Art of Loving New York: HarperCollins
  • Ernesto Guevara (1961) Guerrilla Warfare New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Hubert Kennedy (1995) “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer: The Queer Marx Loved to Hate.” Journal of Homosexuality vol. 29, no. 2/3, 69-96.
  • Mark Tilzey (2019) “Authoritarian Populism and Neo-extractivism in Bolivia and Ecuador: The Unresolved Agrarian Question and the Prospects for Food Sovereignty as Counter-Hegemony.” Journal of Peasant Studies 46 (3): 626–652

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