TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Marcuse and “the Christian Bourgeois Concept of Freedom”

Vincent Geoghegan’s “Marcuse and ‘the Christian Bourgeois Concept of Freedom'” appears in Telos 165 (Winter 2013). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our store.

Current talk of the post-secular necessarily invites analysis of the nature of the secular, particularly its historical genesis and subsequent development. The task is to reject what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age has termed “subtraction stories” of the emergence of secularism, involving simplistic assumptions about the inexorable evaporation and attenuation of the religious, and instead understand the complex constitutive role religion has played in the construction of the secular. Marcuse’s work is of interest in this respect because beginning with his 1930s analysis of what he terms “the Christian bourgeois concept of freedom” within the Protestant Reformation, he explores the ways in which he believes modern secular society emerged out of Christianity. In the process he brings out the ambiguous legacy of religion within capitalism, on the one hand a crucial strengthening factor, but on the other a source of contestation. This article follows his analysis of the work of Luther, drawing heavily on his reading of the early Marx, where he sees a pernicious formulation of internal freedom and external unfreedom which facilitates capitalist relations of production, and the historic trajectory of liberal capitalism into fascism. His belief that the Nazis used the freedoms of liberal democracy to capture the state in Weimar Germany underpins his controversial essay of the 1960s “Repressive Tolerance” with its critical take on Anglo-American liberalism, and conviction that progressive forces would need to depart from its underlying conception of freedom. Marcuse is viewed as a trenchant, but far from unproblematic, critic of liberalism.

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