Herbert Marcuse: Biography of this German Philosopher

This philosopher gave rise to the Critical Theory, which questioned the established social order.


The human being has always been a gregarious being and tends to collectivity, and throughout history we have seen how, as the number of human beings grows, we tend to generate increasingly complex structures and societies. And this development does not occur in a linear and unitary way, but rather different environments and cultures have generated their own systems of organization and management.

The way in which societies have developed has been the subject of debate and research over the centuries, with authors like Marx being some of the best known. Another of the most relevant, this last century, is Herbert Marcuse. And it is about this author that we are going to talk about in this article; We will see a brief biography of Herbert Marcuse in order to better understand his thinking.

The biography of Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Hermann Marcuse was born on July 19, 1998 in the city of Berlin. He was the firstborn and first of three brothers of the marriage formed by the merchant Carl Marcuse and Gertrud Kreslawskyun, who was the granddaughter of the owner of a factory.

His family, of Jewish origin, had a prosperous and well-off socio-economic position, something that would allow their children to have a good education.

Training and First World War

With the arrival of the First World War, and just sixteen years old, Marcuse joined the army. He worked in the first place in the care and maintenance of horses, in Berlin itself. In addition to that, he would serve as a soldier at the front, and would become a member of both the soldiers’ council of the city of Berlin and the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

The war ends, Herbert Marcuse became interested in academic life and decided to study Economics, Philosophy and Germanistics at the University of Berlin. After that he enrolled in the University of Freiburg, in which he studied Literature. He would get his doctorate in the same discipline in 1922, with a thesis devoted to the study of the foundations of German literature. He also dropped out of the Social Democratic Party after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg.

Finished his PhD he would go back to Berlin, where he worked in a bookstore. In 1924 he would marry Sophie Wertheim in that city. Over time, specifically in 1928, the author decided to return to the University of Freiburg to study Philosophy with authors like Heidegger, whom he admired and who would be highly influential in his existentialist thought.

During this time he began to be interested in the field of sociology, receiving influences and reading the theories of Marx and Weber.

He tried to qualify and enter the University as a teacher with Heidegger, but the growing rise of Nazism and the initial position of the latter in this regard made the author not to do so. He made one of his first works, a monograph entitled “Ontology of Hegel and the theory of historicity”, and also published and even directed magazines such as Die Gesellschaft.

Institute of Social Research and World War II

In 1933 Marcuse came into contact through Kurt Riezler with the Institut für Sozialforschung or Social Research Institute, led by Max Horkheimer at the time.
The author moved to Frankfurt and became part of what would end up being called the Frankfurt School, where he and Horkheimer and other researchers would analyze social elements such as the role of families, social movements and the revision of Marxist theories. He also criticized the orthodoxy and positivism that underlie capitalism and communism.

The arrival of Hitler and Nazism to power made Marcuse, of Jewish origin, take the decision to leave Germany. He went through Paris and through Geneva, where he would become the director of the branch of the Institute, but would end up emigrating to the United States.

Professional life in the United States

There he would work and continue his research at Columbia University, where an Institute headquarters was opened. In addition, he collaborated until the end of World War II with the Office of Secret Services of the United States to overthrow the Nazi regime and the rest of the fascist regimes. He managed to nationalize himself as an American in 1940.

Later he would begin to act as a teacher in political philosophy. First, he worked at the University of Columbia, to then do the same in Harvard (in which he also worked with the Research Institute on Russia, although he would be dismissed in 1958 for divergences regarding his research and the approach given to them).

In 1954 he also began teaching at Brandeis University. During this vital stage and after being interested in the theory of Sigmund Freud, he theorized about repression in society even within the democratic and unconscious, whether it is capitalist or communist.

He wrote Eros and civilization (published in 1955) and the malaise of culture, and they can be seen as the author proposes that still immersed in oppression and repression both consciously and unconsciously, we tend to seek freedom and development.

He wrote one of his best known works, The one-dimensional man, in 1964. In this work he developed the way that even in democratic societies we can find oppression and tendency to force homogeneity and unidimensionality, something that hinders development to the point that practically only the most marginal elements of society are capable of generating change.

Last years, death and legacy

During the sixties and seventies the author began to work at the University of Berkley, at the time when great movements and student revolts began to emerge. The author supported the student body, becoming a critical figure with the establishment and liberalism and a strong influence for the social movements of the time.

The author sought to generate a society that did not exercise repression and the elimination of the alignment and domination of consumer societies. He also had great interest in art, especially in the final stretch of his life, as an instrument that allows us to address a freer society.

In 1979 Herbert Marcuse traveled to Germany in order to make some speeches. However, during his stay in the city of Starnberg the author suffered a stroke that eventually ended his life on July 26, 1979.

Herbert Marcuse was an intellectual of great prestige and renown, whose philosophy has been an inspiration especially for sociopolitical movements and to analyze from a critical perspective and for purposes of change the functioning of different types of societies and their way of acting on the population.