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Baran’s Critique of Modern Society and of the Social Sciences

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) was associated with Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in pre-Hitler Germany, and emigrated to the United States with other members of the Frankfurt School, eventually taking up a position as professor of philosophy at Brandeis. His books include Reason and Revolution (1940), Eros and Civilization (1955), and One-Dimensional Man (1964).

We are publishing here for the first time a talk that Herbert Marcuse delivered at Stanford University on April 1, 1966, as part of a two-day conference on Paul A. Baran, entitled “Baran and American Radicalism Today”—commemorating the second anniversary of Baran’s death (on March 26, 1964).1 The talk was transcribed from a recording from the conference made available to us by Baran’s son, Nicholas Baran. Various editorial annotations have been added in the form of endnotes.

Baran and Marcuse’s friendship went back to their days together at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in pre-Hitler Germany. Their close connection is revealed in a series of letters they wrote to each other in the 1950s and early ’60s (posted this month on the Monthly Review website). Corresponding with me in December 2013 on his memories of the close relationship between Baran and his father, Peter Marcuse wrote:

I only met Baran once during the war, when my father was with the OSS [Office of Strategic Services], as I believe Baran was also. I was maybe twelve at the time. Baran had come over to our house to talk to my father, and they stayed up a long time. I asked my father later why Baran had come, and he told me Baran wanted to talk about whether capitalism was ultimately bad for the capitalists as well as the workers, and I gather they had agreed it was. My father was working on Eros and Civilization at the time (on the side, not at OSS!), and I assume that was the context. They really respected each other. I was only a teenager then, but I remember whenever he mentioned Baran’s name at the dinner table it was always with a real smile.

Monthly Review Foundation director John Simon, then a Random House editor, was dining with Marcuse at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station when Christopher Koch of Pacifica Radio and WBAI joined them with word of Baran’s death, which had just come over the wire. Simon thus witnessed firsthand Marcuse’s enormous grief at the loss of his friend. Baran had died of a fatal heart attack as he sat down with a glass of wine in his hand to look at Marcuse’s just published One Dimensional Man—a work which Baran had read earlier in manuscript form.

In his memorial statement on Baran at the time of his death, Marcuse wrote:

Paul Baran is dead. I wish to retain his image as I knew it, the image of one who could not live without being painfully conscious of what was going on behind the façade of freedom, without denouncing the falsehood of the established systems, without examining and re-examining its causes and the chances of liberation.The union of intelligence and hope, of uncompromising indictment and tenderness, made him one of the most loveable human beings I ever met; it also gave him that wonderful humor which is the token of love: he could smile and laugh and joke like those who are truly serious. In his relentless, acid criticism, in his refusal and accusation, he was without aggression, without resentment. There was generosity in his intelligence—the generosity which gives hope.2

The following talk, delivered only days after the publication of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order by Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Marcuse reveals his admiration for Baran’s article on “The Commitment of the Intellectual.”3 Marcuse also provides his understanding of the critical importance of Baran’s notion of economic surplus, as introduced in The Political Economy of Growth and its significance for the critique of monopoly capital.4 This throws light on Marcuse’s own use of the concept of monopoly capitalism, which is frequently mentioned in his work (see for example his Counter-Revolution and Revolt).5

Marcuse criticizes Baran for rejecting—in “Marxism and Psychoanalysis”—the use of psychological terms and for distancing himself from Freudian psychoanalysis and its left interpretations.6 Marcuse was clearly disappointed (as he indicated in a letter to Baran on September 22, 1959, where he commented on the galleys to Baran’s article) that Baran had not embraced the kind of argument he himself had put forward in Eros and Civilization.7 Nevertheless, it is worth adding that Baran—as Marcuse no doubt understood and as their own correspondence reveals—was far from simply rejecting psychological issues out of hand. Baran’s essay on psychoanalysis was aimed at the critique of what he called “psychologism” and “social psychologism”—and not psychology and social psychology. He insisted in this respect that what was needed was a more revolutionary social psychology—that took into account as its initial datum the structure of capitalist society as a whole. He sought to push this view forward near the end of his life through the critique of the cultural apparatus, overlapping in this way with the concerns of such thinkers as Marcuse, Fromm, Williams, and Mills. (See the special July-August 2013 issue of Monthly Review on “The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital”).8 To the end Baran remained an uncompromising critic of the narrow economic rationalism of monopoly-capitalist society and the damaging effect that it exerted on the material existence, culture, and consciousness of humanity.

—John Bellamy Foster

I was grateful to have your invitation to come here and to recall to you and with you Paul Baran who was not only my friend but also, although he was much younger than me, in a way my teacher.9

Paul Baran as you know was a Marxist scholar and he was proud of being and remaining a Marxist scholar in spite of the apparent or real contradiction between the actual development of capitalist society and the development of the society predicted by Marx. The question I want to ask is: Why did Paul Baran as a scholar, and a good scholar, remain loyal to a radical theory which was to be the guide of a radical political praxis? Why did he remain loyal to a theory which professed openly to be a revolutionary theory by virtue of its scientific foundation? Why did he remain loyal to such a theory at a time when the basic concepts of this theory seemed to be seriously questioned if not refuted? My answer is a twofold one. To Paul Baran the Marxian method was and remained the only one appropriate for the analysis of capitalist society. And secondly, the results obtained by a Marxist analysis still correspond to the reality of capitalist development today.

I would like to discuss the topic assigned to me by first dealing with Paul Baran’s critique of the social sciences. In his critique of the social sciences he emphasized the dialectical element in the Marxian method. The sentence he liked to quote again and again was “the truth is the whole.” To him it was a revolutionary principle of thought, because it broke with the fetishism and reification, with the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, prevalent in the social sciences, a pseudo-empiricism which in his view tended to make the objectivity of the social sciences a vehicle of apologetics and a defense of the status quo. Baran defined this dialectical principle negatively and I will read to you the definition, the short definition, he gives in “The Commitment of the Intellectual”: “The principle ‘the truth is the whole’—to use an expression of Hegel—carries with it, in turn, the inescapable necessity of refusing to accept as a datum or to treat as immune from analysis, any single part of the whole.”10

I would like to supplement this negative definition by a positive one to the effect that in and for the social sciences every particular phenomenon, every particular condition, every particular trend, in a given society must be analyzed and evaluated in terms of its relations to the whole, i.e., to the established social order. Isolated from this whole the respective phenomenon, condition, or trend remains a false, at least incomplete, and inconclusive datum concealing rather than revealing its true place and function in the social order. The social order itself, the social order as a concrete whole, is determined and defined for Baran following Marx by the material process of social reproduction and by the hierarchy of functions and values established in this social process of production. But the concrete relation between any particular fact, datum, condition, or trend, on the one side, and the whole social order, on the other, is never a direct and immediate one. It is always established through various intermediate factors, agencies, and powers, among them psychological factors, the family as agent of society, the mass media, language, images prevalent in a society, and so forth.

I would like to mention here that precisely in this emphasis on the intermediate and intermediary factors between the particular datum, on the one side, and the social order on the other, Baran tended to minimize the importance, the increasing importance, of psychological factors. This was perhaps the only, or at least the main, point of difference between us. He wrote an article in which he for example attacked psychoanalysis on grounds which seemed to me obsolete.11 Accusing Freud of a narrow biologism, seeing only in the instinctual structure of men biological forces, Baran did not see to what extent the apparently only biological concepts of Freud were loaded with social content; for example to what extent the reality principle in its effect on the instinctual structure was not a biological but a social and historical principle.

Now the whole which is the target of the analysis in the social sciences is not something thought out by the philosopher or the social scientist, it is not, as it is so frequently called, a hypostatization. It is rather the real concrete which shapes the existence, the life, the function and prospects of every single one of us, of every single member of the population of a given society. This whole is nothing abstract, it is the most concrete power that exists, and precisely in this power of the society as a whole, unmasked by the individuals, is expressed the negative picture of the capitalist system, and not only the capitalist system, but of any society in which the process of production and reproduction takes place unmasked and uncontrolled by the individuals themselves.

Now Baran believed that a social science which neglects this dialectical relationship between the particular conditions and facts, on the one side, and the whole social order, on the other—that such a social science succumbs to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness; that such a social science is necessarily uncritical because it takes for a neutral, objective datum that which in reality is, in a literal sense, a made datum; such a science cancels or conceals the factors behind the facts. And since social science deals with the relations between men it conceals the social interests and powers which make the fact. Let me give you two examples. The first example is electoral returns and the degree to which such returns are indications of democracy operating at an optimal level.12 Such a study takes usually as final data the two existing parties, the mass media, and what is transmitted as information by the mass media, and it takes as granted a self-determination in choosing a candidate, what may well be the result of a long-term indoctrination and manipulation. In other words, taking all these facts merely as facts and not looking for the factors that make the facts and determine their power and the direction in which they work. Such studies may well call “choice” what in fact is not really a choice, what amounts to a no choice between pre-given and pre-established facts and candidates.

Second example, public opinion polls which fail to relate to the framework of choice and expression, fail to relate to the degree of indoctrination preceding and resulting in the freely expressed opinion. They abstract from the institutionalized social repression caused by the normal pressure in this society, pressure exerted by, caused by, the newspapers, the neighbors, status, job, and so on. This is the same relation, or rather the failing of a missed-relation, between the fact of public opinion and the factors that make the public opinion. The pollsters working in the service of the powers-that-be may thus well be in the situation of the makers of public opinion who afterwards in a scientific way ascertain the public opinion which they have contributed in making.

I should like to emphasize that Paul Baran never really rejected or neglected the need for quantitative analysis, the need for statistical work and painful and painstaking statistical work in the social sciences. He never rejected outright even positivism, that is to say the insistence on verifiable experience and observation. This insistence on verifiable experience plays an important part in Paul Baran’s work. But he was not satisfied with a mutilated and manufactured experience. He believed that the facts and data of experience would reveal their true content and meaning only if analyzed in the context of the social order as a whole. And that meant for him only if analyzed on the basis of a comprehensive and critical theory of society. Otherwise the facts would remain mute facts or false and incomplete data.

Now in his critique of uncritical social science, Paul Baran struck at the very roots of the positivistic fallacy with his attack on the positivistic treatment, or rather non-treatment, of values as lying outside any scientific scrutiny. His analysis of the relation between facts and values, his restoration of values as legitimate scientific content, is doubly important. First, because it provides a legitimate theoretical underpinning, the methodological basis, for Paul Baran’s insistence on the political commitment of the intellectual. And secondly, this restoration of values as scientific objects opened to him a taboo dimension of the social sciences. Values, such as real or professed adherents to certain ethical standards, such as specific political aspirations and goals, such as norms of private behavior and so on, are not merely a matter of personal or group preference, but they are in their prevalence, choice, and effectiveness objective elements, factors, and forces of the established social order; they are historical facts and forces. And as historical facts and forces values become subject to scientific-theoretical criteria for their evaluation. They are social forces which operate in a determinable direction and function in the social order. They partake as negative or positive, as regressive or progressive, values and forces, they partake of the historical dynamic of a given society. And this distinction and evaluation—progressive/regressive, positive/negative—is within the domain of a rational, scientific, objective analysis and definition.

With this provocative thesis Baran has a clear rebuttal to the [received] argument that, I quote, “We can never deduce by means of evidence and logic alone any statement concerning what is good or what is bad or what contributes to rather than militates against human welfare.”13 Baran says this statement is correct but entirely beside the point, because the distinction that I mentioned progressive/regressive, positive/negative—this distinction is never to be made in absolute terms and in the abstract. It is always and everywhere only the question of progressive and regressive in historical terms, that is, in terms of the available material and intellectual resources, the technical means of their extraction, utilization, and distribution, and in terms of the historical chances of greater rationality in the sense of human welfare.

Let me give you again an example for this complete and objective distinction between progressive and regressive within a given historical context. The value judgment, progressive or regressive, applied for example to the situation in the backward countries today is translatable into statements of fact concerning for example the need for a radical agrarian reform, gradual industrialization, and statements of fact concerning the economic and political function of foreign capital and so on and so on. On the basis of these facts we can come to a more than preferential personal or group judgment, on which policy in the backward countries would have a historical chance of progress in human welfare and which would have the opposite chance. And on the basis of such a concrete analysis the social scientist can then proceed to examine the various means and policies in these countries with a view of their prospective chance to attain the desired end, namely the modernization and humanization of these societies.

Along these lines Paul Baran was able to show how the ethical neutrality toward values was in reality a self-imposed limitation of the analysis, and refusal on the part of the social scientists to deal with a whole dimension of fact, often of decisive fact, and in this sense he called it uncritical and even unscientific. He once called this neutralization of social science a “contracting out,” delegation of responsibility to whom it may concern, but not to the social scientist himself who was doing the work; delegating of responsibility, not only moral but also scientific responsibility. Namely the responsibility of the theoretician: to seek the whole truth, not to accommodate to a definition of facts which excludes the most valuable facts—those facts which would imply taking sides, taking position, in the struggle of conflicting political movements.14 Such political commitment is the result rather than the prejudice of theoretical analysis, and it was for Paul Baran an essential element of scientific objectivity. The facts themselves, the ascertained conditions themselves, implied if analyzed to the very end, implied such a political commitment, implied such a taking of sides.

I will say only a few words on Baran’s critique of society.15 I want to pick out only what seems to me to be the most decisive and distinguishing tendency. Baran’s critique of society—and here I do not distinguish, it is hard to distinguish, between his own contribution and that of Paul Sweezy—this critique of society is focused on one central concept, namely that of economic surplus. I want to discuss or rather report very briefly on Baran’s use of this concept because it seems to me to be a typical illustration of a scientific concept aiming at a scientific fact which in itself already involves political commitment and taking sides. In The Political Economy of Growth Baran distinguishes actual and potential surplus. He defines actual surplus, I quote, as “the difference between society’s actual current output and its actual current consumption.” And he defines potential surplus as “the difference between the output that could be produced in a given natural and technological environment with the help of employable productive resources, and what might be regarded as essential consumption.”16 In more vulgar Marxian terms, with this concept of economic surplus the target of the analysis is the contradiction between the available social wealth and its restrictive and even miserable utilization, between productive forces and productive relations restricting and distorting these forces. And this contradiction is documented and analyzed concretely in two major areas, that of monopoly capitalism in the United States and in the area of the backward countries, and analyzed in the interrelation between these two areas. The result is for Paul Baran a corroboration of Marxian theory reformulated and applied to the transformation of competitive to monopoly capitalism.

I cannot go into this transformation and the concepts with which he analyzes it. Again I only want to point to what seems to me to be the main focus of this analysis, namely the change in the decisive economic unit from the free, competitive private enterprise to monopolistic or oligopolistic enterprise and correspondingly from free to regimented competition. And connected with it the changes in the Marxian concept of value and its relation to price, the whole problem of administered prices. And thirdly and lastly the change in the structure and function of the industrial and laboring classes in the advanced industrial countries. These three areas required a thoroughgoing reexamination and reformulation of Marxian theory. When I said that to Baran the actual development of capitalism still corroborated Marxian theory, I do not think we can understand this in the simple terms, that if the old theory doesn’t fit anymore you simply add to it new concepts or new aspects until it is indeed fit to comprehend the new phenomena. The decisive criterion whether such an extraneous addition to theory has taken place or not is the examination of whether the new concepts and new elements can be derived and deduced from the basic concepts of Marxian theory itself as the internal development of the basic concepts. If this is the case we simply do not have an adaptation extraneous to the theory or the new facts, but an attempt is made to comprehend the new facts in developing on the basis of the theory itself the main theoretical concepts.

The correspondence between Marxian theory and the development of the capitalist reality Baran saw in one decisive and general condition, namely that the system can continue to work only with increasing waste and destruction of resources: productive destruction in terms of profitability and the continuation of the system; destructive destruction in terms of human welfare and in terms of what is going on outside the borders of the more or less affluent society. It continued to work only with increasing waste and destruction of resources producing poverty at home and abroad, intensifying repression and manipulation, intensifying militarism and chauvinism, and generating in its own growth and expansion new conflicts on an international scale. This certainly was not the dramatic collapse of capitalism which Marx projected, but it was certainly and is certainly very close to the main propositions of his analysis of the capitalist process itself: it can work, it can even expand and grow, but only while intensifying the terrible contradiction between the social wealth and its use, and by expanding waste and destruction.

Paul Baran was very careful in his prediction of the final crisis of capitalism. He was much too much aware of the overwhelming rationality which contained the irrational destructive and inhuman forces of the system. He was much too much aware of the effectiveness with which the affluent society shaped the very needs of its population to conform to the requirements of the system. At the same time, and I mentioned it, he was suspicious of all psychologizing of economic and political conditions and relations. He saw in such usage of psychological terms and categories a diversion from the real issues and problems and from the ways of combating the repression. And on these grounds he was bitterly opposed to the preaching of Marxian humanism. He saw in Marxian humanism, as it has become fashionable during the last twenty years, an escape from the real danger zones of society and a distortion of the Marxian conception itself, an escape from the real test of theory and practice. To him Marxian humanism was expressed and preserved (aufgehoben) only in the economic theory of Marx and condensed in the concept of economic surplus. This concept contains the basis of the critique of the inhuman society and the growing of attention to the real technical economic possibilities of translating humanism into reality by using the available social wealth in a rational way in the interests of society as a whole and not only within the national orders.17

I centered my discussion on this concept of economic surplus because in my view it unites theory and practice, facts and values, scientific objectivity and commitment. And this unity is anchored in the question: What does this society do with its rising surplus, that is to say with its growing capability to create a human life for all, with its growing potential for the conquest of poverty and scarcity the world over, with its growing potential for peace and liberation? Once the analysis has shown that this conflict between the possible and the actual exists, and at the same time that it does not have to exist, that it is not a natural law, and not a permanent historical law—once the analysis has demonstrated it—the taking of sides, the political commitment becomes part and parcel of the objective scientific analysis, and neutrality would only amount again to a limitation or a restriction of the facts.

I have at the beginning raised the rather important question of why Paul Baran in spite of real or apparent conflicts with the reality remained in the Marxian sense a radical. I think I can sum up my answer now in one sentence: He remained a radical because to him this kind of radicalism was not brought to bear on the theory from outside, was not a personal preference, but was implied and involved in the theoretical analysis itself and therefore was an element not only of moral and political but also of scientific responsibility.


  1. Among the other speakers at the conference were Moses Abramovitz, Bettina Aptheker, Saul Landau, James O’Connor, and Franz Schurman.
  2. Herbert Marcuse inPaul A. Baran: A Collective Portrait (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965), 114–15. The book is a reprint of a special issue of the magazine, Monthly Review 16, no. 11 (March 1965).
  3. Paul Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966); Paul A. Baran, “The Commitment of the Intellectual,”Monthly Review 13, no. 1 (May 1961): 8–18.
  4. Paul. A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957).
  5. Herbert Marcuse,Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972).
  6. Paul A. Baran, “Marxism and Psychoanalysis,” inMonthly Review 11, no. 6 (October 1959): 186–200.
  7. Herbert Marcuse,Eros and Civilization (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).
  8. The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital” special issue isMonthly Review 65, no. 3 (July–August 2013).
  9. This is followed by a few brief remarks, which have been deleted here, in which Marcuse makes ad lib remarks in relation to the previous treatment of Baran by Professor Moses Abramovitz, former chairman of the Stanford economics department, whose talk preceded his own.
  10. Paul A. Baran, “The Commitment of the Intellectual,” 13; G.W.F. Hegel,The Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 11. Baran and Sweezy made the “truth is the whole” from Hegel the first of two epigrams placed on the frontpiece ofMonopoly Capital.
  11. Baran, “Marxism and Psychoanalysis.”
  12. This sentence has been taken from a paraphrase by a narrator on the tape who said: “I am sorry to interrupt but a small part of Mr. Marcuse’s address was lost while the operator changed tapes. The first example about which he spoke was electoral returns and to what degree such returns were indications of democracy operating at an optimal level. Mr. Marcuse goes on.”
  13. Baran, “The Commitment of the Intellectual,” 14. Baran here was presenting the dominant view in order to critique it.
  14. Baran, “The Commitment of the Intellectual,” 11–12.
  15. A sentence has been deleted from the main text here, where Marcuse says to the conference goers: “I hope the discussion groups tomorrow will deal more concretely with this question.”
  16. Paul. A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), 22-23. The quotation from Baran was misread slightly in Marcuse’s talk and has been corrected here.
  17. Marcuse, as he stated, differed with the degree of Baran’s rejection of psychologism, but in these statements on Marxist humanism Marcuse was expressing in part his own ambivalence, shared with Baran, of then-fashionable views that simply sought to meld bourgeois humanism with Marx, while abandoning a thoroughgoing political-economic critique of capitalism. This is consistent with Marcuse’s statements here, as well as with what he wrote elsewhere at about the same time: “Humanism must remain ideology as long as society depends on continued poverty, arrested automation, mass media, prevented birth control, and on the creation and re-creation of masses, of noise and pollution, of planned obsolescence and waste, and mental and physical rearmament.” Herbert Marcuse, “Socialist Humanism?” in Erich Fromm,Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 114–15.
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