The Noisy and Destructive Children of Herbert Marcuse

Matt Taibbi has an interesting piece on Substack concerning Herbert Marcuse and the notion of “repressive tolerance.” Tabbi’s piece can be found here: Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual. I wrote about Marcuse on the pages of Project Censored back in the summer of 2018 in defending a free and open Internet (the canceling of Alex Jones was the impetus of my essay). I want to follow up on my thoughts in light of the consternation on the left over Taibbi’s essay. I will not engage Tabbi’s essay, as you can read it for yourself, and Tabbi can defend himself well enough. I will be setting forth my own interpretation of Marcuse’s arguments.

Image result for Herbert Marcuse hi def
Herbert Marcuse, guru of the New Left

Reading Marcuse crucially depends on how one defines tolerance. Understanding the piece also depends on understanding Marcuse’s deep roots in a particular reading for Freud, an analysis of which I will leave to one side except to note that Marcuse reads Freud as believing that our animal instincts require repression, “progressive and liberating repression,” and the necessity of alienation as “the constant and essential element of identity,” not in the way Marx saw it as a condition and state to overcome (see also Eros and Civilization). Remember, in “The Future of an Illusion,” Freud argues that, while he did not believe in God, God would never go way because the ordinary man needs a father, and that religion serves the Hobbesean function of keeping man in line. 

There was a missing paragraph in Marcuse’s original essay that tells us what Marcuse understands tolerance to mean, and it is what I understand the word to mean, i.e., to allow ideas to be expressed without constraint and punishment. I tolerate Nazis marching down the street with their placards and chants. I tolerate conservatives gathering in Washington DC to rally against the 2020 election. I tolerate student groups bringing to campus speakers expressing ideas with which I disagree. But, for woke progressives, allowing these is repressive tolerance to be countered by progressive repression because such repression is liberating. To be sure, this depends on your politics and identity, but, for Marcuse, this is a settled matter. This is where critical theory and postmodernism meet—the rejection of the grand narrative that liberalism has value (with Marcuse finessing it by distinguishing “authentic liberalism,” where, for postmodernists, the authentic is “lived experience”). 

The missing paragraph: “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 is the spirit of antifascism and antiracism, deeply illiberal standpoints.] The conditions under which tolerance can again become a liberating and humanizing force have still to be created. When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted. And when this perversion starts in the mind of the individual, in his consciousness, his needs, when heteronomous interests occupy him before he can experience his servitude, then the efforts to counteract his dehumanization 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.” Stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness.” 

How shall we do this without controlling the means of communication and the production of knowledge? One is Gramsci’s long march through the institutions, which has only provided the content corporate power adapts to fracture the working class (see this summer). The other is using the corporate machinery to cancel and censor. That these developments are interconnected should not escape anyone. 

But Marcuse wants to make sure the reader fully understands him. For if you were wondering whether he is really advocating censorship, he wants to make sure you know that, indeed, he is, and, worse, he is advocating canceling voices before they have a chance to be censored, or precensorship, a type of popular prior restraint (deplatforming, etc.): “To be sure, this is censorship, even precensorship, but openly directed against the more or less hidden censorship that permeates the free media.” What is this “hidden censorship”? That’s the whole point of the essay: the power of the capitalist class to control discourse (see One Dimensional Man). The progressive left must censor and precensor: “Where the false consciousness has become prevalent in national and popular behavior, it translates itself almost immediately into practice: the safe distance between ideology and reality, repressive thought and repressive action, between the word of destruction and the deed of destruction is dangerously shortened.” Speech is violence. Silence is violence. It all follows. 

Shall we spend more than a second pondering why this paragraph went missing? Perhaps to ponder why those paragraphs that remain are not obvious enough?

The woke left today takes the central point of Herbert Marcuse’s essay to its logical conclusion, justifying street level violence to silence speech and assembly they believe retards the progress of “social justice,” seeing liberal values as right-wing tools, as well as leveraging the private corporate machinery to censor speech. Canceling, censoring, deplatforming, disrupting, doxing, labeling, mobbing, struggle sessions—the neo-Maoists (and that’s what they are) regard these interventions as politically necessary and ethically reasonable on the grounds that certain forms of speech are harmful and oppressive and, furthermore, that there is no right to racist and offensive speech.

Extending Marcuse’s argument, they flip the goals of “freeing language from the tyranny of the Orwellian syntax and logic [and] developing the concepts that comprehend reality” into Newspeak and postmodernist anti-epistemology themselves. This is why the woke left is so censorious, illiberal, and authoritarian. This is consequence of connecting power and knowledge in the realm of culture rather that organized class struggle and the generation of class consciousness, which the practices of identiarianism and progressive repression. This is the core flaw of Frankfurt School-style neo-Marxism. Moving the rhetoric from the means of production to the means of consumption (which Baudrillard later picks up) and the alleged pathology of Western civilization (the Culture Industry and the evils of the liberal bourgeois order) sets neo-Marxism up for its integration with postmodernism, postcolonialism, and thirdworldism. This is why the New Left and woke progressivism parallel Maoist cultural revolution. Listen to the arguments of his disciple Angela Davis.

Marcuse is hardly subtle when understood in the corpus of his thought, which incorporates not only elements of Freudian thought but also Heideggerian notions. In the essay, Marcuse argues for “liberating tolerance” from the liberal values of equality and neutrality, condemning “what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance” of a diversity of opinion as a framework “serving the cause of oppression.” He proposes a “discriminating tolerance,” which “would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movement which promote,” for example, “discriminating on the grounds of race and religion.” To be sure, we should not allow discrimination those grounds, but to stop speech and assembly? If this were the case, then we would have to withdraw tolerance for those seeking reparations for slavery, the bill now being dropped in Congress to study the matter. As much as this bill must be opposed and defeated, to censor those calling for it would be profoundly authoritarian.

We see Marcuse’s inspiration in practice today on college campuses where students organize to disrupt speakers and events. Marcuse argues for a dialectic that differentiates truth from falsehood (of course. we have that already, it’s enshrined in liberal, secular values of an open society, which Karl Marx himself defended), then suppresses the latter for the sake of emancipation from the administered, effectively totalitarian world of monopoly capitalism. To be sure, I share this goal, but this is an argument over means. And the means we are arguing for have promoted not liberation from oppression, but the socialization of the goals of woke leftists who desire an administered, effectively totalitarian world of monopoly capitalism.

The only tolerable tolerance for Marcuse is one that works towards liberation as Marcuse understands it, freedom from repression as he sees it, and that work should exclude or restrict repressive speech. He sees liberalism as tolerance “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.” He is arguing that only “in a society where real equality has been achieved, can the freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.” 

“As long as these conditions do not prevail,” he writes, “the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), i.e., by the class structure of society.” His use of the word “compatible” parenthetically, in the corpus of his work, means that the liberal principles of equality before the law and equality of opportunity are used to further and legitimize capitalist exploitation. “In such a society, tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their ‘connections’.” Here he is calling for violence ad suppression by those who stand outside the legal and privileged order of things. Why should state and corporate authority be the only powers that can repress people? They represent regressive repression. The left represents progressive repression. 

Take a look at what Marcuse himself said reflecting on his original essay (his 1968 postscript): “I suggested in ‘Repressive Tolerance’ the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right, thus counteracting the pervasive inequality of freedom (unequal opportunity of access to the means of democratic persuasion) and strengthening the oppressed against the oppressed. Tolerance would be restricted with respect to movements of a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character (destructive of the prospects for peace, justice, and freedom for all). Such discrimination would also be applied to movements opposing the extension of social legislation to the poor, weak, disabled. As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for ‘the other side’, I maintain that there are issues where either there is no ‘other side’ in any more than a formalistic sense, or where ‘the other side’ is demonstrably ‘regressive’ and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.” Then there is this more than suggestive line: “If the choice were between genuine democracy and dictatorship, democracy would certainly be preferable. But democracy does not prevail.”

He closes with: “Part of this struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. For this struggle, I proposed the practice of discriminating tolerance. To be sure, this practice already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve. I committed this petitio principii in order to combat the pernicious ideology that tolerance is already institutionalized in this society. The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.” Antifa, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture. These are Marcuse’s children.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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