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The peculiar forms of repression in the Soviet Union

IDEOLOGY / MODERN TIMES brings, due to today's attention to Russia, a look at the Soviet Union 50 years ago. In the book from 1972, Herbert Marcuse describes and assesses the conditions, condition and possibilities of the Soviet Union – and Soviet Marxism as an ideology.

By Dag Østerberg
Orientering, november 1972

Politics is about the general liberation from necessity and coercion. From Marx we have the most complete theory of capital as coercive power, and this theory therefore forms a very important part of political theory. From Freud, we have a defining theory about how need and compulsion can overwhelm us so that we in a way accept our powerlessness, or in other words: a theory about how oppression appears as the suppression of our needs and our capacity for pleasure and joy. Herbert Marcuse is among the social theorists of our time who have contributed the most to adding the theory of displacement to the theory of capital as coercive power, thereby greatly expanding the political theory's field of vision and scope.

From before, three books by Marcuse are available in Norwegian – Utopia is possible (Gyldendal, 1967 English), The one-dimensional human being (Pax, 1964) and About liberation (Pax, 1969). Now Pax publishing house has published a fourth, namely Soviet Marxism (1972) which was first published in the USA in 1960.

Here Marcuse applies his political theory to describe and assess the Soviet Union's conditions, condition and possibilities.

Authoritarian and repressive

It follows immediately from Marcuse's assumptions that the main subject of the book will be to understand the fact that it is so strictly in the Soviet Union, or as it is often called: so authoritarian and repressive. It is true that the rule of capital has been abolished in the Soviet Union, but both the need and the coercion prevail equally. Why is it like that?

A first answer could consist in simply referring to Marx's theory and pointing out that the material scarcity in the Soviet Union was and is so much greater than in the USA and Western Europe, and that life must already be harder for the Russians for that reason .

Furthermore, it can be pointed out that from the outset the Soviet Union had to fight against the far more industrially developed world capitalism, and thus to a large extent had to make itself equal to its opponent.


Industrialization requires the use of work equipment that takes a long time to learn to master, it requires the development of schools that will train engineers of all kinds. This working life tends to evoke specific working relationships where some lead and others are lustful, where some know more and others know less, in short: a certain dominance is almost inextricably linked to the industrial movement itself. The Soviet engineer and production manager does not differ very much from the capitalist engineer and production manager in terms of being and manner of being.

Unpleasant truths are displaced by a false consciousness.

Marcuse's interpretation of Soviet society accepts and builds on both of these points of view, which makes it understandable why "Soviet Marxism" as social theory and state philosophy – i.e. what is called "Marxism-Leninism" – is so strict and rigid and sick of ruling. To a certain extent, it reflects strict, rigid and tyrannical social conditions, social conditions which are to a certain extent unavoidable during the tormented struggle against Western capitalism. Stachanovists and career hunters are human figures that it is extremely difficult to prevent from appearing in a society with strong industrial growth. Strict, old-bourgeois gender morality and the cultivation of the nuclear family are likewise phenomena that are closely related to a tense working life. The boredom and renunciation in a semi-poor society which renounces today – i.e. invests – in order to be able to enjoy some time in the distant future, will very easily find its theoretical expression in a joyless duty and work ethic – which Marcuse demonstrates as a feature of Soviet Marxism.

But if Soviet Marxism reflects the real social conditions under which Russians live – isn't it simply true? No – and here we are at the heart of the matter, that is to say at the point where Marcuse (and many with him, such as Sartre and Habermas) turn with the followers of Marxism-Leninism. The old saying that "the truth shall set you free" takes on the special meaning of Marcuse that only the insight that also acts as liberating is true. The truth uncovers, reveals, changes, liberates – it causes the false to disappear or give way. This, I suppose, is what Marcuse learned from Freud, first and foremost: Unpleasant truths are displaced by a false consciousness – the recognition of truth is an embarrassing experience and experience, shameful and liberating at the same time. On the social scale, the false, dishonest consciousness appears as what Marx called "ideology". The ideology is the merciful veil that the ruling classes have thrown over the embarrassing social conditions, and which causes the exploitation and other appropriation of other people's work to appear in a false guise as respectability, skill, love of truth and obedience to the law.

This is, for example, Community supports with Ibsen: The ideological veil makes it possible for the greedy capitalist Consul Bernick to be hailed by a torchlight train of grateful city children – after which Ibsen allows a brief, revealing moment of truth to illuminate, then again to let ideology rule the ground.


Marxism-Leninism and its "social realism" have the weakness that it reflects the present conditions, partly glorifies the coming society, but its concepts and way of thinking have lost their liberating effect as a struggle against coercion and repression.

Therefore, Soviet Marxism itself is ideology. It is used by the ruling class as a means to keep the wheels turning in Russian industrial society without this industrial society having any clear direction towards a freer existence for its members. Industrial production threatens to become an end in itself. The race with the West's industrial capitalism in the economic and military areas means that what Marx describes as the first condition of freedom and self-expression, namely the shortening of the working day, has easily become just as much sham and deception as under capitalism.

You cannot have an obligation to be happy with someone. What liberation strives for is a presence that is erotic in the broadest sense.

Here is a very telling example from the book: "In the very sentence in which Stalin advocates a reduction of working hours to at least six and then five hours per day (which Marx saw as an absolute prerequisite for freedom), he points out that this reduction is necessary for members of society to have enough free time for a thorough education".

This saved time should therefore not be free – it should be used for education.

The ideology of Soviet Marxism obscures the difference between voluntary acquisition of more or less difficult learning material, and pleasurable, playful leisure time expression. According to Soviet morality, love of work is among the highest duties.

But even Kant, the philosopher of duty above all others, argued that duty and love are incompatible concepts. You cannot have an obligation to be happy with someone. Love must spring from immediate feeling, and this is how I also understand Marcuse: What liberation strives for is a presence that is erotic in the broadest sense, where the distinction and opposition between means and ends is abolished. The rules of life and admonitions of Soviet Marxism are instead suitable for maintaining a coercive, joyless working society. "For Marx and Engels, the goal of communism was the abolition of work", according to the Soviet-Marxist notion that everyone should be workers in the one communist society. With a spare time converted into educational time for polytechnic training, with a work ethic rooted in man's instinctive structure, administrative control is secured and the past safely transferred to the future. Stalin could therefore safely quote Engels' statement that work would pass from being a burden to becoming a joy. But the joy will not be qualitatively different from that which is permitted under repression.

"The Catastrophe of Freedom"

But by all means let it be clear that Marcuse in no way writes off the Soviet Union as a bearer of socialism in our time. He considers it entirely possible that the further development could go in the direction of a more relaxed, less domineering and repressed society, because, he claims, nothing in the Soviet Union makes such a development impossible. What he wants to say with the book is to shed light on the peculiar forms of oppression in the Soviet Union, on the performance of Marxism as an ideological veil, so that it will be easier to fight against oppression, repression and ideology.

After Marcuse produced this highly skilled study of Soviet Marxism, he did a similar study of the West's most advanced industrial capital state, the United States
- and which, through the event of 1968 (the May uprising, the anti-authoritarian movement in Germany, etc.) was to bring Marcuse's name all over the world. Later, the mood has changed somewhat, insofar as a number of anti-capitalist circles have again rallied around Lenin and Stalin's names and writings, and again calls are being made for discipline and authority in the revolutionary "work".

Not even here in Norway is it free for the disease of domination to have spread quite a bit among socialists.

Not even here in Norway is it free for the disease of domination to have spread quite a bit among socialists. On the theoretical level, a book that Soviet Marxism welcome under the current conditions. It reveals the basic ideas and basic attitudes of Marxism-Leninism better than any other book I know of. It is also a very strong post in favor of the view that the struggle against the domination of capital and bureaucracy should mainly consist of the population's needs overflowing into what Marcuse calls "the catastrophe of freedom".

Marcuse is probably not an easy-to-read author, and certainly not an easy-to-translate author. With the prevailing rates for translators, there is perhaps nothing to say that the Norwegian rendering is often heavily and strongly influenced by the English original. Folk reading is not this book in any case. But for those who need or want to familiarize themselves with political theory, it is important that this excellent book is now available in Norwegian.

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