How not to read Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”

Scene from The Parallax View (1974)

There are many on the right who view Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” as something of a Rosetta Stone for understanding the left. It promises to decode everything from the radicalism of the late sixties, during which Marcuse was celebrated as a minor celebrity, to the “cultural Marxism” of academia and the “woke” ideology and “cancel culture” of American activists today. This has led to a steady-stream of commentary over the last few years, with titles like “How Marcuse Made Today’s Students Less Tolerant” and “Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual”. (The latter admittedly is not by a right-winger but the journalist Matt Taibbi, who in a postscript likened his over-the-top polemic against Marcuse to putting on a full suit of armour to attack a hot-fudge sundae.) There is even a four hour line-by-line reading of the essay by maths post-grad turned anti-woke crusader James Lindsay.

I have to thank conservatives for bringing the essay to my attention, since in all the time I’ve been reading left-wing thinkers, including members of the Frankfurt school, I had never encountered it. “Repressive Tolerance” just isn’t much discussed, let alone celebrated, in left-wing circles; something which ought to cast doubt on the weighty expectations the right have for it. Sadly, their online commentary isn’t very illuminating or accurate. For example, Lindsay starts his four hour extravaganza with a spectacular howler, repeatedly claiming that Antonio Gramsci was a key founder of the Frankfurt school. Of course the Italian Marxist Gramsci wasn’t a founder or ever a member of this group of German intellectuals, and couldn’t even be said to have influenced the founders who likely had never met him or read his work. As someone who complains that the left won’t engage with his arguments, you’d think Lindsay would spend a couple of minutes on Wikipedia to get his facts straight before asking others to waste four hours of their time listening to his ramblings. Also, as any graduate of the humanities will tell you, a line-by-line analysis is not the best way to approach a critique, because one quickly loses the forest for the trees.

Marcuse’s essay has attracted a lot of attention on the right because to them it reads like the speech bubbles of an evil Marxist villain in an Ayn Rand comic book. In it you can find the following out-of-context quotes, including what appears to be a conspiracy to strip the left’s political opponents of their rights:

“Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”

Rampant paranoia:

“Such extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger. I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation, and that it has become the normal state of affairs.”

Mad Utopianism:

“Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.”

Not to mention the Orwellian phrasing:

“Freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude…”

And so on. It’s as if a left-wing straw man had come to life! But it is still a straw man.

Strong’ vs ‘Weak’ Social Critique

What all these recent commentaries have in common is the assumption that Marcuse is rejecting liberal freedoms and democratic values in the name of some austere, pie-in-the-sky socialist Utopia. But this is to get things completely wrong. Marcuse is absolutely committed to such freedoms and values and explicitly rejects the idea that one ought to ever abandon such rights in the pursuit of some ideological promised land. In defining tolerance, he writes:

“Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society.”

Later he notes: “the lesson is clear: intolerance has delayed progress and has prolonged the slaughter and torture of innocents for hundreds of years.”

In contrasting democracy (or what he calls “totalitarian democracy”) with dictatorship, he writes:

“With all its limitations and distortions, democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalized intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations.”

And there are plenty of other examples in the essay where he reaffirms his commitment to liberal rights under the banner of tolerance. So why do his critics systematically misread him on this point?

In an attempt to answer this question, I’ve found it useful to draw on some distinctions articulated by Axel Honneth in an essay where he reflects on the social criticism practised by the Frankfurt School.* Honneth distinguishes between ‘strong’ forms of social criticism, which appeal to values which transcend or are external to those of the society to which it is applied, and ‘weak’ forms of criticism which accept to some degree the values which constitute the moral culture of that society. The problem with the ‘strong’ version, as Honneth and others have pointed out, is that it “necessarily brings the risk of paternalism or even despotism”; relying on an elitist and specialized knowledge about what is right which “can readily be abused for manipulative purposes.”

It is clear that Marcuse’s critics read him as practising a version of ‘strong’ social critique in this sense. To take just one example, when it was pointed out to Taibbi that he and Marcuse actually agree in many of their criticisms of contemporary society, he responds in his postscript as follows:

“Some commenters noted I spent much of my career detailing many of the same themes of exploitation, thievery, corruption, and deceptive propaganda in American society Marcuse wrote about in books like One-Dimensional Man. However, I covered those issues with the attitude that they were fixable, always believing that if I could get to a place where I myself understood a problem, anyone else could get it too. One of the first things that struck me about Marcuse is that he does not seem to believe this at all…. I realized what bothered me most about Marcuse, and about the stream of imitators his writings seem to have inspired, especially lately: his hostility to peculiarly American concepts, not just the innumerable bad and shallow aspects of our culture, but precisely the good things. For all its flaws, this country has a few fantastic design ideas, in particular our long list of individual rights and freedoms.”

The contrast here mirrors precisely that between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ social criticism: while Taibbi’s moral objections are grounded in concepts and values that his fellows can understand, Marcuse adopts an elitist stance. While Taibbi’s critique acknowledges the ultimate legitimacy of the broader value horizon of American society (“long list of individual rights and freedoms”), Marcuse rejects it.

To see why this gets Marcuse wrong, let us start by considering Honneth’s argument that the Critical Theorists do in fact adopt a ‘weak’ version of social criticism. In a more fine-grained taxonomy, Honneth discusses two kinds of theory which are particularly relevant here: reconstructive theories and genealogical ones. Reconstructive theories attempt to reconstruct the moral ideals which govern the institutions and practices of society, in order to criticise those same institutions and practices should they fail to live up to their ideals. Genealogical theories, on the other hand, seek to show that moral ideals prevalent in a society have drifted from their original meaning and become distorted, such that they have come to lend legitimacy to repressive practices. For Honneth, Critical Theory attempts to combine these two theoretical approaches. I would propose that the confusion over Marcuse’s argument in “Repressive Tolerance” stems to a large degree from the failure of readers to appreciate his dual concern with the reconstructive and genealogical aspects of critique.

Reconstructing tolerance as the embodiment of social reason

First, let us consider the reconstructive dimension. Throughout the essay, Marcuse contrasts the ideal of tolerance with its practical realization. But why take the ideal of tolerance as a starting point for a critique of modern society? Why not some other moral ideal? Marcuse argues that tolerance has a specific relation to reason; and in common with other members of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse took the historical unfolding of reason to be the yardstick by which moral progress could be measured. Quoting a foundational thinker of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, Marcuse notes that Mill had “already placed an important condition on tolerance : it was ‘to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties’.” And by this Mill meant those “capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” Developing this idea, Marcuse argues that there is a fundamental relationship between reason and liberty, where reason has to be understood in broadly social terms:

“Liberty is self-determination, autonomy… But the subject of this autonomy is never the contingent, private individual as that which he actually is or happens to be; it is rather the individual as a human being who is capable of being free with the others. And the problem of making possible such a harmony between every individual liberty and the other is not that of finding a compromise between competitors… but of creating the society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning…. And the direction in which [freedom] must be sought, and the institutional and cultural changes which may help to attain the goal are comprehensible, that is to say, they can be identified and projected, on the basis of experience, by human reason.”

In other words, reason makes liberty possible because it is the mechanism in history by which humanity becomes progressively more free. This grounding of liberty in reason is absolutely fundamental to understanding the moral legitimacy of tolerance as a governing moral ideal.

“Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind.”

It is on the basis of this reconstructed ideal of tolerance that Marcuse opposes it to the actual practice of tolerance in modern democracies:

“Universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.”

Marcuse’s critique turns on the claim that modern society undermines the capacity for reason. His justification for this is laid out at length in the book One-Dimensional Man; limiting ourselves to the essay, the phenomena he alludes to are perhaps even more recognisable today than they were in the sixties:

“[I]n endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to ‘the people’ for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.”

Now if all Marcuse was doing in this essay was presenting a reconstructive critique of the ideal of tolerance, then commentators might agree or disagree with him, but they probably wouldn’t be describing the essay as “the most impassioned argument against individual rights ever written” (Taibbi) or “the most totalitarian piece of writing hiding as not-totalitarianism since Mein Kampf” (Lindsay). To explain those reactions, we now turn to the genealogical aspects of his critique.

On the Genealogy of Tolerance

Marcuse’s argument is not just that the practice of tolerance fails to live up to its ideal. It is also that the ideal itself has become distorted, such that it is now used to justify a system of domination. According to Marcuse, historically the point of tolerance was “a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice.” Referring to Mill’s historical examples of religious persecution, Marcuse writes: “Tolerance is first and foremost for the sake of the heretics — the historical road toward humanitas appears as heresy: target of persecution by the powers that be.” In the early establishment of liberalism throughout England and the U.S., he notes, “freedom of speech and assembly was granted even to the radical enemies of society.” Thus understood, tolerance was a means of protecting those subversive elements opposed to the dominant order:

“The progressive historical force of tolerance lies in its extension to those modes and forms of dissent which are not committed to the status quo of society, and not confined to the institutional framework of the established society.”

This is not, however, the dominant meaning of tolerance today. Instead, tolerance is understood to be non-partisan and value-neutral with respect to the dominant regime and those who oppose it. Ostensibly, tolerance does not take sides. Marcuse calls this transformed conception “abstract tolerance” and argues that, in a society of institutionalized inequality and the oligopolistic administration of public opinion, tolerance so understood only serves the interests of the status quo:

“The altered social structure tends to weaken the effectiveness of tolerance toward dissenting and oppositional movements and to strengthen conservative and reactionary forces. Equality of tolerance becomes abstract, spurious.”

“This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice…”

It is in the context of this genealogical critique, where the idea of tolerance is said to have become a tool of repression, that Marcuse advocates certain practices of intolerance; not as a rejection of tolerance per se, but as an attempt to return tolerance to its original progressive meaning.

“Withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right — these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society which has destroyed the basis for universal tolerance.”

This and similar remarks by Marcuse have been interpreted as advocating for the political suppression or censorship of conservative thought. It is important to note, however, that what Marcuse is proposing applies only in the absence of genuine or universal tolerance; that is, insofar as the possible emergence of a subversive (i.e. left-wing) majority is blocked by the system. Thus, it is impossible to justify in these terms (and Marcuse says as much) the institutionalization of the suppression of conservative ideas, because for that to happen the left would no longer be in the position of a radical minority. His strategy of intolerance with respect to right-wing ideologies is to be utilised only while the left is marginalised under conditions of abstract tolerance. He clarifies this point in a postscript to his essay as follows:

“The Left has no equal voice, no equal access to the mass media and their public facilities — not because a conspiracy excludes it, but because, in good old capitalist fashion, it does not have the required purchasing power. And the Left does not have the purchasing power because it is the Left. These conditions impose upon the radical minorities a strategy which is in essence a refusal to allow the continuous functioning of allegedly indiscriminate but in fact discriminate tolerance, for example, a strategy of protesting against the alternate matching of a spokesman for the Right (or Center) with one for the Left. Not ‘equal’ but more representation of the Left would be equalization of the prevailing inequality.”

One can of course question the validity of such tactics depending on the situation. The fact of the matter is that almost sixty years after Marcuse wrote this essay, there is still no counter-narrative in the mass media to the incessant promotion of economic growth under capitalism; even as it leads us ever deeper into a profound ecological crisis. How is this state of affairs possible if tolerance for alternative viewpoints was genuinely universal?

Nevertheless, even sympathetic readers of Marcuse have to wonder how his proposed campaign of intolerance from below, as it were, is sufficient to address both the historical distortion in the meaning of tolerance and the deficit of reason which prevents its realisation. These two demands leads him to conflate strategies for redressing the imbalance in political views and for censoring the forces of irrationality, blurring the line between them. It’s easy to see how some of his remarks could be taken by readers to be an attack on the expression of alternative political viewpoints. The failure to clearly distinguish the reconstructive and genealogical aspects of his critique, it seems to me, works to confuse and ultimately undermine the persuasiveness of his case.

My purpose in this essay was to show that Marcuse offers an interesting take on the liberal notion of tolerance which, far from rejecting the idea, seeks to deepen our appreciation of it during a period he believed it was under radical threat. The fact that he has been demonised by the right for it, and that their caricatured reading has made its way into the mainstream, probably shouldn’t surprise us given Marcuse’s analysis of how the “marketplace of ideas” tends to work in practice. That is not to say that one can’t find faults with his argument. As Honneth notes, the standard Critical Theorists set for themselves by attempting to combine different models of social criticism is very demanding. Nevertheless, the idea that Marcuse sought to repress free speech in order to usher in some Woke paradise is utterly absurd. He was attempting to defend a liberal notion of tolerance grounded in reason and capable of facilitating progressive social change. It’s an idea we should all be able to get behind.

*Honneth, “Reconstructive Social Criticism with a Genealogical Proviso: On the Idea of “Critique” in the Frankfurt School.”