The Bourgeois Marxist

Herbert Marcuse was the single most famous person who ever taught at [University of California San Diego], and there was no living connection to him, no evidence of Marcuse having been there," says Professor Andrew Feenberg. "The university had done its best to forget its most famous scholar." Feenberg was Marcuse's undergraduate student from 1965 to 1967 and completed his doctoral thesis under Marcuse in 1973. "Marcuse was a serious scholar as well as a Marxist intellectual. He was quite inspiring for students, and he believed he was part of an intellectual community at UCSD and that debates within that community mattered."

On Friday, August 24, Feenberg will discuss The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse, which he coedited with William Leiss. Marcuse criticized capitalism and communism. The German-American philosopher believed in Marx's concept of socialism: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

"A lot of people can't figure out why this urban intellectual was in La Jolla," says Douglas Kellner, professor of philosophy at University of California Los Angeles and himself a Marcuse biographer. "He lived the contradictions of the bourgeois life. He liked luxury; he liked the good life. He saw that as an ideal for everyone. Marcuse was a materialist -- he wanted to maximize happiness and freedom. Happiness means material satisfaction; he was also a Freudian, so it also means sexual needs. But," Kellner continues, "he's for basic needs and not for surplus needs. I've heard stories of people going into grocery stores in La Jolla with him -- he was overwhelmed by the amount of laundry detergent. He thought there was an excess of things; he talked about the excess of a society of abundance. There's just too much."

Marcuse's favorite animal was the hippopotamus, and he often visited the hippo enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. He kept many animal figurines in his office, 20 to 30 of which were depictions of hippos. "He thought the hippopotamus was a metaphor for all sorts of things," says Kellner. "He saw it as the wonder in nature, that nature could produce something so extravagant."

In 1996, Danish filmmaker Paul Alexander Juutilainen produced a documentary called Herbert's Hippopotamus, about the philosopher's last years at UCSD. In the film, one of Marcuse's students says, "[Marcuse] would find the university functioning as a research lab for the Department of Defense to be far more offensive than the university functioning like a fat and absurd hippopotamus that would glean knowledge from one arena and take that knowledge and spread it in another."

According to Juutilainen, as communicated by most of the testimonies he collected in his film, the university -- backed by then-governor Ronald Reagan, vice president Spiro Agnew, and the American Legion -- wanted to keep Marcuse from influencing any more students with his "communist" ideas (as Reagan called them, confusing Marcuse's pro-socialist stance with communism, which Marcuse openly criticized). The American Legion sent a letter to the university's chancellor offering to buy out the remainder of Marcuse's contract for $20,000. Marcuse received letters threatening his life, one of which was signed "The Ku Klux Klan."

Marcuse supported students in controversial demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights. His most famous affiliation was with Angela Davis, a 26-year-old professor at UCLA who was forced into hiding when the FBI added her to its "Ten Most Wanted" list.

"Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary," Davis said in a televised interview. Marcuse was integral in a student demonstration led by Davis in support of naming the newly built third college on the UCSD campus "Lumumba Zapata," after a Congo revolutionary and a Mexican revolutionary, respectively. During the demonstration, students broke into the administration building to overtake the registrar's office. Marcuse was the first person to occupy the building, followed by the marching students. After the demonstration, the chancellor announced that someone had to step forward and pay for the damaged door. Days later, a money order was sent to the chancellor, anonymously, for the full amount. "[Marcuse] recognized the principle that the university's property should be respected," says Feenberg. "It was necessary to break the door, and it was necessary to repair it." -- Barbarella

The Essential Marcuse -- discussion with editor Andrew Feenberg Friday, August 24 7 p.m. D.G. Wills Books 7461 Girard Avenue La Jolla Cost: Free Info: 858-456-1800 or www.dgwillsbooks.com

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