Herbert Marcuse – Grandfather of “Social Justice Warriors” and Notes on Repressive Tolerance


The modern New Left, or as denizens of the internet puts it, “Social Justice Warriors”, are through their behaviors very closely following the views of one philosopher whether they realize it or not. Although some of these people have certainly never heard of or read Herbert Marcuse’s works, they are nonetheless influenced by his ideas. A bit of background about Marcuse is called for to understand where he is coming from. He was born in Berlin in 1898 to a Jewish family and in 1916 he was drafted into the German Army to fight in World War I. Marcuse subsequently participated in the Spartacist Uprising that accompanied the German Revolution of 1918-19, a distinctly communist part of the movement suppressed by the German government and the Freikorps. In the years that followed, he studied philosophy and was a protégé of the famous Martin Heidegger. In 1932, Marcuse joined the Institute for Social Research, popularly known as the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School, for those not in the know, is prominently taught in the social sciences in many American universities and is Marxist (although not of the Leninist variety), Freudian, and Hegelian in outlook. While Heidegger joined the Nazi Party, as a Marxist of Jewish background Marcuse’s career in Germany came to a halt and he fled the country. He eventually found his way to the United States and in 1940 he became a citizen. Marcuse then worked for the Office of War Information (OWI) where he was involved in crafting anti-Nazi propaganda and then from 1943 to 1945 worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Marcuse subsequently entered into American academia, teaching at Brandeis University and then at UC San Diego. He became greatly known in the 1960s for his academic works that opposed militarism, consumerism, Soviet-style communism, capitalism, and supported sexual revolution (in just about every sense). Interestingly, Marcuse rejected class struggle theory in favor of sexual revolution as being key to liberation since a rising of the proletariat was not panning out, a major departure from traditional Marxism. Thus, he became very popular with the New Left and although he somewhat minimized his own influence, stating that the was the grandfather rather than the father of the New Left, his ideas have in the last seven years grown in popularity among the American left. Although he died in 1979, Marcuse seems more relevant than ever.

Marcuse’s most famous works are Eros and Civilization (1955), One-Dimensional Man (1964), and his essay Repressive Tolerance (1965). I have read no more than brief summaries of the first two, but I did read the latter. A real brief description of his books, and if you are more interested by all means take it upon yourself to read them: Eros and Civilization calls for a utopian society free from sexual repression while One-Dimensional Man critiques both capitalism and Soviet communism as socially repressive and bureaucratic and capitalism for promoting “false needs” through manipulative marketing and thus compromising the ability of people to reason. Marcuse finds a proletarian uprising unlikely as they have been integrated into consumerist society and thus sees potential in societal outsiders for fomenting revolutionary thinking, such as racial minorities and people outside sexual norms, and calls for a “Great Refusal” to consumerist culture as the only way forward. For what I read, I took extensive notes which I have written below. All quotes are from Repressive Tolerance.

Notes on Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”

. The realization of tolerance calls for “intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period – a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice.”

Tolerance, per Marcuse, is to the prevailing order merely a means to an end and not an end in itself.

“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.”

Marcuse believes that a utopian existence is possible and does not seem to account that fear and misery are human emotions and are therefore subjective and thus impossible to eliminate. I do, however, assume that he is broadly referring to common sources of human suffering such as war, poverty, and disease, which can be mitigated. He also believes that the current regimen of tolerance is compulsory and passive to the authorities, who reciprocate with tolerance to objections to the current system provided said objections exist in an acceptable range for authorities.

Marcuse believes that modern society and government pushes what is “radically evil”. Some of the sins he lists include:

. Publicity and propaganda compromising the ability to reason among people, or what he refers to as “moronization”.

. Militarism…which is foremost in his mind and part of why Marcuse is strongly associated with the New Left.

. Aggressive driving.

. Planned obsolescence.

. Deception in merchandizing.

Regards the acceptance of increasing militarization a greater evil than juvenile delinquency, regarding the militarization itself as delinquency of civilization.

Marcuse seems to think that power in this system flows only one way: top-down. The people down tolerate while the top imposes. He also thinks that people buy publicity and propaganda uncritically, which is a questionable claim broadly and certainly isn’t true for everyone. Many products require a mere fraction of the population buying into marketing campaigns for their prosperous existence to continue.

Marcuse regards political rights as subterfuge for the true nature of the system and that limiting opposition to non-violence is itself repressive. For him, the Smith Act of 1940, which prohibits calling for the violent overthrow of the United States government (a direct response to communist ideology), is certainly an abomination.

Marcuse does not consider tolerance to be a genuine end unless it is universally practiced…as he puts it, “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”. I cannot help but note the phrasing, “their victims”, presages the anti-police sentiments that sprung up among certain groups in the 2010s over some well publicized and controversial cases of police killings of unarmed black men.

Marcuse identifies two forms of tolerance currently existing that serve to entrench the system:

“1. The passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident…

  1. the active, official tolerance granted to the Right as well as to the Left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace, to the party of hate as well as to the party of humanity I call this non-partisan tolerance ‘abstract’ or ‘pure’ inasmuch as it refrains from taking sides – but in doing so it actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination.”

Cites John Stuart Mill on tolerance, that it was “to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties”, and this applied to people whose views and practices were regarded as barbarian. Marcuse aims to apply this to the political right.

Marcuse’s view rests on some baked-in assumptions that you must hold to be true if you are to buy into it:

. American government and society are oppressive and unjustly discriminatory as a matter of pattern and practice.

. That a lot of people naturally accept what is established uncritically.

. That gradual reforms and changes only serve to reinforce the system and therefore cannot be genuinely good.

. Only revolution can bring about true tolerance.

. That true and false solutions can be found to problems in society through “theory and practice” (praxis) and that what they provide us with, “certainty of a reasonable chance, and with the persuasive force of the negative”, is sufficient justification for suppressing views that are opposite.

The moral certainty of the left exists on a policy course because they perceive a “reasonable chance” of a desired outcome and that the opposite end they know is wrong. This can justify many a questionable policy at best provided such policy has the aim working against a bad end. Those who would question or oppose said means to a good end or at least not a bad end should be regarded as agents of the bad end and must be countered with viewpoint suppression. The notion of any good motives is thereby dismissed out of hand as irrelevant.

“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.”

There are several problems with this essay so far: the first is that an assumption exists that there is a “reasonable chance” that we can reach a utopian existence. The second is that for policies of the Left there is at heart the notion of certainty, or, shall we say, hubris. Marcuse seems close to this realization when he cites Mill’s examples of truth that were brutally suppressed in their time, yet dismisses it by stating that the “evaluation is ex post, and his list includes opposites (Savonarola too would have burned Fra Dolcino). Even the ex post evaluation is contestable as to its truth: history corrects the judgment – too late.” This is exactly why it is important to have political tolerance! You don’t 100% know who is going to be right! Neither Savonarola nor Fra Dolcino should have faced church and state mandated suppression. The course of strong tolerance of speech may not be a perfect solution to society’s problems and some bad ideas may prevail in the short run over good ones, but it is the safest course, for with the alternatives we risk suppression of truth to fulfill political aims…or should I say, mandated political correctness?

Marcuse believes that it is certain that the Left has the objectively right answers and he is certain of it as a certain type of Marxist. This essay effectively requires you to be a Marxist of some sort to be on board with his solutions and thus to be in the free speech club that a Marcusean future would bring.

Tolerance toward majorities shift under a Marcusean revolution.

Notes that unless violence and violent subversive organization are pushed dissent is tolerated, and therein lives the false assumption that society is free and that positive change would come about in said system through discussion. This strikes me as a strange argument since many governments throughout the world see no need for such inconveniences as freedom of speech in attaining oppressive ends.

Marcuse holds that there is a premise hidden, and that is that it is “rational expression and development of independent thinking, free from indoctrination, manipulation, and extraneous authority. The notion of pluralism and countervailing powers is no substitute for this requirement”.  He finds that any notion of tolerance is a lie if powers in society in conflict are unequal and thus can and do suppress available alternatives. He phrases these conflicts in the Hegelian sense: labor vs. management, producer vs. consumer, intellectual vs. employer. Marcuse complains that neutrality in speech results in a forum in which stupidity and intelligence, falsity and truth, and ignorance and information get equal time. He additionally writes, “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.”

Once again, the notion of certainty rears its head and Marcuse seems to think that people should not be given the choice between the “right” and the “wrong” option for fear they will pick the “wrong” option out of ignorance or misinformation. Marcuse ironically sounds close to James Madison and the Federalists in his view about an educated public participating in politics, however he seems to have a distinct idea about what “authentic information” is and what “autonomous thought” would mean. The former term is value-laden and highly subjective (what constitutes authentic?), and the latter seems to mean, given the orientation of his essay, thought produced outside the influences of the current system, ergo the current system must go for a true tolerance-based society to exist.

The public, Marcuse believes, cannot be trusted here if they are under the sway of the powerful and their interests. Certainly, he would feel justified in his view of the stupid and intelligent viewpoints getting equal time had he lived to see the rise in public visibility of InfoWars given the rise of social media and its head, Alex Jones, getting praise from the President of the United States. The problem is that there are solutions that the left has provided for problems that turned out to be pretty disastrous, such as rent control, which now has such a poor reputation among economists given its results that 81% agreed that it does more harm than good as a policy. That is a tough consensus to get in that notoriously divided field. Does this matter to certain big city governments and Marcuse? No, because being for rent control is thought of as working towards a good end, the interest of the oppressed in the form of the tenant, as opposed to the bad end of the interest of the oppressor, in the form of the landlord. To Marcuse, public debate serves an end, and this end is to his view of tolerance. Public debate is not actually an end in itself.

Being of a Marxist mindset, Marcuse assumes that the basis of relationships in society is conflict and not cooperation to mutual ends, hence the Hegelian nature of the thought of the Frankfurt School to which Marcuse subscribed. He holds that neutralizing the news is detrimental to the public good as a neutral presentation is, in his view, more likely to favor what is established and can serve to mute issues in which righteous moral outrage is called for, thus neutral presentation has an establishment bias.

Marcuse clarifies that “totalitarian democracy”, as he puts it, is no doubt a softer system than a dictatorship which sacrifices liberties in the present in the name of the future. He has outlined his problems with the current system, so he proposes some solutions.

Marcuse holds that there should be no barriers to the potential of establishing a “subversive majority” and that removing barriers that consist of repression and indoctrination “may require apparently undemocratic means”. He lists examples of activities that are to be regarded as intolerable:

. Promotion of military engagement and armament, no Cold Warriors or War on Terror people need apply.

. Scientific research into military weapons for the purpose of “deterrence” and human experimentation.

. Chauvinism.

. Race or religion based discrimination.

. Opposing the extension of public services, social security, & medical care.

He denies these are value-preferences, rather that they are rational criteria. At best, they are both. At worst, they are value-preferences masquerading as rational criteria.

Marcuse wishes to counter establishment indoctrination with rigid restrictions on educational practice to open closed minds. This, according to him, can be self-enforced by teachers and students in universities. Marcuse holds that further than this requires a full-scale societal movement that constitutes an upheaval. He states that there is tolerance from consumers and laborers for the repressive practices of enterprise, hence the difficulty of pulling off anything but revolution to pull off complete tolerance. This sounds like another way of saying indoctrination to me. When it comes to speech regulations, I state that the problem is the question of who is to decide what constitutes acceptable speech, and Marcuse has taken it upon himself to be the decider and the decider of who decides. In other words, who shall rule us and set the terms of what is acceptable for debate.

Marcuse writes that the weak are both lectured to about violence and made to suffer it and it gets excused as necessity. I would ask who is considered “weak” in this scenario. Is a violent criminal being apprehended by the police considered weak?

Marcuse holds there is a moral difference between violence from oppressed and violence from oppressors, as violence from the oppressed is defensive and violence from oppressors is aggressive. He holds that the oppressed being exhorted to engage in non-violence and following it furthers the cause of violence. He quotes Sartre, who politically identified as a communist, to back his point: “Understand finally this: if violence were to begin this evening, if neither exploitation nor oppression had ever existed in the world, perhaps concerted non-violence could relieve the conflict. But if the whole governmental system and your non-violent thoughts are conditioned by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passivity only serves to place you on the side of the oppressors.” Neutrality, per Marcuse and Sartre, is no option, in fact it makes you the enemy. This brings to my mind former President Bush’s line of being with or against America on terrorism and the negative reception that it met on the left. If they are to buy Marcuse’s arguments, then their objection to Bush is not in the rigidity of the statement, it lies in his perspective.

Marcuse holds that rationality and empiricism can be used to determine true and false and that “the real possibilities of human freedom are relative to the attained stage of civilization. They depend on the material and intellectual resources available at the respective stage, and they are quantifiable and calculable to a high degree.” He holds that this requires in modern society the distribution of resources according to need (thus consistent with Marxist principles) and a minimum of “toil” and “injustice”. Now, here’s the real clincher, coming right up:

“…it is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation. Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.” Marcuse holds that the people capable of making the decisions are those who are, per Mill, in the “maturity of (their) faculties”. Maturity of faculties for him is not a minimum constant of mental and moral capacity, but a sliding scale upwards as civilization moves forth.

Marcuse’s motivation for writing this essay partly lies in his past: as a German leftist he is haunted by the inability of he and his comrades to stop the rise of Hitler, and he reflects on how the speeches of the Nazis were the prelude to violence. Marcuse is of the belief that they could have been stopped through speech suppression, and that such a course would have possibly averted World War II and the Holocaust. He claimed that the present in his time, 1965, constituted “clear and present danger” and that the assumptions underlying a democratic society are not actually present, and thus it logically follows that suspension of right to free speech and free assembly should occur. This is most ironic to me given that quite a lot of movement politically was being made to the left in the time of his writing in the United States with LBJ’s Great Society programs, although Marcuse would probably consider those reforms merely intended to uphold an oppressive capitalist system. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War likely weighed heavier on Marcuse’s mind. The German people themselves, through their government, have bought into this idea given their criminalization of Nazi speech and the displaying of its party’s symbols. Far more questionable, however, is whether this would have actually worked and even Marcuse himself writes of it as only a chance to stop it. The state of German society during the Weimar Republic was ripe for some strong changemaker to rise up, and especially so after the onset of the Great Depression…Marcuse’s lament seems to be that it wasn’t a Marxist changemaker. People in German society would have still held anti-Versailles Treaty feelings and there still would have been anti-Semitic under and overtones. If not Hitler, it would have likely been someone else authoritarian…whether better or worse than him is, like Marcuse’s perception of chance, unknowable.

There is one respect in which I agree with Marcuse: the American government and the American people are not one and the same in spirit or in deed. However, I think it is impossible that such a system can exist when the population exceeds a few hundred and the population becomes diverse in thought and background. I recall reading Hannah Arendt in graduate school and she brought up the Mayflower Compact as an example of how a pure democracy could function, but she didn’t account for how this came to an end: they opted for representative government only a few years into the colony as the population grew. This pure, radical egalitarian democratic utopia that these Frankfurt schoolers seem to think is possible has no chance of succeeding and has a certain chance through action in causing tremendous misery. Different flavors of Marxism have been tried around the world and they have, without fail, produced not merely downturns in economic prosperity and human rights, but utter catastrophes. The Holodomor, Gulag slave labor, The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s reduction of his people by a quarter through agrarian socialism, North Vietnamese reeducation camps, etc. Listing these may seem unfair to Bernie Bro types, but the notion that someday this ideology that operates counter to human nature can be gotten right if only the proper people were at the helm and employed “scientific” methods is naïve hubris at best. In the quest to create heaven on Earth, hell follows. Marcuse considered separate and competing powers insufficient to fulfill representation by the people and indeed they are not a perfect measure, but they are the best course for limiting the tyranny that lives in human consciousness and he and I have a fundamental disagreement on the role of democracy in governance.

Overall, it strikes me that Marcuse hides behind “rationality” and “empiricism” for his distinctions of true and false tolerance, but the point that stands out to me is that we don’t know 100% at this time…there may be things we all agree on as a society that turn out to be mistaken.

In Marcuse’s long and seemingly complex essay in fact lies a message most simple: left good by definition, right bad by definition, and behavior from the left must be tolerated while behavior from the right must not. This essay is, in truth, for a target audience, and it isn’t Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary American. It is for Marxists aiming to change a lot of what Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary American think. If you do not hold Marxist viewpoints and assumptions you will not be persuaded by this essay and will view it (rightfully so) as a call for ending your freedom of speech until you are sufficiently indoctrinated into Marcuse’s ideology or at least something close to it on the left.

Unfortunately for people on the right, the idea well for the term that comes easiest to mind for what Marcuse is pushing is poisoned: the term “Cultural Marxism” has Nazi origins and thus is unfortunately precluded from use by people who want to retain respectability while battling this ideology. Jordan Peterson has helpfully suggested another term, “postmodern Neo-Marxism”. The right must be wary of this “postmodern Neo-Marxism”, as it is the militant thinking that lies behind the New Left efforts to silence and push them out of the Overton Window.

This essay brings to my mind two choice quotes, one from a writer and another from a politician:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” – C.S. Lewis

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.” – Gerald Ford


Marcuse, H. (1965). Repressive Tolerance.

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