Technology, Labor, and the Transcendence of Capital: Revisiting the Marcuse-Dunayevskaya Debate

Kelly Green

In the 1960s and 1970s, Herbert Marcuse and Raya Dunayevskaya developed differing responses to the new stage of capitalist production represented by automation. – Editors

Since Marx first introduced his philosophy, workers have been unable to end the capitalist mode of production and achieve a higher state of freedom. In response, some Marxists have turned away from the proletariat and sought different sources of revolutionary opposition. One such theorist is Herbert Marcuse who, in his book One-Dimensional Man (1964; hereafter ODM with page references in the text)¬, rejects the revolutionary power of the workers to end capitalism. To him they have become complacent and accept, if not actively maintain, the established system. Instead of the actions of the workers, the full development of automation, a qualitative change in the technical base, will lead to the freedom of all persons. However, despite their limited success, it is the workers and their struggles which promise a new society. In her books Marxism and Freedom (1958; hereafter M&F) and Philosophy and Revolution (1973; hereafter P&R), Raya Dunayevskaya shows that the workers are not complacent. True to Marx’s philosophy, she asserts that they are the movers of history, not automation. It is from the practice of the proletariat that a theory of revolution and a new society arise.

Marcuse on Technology and the “One-Dimensional” Worker

Marcuse subscribes to the belief that automation has the capacity to revolutionize society to the working class’ advantage. He concedes that under automation, the “basic organization is that of the machine process” (ODM, p. 3). Because of its all-encompassing nature, technological processes have become “the prevailing forms of social control” (ODM, p. 9). It is through “its power over the machine process and over technical organization of the apparatus” that political power is able to exert itself (ODM, p. 3). Technology is a means of domination exerted by the dominant forces to neutralize opposing “centrifugal” tendencies:

Technical progress, extended to a whole system of domination and coordination, creates forms of life (and of power) which appear to reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination (ODM, p. xii).

By raising the standard of living, technology has reached a level of development where “non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless” (ODM, p. 2). The success of the dominant political forces in controlling opposition therefore hinges on “the degree to which it is capable of ‘delivering the goods’” (ODM, p. xiv). As a result, class distinctions have flattened out. When “the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population,” when both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat share the same desires and aspirations, when “the contrast (or conflict) between the given and the possible, between the satisfied and the unsatisfied needs” becomes flattened out, the result is an “equalization of class distinctions” (ODM, p. 8). Terms which used to denote “spheres and forces not yet integrated with the established conditions – spheres of tension and contradiction,” such as “‘individual,’ ‘class’, ‘private’, ‘family,’….are losing their critical connotation” (ODM, p. xiv). As the technical apparatus raises the standard of living, “the beneficial effects” of this “growing productivity” stabilizes conflicts (ODM, p. 21). “This stabilization is a transformation of the antagonistic structure itself, which resolves the contradictions by making them tolerable” and neutralizes the opposing forces in society (ODM, p. 21).

To Marcuse, “capitalist development has altered the structure and function of [the bourgeoisie and the proletariat] in such a way that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation” (ODM, p. xii-xiii). These “former antagonists” have become united by “an overriding interest in the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo” (ODM, p. xiii). The productive apparatus is able to satisfy the “individual needs and aspirations” that it itself determines (ODM, p. xv). As long as “the production and distribution of an increasing quantity of goods and services” endures, the complacency of the workers will be “an objective societal process” which makes “compliance a rational technological attitude” (ODM, p. 48). And why should the proletariat revolt? “There is no reason to insist on self-determination if the administered life is the comfortable and even the ‘good’ life” (ODM, p. 49); hence “the rational and material ground for the unification of opposites” (ODM, p. 49). The “technological veil conceals the reproduction of inequality and enslavement,” and the “many liberties and comforts” provided by technological progress deprive “hatred and frustration….of their specific target” (ODM, p. 32). In the advanced industrial societies, demands for liberation have subsided and been replaced by steadfast acceptance (ODM, p. xiii). As a result there has been a “weakening of the negative position,” i.e., the dialectical and revolutionary character, “of the working class…. [which] no longer appears to be the living contradiction to the established society” (ODM, p. 31). Because of its complacency and complicity with the dominant system, the working class can no longer be considered a revolutionary force.

Marcuse argues in a technocratic manner that, instead of the working class, technology has the ability to create a new society: it can produce “qualitative change,” i.e., “production toward the satisfaction of freely developing individual needs” (ODM, p. 23). Automation is a centrifugal force which “is inherent in technical progress itself” (ODM, p. 35). Here is the positive, i.e., automation’s revolutionary ability to produce a freer society, contained in the negative, i.e., automation’s use by the dominant forces in society to maintain the status quo:

Automation indeed appears to be the great catalyst of advanced industrial society. It is an explosive or non-explosive catalyst in the material base of qualitative change, the technical instrument of the turn from quantity to quality….Automation, once it becomes the process of material production, would revolutionize the whole society (ODM, p. 36)

Marcuse notes that today’s mechanized work, as described above, involves “arrested, partial automation” which creates a “form of drudgery” and “masterly enslavement” of the proletariat (ODM, p. 25). Despite this “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery,” “the organized worker…lives this denial less conspicuously” and is not compelled to resist because of the higher standard of living and society’s ability to satisfy material needs (ODM, p. 25-26). In order to maintain capitalist control, technological progress must be halted and forced to remain at a certain stage of development. But if “Complete automation in the realm of necessity” can be achieved “the dimension of free time” would open up, entailing “the historical transcendence toward a new civilization” (ODM, p. 37). Full automation would release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. The very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated (ODM, p. 2)

The new society would be a development through transformation into opposite – from automation as a means of social control to a means of social liberation.

Marcuse and Marx’s Grundrisse

In support for his theory about the revolutionary possibilities of automation, Marcuse quotes from Marx’s Grundrisse (1857-1858) at length (ODM, p. 35-36). Here, Marx posits that

“As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth [will depend] less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended than on the power of the instrumentalities….Human labor then no longer appears as enclosed in the process of production” (ODM, p. 35-36)

Marx adds:

“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 the exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value….The mode of production which rests on the exchange value thus collapses” (ODM, p. 36)

If “productivity is determined ‘by the machines, and not by the individual output’” then “the compatibility of technical progress with the very institutions in which industrialization developed” may be compromised, ending the capitalist mode of production (ODM, p. 28-29). This would indeed be a revolutionary development.

In countering Marcuse’s thesis one can start with Marx himself. Based on the single passage of the Grundrisse from which Marcuse quotes, it could appear that Marx and Marcuse’s views about the development of machinery are in line. But Grundrisse was not Marx’s last work, nor was it his last word on machinery. On the contrary; as Dunayevskaya notes, Marx “did not stop revising the section on Machinery” while working toward the publication of Capital a decade later (P&R, p. 69).Therefore, in order to understand Marx’s views of machinery, she holds it is better to read Capital: “the last word on the subject of Machinery is not in Grundrisse, but in Capital” (P&R, p. 69-70). Marx’s continued rewritings about machinery “relate to the actions of workers in the 1860s as against those in the quiescent 1850s” when the Grundrisse was written (P&R, p. 69). Because of the relative inactivity of the workers in the 1850s compared to the 1860s, the Grundrisse “simply is not concrete enough” and “the truth [is] always concrete” (P&R, p. 70). The intensity of “the actual class struggles….in the turbulent 1860s” gave Capital its ‘concreteness’ (P&R, p. 70).

Marx on Machinery in Capital

If Capital contains a better representation of Marx’s views about machinery, then this representation should be compared to the one in the Grundrisse to see if Marcuse’s interpretation of Marx holds for Capital. If the two are similar then Marcuse’s reference to Marx’s vision of automation’s “explosive prospects” (ODM, p. 35) can be accepted as support from Marx for the thesis presented in One-Dimensional Man. However, the image of machinery portrayed in Capital stands in stark contrast to the more optimistic analysis in the Grundrisse:

Here we have, in place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power…finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs (p. 492)

Rather than making life easier for workers, or undermining the value relationship in capitalism, Marx writes that “machinery is intended to cheapen commodities” and act as “a means for producing surplus-value” (p. 492). In the factory “the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, coordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force” (p. 544-545). With “the advent of machinery,” the capitalist mode of production “develops into a complete and total antagonism” (p. 558); “the instrument of labor strikes down the worker” (p. 559); machinery acts “as a superior competitor to the worker, always on the point of making him superfluous” (p. 562); “It is a power inimical to him, and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it” (p. 562). As Dunayevskaya notes, it appears that Marcuse has “failed to let Marx speak for himself, and [has] used instead isolated quotations from the Grundrisse to bolster” his analysis (P&R, p. 63).

There are several ways in which Marcuse could have responded to this critique of machinery. First, Marcuse could have argued that the conditions Marx is describing are due to arrested, partial automation not full automation. The former, Marcuse writes, produces “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery” (ODM, p. 25). But with the latter, “the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities” (ODM, p. 2); he “would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own” (ODM, p. 2). With full automation, the worker would no longer be in the factory as “object” thereby “cutting the chain that ties the individual to the machinery – the mechanism through which his own labor enslaves him” (ODM, p. 37).

Full automation, by its definition, would ‘unchain’ the worker from the machine. No human would be required to operate it as either a transmitting or motor mechanism. However, this ‘freedom’ from the machine does not entail the end of the worker’s suffering; nor does it usually entail the opening of “the dimension of free time” as Marcuse suggests (ODM, p. 37). A worker ‘freed’ from a machine under capitalism is a worker unemployed. And a worker unemployed is a worker whose use of means of subsistence exceeds his accumulation of means of subsistence. If it still costs money to satisfy vital needs then “material production (including the necessary services) [becoming] automated to the extent that all vital needs can be satisfied” (ODM, p. 16) does nothing to satisfy those vital needs of the worker with no money.

Freedom or Unemployment?

There is no denying that, as Marx writes in Capital, “with each improvement in the machinery” the capitalist “will employ fewer people” (p. 565). Conventional liberal opinion assumes that the worker ‘freed’ from the factory will be able to find another job in a field of work where he can get paid for engaging in “the free play of his own physical and mental powers” (p. 284). However, Marx specifically criticizes the “bourgeois political economists” who “assert that all machinery that displaces workers simultaneously, and necessarily, sets free an amount of capital adequate to employ precisely those workers displaced” (p. 565). Describing an imaginary case where new machinery is introduced into a carpet factory, Marx lays out the math, concluding that “Instead of being set free, a part of the capital is…locked up [in constant capital] in such a way as to cease to be exchanged for labor-power” (p. 565). Furthermore, “the making of the new machinery” does not entail the employment of “an increased number of mechanics” (p. 566): “At best, the construction of the machinery will still employ fewer men than its application displaces” (p. 566). Plus “machinery is seizing control even of this branch of production on an ever-increasing scale” (p. 571). There is an increase in production “in the other industries that provide the first [a given industry utilizing machinery] with means of production” (p. 570). But this too depends “on the composition of the capital employed” and “the extent to which machinery has already penetrated, or is engaged in penetrating, those trades” (p. 571). For example, Marx notes that by the 1860s “the number of men condemned to work in coal and metal mines [had] been enormously swollen by the progress of machine production in England” (p. 571); but “the growth in numbers [was] slowed down during the last few decades by the introduction of new machinery into the mining industries” (p. 571). True, there are some “entirely new branches of production, creating new fields of labor” that are formed “as the direct result either of machinery or of the general industrial changes brought about by it” (p. 573). However, “the place occupied by these branches in total production is far from important” and entail “the crudest form of manual labor” (p. 573). Finally the increased exploitation of labor-power “permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively,” reproducing “the ancient domestic slaves….under the name of a servant class” (p. 574).

The resulting unemployment from the introduction of machinery is an obvious fact of capitalist production: if the same number of workers previously employed were rehired at the same wage this would result in a net sum of zero for the capitalist; but if the capitalist can hire fewer workers than he let go while maintaining wages at the same level it will result in a positive net sum. If this were not the case, if the capitalist could not make money, he would not bother firing the workers and investing in machinery .1

In Capital, Marx notes that it is the means of subsistence which is of concern to “the apologists for capitalism” when the worker is ‘freed’ (p. 566). Here machinery also worsens the workers’ situation. Along with his job, the machinery “withdraws from [the worker’s] consumption, and sets free…. [his] means of subsistence” realized by his former earned income (p. 566). Marx continues describing the downward spiral this produces:

The circumstances that [the workers] were ‘set free’ by the machinery from the means of purchase changed them from buyers into non-buyers. Hence a lessened demand for those commodities [they previously bought]. Voilà tout….the market price of the commodities falls….there follows the displacement of the workers employed in the production of those commodities….the workers employed in the production of the necessary means of subsistence are in turn ‘set free’ from a part of their wages (p. 567)

From this, Marx shows that

Instead, therefore, of proving that when machinery frees the worker from his means of subsistence, it simultaneously converts those means into capital for his further employment, our friends the apologists, with their well-tried law of supply and demand, prove the opposite, namely that machinery throws the workers onto the streets, not only in that branch of production into which it has been introduced, but also in branches into which it has not been introduced (p. 567)

The “real facts” about this widespread unemployment are “on the contrary, a most frightful scourge” (p. 567). Marx notes that even if the ‘freed’ workers “do find employment, what a miserable prospect they face!”(p. 568)

Crippled as they are by the division of labor, these poor devils are worth so little outside their old trade that they cannot find admission into any industries except a few inferior and therefore oversupplied and underpaid branches….As soon as machinery has set free a part of the workers employed in a given branch of industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels….meanwhile the original victims, during the period of transition, for the most part starve and perish (p. 568)

Though the worker no longer has to engage in “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery” his sufferings do not end.

Contesting the Neutrality of Technology

A second response Marcuse might have given is that the conditions described above are the result of capitalist production not machines in themselves. It is the capitalist system that seeks to stave off “the growing potential of pacifying the struggle for existence” while maintaining “the need for intensifying this struggle” (ODM, p. 53). It is the capitalist system that “perpetuates the inhuman existence of those who form the human base of the social pyramid” (ODM, p. 53). Today, the “spectacular development of all productive forces” and the “spectacular comforts, liberties, and alleviation of the burden of life” can be realized (ODM, p. 55); but the advanced industrial societies “have these capabilities distorted beyond recognition” in order to “struggle against a form of life which would dissolve the basis for domination” (ODM, p. 55). Marcuse admits that “the traditional notion of the ‘neutrality’ of technology can no longer be maintained” (ODM, p. xvi); but this is because of “the use to which it is put,” the way in which the technological society acts as a system of domination (ODM, p. xvi). This system must “contain technical progress within the framework of domination” in order to “stabilize the society” (ODM, p. xvi). If technical progress is allowed to realize its full productivity and growth potential, the present system of domination in advanced industrial society can be overthrown: “technical progress would transcend the realm of necessity, where it served as the instrument of domination and exploitation….technology would become subject to the free play of faculties in the struggle for the pacification of nature and society” (ODM, p. 16). Alas, as Dunayevskaya noted before the publication of ODM, “the old radicals pontificated that….capitalism can never fully institute Automation because there are too many vested interests in the capital structure as it now stands” (M&F, p. 270). As such, automation is not the problem, the system is the problem.

For Marx, technology is undoubtedly a means of subordination and exploitation in capitalist societies. In Capital, he calls machinery “the material foundation of the capitalist mode of production” (p. 554). Marx too makes a distinction between “machinery and its employment by capital” in which case it is the “form of society which utilizes those instruments” and not the “material instruments of production” themselves which should be attacked (p. 544-545). It is through the capitalist system that the introduction of machinery “produces chronic misery among workers who compete with it” (p. 557). As such, one could imagine that if the capitalist system is ended then machinery and automation would no longer exist in a situation of “complete and total antagonism” toward the worker as it did in Marx’s lifetime (p. 558).

Marx also addresses the notion, appealed to by his contemporary political economists, that machinery and other forms of technology, separated from the capitalist mode of production, is itself neutral:

It is an undoubted fact that machinery is not as such responsible for ‘setting free’ the worker from the means of subsistence. It cheapens and increases production in the branch it seizes on, and at first leaves unaltered the quantity of the means of subsistence produced in other branches. Hence, after the introduction of machinery, society possesses as much of the necessaries of life as before, if not more, for the workers who have been displaced, not to mention the enormous share of the annual product wasted by non-workers. And this is the point relied on by our economic apologists! The contradictions and antagonisms inseparable from the capitalist application of machinery do not exist, they say, because they do not arise out of machinery as such, but out of its capitalist application! (p. 568)

Realizing that it is “in the hands of capital” that machinery “makes man the slave of those forces,”

The bourgeois economist simply states that the contemplation of machinery in itself demonstrates with exactitude that all these evident contradictions are a mere semblance, present in everyday reality, but not existing in themselves, and therefore having no theoretical existence either. Thus he manages to avoid racking his brains any more (p. 569)

But Marx holds that these arguments are not immune from the “thoughtless contradictions of the capitalist brain” (p. 564). The antagonistic character of machinery continues:

No doubt the bourgeois economist is far from denying that temporary inconveniences may result from the capitalist use of machinery. But where is the medal without its reverse side! Any other utilization of machinery than the capitalist one is to him impossible. Exploitation of the worker by the machine is therefore identical for him with exploitation of the machine by the worker. Therefore whoever reveals the real situation with the capitalist employment of machinery does not want machinery to be employed at all, and is an enemy of social progress! (p. 569)

Therefore, as Dunayevskaya notes, these antagonisms do, or at least can, “arise from the machinery ‘as such’” (P&R, p. 73). Marx has revealed in Capital that “machines are other than capital, oppressive, domineering, exploitative, full of contradiction, perverse” (P&R, p. 73).

As Dunayevskaya points out, the truth is that “Marx at no time looked at the expanding material forces as if they were the condition, the activity, the purpose of liberation” (P&R, p. 70). “Marxian ‘economics’” rather is about “the philosophy of human activity, the class struggles and self-development of workers achieving their own emancipation” (P&R, p. 75). His “philosophy of liberation” is grounded in “the praxis of the proletariat” (P&R, p. xvi). Thus it is from “the emergence and growth of a movement from practice” that “those opposites, intellectual and worker” can meet (P&R, p. xvii). In sum: “theory can develop fully only when grounded in what the masses themselves are doing and thinking” (P&R, p. xviii).

Marcuse, Dunayevskaya, and Working Class Subjectivity

It is interesting then that Marcuse looks to the Grundrisse for support of his theory instead of Capital. His lack of confidence in the capacity of the workers to revolt against the established society is mirrored in the “quiescent” workers of the 1850s. According to Dunayevskaya, Marx’s writings before the 1860s “necessarily remained intellectualist” because the workers had yet to act (P&R, p. 73). Similarly, Marcuse’s analysis steers from the concrete and remains abstractly philosophical. He seems to exhibit what Dunayevskaya refers to as “one trait” that is shared “in common with all intellectuals”: the tendency to “look down upon the native working class as ‘backward’” (M&F, p. 279). Marcuse’s main error is his outright dismissal of the workers. Aside from simply ignoring them, he accuses them of remaining complacent and purposefully accepting the status quo: “‘the people,’ previously the ferment of social change, have ‘moved up’ to become the ferment of social cohesion” (ODM, p. 256). Marcuse adds that the trade union “insists on the extensive utilization of human labor power in material production, and thus opposes technical progress” (ODM, p. 37). The workers have become too one-dimensional and assimilated into the system. Thus Marcuse turns away from the proletariat and develops his own philosophy without reference to the actions of the workers. He focuses on what Dunayevskaya criticizes more generally as “the material condition for the solution of conflict and contradictions” not “the actual class struggle at the point of production” (P&R, p. 70). Marcuse pessimistically asserts that advanced industrial society is “like a world of mute objects without a subject, without the practice which would move these objects in the new direction” (ODM, p. 253). But Dunayevskaya relates from her experiences with workers in the 1950s that they are far from being ‘mute objects’ . 2

To Marcuse, the workers are concerned with “the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo” (ODM, p. xiii). At the time of his writing he asserts that “even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation”. As such, advanced industrial societies have experienced the development of “an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action”. But looking to the work-world Dunayevskaya finds, to the contrary, “the rejection by the workers of all the old capitalist controls and standards” (M&F, p. 261). It is “the American workers” who are “developing a new economic philosophy to replace the capitalistic one” (M&F, p. 260). The workers have proven themselves to be the source of creative energies.

Dialectics and Technology

Marcuse’s dismissal of the workers leads him to turn away from the dialectic in search of revolutionary fervor: “Dialectical theory is not refuted, but it cannot offer the remedy” (ODM, p. 253). The realization of historical possibilities “can only be in the practice which responds to the theory, and, at present, the practice gives no such response” (ODM, p. 253). Therefore “the dialectical concept pronounces its own hopelessness” (ODM, p. 253). But, as previously noted, Dunayevskaya finds ‘the practice’ alive within the workers. And because the dialectic “has to be recreated as it spontaneously emerges from the developing Subject” (P&R, p. 73) the dialectic is still as source of power for bringing forth social change.

Marcuse’s isolation from workers leads him to incorrectly adopt what Dunayevskaya refers to as “the current attitude to technology” which “seems to regard technology as if it ‘absorbed’ the proletariat” thereby taking its revolutionary force (P&R, p. 70-71). According to Marcuse, the proletariat may have once been able to bring about revolution, “But the struggle for the solution has outgrown the traditional forms” (ODM, p. 253): “The totalitarian tendencies of the one-dimensional society render the traditional ways and means of protest ineffective” (ODM, p. 253). He goes further saying that “the notion that the replacement of the prevailing control over the productive process by ‘control from below’ would mean the advent of qualitative change” is no longer valid:

This notion was valid…where the laborers were…the living denial and indictment of the established society. However, where these classes have become a prop of the established way of life, their ascent to control would prolong this way in a different setting (ODM, p. 252)

The workers’ revolutionary energy has been neutralized.

But this is far from the case. The ‘traditional forms’ to which Marcuse refers, i.e., social change brought about by the proletariat, are the only forms which can bring about a new society. As Dunayevskaya notes, “unless the Subject himself (the proletariat) recreates or rather creates anew the dialectic as it emerges from practice, there is no forward movement” (P&R, p. 69). Furthermore, she writes that “it is living people who work out the meaning of philosophy by making the theory of liberation and the struggle to be free a unity” (P&R, p. 69).As the “‘Subject’ of [human] self-emancipation,” Dunayevskaya notes that it is the proletariat who are revolutionary and who “put an end to all class societies” (P&R, p. 75). Based on her observations, Dunayevskaya argues that the workers remain ‘a revolutionary force’.

As long as they ignore the workers, writes Dunayevskaya, the “‘forward looking’” intellectuals – and here she could very well have included Marcuse – will be unable to see what is ahead; for it is “precisely in the workers’ attitudes to Automation” that “the pathway to totally new relations at the point of production, and therefore in society” can be discerned (M&F, p. 265). As such, Dunayevskaya at the time of her writing notes that “there has never been a greater theoretical void in the Marxist movement or out of it” (M&F, p. 277):

What they all forget is that a new society is THE human endeavor, or it is nothing. It cannot be brought in behind the backs of the people, neither by the ‘vanguard’ nor by the ‘scientific individuals.’ The working people will build it, or it will not be built. There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice which begins with where the working people are – their thoughts, their struggles, their aspirations (M&F, p. 286)

In contrast, Marcuse sees the technical base as “the very base of all forms of human freedom” and believes that “The qualitative change,” i.e., the movement away from capitalist domination to a new human freedom, “lies in the reconstruction of this base – that is, in its development with a view of different ends” (ODM, p. 231). But, to Dunayevskaya, automation cannot bring about the qualitative change Marcuse imagines; “only a new unity of theory and practice, unified in the worker himself, would assure the creation of a really new society” (M&F, p. 271).

The Power of the Proletariat

To Dunayevskaya, it is not from the philosophers’ perch and the intellectuals’ pedestal but “from the workers’ experience with Automation” that “a new Humanism” bursts forth (M&F, p. 275).To find this new Humanism, theorists must track “the new impulse” which “comes, and can come, only from the workers” (M&F, p. 274). Dunayevskaya holds that Marx, following “the strife of the worker,” realized that “what is to be watched is not so much the machine as the resistance of the worker” (P&R, p. 72-73). While Marcuse focuses on automation, she maintains that “Marx pointed to the human aspect not in order to adjust it to the status quo, but to disclose a new society in which labor is not alienated” (M&F, p. 273). And what Marx found, i.e., “the concrete strife of worker and machine when it is capitalistically controlled,” stands “In opposition to the liberals of his day, who saw increased production as meaning the happy life of abundance” (M&F, p. 272). In ODM, Marcuse appears to have adopted too much of this sort of liberal view by Dunayevskaya’s interpretation.

Rather than following the ivory tower intellectuals, to understand the true impact of automation one must follow the workers and their responses. From the workers the new modes of production and processes of social development can be grasped. Dunayevskaya relates that with the introduction of automation, “two fundamentally different class attitudes, depending on which side of the machine you stand” have developed (M&F, p. 264). The first is that of the worker: “If you are the one who operates it, you feel its impact on every bone of your body…You are never on top of the machine; the machine is always on top of you” (M&F, p. 264). The second is shared by “the one who drives the men,” “the capitalists and their agents,” the labor bureaucracy, as well as the scientists and intellectuals: simply put, they “praise the machine to the skies” (M&F, p. 264). Marcuse is uncomfortably similar to the latter in his attitude toward technology. The latter have all “counseled the workers to do nothing ‘against’ Automation” (M&F, p. 264-265). Instead of standing for the worker they stand for ‘progress’. They ignore the workers’ struggles and instead “consider ‘the future’” (M&F, p. 265). Dunayevskaya writes that “‘the educated’” – and here she might have again included Marcuse – “are all too deaf to the concrete demands of the workers and all too willing victims of abstractions which help to maintain capitalist exploitation” (M&F, p. 265). It is not the workers who are complicit in maintaining the capitalist system but the technocrats and even radical intellectuals like Marcuse. And it is the former ‘class attitude,’ i.e., the worker’s response, which is of utmost importance.

Marcuse’s interpretation of the workers’ ‘attitude’ is that they are concerned with ‘the good life’ (ODM, p. 49). As such their only focus is satisfaction of “false needs” and the maintenance of a high standard of living (ODM, p. 5). But Dunayevskaya’s interactions with workers in the 1950s reveal that they are less concerned with the satisfaction of ‘false needs’ than they are with the production process itself. The workers looked beyond material benefits and wages to the deeper questions of the mode of production:

“The burning problems in the shops today are centered not around wages so much as around the bitter hostility of the workers to their role in production” (M&F, p. 263)

The workers don’t go in for abstract argumentation on leisure and plenty at some future, unspecified, time (M&F, p. 270)

“Even if the union gets the shorter week and annual wage, what happens to all the workers all over the country that are not working now?” (M&F, p. 275)

With the introduction of automation, workers “began to question not only the fruits of labor – wages – but the kind of labor” (M&F, 276). They were not seduced by the ‘supreme promise’ to which Marcuse refers (ODM, p. 23). Instead, Dunayevskaya holds, they remained aware of the mode of production and the need for its reconfiguration: “the workers questioned the very kind of labor that would transform man into a cog of a machine and make the machine into ‘the thinker’” (M&F, p. 264). The workers even went so far as to question the benefits of more leisure time; and they were skeptical about the desirability of more leisure time which intellectuals saw as a welcome product of the introduction of automation:

“We say man is able to work, to produce, to work with, alongside, other workers. This is life to him. Now what happens under Automation? I don’t see man working. Do the energies go toward something else? But what? This and the leisure time is connected somewhere, though I don’t exactly know where” (M&F, p. 275)

Thus what were of most concern to the workers were in fact the antagonisms manifested in the mode of production – antagonisms of which they were acutely aware.

Marcuse turns away from the workers in favor of more marginalized groups, linked to avant-garde art and literature: “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders…. their opposition is revolutionary….The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period” (ODM, p. 256-257). This group is both the source of revolutionary thought and the practitioners of the revolution. They are the source of theory and practice, not the workers. They are the thinkers and the doers, not the workers. But, writes Dunayevskaya, the workers are not unthinking, in need of the avant-garde to lead them to freedom. The workers have “a mind of their own” (M&F, p. 277). And while “the intellectuals parroted empty phrases and ignored the workers” the workers acted (M&F, p. 277). They were “determined that no one would do their thinking for them” (M&F, p. 266):

“there is a time for thinking. The time is now…how and when will the working man-all working men…not let others do their thinking for them” (M&F, p. 267)

The working man has a mind of his own…so why let others do his thinking for him? If only there was no division between thinking and doing” (M&F, p. 268)

It is the workers who, through their thoughts and actions, produce a form of theory, and to whom truly radical intellectuals working on Marxist theory need to listen.

Dunayevskaya concludes that what is needed is an end to the separation of mental and manual labor, for “those opposites, intellectual and worker” to meet (P&R, xvii). Separated from the workers, the avant-garde and radical intellectuals cannot find the way to freedom: “theory can develop fully only when grounded in what the masses themselves are doing and thinking” (P&R, p. xviii). Dunayevskaya summarizes the conflict:

Intellectual growth will first begin when new ground is broken. The elements of the new society present in the old are everywhere in evidence in the thoughts and lives of the working class. Where the workers think their own thoughts, there must be the intellectual to absorb the new impulses. Outside of that there can be no serious theory (M&F, p. 286)

What is needed is the unification of thinking and doing. The intellectual and the worker must connect in new ways.

Automation and Marxist-Humanism

The debate between Marcuse and Dunayevskaya is more than a debate about the promises of automation. Their interpretations require examining what is at the core of Marxism. Looking at the argument in favor of automation, there are two strains which appear. First, automation is a source of revolutionary change which can end the capitalist system and bring about a new one, presumably some form of socialism. Second, automation is something positive, something which can alleviate, if not end, alienation. The two arguments are distinct in an important way: the second argument involves an explicit value judgment while the first does not. The first argument coincides with the idea that capitalism is an unstable system to the extent that it creates social unrest and contradictions which encourage its demise (it produces the source of its own negation). The second argument adds to the first the value judgment along the lines that the various forces which spur unrest, e.g., alienation, contradictions, etc., are bad in an ethical or moral sense.

The Marxist impulse is to reject the second argument in favor of the value-neutral first – mostly out of the realization that ‘moral judgments’ are bourgeois in nature. But one could argue that this takes away something from Marxism, specifically its humanism. By humanism, I do not simply mean the power of human action or the ability of human beings to create social change. I mean specifically the inherent, intrinsic value of human beings. In this way, the biggest contradiction in capitalism which spurs unrest is its inhuman directives and the inhuman social relations it creates. This is more than a conceptual contradiction or a practical contradiction, it is a moral contradiction; and as such, Marxist theory is not just a political economic theory, it is an ethical theory. I do not think Marx was a humanist only to the extent that he believed in the power of human action. I do believe this, but I also believe that Marx saw human beings as having inherent value. Perhaps this is too big a claim to say, particularly since I do not intend to defend it in this paper any more than what I have already said. But I will say that Marxism finds more intrinsic value in a human being than capitalism. (This seems like a smaller claim; I suspect most Marxists will concede that the capitalist system takes a utilitarian view of people which Marxism finds vulgar to say the least).

Based on the two aspects of humanism, two questions emerge: one, can automation bring about social change or does this require the power of human action; and two, does automation make human lives better. To answer both questions, one needs only to look to another fundamental aspect of Marxism – specifically the importance of praxis. A theory of social justice is only as good as its application in the real world. As such, automation can only be considered a source of revolutionary change or a social good for all persons, particularly the proletariat, if it actually produces revolutionary change or social good. If it produces more alienation or furthers the contradictions of capitalism, then even if the application of automation makes sense on paper it should be rejected as a desideratum. Dunayevskaya’s interactions with American workers would support the latter possibility, viz., that automation is neither a source of revolutionary change nor a social good.

– Kelly Green is a student activist.


1. “Since every article produced by a machine is cheaper than a similar article produced by hand, we deduce the following absolute law: if the total quantity of the article produced by machinery is equal to the total quantity of the article previously produced by a handicraft or by manufacture, and now made by machinery, then total labor expended is diminished. The increase in the labor required to produce the instruments of labor themselves, the machinery, coal, etc. must be less than the reduction in labor achieved by the employment of machinery; otherwise the product of the machine would be as dear as, or dearer than, the product of the manual labor. But as a matter of fact, the total quantity of the article produced by machinery with a diminished number of workers, instead of remaining equal to the total quantity of the hand-made article that has been displaced, exceeds this by far” Marx, Capital, p. 570

2. See M&F, Chapter XVI

Works Cited

Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1958. Marxism and Freedom. New York: Humanity Books.

——. 1973. Philosophy and Revolution. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital, Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.




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1 Comment

  1. J. Jesse Ramirez

    Despite the essay’s depiction of him as a technological determinist, Marcuse would agree that technological development alone is not a sufficient condition for liberation. Like Dunayevskaya, Marcuse recognized the importance of class struggle.

    Where the two differ, at least within the context of the essay, is in their assessment of the revolutionary character of the postwar working class, on the one hand, and in their sense of whether the achievement of socialism would require–not as a sufficient, but necessary condition–a high degree of technological advancement, on the other. The first issue is a matter of empirical historical analysis, which I think can go either way, depending on what groups you look at and how you interpret their broader significance. The second issue is trickier, I think, because it has to do with what may be conflicting understandings of the foundations of Marxism. For Marcuse, the final goal of Marxism is the liberation of humanity as a whole from the realm of necessity, which would open the realm of freedom for the first time in history. In other words, the realm of freedom–not “leisure” time, but true free time–starts with liberation FROM labor, or at least from the alienated forms of labor that have hitherto characterized all human societies. Marcuse may have been wrong about automation, but he was interested in it only because it allowed him to imagine how liberation from the realm of necessity might be possible. (Automation wouldn’t do this by itself; Marcuse knew that would require revolution.) Marx says something similar in Capital–not in the Grundrisse–namely, that freedom starts only when the proletariat is able to shorten the working day.

    So is Dunayevskaya’s disagreement with Marcuse, again, in terms of how the essay presents it, ultimately a disagreement about what constitutes the realm of freedom, and whether advanced technology is one of the essential elements of its achievement?



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