“Marcuse’s efforts, for the most part, have proven successful, however. To this point, the idea of a right-wing, pro-capitalist status quo has been thoroughly ingrained into the public imagination…”
the Frankfurt Schoollthough countless individuals are currently participating in the anti-free speech push throughout the United States, it seems that the main, underlying culprits can be narrowed down to a handful of questionable intellectuals. Without a doubt, the most influential of these was the German-American thinker Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), a social theorist of . Marcuse’s work in the United States played a significant role in developing the anti-intellectual framework commonly used for opposing the political right’s ability to express its points of view. Such ideas came to the forefront when Marcuse published his most controversial essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” in 1965.
Plainly speaking, the purpose of “Repressive Tolerance” was to trick its readers into accepting a false dichotomy. Marcuse—in the essay—attempts to convince readers that conservatives use means of force to oppress left-wing ideas. As a result, the Left, having less political power than the Right, has no choice but to abide by the rules of the game which, according to Marcuse, were ruthlessly oppressive to begin with. A simple but dangerous conclusion is reached: Since the Right is nothing more than a force for oppression, the Left must rescue humanity by silencing the authoritarian viewpoints of conservatives by any means necessary.
Contrary to the intent of its author, the various moral and logical errors with “Repressive Tolerance” suggest a far different narrative: that the actual perpetrators of political suppression are thinkers like Herbert Marcuse himself.
Intolerance Against “Fascists Only”?
One of the common myths espoused by those influenced by Marcuse’s essay is that the author and his supporters strictly argued for censoring far-right radicals only. On the contrary, Marcuse and his sympathizers rarely singled out fascists when calling for anti-conservative censorship. In fact, censorship was largely directed towards mainstream conservative voices, who merely opposed the Marxist idea of tearing down political superstructures. This is made evident by the historical context of the essay itself. According to William Leiss and Andrew Feenberg—in their anthology of compiled essays by Marcuse—the true purpose of “Repressive Tolerance” was to silence conservative opinions during the Vietnam War protests, particularly those of right-leaning professors providing scientific aid to the military:
“Marcuse’s argument is best understood in this context: when radical students on his campus challenged military research in support of the war in Vietnam, university administrations appealed in favor of academic freedom to discredit the protest and defend the right of professors to contribute to the war effort.”
It is made abundantly clear that this essay was not written to call out violent right-wing radicals but, rather, to single out professors contributing to a war against the international spread of Communism. Given these standards, Marcuse found it preferable to allow for the expansion of Marxist terrorism in the Eastern Hemisphere than to enable American academics to contribute to the Vietnam War effort. And Marcuse’s desired censorship of conservative voices is not only referenced by Leiss and Feenberg; it is also stated by Marcuse himself. Consider the following:
“Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left…intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives and political Right—these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society which has destroyed the basis for universal tolerance.”
These days, access to social capital, media outlets, and educational institutions largely favors the political left—not the Right.
Philosophical Problems with Repressive Tolerance
In addition to censoring voices that ought not be censored, “Repressive Tolerance” presents several other deeply disturbing ideas. One is the supposed power imbalance between the Left and Right. According to Marcuse, the Right does not deserve freedom of speech because it already controls the status quo. A lack of censorship for the Right would mean a power imbalance unfavorable to the Left, resulting in a one-sided political debate. This, of course, is pure nonsense, particularly today. These days, access to social capital, media outlets, and educational institutions largely favors the political left—not the Right. This is evident not only with multibillion dollar news and entertainment companies (many of which identify as left-leaning) but also with the astonishing left-wing bias found in universities.
Despite ample evidence suggesting the Left’s superior access to institutional power, those of a Marcusian-bent relentlessly assert that the opposite is true. This is a well-documented strategy; in order to gain the upper hand in political debate, casting oneself as the unbiased arbiter of truth proves useful. This line of thinking has resulted in the famous art of publishing “history from below,” in which the “the people” (as ambiguous as that term is) are the ones telling the stories of their times. Such works are most notoriously associated with Marxist historians such as Howard Zinn. And works such as these have given way to a modern reframing of politics, in which left-leaning dissenters are viewed as the victims of censorship. And this further legitimizes the false idea of a right-leaning status quo.
Additionally, in “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse employs this framework by creating a false equivalency between mainstream conservatism and fascism, and he, in turn, asserts that the press is monopolistically owned by the Right:
“All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right…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.”
Today, however, followers of Marcuse should abide by their own standards, given the significant bias present in much of mainstream journalism, as well as the frequent censorship of conservative voices on college campuses.
Marcuse’s efforts, for the most part, have proven successful, however. To this point, the idea of a right-wing, pro-capitalist status quo has been thoroughly ingrained into the public imagination; all the while, left-leaning journalists, entertainers, and intellectuals continue to accumulate social capital. This unfortunate reality has resulted in the widespread misrepresentation of conservative arguments and viewpoints.
Too many examples of anti-conservative misrepresentation exist to count, but some of the most common involve acts of recasting history. Take, for example, the idea that former President Ronald Reagan catered to racists in the South by championing the idea of “states’ rights.” The common narrative suggests that then-candidate Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi—a town deeply associated with the Ku Klux Klan— where he allegedly used the term “states’ rights” during his speech in an effort to stir up the crowd and gain support on racial grounds. If true, this would mean the end of conservative praise for President Reagan and the disheartening admission that conservatives had aligned themselves with a bigot for decades. Of course, the claim was discredited multiple times by experts such as legal attorney and Reagan historian Dan McLaughlin. However, by the time the fact-checkers did their work, the damage was done. In situations such as these, conservatives are often forced to apologize for things that were never even accurately represented in the first place.
The one-sidedness of modern political debate has proven Marcuse correct on one ground: There is, indeed, a power dynamic in our current sphere of public discourse, and the Right is all too often preemptively viewed in a negative light. Honest debate is only possible when those in power are willing to represent their opposition accurately. However, in the absence of honest debate, it should be apparent now that “Repressive Tolerance” is nothing more than tolerance for the empowered, at the expense of the voiceless.
J. Edward Britton is a composer and essayist. He is a graduate of Oberlin College.