In the essay “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), the Germanborn American critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) of the Franklin School of political theorists argued that, under the conditions of advanced industrial capitalism, the only hope for realizing the original objectives of “liberalist” or “pure” toleration (as articulated by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill [1806-1873])— freeing the mind to rationally pursue the truth—was to practice a deliberately selective “liberating tolerance” that both targeted and enacted the repression alluded to in the essay’s paradoxical title (Marcuse 1965, pp. 81, 85, 90). This “liberating tolerance” would involve “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements” on the Right, and the aggressively partisan promotion of speech, groups, and progressive movements on the Left (pp. 81, 100).
Marcuse professed to share liberalism’s belief in human rationality and objective truth, and a commitment to its core mechanisms, including toleration. Following G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), however, Marcuse insisted that the meaning and logic of ideas, concepts, and principles cannot be determined abstractly, but instead are dialectically conditioned by the totality of the historical epoch in which they are practiced. Following Karl Marx (1818-1883), Marcuse insisted that domination was the central social fact and the most importunate moral and political problem, and that a humane society of genuinely free and equal individuals living “without fear and misery” is history’s telos (Marcuse 1965, p. 82). And, following Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Marcuse conceded that, in any civilized society, intractable conflicts would necessitate the suppression of important human desires. Nevertheless, Marcuse argued that developments in the political and cultural economies of the affluent, post–World War II (1939-1945) liberal capitalist societies had ushered in new forms of domination—“surplus repression”—that placed intolerable fetters on human freedom (Marcuse 1955). In the process, they had undermined the basis of both economic and political liberalism and “the liberal function of tolerance” (Marcuse 1965, p. 115). The practice of a liberating tolerance was the only hope for its restoration.
“The function and value of tolerance,” Marcuse explained, “depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced” (Marcuse 1965, p. 84). Driven as they are by the engines of advertising, propaganda, and militarism in the service of ever-increasing affluence, advanced liberal capitalist societies are defined by their inequality. Moreover, their dominant social institutions, including the “monopolistic media,” use new and dystopian forms of “technological and mental coordination” to administer what has become a “totalitarian,” self-perpetuating system (pp. 94, 95, 97). In these societies, where “the economic and political process is subjected to an ubiquitous and effective administration in accordance with the predominant interests,” individuals have been systematically divested of their capacity to think as rational, autonomous individuals (p. 115). As such, they have lost their capacity to pursue truth through the free exercise of their individual reason, and, in turn, to create a just and humane society.
In a “democracy with totalitarian organization,” the administration is so permeating that it comes to define consciousness itself (Marcuse 1965, p. 97). Far from serving as a neutral medium for rational reflection, the language, its very concepts and categories, is transformed into a neutralizing instrument of repression. Through the operation of language, “mental attitude[s]” are formed that tend to “obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong” (p. 97). People “are indoctrinated by the conditions under which they live and think and which they do not transcend” (p. 98). We observe “the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda” (p. 83). The populace is incorporated into “a system which fosters tolerance as a means of perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives” in significant part by “testifying to the existence of democratic liberties” (pp. 83, 84). The society’s ceaseless congratulation of itself for its commitment to “the marketplace of ideas” acts as an opiate on the mass consciousness, turning individuals away from radical possibilities and reconciling them to the status quo (p. 110). While the toleration of ostensible dissent is celebrated, truly “effective dissent” becomes impossible (p. 95). Under these historical conditions, the purportedly neutral “liberalist” tolerance becomes repressive (p. 90). To weigh truth and falsity rationally and accurately, to be in practice the rational and autonomous beings that Mill envisioned, individuals first need to be “freed from the prevailing indoctrination” (p. 99). For this reason, affirmative, partisan steps slanted to the Left are needed to liberate individuals and to restore their ability to reason.
“The efforts to counteract this dehumanization,” Marcuse explained, “must begin at the place of entrance, there where the false consciousness takes form (or rather: is systematically formed—it must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness)” (Marcuse 1965, p. 111). To be liberated, individuals “would have to get information slanted in the opposite direction” (p. 99). The withdrawal of tolerance would have to be aimed at ideas, 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.” (p. 99).
Marcuse’s call for “the restoration of freedom” through the practice of liberating tolerance raised the question of “who is to decide on the distinction between liberating and repressive, human and inhuman teachings and practices” (Marcuse 1965, p. 101). Rejecting relativism, he maintained that these distinctions “can be made rationally on empirical grounds” by “everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously” (pp. 105, 106). Who would these clear-sighted leaders be, and how many could we expect to find? “Where society has entered the phase of total administration and indoctrination,” he noted, “this would be a small number indeed, and not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people” (p. 106).
Marcuse was often pessimistic about the prospects of a widespread liberation from “the false consciousness [that] has become the general consciousness” (Marcuse 1965, p. 110). But in “Repressive Tolerance,” he appealed hopefully to engaged intellectuals whose “task and duty … [is] to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities,” and “to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does” (pp. 81-82).
Marcuse insisted that, unlike in the spheres of business, advertising, and the broader culture, “the trend in the educational enterprise … could conceivably be enforced by the students and teachers themselves, and thus be self-imposed” (Marcuse 1965, p. 101). “The restoration of freedom of thought,” of course,
may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior—thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives.… Restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly “deterrents,” of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc. (pp. 100-101)
“Unless the student learns to think in the opposite direction,” Marcuse insisted, “he will be inclined to place facts into the predominant framework of values” (p. 113). Under these historical conditions, all genuine education is “counter-education” (p. 112).
Marcuse’s call for a liberating tolerance was adopted enthusiastically by the radical student movements of the late 1960s in both Europe and the United States, and was particularly influential on the American New Left. His argument that a vanguard of students, teachers, and intellectuals had a special role to play, especially within educational institutions, of “break[ing] the concreteness of oppression” by suppressing ideas and actions (and language) objectively determined to be “regressive” and “inhumane” with the object of freeing students from “the prevailing indoctrination” and reestablishing the conditions of equality conducive to true freedom, played a major role in reshaping the mission and practices of the contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalist college and university (Marcuse 1965, pp. 81, 101, 99).
As liberalism and leftism made common cause in the historical crucible of the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Marcusian approach to tolerance insinuated itself—if not always self-evidently in theory, then more transparently in practice—into even ostensibly mainstream or “pure” liberal thinking (the thought of libertarians excepted), as well as into the governing rules and practices of institutions, such as universities, under liberal-left control. Whether this marks a departure from liberal principles, or (as Marcuse maintained) a return to liberalism’s traditional historical function, is a question of considerable interest and complexity.
SEE ALSO Liberalism; Marxism; Repression
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Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1965. Repressive Tolerance. In A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse. Boston: Beacon Press.
Spitz, David. 1966. Pure Tolerance: A Critique of Criticisms. Dissent (September-October): 511-525.
Wolff, Robert Paul. 1974. Marcuse’s Theory of Toleration. Polity 6: 469-479.
Ken I. Kersch