Repressive Tolerance Essay

A Critique of Pure Tolerance is a 1965 book by the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, the sociologist Barrington Moore Jr., and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The book has been described as "peculiar" by commentators, and its authors have been criticized for advocating intolerance and the suppression of dissenting opinions.


The book consists of three papers, "Beyond Tolerance" by Wolff, "Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook" by Moore, and "Repressive Tolerance" by Marcuse. In his contribution, Marcuse argues that the ideal of tolerance belongs to a liberal, democratic tradition that has become exhausted. Liberal society is based on a form of domination so subtle that the majority accept and even will their servitude. Marcuse believes that under such conditions tolerance as traditionally understood serves the cause of domination and that a new kind of tolerance is therefore needed: tolerance of the Left, intolerance of the Right[citation needed]. Marcuse claims that tolerance shown to minority views in industrial societies is a deceit because such expressions cannot be effective. Freedom of speech is not a good in itself because it allows for the propagation of error; Marcuse believes that "The telos of tolerance is truth". Revolutionary minorities hold the truth and the majority has to be liberated from error by being re-educated in the truth by this minority. The revolutionary minority are entitled, Marcuse claims, to suppress rival and harmful opinions.


Academic journals[edit]

A Critique of Pure Tolerance received a negative review from the sociologist Nathan Glazer in the American Sociological Review. The book was also reviewed by the philosopher John Herman Randall Jr. in The Journal of Philosophy and L. Del Grosso Destreri in Studi di Sociologia.[3]

Glazer described the book as "peculiar". He credited Marcuse with being open in his advocacy of intolerance, but accused Wolff of being incapable of distinguishing "facts from theory" in his criticisms of tolerance and pluralist democracy. He disagreed with Wolff's view that "The application of the theory of pluralism always favors the groups in existence against those in formation", maintaining that it was contradicted by many historical examples, including the civil rights movement of the 1950s, and described his views as "politically naive." He accused Moore of advocating violence, and wrote that Marcuse appeared to support measures such as breaking up meetings and destroying the literature of his opponents. He considered it fortunate that "the means by which he might impose his opinions are not terribly impressive."

Evaluations in books[edit]

Writing in 1970, the philosopher Maurice Cranston called the book Marcuse's most popular and disturbing work to date. Cranston commented that the book was published, "in a peculiar format, bound in black like a prayer book or missal and perhaps designed to compete with The Thoughts of Chairman Mao as devotional reading at student sit-ins."

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that Marcuse's theory of the right of revolutionary minorities to suppress opinions "is perhaps the most dangerous of all Marcuse's doctrines, for not only is what he asserts false, but his is a doctrine which if it were widely held would be an effective barrier to any rational progress and liberation". He accused Marcuse of having "taken over from liberal and right-wing critics of the European revolutionary tradition a theory which they falsely ascribed to the left, but which was rarely held until Marcuse espoused it." MacIntyre, argued, against Marcuse, that the proper end of tolerance is not truth but rationality, and that Marcuse's proposals undermined the possibility of rationality and critical discussion. He also argued that Marcuse's case against tolerance made those radicals who espouse it "allies of the very forces which they claim to attack."

Ronald Bayer, the author of a survey of attitudes to homosexuality in American psychiatry, identified Marcuse's arguments about "repressive tolerance" as an influence on gay rights activists, who disrupted lectures by psychiatrists and refused to tolerate the views of their opponents as they campaigned for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental disorder.

Other views[edit]

Wolf von Laer, in a podcast titled Campus Speech and the Libertarian Student Movement, cites the influence of Marcuse as an unacknowledged source for the disruptive tactics of the "New Left" on today's campuses.[8]

See also[edit]




  • Del Grosso Destreri, L. (1968). "Review of A Critique of Pure Tolerance". Studi di Sociologia. 6 (1). 
  • Glazer, Nathan (1966). "Review of A Critique of Pure Tolerance". American Sociological Review. 31 (3). 
  • Randall, John Herman (1966). "Review of A Critique of Pure Tolerance". The Journal of Philosophy. 63 (16): 457–465. doi:10.2307/2024137. 

The problems of tolerance (5): Herbert Marcuse on repressive tolerance

This post is on the third and most famous essay in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965), Herbert Marcuse's "Repressive Tolerance"; the full essay in the English original is available at that link, and also a German translation. This post can stand on its own. But my previous post was also meant as an introduction to this one. It explains more about two aspects of Marcuse's approach that are important in "Repressive Tolerance": Hegelian dialectical social analysis and a radical democratic perspective.

Marcuse's argument assumes that people in advanced industrial societies, including the United States, are in basic ways unfree. A key part of that unfreedom is a widespread lack of key knowledge about public affairs and a false consciousness that prevents people from making truly free decisions. That would require a genuinely informed citizenry.

I'm not sure it can be counted as progress, but the meaning and implication of "false consciousness" is very easy to understand today. The lead up to the Iraq War, with manufactured evidence that was pimped not only by an obedient Republican Party and its vast echo chamber. It was also facilitated by the Establishment press - the name Judith Miller summarizes that aspect of it - and by a prewar debate that, in its official aspects, was little more than a Potemkin debate. That's not to say that there weren't real opposition voices heard. It means that between the White House misuse of secrecy and fraudulent evidence, the mainstream media's misconduct and the President's decision at least as early as June 2002 to go to war regardless of what Iraq did, the official debate meant little more than the deliberations of the old East Germany Parliament.

Marcuse writes:

But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge; in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly. Under the rule of monopolistic media - themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power - a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society. This is, prior to all expression and communication, a matter of semantics: the blocking of effective dissent, of the recognition of that which is not of the Establishment which begins in the language that is publicized and administered. The meaning of words is rigidly stabilized. Rational persuasion, persuasion to the opposite is all but precluded. The avenues of entrance are closed to the meaning of words and ideas other than the established one - established by the publicity of the powers that be, and verified in their practices. Other words can be spoken and heard, other ideas can be expressed, but, at the massive scale of the conservative majority (outside such enclaves as the intelligentsia), they are immediately "evaluated" (i.e. automatically understood) in terms of the public language - a language which determines "a priori" the direction in which the thought process moves. [my emphasis]
The volumes that have already been written about the prewar fraud about Iraq's non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" could be seen as an extended commentary on that quotation.

Yet I don't want to push the point too far. Despite the intensity of the war propaganda and the massive use of government secrecy to cover the fraud, large numbers of Americans still opposed the war. False consciousness even in that extreme case was less than pervasive.

Where Marcuse's point remains particularly relevant in this case is that even now, despite the far-reaching nature of the WMD fraud(s) and the extensive consequences of the Iraq War, most people do not take it as reflecting a fundamental flaw in our political and social system. (I'll leave aside for the moment whether that would be an accurate conclusion.)

What is central to Marcuse's idea of repressive tolerance is that, in a society dominated by great wealth, or by Big Capital as his German fans would be more likely to term it, the formal practice of democratic tolerance effectively obscures the fact for most people that their choices and their freedom are in fact severely limited. Marcuse writes:

These background limitations of tolerance are normally prior to the explicit and judicial limitations as defined by the courts, custom, governments, etc. (for example, "clear and present danger", threat to national security, heresy). Within the framework of such a social structure, tolerance can be safely practiced and proclaimed. It is of two kinds: (i) the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident, and (2) 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 that 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.
Like Wolff and Moore in their essays, Marcuse emphasizes that tolerance has a purpose:

The telos [goal] of tolerance is truth. It is clear from the historical record that the authentic spokesmen of tolerance had more and other truth in mind than that of propositional logic and academic theory. John Stuart Mill speaks of the truth which is persecuted in history and which does not triumph over persecution by virtue of its "inherent power", which in fact has no inherent power "against the dungeon and the stake". And he enumerates the "truths" which were cruelly and successfully liquidated in the dungeons and at the stake: that of Arnold of Brescia, of Fra Dolcino, of Savonarola, of the Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites. 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. Heresy by itself, however, is no token of truth. [my emphasis]
For tolerance to play its role of exposing falsehood and enhancing the well-being of humanity, it must be real. In other words, the kind of dissent that leads to that goal must have a real chance to be turned into policies and reality.

Wolff and Moore are more clear in their essays about the distinction between tolerance as a political-legal process, on the one hand, and the limits of tolerance in decision-making, on the other.

But, like Wolff and Moore, Marcuse discusses two kinds of tolerance. He sees tolerance as involving basic democratic and human rights. "Tolerance is an end in itself," he says.

And he also sees tolerance as a necessary condition for decision-making on political and social questions. His focus is on this aspect. Just as in science (both "hard" and "social"), which was Moore's focus in his essay, decision-making in political and social matters involves some accepted criteria of decision-making. Some choices involve more urgent matters than others. Some competing options must be judged as relevant and meaningful to the choice, and others excluded. And eventually a decision has to be made, a judgment established, among the competing legitimate priorities.

That may seem to be a far too dignified way to describe the decision-making process of Congressional Republicans under Tom DeLay and his K-Street Project. But it applies even in that situation. The real questions is whether it's legitimate for, say, a defense-contractor lobbyist's bribes to a Congressman Duke Cunningham should be a factor in important policy decisions.

Marcuse argues that some alternatives considered normal, respectable, mainstream in American political discourse should in fact be considered inappropriate for establishing policies. If this seems to be an odd argument for someone to have been making in 1965, at the height of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" in the US, consider other aspects of the historical context. The Goldwater Presidential campaign of 1964, though a landslide loss, showed what a Republican Party aggressively defending segregation and militarism might become. And Johnson "Americanized" the Vietnam War in 1965, relying on deceit and threat-inflation that was bad enough in itself, despite the fact that it looks almost like saintly honesty compared to the pre-Iraq War marketing job by the Bush administration.

A lot of what Marcuse has to say about the right of resistance and the role of violence, both official and unsanctioned, will strike many American readers as jarring. That's mainly because of what I discussed in my last post, the general lack of awareness of the revolutionary aspects of our own national history. But anyone who admires the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and is not a pacifist should actually find most of those passages uncontroversial.

On of his comments is a reminder that political "terror" until relatively recently meant mostly terror by the state:

Robespierre's distinction [in the French Revolution] between the terror of liberty and the terror of despotism, and his moral glorification of the former belongs to the most convincingly condemned aberrations [of political violence], even if the white terror was more bloody than the red terror.
In these times where "red" is the commonly-used color for Bush's Republican Party, I should mention that in the French Revolution, "red" meant the revolutionaries, "white" the counterrevolutionaries.

But even for those more familiar with the Thomas Jeffersons and Harriet Tubmans and John Browns of American democratic history, some of Marcuse' arguments in this regard will be disturbing:

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: ... it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word. The traditional criterion of clear and present danger seems no longer adequate to a stage where the whole society is in the situation of the theater audience when somebody cries: "fire". It is a situation in which the total catastrophe could be triggered off any moment, not only by a technical error, but also by a rational miscalculation of risks, or by a rash speech of one of the leaders. In past and different circumstances, the speeches of the Fascist and Nazi leaders were the immediate prologue to the massacre. The distance between the propaganda and the action, between the organization and its release on the people had become too short. But the spreading of the word could have been stopped before it was too late: if democratic tolerance had been withdrawn when the future leaders started their campaign, mankind would have had a chance of avoiding Auschwitz and a World War.

The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger. Consequently, true pacification requires the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print, and picture. 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. [my emphasis]
Yow! You can practically hear the OxyContin crowd screaming, "See! That's what The Liberals are after!" That Marcuse considered himself a Marxist and not a liberal wouldn't make any difference, since in FOXLand there is no difference. They would go into spasms at the amplification on this idea that he made in his 1968 Postscript to the essay:

Given this situation, 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.

If the choice were between genuine democracy and dictatorship, democracy would certainly be preferable. But democracy does not prevail. The radical critics of the existing political process are thus readily denounced as advocating an "elitism", a dictatorship of intellectuals as an alternative. What we have in fact is government, representative government by a non-intellectual minority of politicians, generals, and businessmen. The record of this "elite" is not very promising, and political prerogatives for the intelligentsia may not necessarily be worse for the society as a whole. [my emphasis]
It's not clear where these notions of Marcuse's owe more to Lenin's State and Revolution or to Plato's Republic. But here, he is directly advocating and justifying the suppression of democratic freedoms.

It's true that in historical revolutions, the opponents of the victorious side have generally found it necessary to withdraw freedoms from at least some of their opponents. British supporters were suppressed during the American Revolution and many dispossessed afterward. Abraham Lincoln found it desirable to suppress the speech and printing presses of the "Copperheads", Northerners who actively sympathized with the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson's rush to restore full democratic rights to former Confederates after the Civil War was a key factor setting the state for decades of racial segregation in the South. The long-term interests of democracy and Constitutional government were not well-served by Johnson's actions.

But this portion of Marcuse's essay I find less than appealing or persuasive. It seems in this regard to be a general restatement of a conventional Marxist understanding of the revolutionary process in history. And I would argue that it doesn't follow from the arguments he makes here and elsewhere. (See the concluding quotation below.)

What is more appealing and persuasive is his discussion of how people can free their own minds from the false consciousness of what he calls administered opinion:

This means that previously neutral, value-free, formal aspects of learning and teaching now become, on their own grounds and in their own right, political: learning to know the facts, the whole truth, and to comprehend it is radical criticism throughout, intellectual subversion. In a world in which the human faculties and needs are arrested or perverted, autonomous thinking leads into a "perverted world": contradiction and counter-image of the established world of repression. And this contradiction is not simply stipulated, is not simply the product of confused thinking or fantasy, but is the logical development of the given, the existing world. To the degree to which this development is actually impeded by the sheer weight of a repressive society and the necessity of making a living in it, repression invades the academic enterprise itself, even prior to all restrictions on academic freedom. The pre-empting of the mind vitiates impartiality and objectivity: unless the student learns to think in the opposite direction, he will be inclined to place the facts into the predominant framework of values. Scholarship, i.e., the acquisition and communication of knowledge, prohibits the purification and isolation of facts from the context of the whole truth. An essential part of the latter is recognition of the frightening extent to which history is made and recorded by and for the victors, that is, the extent to which history was the development of oppression. And this oppression is in the facts themselves which it establishes; thus they themselves carry a negative value as part and aspect of their facticity. To treat the great crusades against humanity (like that against the Albigensians) with the same impartiality as the desperate struggles for humanity means neutralizing their opposite historical function, reconciling the executioners with their victims, distorting the record. Such spurious neutrality serves to reproduce acceptance of the dominion of the victors in the consciousness of man. Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created. [my emphasis]
But he also reminds us that if such an approach remains limited to individual self-development, its liberating potential will be limited. Humans are social creatures, and freedom has objective as well as subjective meaning. Freedom cannot be fully realized in self-knowledge:

The publicity of self-actualization promotes the removal of the one and the other, it promotes existence in that immediacy which, in a repressive society, is (to use another Hegelian term) bad immediacy (schlechte Unmittelbarkeit). It isolates the individual from the one dimension where he could "find himself": from his political existence, which is at the core of his entire existence. Instead, it encourages non-conformity and letting-go in ways which leave the real engines of repression in the society entirely intact, which even strengthen these engines by substituting the satisfactions of private, and personal rebellion for a more than private and personal, and therefore more authentic, opposition. The desublimation involved in this sort of self-actualization is itself repressive inasmuch as it weakens the necessity and the power of the intellect, the catalytic force of that unhappy consciousness which does not revel in the archetypal personal release of frustration - hopeless resurgence of the Id which will sooner or later succumb to the omnipresent rationality of the administered world - but which recognizes the horror of the whole in the most private frustration and actualizes itself in this recognition. [my emphasis in bold]
In the 1968 Postscript, Marcuse makes an important point. No doubt, it brought little comfort to suburban white folks freaking out over urban riots in predominantly black neighborhoods. But in the year that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and after years in which civil rights demonstrators and antiwar protesters had all-too-often been the victims of official violence, he made an essential and democratic point:

Under the conditions prevailing in this country, tolerance does not, and cannot, fulfill the civilizing function attributed to it by the liberal protagonists of democracy, namely, protection of dissent. 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. Consequently, the idea of tolerance implies the necessity, for the dissenting group or individuals, to become illegitimate if and when the established legitimacy prevents and counteracts the development of dissent. This would be the case not only in a totalitarian society, under a dictatorship, in one-party states, but also in a democracy (representative, parliamentary, or "direct") where the majority does not result from the development of independent thought and opinion but rather from the monopolistic or oligopolistic administration of public opinion, without terror and (normally) without censorship. ... The ideology of democracy hides its lack of substance. [my emphasis]
In the final paragraph of the 1968 Postscript, he describes again in radical-democratic terms how the ideology of tolerance can disguise a reality of unfreedom. And he seems to suggest that his suggestion for a dictatorship of intellectuals was meant as a provocative paradox - or maybe an Hegelian "contradiction":

However, the alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy. 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.
Other posts in the series:

1. Are there problems with tolerance?
2. Robert Paul Wolff on going "Beyond Tolerance"
3. Barrington Moore, Jr., on science and tolerance
4. Tolerance, social analysis and radical democracy
5. Herbert Marcuse on repressive tolerance (current post)
6. The need for tolerance, its limits and its "repressive" form

Tags: herbert marcuse, repressive tolerance, tolerance

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