Marcuse’s first published article in 1928 attempted a synthesis of the philosophical perspectives of phenomenology, existentialism, and Marxism, anticipating a project which decades later would be carried out by various “existential” and “phenomenological” Marxists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as others in Eastern Europe and the United States in the post-war period. Marcuse argued that Marxist thought had degenerated into a rigid orthodoxy and thus needed concrete “phenomenological” experience to revivify the theory. He also believed that Marxism neglected the problem of the individual and throughout his life was concerned with individual liberation and well-being, in addition to social transformation and the possibilities of a transition from capitalism to socialism.
Marcuse published the first major review in 1933 of Marx’s just published Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, anticipating the tendency to revise interpretations of Marxism from the standpoint of the works of the early Marx. At the same time that he was writing essays synthesizing Marxism and phenomenology, Marcuse wrote a “Habilitations” dissertation on Hegel’s Ontology and Theory of Historicity (1932). The text stressed the importance of the categories of life and history in Hegel and contributed to the Hegel renaissance that was taking place in Europe. These works revealed Marcuse to be an astute student of Germany philosophy and he was emerging as one of the most promising young philosophers of his generation.
In 1933, Marcuse joined the Institut fur Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) in Frankfurt and soon became deeply involved in their interdisciplinary projects which included working out a model for critical social theory, developing a theory of the new stage of state and monopoly capitalism, and providing a systematic analysis and critique of German fascism. Marcuse deeply identified with the “Critical Theory” of the Institute and throughout his life was close to Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Franz Neuman, and other members of the Institute.
In 1934, Marcuse — a German Jew and radical — fled from Nazism and emigrated to the United States where he lived for the rest of his life. The Institute for Social Research was granted offices and an academic affiliation with Columbia University, where Marcuse worked during the 1930s and early 1940s. His first major work in English, Reason and Revolution (1941), traced the genesis of the ideas of Hegel, Marx, and modern social theory, and demonstrated the similarities between Hegel and Marx. Marcuse argued for discontinuities between Hegel’s philosophy of the state and German fascism, placing Hegel instead in a liberal constitutional tradition. The text introduced many English speaking readers to the Hegelian-Marxian tradition of dialectical thinking and won Marcuse a reputation as an important interpreter of Hegel and Marx.
In December 1942, Marcuse joined the Office of War Information as a senior analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence. He prepared a report on “Presentation of the Enemy” that proposed ways that the mass media of the allied countries could present images of German fascism. In March 1943, Marcuse transferred to the Office of Secret Services (OSS), working until the end of the war in the Research and Analysis Division of the Central European Branch. Marcuse and his colleagues wrote reports attempting to identify Nazi and anti-Nazi groups and individuals in Germany and drafted a “Civil Affairs Handbook” that dealt with denaziification. In September 1945, he moved over to the State Department after the dissolution of the OSS, becoming head of the Central European bureau, and remaining until 1951 when he left Government service.
After working for the U.S. government for almost ten years, Marcuse returned to University life. He received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study Soviet Marxism, lecturing on the topic at Columbia during 1952-1953 and Harvard from 1954-1955. At the same time, he was intensely studying Freud and published in 1955 Eros and Civilization, an audacious synthesis of Marx and Freud which sketched the outlines of a non-repressive society. His vision of liberation anticipated many of the values of the 1960s counterculture and helped Marcuse to become a major intellectual and political influence during that decade.
In 1958, Marcuse received a tenured position at Brandeis University and became one of the most popular and influential members of its faculty. Marcuse published a critical study of the Soviet Union in 1958 (Soviet Marxism) which broke the taboo in his circles against speaking critically of the USSR and Soviet communism. While attempting to develop a many-sided analysis of the USSR, Marcuse focused his critique on Soviet bureaucracy, culture, values, and the differences between the Marxian theory and the Soviet version of Marxism. Distancing himself from those who interpreted Soviet communism as a bureaucratic system incapable of reform and democratization, Marcuse pointed to potential “liberalizing trends” which countered the Stalinist bureaucracy and that indeed eventually materialized in the 1980s under Gorbachev.
In 1964, Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man, which is perhaps his most important work. Marcuse’s wide-ranging critique of both advanced capitalist and communist societies analyzed the decline of revolutionary potential in capitalist societies and the development of new forms of social control. He argued that “advanced industrial society” created false needs which integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought. The result was a “one-dimensional” universe of thought and behavior in which the very aptitude and ability for critical thinking and oppositional behavior was withering away.
In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse also analyzed the integration of the industrial working class into capitalist society and new forms of capitalist stabilization, thus questioning the Marxian postulates of the revolutionary proletariat and inevitability of capitalist crisis. In contrast to orthodox Marxism, Marcuse championed non-integrated forces of minorities, outsiders, and radical intelligentsia, attempting to nourish oppositional thought and behavior through promoting radical thinking and opposition. His book was severely criticized by both orthodox Marxists and academic theorists of various political and theoretical commitments. Despite its pessimism, it influenced many in the New Left as it articulated their growing dissatisfaction with both capitalist societies and Soviet communist societies.
To summarize: when the Frankfurt School academics fled Germany, they relocated their home institution to Columbia University. In December 1942, Marcuse joined the Office of War Information, FDR’s domestic and foreign propaganda agency. (For more on OWI, see here.) A few months later, he transferred to OSS (the predecessor of CIA), worked there until 1945, and then transferred to State. After leaving State in 1951, he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant (and even CIA has admitted that, at the time, the Rockefeller Foundation was closely tied to CIA) to study Soviet Marxism, and eventually wrote a book on the subject, which “broke the taboo in his circles against speaking critically of the USSR and Soviet communism”, and which pointed to potential ‘liberalizing trends’ that “eventually materialized … under Gorbachev”, soon before Gorbachev’s government abolished the USSR. Then he developed the New Left line on the proletariat.