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Offensive and Defensive Aggression: Herbert Marcuse

Friedrich Hacker | 18.03.2005 15:49 | Anti-militarism | World

In this 1970 interview in the midst of the Vietnam aggression, Marcuse insists that affirmation of life is the distinction between offensive and defensive aggression. The physician cutting off a leg and a pilot ordering passengers are examples of defensive aggression.


Interview with Herbert Marcuse

[This interview from December 9, 1970 is translated from the German in: Aggression. Die Brutalisierung der modern Welt, ed. Byt Friedrich Hacker, Rowohlt, Hamburg, 1973, pp. 319-331.]

[In the last decade the German philosopher living in San Diego, California, Heidegger-student and co-founder of the Frankfurter school of critical philosophy, was an apostle of rebelling youths and one of the most controversial figures of the contemporary history of ideas. The estimation of this influential man fluctuates in the parties between favor and hatred, scorned as an angel of the Apocalypse and as a seducer of youth and praised as a modern prophet and the most important living philosopher. The terms repressive tolerance, one-dimensional society and the great refusal have long been part of educated discourse.]

Marcuse: The brutalization of modern society seems blatant to me. According to the Freudian theory, the sexual liberation of the present should lead to a decrease of aggression, to a de-aggressivity. However one sees aggressivity flare up in groups and individuals who have a much greater erotic freedom and have given up sexual pressures. An increase of libido should lead to a decrease of aggression.

Hacker: This is not so simple. Freud pointed out that the manifestations of the drives should not be confused with the drives themselves. In the manifestations, these drives appear largely changed, thickened and hardly in a pure form. From the beginning, the drives are mixed with the defense mechanisms directed against them. All possible connections, fusions and mixtures between libido and aggressive forms are marked by outer and inner organizations and social mediations. In other words the drive-energy as such changes, shifts and transforms and cannot be separated or filtered out although it nourishes the different drive manifestations.

Marcuse: I have often been criticized for interpreting Freud mechanistically or quantitatively. However I affirm this Freudian idea of the energy reservoir that says that drive energy – whether in a direct or a more sublimated form – is applied for one goal and is no longer available for another.

Hacker: This is not necessarily true for aggression. There are many examples of aggressive expressions that lead to habituation to aggression and even to a kind of aggression mania. This contributes to the general increase of the aggression level, to brutalization more than to relief or relaxation.

Marcuse: That may be true. Nevertheless an explanation is needed: Why the greater sexual freedom, the weakening of the authoritarian father-bond, the increasing tolerance of the super id or its partial absence led more to an increase than a decrease of aggression. One would have expected the opposite – at least according to Freud.

Hacker: First of all, the question should be clarified whether the present situation is a real sexual liberation or only a breaking down of inhibitions in specific restricted areas. Other taboos that are equally strong may be enforced more intensively than before.. Thus one is condemned and damned to the quest and gain of happiness. Freedom becomes obedience under the pressure for pleasure and change.

Marcuse: According to a recent psychoanalytical study, hostility toward the drive-restricting civilization has increased despite the decrease of repression.

Hacker: I don’t know if that is true for repression in general or only for certain specific forms for which we traditionally developed the repression model. Both the repression authorities and the repressed contents have changed today.

Marcuse: One very essential change is the wear-and-tear of the self-confidence of society under the influence of th4e increasing contradictions within society. Every society needs a strong belief in its own values that define social health and normality and guarantee the everyday teamwork and functioning of people in work and leisure time. If this security is shaken, discontent and psychic disturbances spread along with all kinds of abnormal social attitudes like incompetence, indifference, carelessness and resistance against labor and the whole achievement principle.

Hacker: The secular change of psychic constellations and character development is clear in everyday life and in the psychiatric clinic. Neuroses and other psychic disturbances have not diminished but have changed greatly in their most aggressive manifestations. Classical cases can rarely be identified. An accumulation of rare combinations and mixed forms of sociopathic and neurotic behavior is found with mania- and psychosomatic elements. The decisive change of sexual moralit6y has doubtlessly led to new expectations so that changes in other areas of social and inner organization seem possible and desirable.

Marcuse: Expectation does not seem established in Freudian theory. That is a little too psychological to me.

Hacker: Expectation is an important dimension of the reality principle. The ego-oriented reality test necessarily includes the knowledge and assessment of collective and individual possibilities. Individual consciousness is also changed through social, technical and collective-psychological progress or regression. The facts themselves and the spread, knowledge and awareness of these facts are potentially personality-changing factors.

Marcuse: A fundamental problem lies here. Psychoanalysis is mainly if not exclusively occupied with individuals. How can one advance from these individual mechanisms to social events and processes? For people, can we assume that many or most Americans have the same or similar family histories as Lieutenant Calley charged with mass murder who is now on trial for his involvement in the My Lai massacre?

Hacker: I’d like to contribute by showing the transformations of aggression. Cooperative social life and education for that life necessarily require formalized rules of conduct and laws whether through submission under rules, general acceptance or a combination of the two. Social laws are provided with sanctions that demand and force drive-renunciation. Partial drive-renunciation occurs through collective alienation in outer institutions and internalization in inner authorities, the super id and the id. The aggression forbidden as an offense seems commanded as a sanction. The latent aggression inevitably contained by inner and outer authorities is applied in aggression control and aggression restriction and spares manifest violation. This latent aggression is responsible for every kind of stability of the social and personality structures that are also supported by aggressive energy. Latent aggression is aggression; its latent state does not guarantee its justification. The latent aggression contained in certain rule systems can be very unjustified under the mantel of aggression control can capsize in uncontrolled exercise.

Marcuse: The loosening of the social rules of the game must cause changes in the super-id. However the invention of modern instrumental aggression, namely aggression with the help of complex technical equipment and weapons makes easier the repression of guilt-feelings. The apparatus is the subject of aggression, not the individual who only uses the apparatus.

Hacker: This guilt feeling often does not occur and therefore does not need to be repressed. One’s own aggression is frequently described differently under a label fraud and no longer experienced as aggression.

Marcuse: Your argument is correct. However the goal served by the aggression drive is crucial. The goal determines the “instinct value” of aggression. This depends more on its purpose than on the act. Our friend Leo Lowenthal pointed out that Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s “Storm” was induced to an aggressive act, namely cutting down trees. This very aggressive act changed its meaning since it served the “erotic” goal of building a house from the fallen trees, the new home for Ferdinand and his bride. This erotic goal justifies the aggressive act and helps create a pleasure-craving environment promising expansion and fulfillment of life.

Hacker: To increase pleasure, problems must be overcome by nullifying hurdles or obstacles. In the comedy, fear was produced through the rules of the game of artificial obstacles and through the uncertain ending that are experience3d as entertainment, particularly when one wins. This may be analogous to our situation. An extra-marital affair that presupposed leaping or dodging inner barriers and outer social limits once stood for the pure obstacle-free and unpunished intercourse with as many partners as possible. The quantity may be inversely proportional to the intensity of satisfaction.

Marcuse: This is similar to the pure quantity of goods and services offered by a repressive society that contain the liberation gained through victory over deficiency. Surplus and prosperity are repressive to the extent they promote the satisfaction of needs necessitating the continued struggle for survival. Therefore a qualitative change presupposes a quantitative change, namely the reduction of over-development.

Hacker: Psychoanalysis describes the reduction of the tension level in the organism, the drive-renunciation and energy-release as pleasurable and conversely the buildup of drive-energy through prevented expressive possibilities as listlessness or aversion. Under certain circumstances, increased stimulation within certain limits is perceived as pleasurable. The search for stimulation, the delight of excitement and joy in experiments fall in this category.

Marcuse: Only as preliminary stages to the delight of satisfaction. This led Freud to the more expansive term “Eros”: Eros as the delight of the whole body and the libido immersion of the environment to enlarge the scope of Eros. A radical change of society is central here and no longer localized moments.

Hacker: What do you mean concretely?

Marcuse: As an example, the destruction of the military command posts and installations of the aggressive imperialist powers seems to me in the interests of Eros!

Hacker: Does the erotic interest justify the destruction of all centers of violence?

Marcuse: Of course not. The distinction between offensive and defensive aggression must be maintained. If for example a criminal armed with an axe invades my house and wants to attack my wife, I have the right and duty to use counterforce to forcefully put him out of action. That is defense, not aggression. The surgery that amputates a gangrene leg is a good service. The operation cannot be described as aggressive although the act of leg amputation in itself and outside the special context is aggressive.

Hacker: You make it very simple with these terribly simplified examples.

Marcuse: Because it usually is simple.

Hacker: I would dispute that. I believe it can be shown that all aggression irrespective of its objective authorization has the tendency of being seen as justified by the actors or by the commanded. One cannot rely on one’s own experience even when immediate evidence seems convincing.

Marcuse: Self-deception or simplification and rationalization can occur, for example under appeal to past endured aggression that one wanted to resist. What is crucial is the evidence of facts, not simply what someone feels or says. For example, the Vietnam war is clearly an aggression of the Americans and a legitimate defense by the North Vietnamese. The conditions were just as clear with the unjustified aggression of the Soviet Union in the occupation and subjugation of Czechoslovakia.

Hacker: What about the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Marcuse: This case is not as obvious and therefore is harder to decide. There are no absolute criteria that can be applied in every case. However the borderline case can only limit and not refute the validity of the normal case.

Hacker: Are there at least stages in formulating criteria distinguishing defensive and aggressive force? First of all, the following opposition seems plausible. If a good cause is involved that is expansive and life-affirming, aggression may be useful. Aggressive force is life-destructive. To me, this is a problem that can be solved even if it is hard. Deceptive simplification prevents all possible solutions. Once again, what are the criteria for distinction and who makes the distinction?

Marcuse: This is not so hard. Everything that serves life, especially happy life, is good. Reduction of repressive living conditions is ultimately the goal of erotic instincts. Injustice cannot be life-affirming…

Hacker: Isn’t life the highest good?

Marcuse: The rational, objective and scientific analysis of criteria presupposes a value judgment. Neutral science is an ideology, even if a very successful, useful and profitable ideology.

Hacker: Shouldn’t value judgment stand at the end of analysis instead of at the beginning?

Marcuse: Value judgment stands implicitly at the beginning. An objective ambiguity is inherent in the data of experience as I explained in my book “The One-Dimensional Man.” Reason is never neutral. Let me quote a sentence of Whitehead: “Reason’s function is to promote the art of life.” With regard to this goal, reason is “the subject of the attack on the environment” and responds to a `threefold impulse’: to live, to live well and to live better.” In this sense, we will now drink a glass of wine or whiskey. Do you regard that as aggressive?

Hacker: No. But if I felt attacked even only indirectly and in a sublimated form, for example in a debate, what the opponent says and does could be aggressive even when he offers me food and drink. The value judgment that distinguishes between aggressive and defensive anticipates the objective test of the circumstances and makes it superfluous.

Marcuse: You now conceive aggression so broadly that the term seems to lose its meaning. For you, nearly every remark is aggression.

Hacker: Psychoanalysis has been criticized for this in relation to sexuality. If grasping and looking contain sexual elements, then everything is simply sexuality. This impression arises when one traces the hidden forms of aggressive expression that are named differently in their hiding places. Their latent and cold form is very similar to your instrumental aggressiveness. Everything is not aggressive. However much more is aggressive than we presumed in the past, above all many things that are felt and passed off as aggression control or purely defensive measures.

Marcuse: First of all, certain distinctions should be made. Only an aggressive act of a physical nature should be called violence. Primary aggressiveness is instinctive or impulsive; it can be sublimated to the point of nonviolence.

Hacker: Very different descriptions of aggressive phenomena like violence, power, cruelty, brutality, subjugation, control and so forth that are in no way identical or exchangeable are important within the global term aggression. I do not claim that these different phenomena are only aggressive manifestations or that all aggressive manifestations are equivalent or equal. The legitimation question is decisive. This question cannot be pre-decided on the basis of one’s immediate experience or on the basis of abstract criteria like the good life that occur for ideological justification and rationalization as well as for oratorical veiling of nearly everything.

Marcuse: The state of affairs must be examined and decided very concretely in every case. This is usually possible and is not always difficult. The developed criteria are not purely psychological. They cannot be purely psychological but are political and moral.

Hacker: I agree. This seems to make way for the absolutely necessary determination of criteria and legitimation. Who legitimates according to what aspects, who makes these moral decisions and in whose name victims are demanded are not always clear to me. The distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate aggression, between defensive and aggressive force and between good and bad needs are never made.

Marcuse: This distinction can be made: Everything that serves the protection of the life drive is better than its opposite. Rational authority exists. The flight captain has every right to claim full authority for the flight’s duration and to force the discipline of flight passengers. To cite another example, one can easily identify who began the fight when two youths tussle. When youth A suddenly attacks youth B who is quietly and joyfully occupied with his toy, youth A is clearly the aggressor and youth B the victim who has the right to resist defensively. These cases that can be easily investigated exist on every plane.

Hacker: To remain in your simplistic and misleading example, what happens if youth B regularly or very often – perhaps ten times in the past two weeks – seemingly playing peacefully lunges suddenly without warning at youth A or throws a heavy stone at him?
Is youth A still clearly the aggressor and youth B the victim who has the right to defend himself? Would this state of affairs that is not obvious to the watchful observer justify youth A on the basis of probability calculations in taking preventive self-protection measures based on his concrete experience?

Marcuse: Certainly. That would be justified and even commanded in this case. It would be rational repression. Let me give another example. A student who disturbs instruction in a class without reason should be punished. That is legitimate defensive aggression by the collective. On the other hand, every student who embarrasses a poor teacher with legitimate questions and becomes a disturbance must be protected. In this case, the teacher should be better informed or replaced.

Hacker: We always meet on the same theme in different variations. What would you do to the student disturbing the good school instruction?

Marcuse: Individual psychological treatment would be the solution.

Hacker: We know from criminological experience that the majority of violent crimes are committed by a very small minority with a marked tendency to relapse and recidivism. They can even be predetermined with a relatively low possibility of error on the basis of known preparatory acts. Would you support preventive incarceration for this group?

Marcuse: Preventive arrest is part of the arsenal of fascism. Preventive education with strict precautionary measures against misuse of authority is different.

Hacker: Custom and misuse are close together and cannot be easily distinguished as our discussion shows. The American government has passed a legal bill with the enthusiastic approval of the majority of the population that provides for presumption of a crime or investigatory detainment instead of the usual caution, that is preventive arrest before guilt determination to avoid the danger of repetition. This danger of repetition need not be first proven from case to case. These proposals appeal to the reason and to the right of society to defend itself against incursions and crimes. The misjudgments never become visible. Those later found innocent or the culprits who would not have repeated in the interim period sat in vain. The general public is hardly disturbed when violence has priority over law instead of vice versa. In the present state of likely misuse, I would not accept that kind of risk of preventive custody.

Marcuse: This risk seems part of the history of humanity since this history is one of oppression and exploitation. We are in the spell of a dreadful double morality: we hardly think of the hecatombs sacrificed by the rulers in the interest of preserving their rule. We are terribly sensitive about the violence of a really revolutionary regime that earnestly tries to abolish misery and exploitation. I am against senseless acts of violence (even if they are motivated idealistically) that only play into the hands of the status quo. In history, terror was only effective when exercised by a group already in power. Individual terror fizzles out. The noblest anarchists remain socially ineffective. On the other hand, the Jabobins, Hitler and Stalin had a dreadful effect because they held power.

Hacker: How should access to power or seizure of power be accomplished? How other than through the most extreme aggression in a very risky transition period? Do you envision the production of a new non-aggressive human type?

Marcuse: The current type of the very different person, the really free person satisfied with truth as sought in the youth rebellion cannot come about only on the basis of enthusiastic ideas of students. Actual change depends on the working class that is not revolutionary in the present situation in the US and is not ready for revolutionary actions on account of economic prosperity. This will not continue forever. A capitalist welfare state with prosperity and full employment is inconceivable in the long run. The inner contradictions of the system, that is the contradictions between the present social wealth and its miserable use, must soon or later lead to the crises predicted by Marx that ultimately create the revolutionary conditions. If the worst comes to the worst, they also create the conditions for fascism. In any case, fundamental change is the result of a long process supported by the multitude.

Hacker: Ernst Bloch distinguished between exploitation and oppression that diminishes in the western states of the present and slander and criminalization that increase. Do you believe the feeling of injustice connected with expectations of a possible change will be enough to create a promising revolutionary situation?

Marcuse: That is hard to say. The general prosperity represents a real satisfaction and not only a substitute. The dominant powers are very sensitive and insure that the people and groups ruled by them are intentionally kept in a state of pseudo-information and brainwashing. However all this is not eternally effective for western capitalism. According to Marx’ thesis, the profit rate of businessmen must fall as soon as the cost shift to consumers reaches its limit. It is a classical contradiction of the capitalist system that all its control attempts threaten the continued existence of this system. In all history, there was no system that survived eternally. That is only a weak comfort in the current system. In any case, there is no sense relying on revolutionary acts in a non-revolutionary situation. This will only create needless martyrs.

Hacker: Thus you insist that the preconditions for fundamental change exist in economic-material factors and in devalued psychological or super-structure elements. The feelings of lawlessness or powerlessness could become very concrete real factors.

Marcuse: That is certainly right. However the actual monopoly of the mass media counteracts the development of consciousness. Therefore I consider meddling in the communication process as crucial. Progressive forces must attempt to penetrate the newspaper market to share in the control of the mass media. In the hypothetical case of a total control of this media, the consciousness of the masses could probably be transformed within three weeks.

Hacker: Several weeks are probably not enough. Total control for years over all means of communication with prosecution of all aggressive dissenters would be a totalitarian praxis that would accomplish the desired result. However this doesn’t seem either desirable or realizable to me.

Marcuse: Probably not. Nevertheless the reform-revolution alternative should not be seen as an either-or proposition. As a Hegelian, I am convinced that quantitative changes of a certain magnitude can lead to qualitative upheaval.

Hacker: I agree entirely. There is no direct opposition between evolution and revolution. Revolutionary change as a threat or utopia can represent an evolutionary possibility and an evolutionary motive. However revolution is not unconditionally more aggressive or violent than latent institutionalized violence maintaining the process called evolution.

Marcuse: Right. Violent counterrevolutions and rule systems often prevent and anticipate revolution. In Brazil, for example, an increasingly brutal rule system with all means of violence and propaganda prevents the assertion of just revolutionary claims irrespective of the losses in human life and human happiness. The denial of freedom and its possibility corresponds to the guarantee of disconnection and the strengthening of oppression. The instinctive sources are different with force and counterforce as well as the means and goals. This distinction must be maintained.

Hacker: I would like to know more concretely about the criteria of this distinction, in particular what you call “instinct value”. The historical chance may exist for the first time in history to collaborate in designing the rules of the game and not only submitting or refusing to submit to the rules of the game.

Marcuse: A contradiction exists here. One cannot prescribe how free persons should act. If they acted according to pre-given presumptions, they would not be free persons any more. As we know from the practice of the control of nature, certain practical necessities can be seen as conditions of freedom: management of things, not rule over people.

Hacker: That doesn’t seem like a very sound criterion to me. Ultimately things are symbolic for owners and are protected and defended by managers and owners as though they were parts of them. To get hold of things, one must first aggressively eliminate the person who habitually or fetishistically identify with things. This leads to the situation of the decision dilemma.

Marcuse: Important decisions are taken away from us by very identifiable economic powers and forces that are not anonymous. While I am convinced that an unqualified renunciation on all force condemns one to political helplessness, one must make distinctions. Unfortunately there is something like a lesser evil that one must choose in certain historical situations to ward off and prevent a greater evil.

Hacker: Now we arrive again at the starting point. How does anyone know what is good or bad, justified or unjustified aggression without access to obvious foundations of decision? I don’t want to be misunderstood. I also make very definite value judgments and have concrete opinions about good and bad (at least better and worse) developments and measures. I confess to my convictions, advocate them, fight for them and believe in them very intensively and without restriction… As an acting person, I believe in certain things and think I know what I have to do and what I can leave undone. As a perceiving person, I know that despite my feelings and convictions I am not always reliably informed when, where and how a drive-renunciation, a sacrifice or a violent act is legitimate, necessary and part of a lesser evil and when it is not. This is a question about criteria.

Marcuse: My definition may seem too philosophical to you. I can only repeat: the criterion is what is life-affirming, what serves the development of human abilities, human happiness and peace. I don’t know a better definition; I am simply not clever enough.

Hacker: Perhaps no one is bright enough for this today. Hopefully this kind of cleverness will be brought forth and multiplied in the future in service of life-affirmation. Effective alternatives to violence and possibilities of rescue must be found or invented.

Marcuse promises decisive change of consciousness from several weeks of complete control of the mass media. In any case the effect and development of the media defines the chance and danger of the present historical moment more than any other contemporary phenomenon.

Friedrich Hacker
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