Overrated: Herbert Marcuse

The guru of “repressive tolerance” and campus radicals

Daniel Johnson

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.

What is most striking about Marcuse is the ferocity with which he rejected a society — the United States — that had not only given him refuge from the Nazis, but all the privileges of membership of its academic elite. What to other intellectuals was perhaps the most enviable lifestyle of any time or place, seemed to Marcuse “one-dimensional”. True, his academic career coincided with the Cold War; but Marcuse had escaped both world wars. His hostility was exclusively directed against his adoptive home, against the very people that had saved Europe from his native land. Indeed he saw “the continued empire of civilisation itself” as the new barbarism. His “critical theory of society”, an outlook that he has bequeathed to the entire tribe of the politically correct, offers no hope: “holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative”. The true Marcusean rejects Western civilisation, but has nothing to propose instead. This is the attitude that now widely prevails on campus across the West.

The question remains: why did Marcuse develop such vehement enmity towards the West that he poisoned the minds of generations to come in the vain attempt to destroy its values? He witnessed first-hand the Spartakus uprising in Berlin after the First World War and its suppression by the Social Democrats in alliance with right-wing paramilitaries — hence his lifelong admiration for utopian revolutionaries and his aversion to liberals and conservatives of all stripes. Yet in Weimar Germany, he chose to study in Freiburg under two charismatic professors who founded respectively the schools of phenomenology and existentialism: Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Neither was on the Left and the latter notoriously sided with the Nazi “revolution of the Right”.

What Marcuse took from these philosophers, and from poets he cites such as Stefan George or Stéphane Mallarmé, was a radical rejection of modernity in all its forms that was typical of the political romanticism of the pre-war European Right. The irony of Marcuse is that his legacy has been adopted by the Left, but he was really a nihilist masquerading as a progressive.

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