Karl Marx Monument in Moscow, inscribed with the words "Workers of the World Unite!" Photo: iStock
Karl Marx Monument in Moscow, inscribed with the words "Workers of the World Unite!" Photo: iStock

When Italian students closed the University of Rome in March 1968, the highlight was a banner with three M’s: Marx, Mao and Marcuse.

The three M’s were the political Dylan, Beatles and Rolling Stones for worldwide student movements in 1968. As for their legacy, that’s a mixed bag. Herbert Marcuse, for instance, is widely regarded as the patron saint of all 1968 revolts. And that’s slightly more complicated.

Marcuse was a son of the late 19th century, born in July 1898. His father – historical irony – was a distant cousin of Karl Marx.

Marcuse defended his thesis in October 1922 at the University of Freiburg. His mentor, phenomenology grandmaster Edmund Husserl, was part of the jury. Everything Marcuse later refined is already there: the notion that the artist offers an esthetic way out of political nihilism and the neurotic brutality of capitalism.

His Eros and Civilization, published in Boston in 1955, was a celebration of guilt-ridden physical pleasure and warned about “false fathers, teachers and heroes.” Marcuse was already warning that class struggle could not be analyzed as during Marx’s time – because with the advent of consumer society all sorts of seduction techniques are employed to reconcile the worker with the system.

Marcuse also analyzed what would become common knowledge throughout the 1960s: the proliferation of truncated information, the smashing of real political opposition, the spectacle of a supposed dialogue of opposing views (Marcuse meets Guy Debord), the triumph of anti-intellectual ideologies (a prelude to the neocons), the commercial framing of existence, and the production of what would become “one-dimensional man.”

One Dimensional Man, with the subtitle “Essays on the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society,” was published in Boston in 1964. The French translation appeared only in 1968 (the French students had not read it yet in May). That was James Dean disciplined by Hegel – complete with a searing, sharp critique of technology, accused of imprisoning people in repetitive, boring lives and manipulated to smother protest.

Welcome to the ‘new barbarians’

In 1968 Marcuse was 70 and a teacher at San Diego State University – a Marxist who identified the rigid Soviet system for what it was but at the same time also identified the West as a Mecca of “unfreedom.”

In the US, Marcuse became an instant guru of student radicals – for instance lecturing Yippie legend Abbie Hoffman that “flowers have no power” except for the force of the people who cultivate them.

A year after May 1968, Marcuse hit the definite political nail on the head, explaining how the opposition between capitalist US and nominally Marxist-Leninist USSR was not so clear-cut after the struggles in Vietnam, Cuba and China, which all speak of a Great Refusal (in caps, originally).

Marcuse was more than prescient when he exposed how the revolution would not come from the proletariat but from the “new barbarians” – “substrata of pariahs and outsiders, other races, other colors, exploited and persecuted classes, the unemployed, and those who cannot be employed.” Sounds like a revolution roadmap for the late 2010s.

Young Americans, from student activists to civil-rights workers, were as much enthralled by Marcuse as by Albert Camus (who exalted revolt and the figure of the “rebel”) and Fritz Fanon.

In his landmark The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961 and translated into 25 languages, Fanon wrote: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.”

The US civil-rights movement totally got it, as Fanon established a direct connection between trampled-underfoot American blacks and trampled-underfoot African Muslims. Martin Luther King himself identified the civil-rights movement with the post-colonial struggle raging all across the global South.

Clausewitz to the rescue

Then there’s the Guy Debord phenomenon.

If Society of the Spectacle, published in November 1967, may be considered the great libertarian book of the late 20th century, it was and remains a source of endless misunderstanding.

Even Debord himself, in one of his theses (No 203), had predicted a “spectacular” – as in non-dialectical and non-revolutionary – reading of his analysis of spectacle: “The critical concept of spectacle may be vulgarized into some formula of sociological-political rhetoric, and thus serve to defend the spectacular system.”

It’s a fact that every glitzy intellectual and his neighbor tried a recuperation of the concept – from Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze and the innocuous, media-savvy “new philosophers.”

Debord was a freak of war and strategy, quoting at will Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz – not to mention Thucydides, Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Machiavelli, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, all in a dizzying labyrinth of evasion, cross-reference and unidentified quotes.

Situationism borrows heavily from surrealism – which already borrowed from Dadaism. Debord fashioned it as a freewheeling association among Arthur Rimbaud, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx dedicated to a master project: how to change people’s lives.

Debord borrows from every possible philosophy strand. Friedrich Nietzsche had already written about spectacle. Ludwig Feuerbach had already written about alienation. Marx dissected the fetishism of merchandise. Gyorgy Lukacs talked about reification. Marcuse decoded consumer society.

Debord laid out no less than a cartography of the territory of 1960s postwar modernity. He deployed an all-encompassing critique of the left – Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyite, Maoist, Third-worldist – a critique of utopian socialism, anarchism, social democracy and fascism. And at the same time, he rethought libertarian Marxism, coming back to the sources, Hegel and Feuerbach.

He destroyed structuralism and the nouveau roman. He announced no less than the death of culture and the death of art. All that in only 150 pages and 221 crisp theses. He was only 36 years old.

All that firepower could not but perfectly mix with the spirit of May 1968. Gifted contrarian Michel Onfray wrote that Debord had conceived a treaty of revolutionary logic under the sign of Clausewitz about what may now happen. And what happened, immediately afterwards, was May 1968.

But once again, Onfray to the rescue. He maintains that Debord was not the Clausewitz of May 1968. He was just an actor – one among many. Onfray is right; it was only by mid-May, after two weeks of strikes, occupations and barricades, that Debord started writing letters to place himself at the center of history.

The fact is that situationists were supported by only a small minority of the students at the Sorbonne. There were only four situationists in Paris in May 1968 – Debord included.

Marx wins in China

“Actor” Karl Marx is a completely brand-new bag, to paraphrase the Godfather of Soul James Brown.

Marx, arguably, may now be even more influential than Marcuse or Debord. It took a while for French intelligentsia to realize that then-idealized Mao Zedong was a de facto rash Chinese emperor, issuing absurd edicts that destroyed the lives of millions.

In contrast, Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping, based on his “Four Modernizations” (agriculture; industry; national defense; science and technology), brought hundreds of millions out of poverty, educated them and opened the world for them – drastically changing the social contract between the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people.

President Xi Jinping is more than aware of it – always emphasizing that “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” an offspring of Marxism, propelled China’s extraordinary post-modern economic saga.

The Communist Manifesto, still the best-selling book of all time after the Bible, describes how “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” Marx’s diagnostic of the bourgeoisie drowning everything human in “the icy water of egotistical calculation” more than applies to our post-truth dystopia.

So Marx and Marcuse, Debord and Fanon, they all still apply. So does Albert Camus, who wrote in The Rebel that it’s impossible to long for peace, as that is longing for “not the alleviation but the silencing of misery.”

Narcissist zombies of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but the glow of your small-screen passwords. One day a global young armada that refuses to be silenced, Marcuse’s “new barbarians,” shall rise.

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