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Overrated: Herbert Marcuse
December 2018 / January 2019


Herbert Marcuse: Ambiguous vision  (Illustration by Michael Daley)


Outside the remoter reaches of the academic world, Herbert Marcuse is no longer read very widely, or indeed at all. Yet it is a testament to the ubiquity and influence of his ideas that students who demand that speakers from the Right (or of any persuasion that they do not share) be “no-platformed” have no idea that they are in fact Marcuseans.

Marcuse is responsible for the key idea that underlies the suppression of free speech on campus in Western countries where up to half the population now attends university. This idea has mutated and now takes many forms, from boycotts and online bullying to exclusion in the name of “intersectionality”. Marcuse, though, called his idea “repressive tolerance”.

This was title of an essay published in 1965 which argued that, in the prevailing conditions of “one-dimensional society”, tolerance only benefits the powerful. He denied that tolerance should be “indiscriminate”, because its function would then be “repressive”. (One of Marcuse’s innovations was to import the vocabulary of Freudian psychology into radical political discourse.) Instead, “liberating tolerance” would discriminate, i.e. be intolerant of “the party of hate”.

Marcuse was not shy of explaining exactly whose ideas should not be tolerated. He advocated “apparently undemocratic means” that “would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech or assembly from groups or movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race or religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” Marcuse thought “the Right” by definition deserved to be disqualified from the exercise, not only of power, but of civil rights.

Indeed, Marcuse was quite frank in his dismissal of the middle and working classes as hopelessly indoctrinated by consumerism. By contrast, he saw students and ethnic minorities, plus “the unemployed and the unemployable”, as the new proletariat. They would be united under the leadership of intellectuals like himself. He cited John Stuart Mill in support of the idea that only the educated could or should take the lead; but there was a world of difference between Mill’s belief that Victorian labourers required elementary schooling before they could assume the reins of government, and Marcuse’s dictatorship of the intelligentsia.

In One-Dimensional Man, his magnum opus which inspired the student revolutionaries of 1968, Marcuse offered an ambiguous vision. As he admitted, he vacillated between the pessimistic view that “the total administrative state” could contain any subversive challenge, and the utopian hope that “forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society”. There was a chance — and only a chance — that this “catastrophe of liberation” would unite “the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force”. Marcuse foreshadowed modern identity politics, including the alliance of the Left and the Islamists.
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