Unreading Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”

William S. Lind’s cultural Marxism conspiracy theory boils down to the claim that in his essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse “called for tolerance for all ideas and viewpoints coming from the left and intolerance of all ideas and viewpoints coming from the right” and that college administrators and professors have put Marcuse’s proposal into practice in the form of “Political Correctness.”

Marcuse did indeed make a statement that seemed to propose exactly that: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.” The problem with taking the proposition literally, however, is that on the very first page of his essay, Marcuse had already dismissed it with the awareness that,”no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice.” The proposition, he added, was intended “to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.”

Approximately 6,000 words of dense verbiage intervene between Marcuse’s discounting of the proposition and his restating it in stark, attention-getting terms. The casual reader could be forgiven for having forgotten the initial disclaimer along the way. What is implausible, though, is that college administrators and professors would have collectively adopted the formula as gospel while expressly ignoring the caveats. In fact, in a 1968 postscript to his 1965 essay, Marcuse indicated that his proposition had encountered “virulent denunciations” which he attempted to counter with a restatement of its rationale and acknowledgement that the practice he called liberating tolerance “already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve.”

Marcuse’s postscript apologia is hardly more convincing than his original essay. The problem, in my view, is that Marcuse attempted to illustrate a terminological paradox with a “counter-paradox.” His diagnosis — that “tolerance” in an administrated state rife with propaganda is not all it is cracked up to be — was apt. But he clumsily succumbed to the temptation to offer a prescription. And since he realized that there is no pat solution, he offered a pseudo-cure instead, in the form of a facile “thought experiment.”

It may well be that the crude, simplistic slogan of “intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left” would have appealed to student radicals in the 1960s, in which case, Marcuse’s popularity would have been due more to incomprehension than to affirmation. But among his peers, even in the Frankfurt School, there was no such luck. Correspondence between Marcuse and Theodor Adorno from 1969 show Marcuse’s defensiveness in response to Adorno’s tense disapproval of his “undialectical” activist sympathies:

You know me well enough to know that I reject the unmediated translation of theory into praxis just as emphatically as you do. But…

Like you, I believe it is irresponsible to sit at one’s writing desk advocating activities to people who are fully prepared to let their heads be bashed in for the cause. But…

Meanwhile, Max Horkheimer “too has joined the chorus of my attackers” while Habermas was publicly warning against “left fascism.” By the early 1970s, Marcuse’s brief moment of notoriety was rapidly fading.

Marcuse’s paradoxical fable of “liberating tolerance” (and intolerance) was not even the most pernicious part of his “Repressive Tolerance” essay. The same social conditions that make “tolerance” abstract and spurious, Marcuse argued, also “render the critique of such tolerance abstract and academic, and the proposition that the balance between tolerance toward the Right and toward the Left would have to be radically redressed in order to restore the liberating function of tolerance becomes only an unrealistic speculation.” So, there you have it, folks! Herbie has been giving you the jive and now he’s telling you it’s all jive. What, oh what… is to be done?

Indeed, such a redressing seems to be tantamount to the establishment of a “right of resistance” to the point of subversion. There is not, there cannot be any such right for any group or individual against a constitutional government sustained by a majority of the population. But I believe that there is a “natural right” of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate.

Andreas Baader invoked this “natural right of resistance” at his 1968 trial for arson, with the outcome that he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for political vandalism that caused no injuries and relatively modest property damage. So much for Marcuse’s objection to sitting “at one’s writing desk advocating activities to people who are fully prepared to let their heads be bashed in for the cause.”

Closely reading Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” essay gives me a new insight into what Lind is doing with his cultural Marxism hoax. Lind has appropriated Marcuse’s theme of there being a regime of repressive tolerance but has inverted its origin and attributed it to Marcuse’s “liberating tolerance.” Marcuse’s “mental space,” “unrealistic speculation” or petitio principii that “already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve” is recycled by Lind as the actual persecution endured by conservative students under the imagined regime of “cultural Marxism.”

Comments (1) | |