Herbert Marcuse: The Father of Repressive Tolerance

In his First Inaugural Address Thomas Jefferson said of dissenters, “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Today dissenters and monuments alike are regularly toppled. Saying transgender women are not female, noticing racial discrepancies in IQ scores, supporting the First Amendment and the right to free speech – all sorts of wrongthink can get you “no-platformed” nowadays. And most of these attacks are inspired directly or indirectly by Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” Those who believe “Cultural Marxism” is just an anti-Semitic canard would do well to read this seminal text from one of the Frankfurt School’s intellectual leaders.

Stalin, and later the Hungary and Czechoslovakia invasions, put paid to the dream of a Communist Worker’s Paradise. Faced with this crisis of faith, the Frankfurt School — a group of European Jewish intellectuals exiled in America after Hitler’s rise – countered Marxist-Leninist thought with their own Marxist-Freudian ideas. Rather than focusing on economic issues, they sought to change the world by freeing individuals from repression. Instead of redistributing wealth, they sought to give everybody greater access to pleasure and personal fulfillment. (Marcuse wrote at length about this in his 1955 Eros and Civilization).

Marcuse is enamored of Kantian categorical imperatives: “Repressive Tolerance” first appeared in a volume entitled A Critique of Pure Tolerance. For Marcuse tolerance can only exist when it is “practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims.” He admits this “is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires … the education and training of people in military violence and destruction” – a category which includes police and security guards.

Most would think this a long-winded way of saying “impossible.” But like many reformers Marcuse cares little for the lumpenproletariat who refuse to be rescued. He blames their intransigence on deeply engrained beliefs, historical precedents and a system whose open discussion only serves to inure its citizens to its crimes and excesses. What was for Jefferson a feature is for Marcuse a bug: he acknowledges that his ideal society cannot exist in the open marketplace of ideas. As he puts it:

[T]he problem of making possible such a harmony between every individual liberty and the other is not that of finding a compromise between competitors, or between freedom and law, between general and individual interest, common and private welfare in an established society, but of creating the society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning.

Toward this end Marcuse advocates active intolerance towards “groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” He also suggests “rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which … enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior.” All this is necessary for the development of what Marcuse coins a “subversive majority” which will achieve liberation and create a world wherein the individual can achieve maximal autonomy.

“Censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances” Marcuse reassures us, “The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression.” But he then goes on to note that “pseudo-art” can be used toward oppressive ends. Clarifying further, he tells us “history enters the definition of art and enters into the distinction between art and pseudo-art.” Skeptics might note that this conveniently allows for the censorship of any art or literature deemed inconvenient merely by declaring it “pseudo-art.” And given Marcuse’s contempt for institutions, it’s easy to imagine whom he favors in a debate between historians and an aggrieved mob.

Whether or not we agree with Marcuse’s answers, “Repressive Tolerance” raises important questions. The best and most rational policies are not always the most popular ones. Soothing platitudes are often chosen over hard truths, and many electorates have followed charismatic demagogues to their detriment. He who owns the means of communication controls what can be communicated: this has proven as true for new media as old. The trappings of democracy can conceal de facto dictatorships. (Ask James Fields about that). But these problems were recognized by Liberal thinkers long before Marcuse, including America’s Founding Fathers.

Their solution – a limited government which tolerates diversity of opinion and beliefs, but which expects and enforces peaceable behavior – is not a perfect one. The Enlightenment did not usher in a utopian new age and our democratic republic, like all governments, is an eternal work in progress. But our Founding Fathers understood neither our world nor our nature is conducive to utopian societies. Marcuse’s free new world (or, as the Khmer Rouge might call it, his Year Zero) delimits tolerance as strictly as any of the established societies it abhors. Jefferson’s inaugural speech also warned “[I]t is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?”