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repressive tolerance Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 1, 2007


Herbert Marcuse's 'Repressive Tolerance' and his Critics

Rodney Fopp
University of South Australia


Tolerance is invoked when there are riots but, along with an associated policy - multiculturalism - it is being challenged as having gone too far; it is espoused in Australia but as a concept it is largely uncontested. Yet when Herbert Marcuse's lengthy article entitled 'Repressive Tolerance' was first published forty years ago it created a storm. His detractors perceived in Marcuse's article illiberal themes, revolution and violent implications, a new elite, a simplistic Manichean assessment of politics and they argued that Marcuse undermined the academic shibboleth of neutrality. The aim of this paper is to revisit 'Repressive Tolerance' with the intention of allowing Marcuse to be heard. Evidence is presented which uses Marcuse's words to anticipate how he might have responded to the criticisms levelled against him. When this is undertaken it seems that, inter alia, some critics treated 'Repressive Tolerance' in a rather cavalier and superficial fashion, and as a tract rather than a serious critique of political culture in the West. It is acknowledged that the ambiguity in Marcuse's position on several key points may have led his critics to draw out what they regarded as Marcuse's strident authoritarian implications. Yet after a probing reading and a consideration of Marcuse's own reactions to his detractors, it is possible to interpret Marcuse's argument as a serious indictment on political culture which merits close attention for a number of reasons, including its contemporary relevance and the implications of a Marcusean approach to the policy and practice of tolerance.



1. The passing of the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Marcuse's article entitled 'Repressive Tolerance' in 1965 (hereafter RT) provides an opportunity to revisit this work and the 1968 'Postscript'.[ 1] There are many reasons for such a revisiting. Tolerance is much proclaimed and vaunted in the West. Notions of 'democracy' and 'tolerance' are invoked in Western foreign policy and when military interventions are foreshadowed or defended (as, for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq). Even the Manichean 'axis of evil' versus the 'coalition of the willing' is defined largely in terms of 'their' tyranny versus 'our' democracy, or the systematic intolerance characteristic of 'their' regime versus 'our' tolerance.

2. Tolerance is also espoused as an identifying feature of Australian political culture. Politicians and community leaders invoke it as a much vaunted attribute of Australian multiculturalism and particularly when (seemingly) inter-cultural rivalries appear. For example, the Cronulla Riots, or the exchanges between antagonists from the erstwhile Yugoslavia outside Rod Laver Arena during the Australian Open in 2007, elicited complaints that the behaviour of both sides was not in accordance with the tolerance with which Australia is (allegedly) renowned. That said, some cultural groups also report a lack of tolerance. Exemplifying this are belittling and derogatory comments reported by girls and women of Islamic faith who wear traditional dress and/or the headscarf.

3. Yet there are also signs that the Federal Governments is withdrawing tolerance from some groups. Consider, for example, new laws which criminalise propagating religious and political perspectives which are regarded as seditious. While many Australians may argue that allegedly anti-Australian rhetoric and actions should be illegal, those most adversely affected argue that they are being discriminated against, that the much-heralded 'virtue' of Australian tolerance is not being afforded them. Another example is that signalled by the change in the name of the relevant Federal bureaucracy, from the Department of Immigration and Multiculturalism to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Such a change foreshadows the attenuation or, arguably, perhaps even the demise, of multiculturalism which for the last three decades or so has been the policy in which tolerance has been enshrined.

4. Indeed, Australia's present Federal Government has discerned what it regards as a disturbing trend whereby multiculturalism has resulted in the fracturing of social harmony. According to this perspective, pluralism and tolerance of cultural voices has led to some cultural enclaves, the members of which allegedly know little of 'Australian values', 'way of life' and, significantly, are not becoming citizens. As the present Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (Andrews 2007) explained,

The Government believes that immigration is a process which should lead to citizenship of the Commonwealth of Australia. It's not just an event as signified by the citizenship ceremony, but a process in which we hope that people coming to this country will come to know and understand and share in the values that we commonly share in this country.

Such actions portray a sense within the Federal Government that multiculturalism and tolerance have gone too far. Moreover, the boundaries of tolerance are being redefined as exemplified in the Minister's statement that 'people coming to this country will come to know and understand and share in the values that we commonly share in this country'. Consequently, the 'we' in the Government who allegedly share a common history and values are dictating cultural expectations to those who allegedly do not possess them. The Government identifies with an alleged majority in asserting expectations, a sense of history and values, with the implication (at least) that those who do not share such values are 'un-Australian' or perhaps even 'anti-Australian'. The policy response is, inter alia, 'citizenship' and 'citizenship tests'. The policy response is that cultural groups are expected to be tolerant of Government policy and its purported majority, while the extent of tolerance is withdrawn from them.

5. Thus, tolerance remains a contested concept to the point that, despite the defects he identified, Marcuse's argument of the 1960s still addresses contemporary issues. Here I am referring to the fact that he railed against the then contemporary liberal policies of tolerance yet, in another sense, was its advocate; he exposed the repressive nature of tolerance yet, unlike other critics, he neither regarded tolerance as unfashionable nor as a political virtue to be discarded.

6. Yet when Marcuse first published his paper the objections were shrill and ignited much debate (Green 19671, 1967b; Spitz 1967). He was accused of being undemocratic or anti-democratic; of advocating violence or even revolution; of merely substituting one set of alleged repressive political values and practices held by the majority for others held by minorities; of advocating the withdrawal of tolerance from some with whom he disagreed while extending it to groups on the political Left with which he was aligned; of privileging one set of views when academic neutrality was regarded as the appropriate convention; of being partisan when tolerance required a bipartisan attitude.

7. This paper presents the perspectives of a representative sample of those who have criticised RT and explores the possibility that there is, at least, an alternative reading to this work which proffers a less undemocratic and illiberal reading. His concept of RT may be ambiguous at key points but, as we shall see, that is rather different from the implacable intolerance with which he was charged. Indeed, perhaps divorced from the simmering exchanges of the 1960s and 1970s, RT can be now read more as a work about culture in the West after the Second World War which, in some important respects, retains its relevance while his critics also offer an important foil to the current debate. The paper begins with a brief statement of Marcuse's position as a backdrop to the categorisation of the main criticisms directed against him, after which it seeks to respond to them by presenting evidence about how Marcuse may have responded. The paper concludes by noting some of the consequences of Marcuse's approach to the contemporary debates about tolerance.

The argument of 'Repressive Tolerance'

8. Marcuse's approach or strategy is similar to that of his Frankfurt School colleagues, Adorno and Horkheimer, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972 [1944]). As Marcuse presented it, repressive tolerance refers to the values and allied social institutions which, while once progressive and emancipatory, have changed and turned into their opposite. Marcuse charged that while dissident or opposing views to the established order were not to be tolerated, tolerance was expected, if not demanded, of the prevailing and powerful policies which buttressed the status quo (Marcuse 1969: 96; hereafter page numbers refer to RT unless otherwise indicated). In introducing the argument, several points are germane.

9. Firstly, to advance his argument Marcuse made the distinction between what he called 'passive' and 'active' (99) tolerance. 'Passive' tolerance refers to the vast majority of citizens tolerating state-sponsored policies, or as Marcuse described it, the 'toleration of entrenched and established attitudes even if their damaging effect on man [sic] and nature is evident' (99). 'Active', or 'abstract', 'pure' or 'non-partisan', tolerance is that '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'(99). The first refers to the expected tolerance of or towards powerful groups and their policies; the second to what Marcuse regarded as the putative neutrality of competing ideas in the media and public debates.

10. According to Marcuse, both forms of tolerance exist in 'advanced industrial society' (95) and function to curtail and limit the application of tolerance to certain groups. As Berki (1971: 55) noted, according to Marcuse tolerance was unequally applied; it was distributed unevenly. In particular, opposition to the existing regime was not tolerated while tolerance of current policy and practice was expected: while tolerance 'is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition it is made compulsory behaviour with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from active to passive, from practice to non-practice...' (96; emphasis added). Thus, unlike many notions of tolerance, which tend to focus on the thresholds of tolerance in and between individual citizens, Marcuse's emphasis was on the extent of state (in)tolerance. In the tradition of Locke and Mill, it was state intolerance to dissidents which was his concern.

11. Secondly, Marcuse claimed that while 'the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which it is practiced ... [t]olerance itself stands subject to overriding criteria' (98). This means that its 'range and its limits cannot be defined in terms of the respective society' (98) in which it occurs. Marcuse argued that there were rational criteria by which the dominant view of tolerance at the time should have been judged such that the prevailing practice of tolerance should not have been accepted as normative. One such criterion which Marcuse believed should be invoked was that tolerance should be distributed equally or applied universally. After the last quotation above, Marcuse continues: 'tolerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as the ruled, by the lords as well as the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as their victims' (98; 96).

12. A third characteristic of Marcuse's argument amounts to the policy implications of his diagnosis. Marcuse argued that tolerance should not be accorded to those groups and organisations which are intolerant of dissenting views, and which are dehumanising and oppressive. He spared no time getting to the point, as attested in the first paragraph of RT:

The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance towards prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period - a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression. (95; emphasis added).

If tolerance is proscribed to dissenting perspectives, but expected to be accorded to those powerful groups who can demand it for their own exclusive interests to the detriment of others, then tolerance should be withdrawn from the latter when their policies and practises are inhumane and repressive. It was this position in particular which aroused the ire of his critics.

Marcuse and his critics

13. The criticisms of Marcuse's position were trenchant (Katz 1982: 171-182). As Douglas Kellner (1984: 283) noted: 'This politically explosive essay was criticised harshly for its obvious partisanship, violating the academic taboo of neutrality as it called for "intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed and suppressed"'. In the following several themes in the criticism of RT are identified.

14. One criticism of RT relates to what was perceived as an inconsistency in his position, namely, that the withdrawal of tolerance Marcuse proposed resulted in his advocacy of the very intolerance to which he and his followers objected. It was argued that in advocating intolerance to certain groups, beliefs and activities, Marcuse was condoning the very repression he condemned. Alasdair McIntyre (1970: 91) exemplifies this position: 'The new Marcusean radical case against intolerance makes those radicals who espouse it allies in this respect of the very forces they claim to attack, and this is not just a matter of their theory, but also of their practice'.

15. Maurice Cranston (1969) also identified anti-liberal themes in RT. He claimed that by the time of the publication of RT (1965) there appeared 'in Marcuse's writings a new vein of impatience, intolerance and the will to violence, such as often seems to go together with the more hopeful kind of left-wing yearning ... This [RT] is Marcuse's most popular work so far, and his most disturbing' (Cranston 1969: 39). Cranston's concern to examine the 'stages by which Marcuse reached the point of uttering these aggressively illiberal propositions' was based on Marcuse advocating 'the withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active' (124).

16. A second criticism of RT concerned the antidemocratic and intolerant implications of Marcuse's proposal for a new elite which allegedly had the revolutionary insight the masses did not possess, and who would expose the current forms of the autocratic and intolerant state which masquerade as liberal and tolerant. One of the few comprehensive analyses of RT is that by Richard Lichtman (1988) who also discerned this autocratic hue in it. He argued 'that Marcuse is open to the charge of despotism' since 'he is clearly required to nominate some elite to break the hold of the one dimensional consciousness and lead the multitude from their false consciousness to emancipation' (Lichtman 1988: 301-302).

17. Likewise, Charles Taylor (1970: 51) claimed that a necessary formation of a 'new vanguard' who could lead the charge, and free the majority from being duped, was a consequence of Marcuse's position in RT. Taylor maintained:

Marcuse's theory ... forces him ultimately to see the majority [of] the population not as semi-rational human beings like the rest of us who are partly convinced and partly tempted by their life experience to go along with a lousy and unjust system, but rather as irrational objects of manipulation. The result is a disastrous politics of elite shock tactics, a new 'vanguard' theory hardly more attractive than the old. The majority must be liberated from themselves by the Marcusian minority which alone is rational.

18. Alasdair MacIntyre (1970: 89-90) concurred with Taylor's assessment arguing that: 'The major premise of his whole argument is once again that the majority are effectively controlled by the system and so moulded that they cannot hear or understand radical criticism'. Further, '[I]t follows that the people have no voice and the alternatives are not between genuine democracy and the rule of an elite, but between rival elites, the repressive elite of the present and the liberating elite of the Marcusean future' (MacIntyre 1970: 91; Lichtman 1988: 204; Kettler 1976: 43).

19. A third criticism of Marcuse focussed on his position regarding violence. For example, a relatively sympathetic observer, Douglas Kellner (1984: 283), claimed that 'Marcuse opposed the violence of the established society and supported violence to overthrow it'. According to Kellner, Marcuse argued that '"in the advanced centres of civilization violence prevails" ... in police brutality, in prisons and mental institutions, against racial minorities and women and in increasingly brutal forms against the people of undeveloped countries who dare to struggle for their liberation against imperialist domination'. (Kellner 1984:283).

20. A fourth criticism of Marcuse's RT was that he held a Manichean view of politics, one that adopted simplistic dichotomies in which those things he opposed were on one side and those things he applauded were on the other (Kellner 1984: 284; Parekh 1972). Walter Kaufmann (1969: 35) claimed that 'it would be hard to find a more Manichaean tract by a philosopher of any standing' than RT. Exemplifying this approach, according to Kaufman (1969: 36), was Marcuse's advocacy of 'intolerance against movements against the Right and toleration of movements from the Left' (RT 109). Kaufman continued: 'Here Marcuse's Manichaeism is full-blown and this is what accounts more than anything else for his immense, though short lived, popularly'. A little further on Kaufman (1969: 36) continued his objection: 'Instead of complaining or viewing the alarm, Marcuse has the contagious vitality of a vigorous fighter who issues a call to war. It is an ancient battle: the war of the children of light against the children of darkness'.

21. In so doing, fifthly, Marcuse affronted the academic neutrality and value-free sensibilities of those who had accepted as shibboleth the fact-value dichotomy and its associated value relativist epistemology. Of Marcuse, Kellner (1984:284) noted:

The capstone of his argument is the insistence that we must choose sides between Establishment or opposition, and we must make every effort to distinguish true and false, right and wrong, and to oppose militantly what are perceived as false ideas and wrong policies. To a generation of intellectuals nurtured on relativism, ambiguity and neutrality, this was a difficult pill to swallow, and when students drew the line and told their teachers, 'either you're with us or against us', confused academics turned on Marcuse and accused him of corrupting the youth.

Paul Eideleberg (1969: 456) also noted that RT included the observation that students should be taught to oppose 'the Establishment'; they were otherwise prevented from doing so by the 'seemingly value free or neutral character of education, and education based on positivistic science'.

Comments on the criticisms

22. Despite the criticisms, Marcuse not only recognised the benefits of tolerance and even liberal versions of it, he identified its benefits and advocated it. He acknowledged that historically ' intolerance has delayed progress and has prolonged the slaughter and torture of innocents' (105; emphasis added). He claimed that fledgling liberalism encouraged tolerance in order to facilitate dissent (109, 129, 99) and maintained that the 'affluent democracy' is 'tolerant to a large extent' (105). Yet he also stated that tolerance had been 'perverted' (125), and that 'advanced democratic societies which have undermined the basis of economic and political liberalism, have also altered the liberal function of tolerance' (129).

23. Nonetheless, he argued that tolerance was the 'life element, the token of the free society' (137); it could serve a progressive function similar to that at its origins when it possessed 'a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice' (95). Marcuse argued that the freedoms associated with tolerance are a 'precondition' for the augmented and enhanced freedoms he promoted (102). While he claimed that in the West even 'freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude' (98), he continued by asserting that the 'existence and practice of these liberties remain a precondition for the restoration of their original oppositional function...' (98; emphasis added, 96). In other words, Marcuse argued that tolerance was a prerequisite of freedom and dissent, and he recognised that the debate in which he was engaged could only occur in liberal democracies (106). The following provides a concise example of this position:

The factual barriers which totalitarian democracy erects against the efficacy of qualitative dissent are weak and pleasant enough compared with the practices of dictatorship which claim to educate the people in truth. With all its limitations and distortions democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalised intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations. The question is whether this is the only alternative (113; emphasis added).

Thus, notwithstanding his oxymoron 'totalitarian democracy', Marcuse recognised the value of 'democratic tolerance' with all the then current 'limitations and distortions' he detected in it.

24. It is also useful to highlight the location in RT of the discussion which examines Marcuse's sympathy for tolerance. It occurs in a section of RT in which he conceded that his analysis of repressive tolerance is 'concerned not only, and not primarily, with tolerance toward radical extremes, minorities, subversives etc., but rather with tolerance toward majorities, toward official and public opinion, toward the established protectors of freedom' (105-106). At this point, Marcuse is expressing his concern that the vast majority of the population tolerated what he regarded as repressive (96, 104, 112, 131-132). This could also be a reference to the tolerance which is expected of 'the radical extremes, minorities and subversives' toward the established and powerfully intolerant who, in turn, practiced their institutionalised and structural intolerance against the former. But even here Marcuse continues:

In this case, the discussion can have as a frame of reference only a democratic society, in which the people, as individuals and as members of political and other organisations, participate in the making, sustaining and changing policies. In an authoritarian system, the people do not tolerate - they suffer under established policies. (106; emphasis added).

25. Yet, as outlined, his critics claimed his position was contradictory; in advocating withdrawing tolerance in extreme situations he arrogated to his own position that which he denied to his opponents. Thus, he was accused of advocating his own 'leftish' version of tolerance for his sympathisers, but was intolerant of his opponents; he advocated violence for his own cause, and the cause to which he was partisan, but denied it to others.

26. Marcuse certainly advocated intolerance of certain attitudes, policies and positions which he regarded as inimical to the 'democratic tolerance' (113, 123) he championed (114-115, 120, 122-123, 124, 125). But Marcuse was pointing to the then 'abstract' indiscriminate tolerance which was defended and justified by marshalling systemic intolerance against alternative perspectives while masquerading as bipartisan and tolerant. Thus, his 'Liberating tolerance ... would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and the toleration of movements from the Left' (122-123, 120, 114). This position was not advocated in a vacuum. The context was Marcuse's diagnosis that the dissident minorities experienced intolerance under the facade of policies of tolerance (115, 122-123,124).

27. Marcuse defended his position by noting that he was responding to intolerance, repression of dissent, and institutional violence (124), to 'movements of a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character (destructive of the prospects for peace, justice and freedom for all)' (133). Thus, to argue, as some have done, that Marcuse's RT is merely contradictory, that his prescription exacerbates his diagnosis, is to miss his point. Marcuse wanted all citizens to experience tolerance. He advocated a 'universal tolerance', a tolerance 'practiced by the rulers as well as the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as their victims' (98, 104). If the former (the 'ruler', 'lords' and 'sheriffs') are intolerant, or are part of an extreme systemic intolerance, then tolerance should be withdrawn.

28. Marcuse's RT also draws attention to the paradox of tolerance, namely, that in some circumstances there comes a point where tolerance is undermined or threatened to such an extent that the only consistent response (that is, the response consistent with tolerance) is intolerance. To say that there comes a point where tolerance cannot abide intolerance is not merely a casuistic quibble. It is of the very nature of tolerance. When tolerance is jeopardised by intolerance, a consistent and sincere tolerance cannot merely ignore it.

29. What is contested and disputed is the actual point at which tolerance is so threatened that intolerance is a possible and justifiable response. Marcuse seems to have had in mind his experience in Nazi Germany before he migrated, or the growth of the neo-Nazi movement subsequent to the Second Word War (Malinovich 1981: 363; Katz 1982: 172). But it is also true that Marcuse argued that the repressive tolerance he identified in the West after the Second World War occurred in the 'normal course of events' (111, 106-107), where 'the economic and political process is subjected to an ubiquitous administration in accordance with the predominant interests' (129). But, if Marcuse's diagnosis is valid, it is difficult to conceive a position where he could consistently be tolerant of institutional in tolerance. Marcuse was drawing attention to the narrow, predefined, 'closed' (110, 109, 113, 120, 132) thresholds of tolerance which provide the grounds for some to question the validity, or renounce, the notion altogether (Hage 1998). For Marcuse, however, it was the openness to alternatives proffered by a broadly practiced and non-repressive tolerance which was a precondition of freedom (95-96, 102) and verisimilitude.

30. Marcuse was also criticised for what his critics regarded as promoting violence. He undoubtedly discussed violence but his position is more comprehensive and complex that merely claiming that he advocated or championed it. According to Marcuse, institutional violence in the West is 'practiced by the police, in the prisons and mental hospitals, in the fight against racial minorities; it is carried by the defenders of metropolitan freedom, into the backward countries' (116). Marcuse highlighted the role of state sponsored and institutionalised violence in suppressing what he regarded as the right to free expression. Early in RT, in his discussion about 'tolerance being an end in itself only when it is truly universal', that is, 'practiced by the rulers as well as the ruled' (98), Marcuse argued that such 'universal tolerance is only possible when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction' (98). He continued:

As long as these conditions do not prevail [there is a real or imagined enemy], the conditions of tolerance are 'loaded'; they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), ie., by the class structure of society. 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 positions held by the predominant interests and their 'connections'. (98-99, 119).

Marcuse contextualised violence; it is not only the minority dissenters who perpetrate it.

31. Thus, in RT Marcuse draws the distinction between the violence adopted by oppressed minorities and the institutional violence of the majority, or 'between revolutionary and reactionary violence, between violence practiced by the oppressed and violence practiced by the oppressors' (117). But, at least theoretically, this does not necessarily mean that Marcuse is arbitrarily and inconsistently advocating the violence which he supports while renouncing any resort to violence used by his opponents.

32. Immediately after the above quotation he states: 'In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are evil - but since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards?' (117; emphasis added). He continues in terms redolent of his theme: 'To start applying them [ethical standards] at the point where the oppressed rebel against the oppressors, the have-nots against the haves is serving the cause of actual violence by weakening the protest against it' (117). According to Marcuse, demanding non-violence of the oppressed and the disadvantaged aggravates violence by quelling any resistance to the repression which triggered it. He recognised that 'violence breeds violence' but he opposed both the censuring or intolerance of violence when used by the oppressed who do not struggle for 'their personal advantage but for their share of humanity' (131), and its approval and tolerance when used by the oppressors. As he claimed, 'Non-violence is normally not only preached to but exacted from the weak - it is a necessity rather than a virtue, and normally it does not seriously harm the case of the strong' (116; 130-131).

33. Another criticism directed at Marcuse involved his rejection of neutrality (112, 100-101, 103, 104,111-112, 124-125, 127). At the time what was called 'value freedom' was almost the principle of respectable academic social science. However, not only did Marcuse challenge the ideal of being 'value free' he claimed that neutrality underpinned the repressive nature of tolerance. He consequently aroused the ire of the academic community (Katz 1982: 172-177; Kellner 1984: 281-284).

34. However, according to Marcuse, the claims to neutrality in the practice of tolerance were 'spurious' (112-113), they fulfilled an important social function in reinforcing repressive tolerance. The putative impartiality or neutrality characteristic of the state in which repressive tolerance prevails led to the 'integration' (109) or the ' neutralization of opposites' (111, 124-125, 127). Marcuse's argument here begins with his diagnosis of pluralism and a form of epistemological relativism: the 'pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad' (108).

35. This results in opposing positions being cancelled out or neutralised as occurs when proponents of respective views receive equal time or space in the media and which, therefore, 'takes place on the firm ground of the structural limitation of tolerance and within a preformed mentality' (111). As Marcuse noted: 'When tolerance mainly serves the protection of and preservation of the repressive society, when it serves to neutralise opposition and render men (sic) immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted' (124-125).

36. It is in this context that Marcuse charged that the claim to objectivity in the liberal West is 'spurious' (112, 113). He was not jettisoning the notion of objectivity but exposing the partial and lop-sided claims which he detected were made and popularised under its banner; he was responding to what he regarded as the socially enhanced and valorised yet specious claims to objectivity which were as vacuous as the claims of tolerance (Berki 1971: 55). He was suggesting that if opposing perspectives are covered evenly, or 'impartially', with antagonistic majority and minority positions receiving equal treatment, the claim to objectivity is bogus because the perspectives are 'mediated' by those who construct the truth (113). In this way, a spurious objectivity serves to distort and pervert. To use the vernacular, if there is not 'an even playing field' to begin with, any claims to be even-handed, fair, impartial and objective are a sham and yet powerful nonetheless (132-133). To be more 'objective' necessitates extending tolerance to those who are repressed. 'Not "equal" but more representation of the Left would be equalization of the prevailing inequality' (133) in the distribution and promotion of alternative perspectives.

37. Finally, Marcuse was criticised because his position was deemed to be elitist, that he proposed a new vanguard as Charles Taylor cautioned. Indeed, what Taylor raised as a criticism in 1970 Marcuse had posed as a question in the Postscript of 1968 to RT. The context of Marcuse's question is a statement in which Marcuse outlines his diagnosis of the liberal state:

If the final democratic criterion of the declared opinion of the majority no longer (or rather not yet) prevails, if vital ideas, values and ends of human progress no longer (or rather not yet) enter, as competing equals, the formation of public opinion, if the people are no longer (or rather not yet) sovereign but 'made' by the real sovereign powers - is there any alternative other than the dictatorship of the 'elite' over the people? (134).

38. Marcuse continued his argument at this point by acknowledging that the 'radical critics of the existing political process', a position ascribed to him, 'are ... readily denounced as advocating elitism, a dictatorship of intellectuals as an alternative' (135). In other words, Marcuse acknowledged that he and other critics were censured because their position allegedly necessitated an elite. At this point in his argument Marcuse then recognised that an education commensurate with a 'real' democracy, one which questions both the 'facts' and the meta-claims on which they are based, is likely to be anti-establishment (136). This notwithstanding, his response was clear:

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, favours and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. For this struggle, I propose the practice of discriminating tolerance (136; emphasis added)

Marcuse's approach to tolerance and the current debate

39. In this section, the relevance of Marcuse's approach to the issues with which this paper was framed will be briefly explored. The salient questions is: What would be the consequences of adopting a quasi- or neo-Marcusian approach to tolerance in current debates? In general terms Marcuse's analysis raises the issue of the social function of tolerance and in whose interests it operates. As such it challenges much of what is taken for granted about the notion. His analysis poses the issue of whether tolerance in Australia represses rather than operates in accordance with its much vaunted function of epitomising Australian notions of 'fair go' and multiculturalism.

40. In particular, a Marcusean analysis of tolerance in Australia would focus on several pertinent issues. Firstly, it would pursue the link Marcuse identified between equality and tolerance. He pointed out that tolerance is not distributed evenly; some groups can dictate what is tolerated and what is not, while those to whom tolerance is gratuitously granted have no say in the thresholds or levels of tolerance. Further, Marcuse's approach has the potential to expose the extent of the inherent and unequal power relationships that are entailed in a policy of tolerance. It would encourage the attempt to identify the social and political mechanisms by which tolerance is expected of government policy but denied or, in varying degrees, withdrawn from dissenting groups. In addition to contesting the meaning and implications of a policy of tolerance, it would also explore the meaning of phrases such as 'Australians values', 'freedom', 'democracy', and 'citizenship' and engage with the issue of who decides the meaning and the practice of such phrases in the political discourse.

41. Secondly, Marcuse's approach to tolerance would also encourage an investigation of the meaning and use of 'neutrality'. As attested by his analysis of power and the unequal distribution of tolerance, the Marcusean claim is that tolerance is not neutral. Governments are partisan. As Marcuse argued, it was in the West generally and the United States in particular, that neutrality serves to give the façade and pretext of neutrality by putting both sides when one side has trumped the political debate.

42. Such an approach has implications for debates about tolerance in the media. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) is often accused by members of the Federal Government of having a 'left-wing' bias. With all the auditing and controls on the ABC, a Marcusean approach might ask what the ABC would have to do to be 'neutral' so as to be tolerant of various perspectives? Given that governments spend millions of dollars promoting their policies, a Marcusean argument could be advanced that 'neutrality' would entail hearing more of those voices which are opposed to the Government, or belittled, discounted or ignored altogether, rather than merely regurgitating Government positions.

43. Thirdly, another consequence of a Marcusean approach to tolerance could be to explore the possibility of maximising the thresholds of what is tolerated and what is not. Marcuse advocated tolerance for the ruler and the ruled. The corresponding implication in the current debate in Australia would involve developing strategies that would reinvigorate debate so that more perspectives could be heard, and particularly those who do not have a say or, if they do, it is drowned out. This would involve an analysis of the role of government in promoting a more robust and less repressive tolerance. It may even involve recommending, as Marcuse did, that Governments demonstrate their own intolerance of racist groups by speaking out against them and defending minority cultural and religious groups which are currently the cause of intolerant language and action.


44. Marcuse believed he was arguing within the liberal tradition and, in three ways at least, he did invoke that tradition (100, 104-106, 120, 135-136). In common with J S Mill for example, and in contrast with more recent liberal versions of tolerance which emphasise tolerance extending between citizens, Marcuse highlighted what he believed to be state and state-sponsored intolerance. Dominating his diagnosis was his view that tolerance was expected of state policies but withdrawn to dissidents. Marcuse also shared Mill's suspicion of '"the tyranny of the majority"' (Mill 1910: 68), a phrase used by Marcuse (96). Marcuse also referred to Mill's requirement that liberalism is 'meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties' (Mill 1910: 73; RT 100). Liberalism necessitates tolerance as openness to a variety of perspectives and practices. But, laments Marcuse, the closing and diminution of alternatives by intolerance in the repressive society means that citizens are denied knowledge of alternatives and options (for example, by media monopoly) which could be otherwise available to them (120). As such, Mill's condition regarding 'the maturity of the faculties' was not met.

45. Nonetheless, despite the criticisms which the publication of RT engendered, the issues which Marcuse raised are as relevant in the West now as he believed they were then. The examination of the extent to which (in)tolerance is state-sponsored, that tolerance is distributed unequally and should be subject to the same analysis as other forms of inequality, and the social function performed by neutrality and objectivity, remain central to the current debates about tolerance.

46. But perhaps in a paper intended (at least indirectly) to raise the profile of Marcuse's essay, it is appropriate that Marcuse should have the last say. In 1968 in a public forum Marcuse repeated his position (1968: 31):

Here a correction: I certainly haven't said that there should not be freedom of expression for those opinions with which I do not agree or which I consider damaging to the public cause. I have suggested there should be discriminating tolerance - that is to say, movements which are obviously and objectively aggressive and destructive, not in my personal view but objectively, should not be tolerated.

47. When asked what he meant by 'objectively' in the above quotation he referred to the emergence of Nazism (122; 1968: 31, 98), an issue about which he subsequently invoked as influential in his thinking about RT. For example in an interview after a lecture he stated (Marcuse 1970: 98):

I hope that nothing in my essay on tolerance suggests that I repudiate every sort of tolerance. That seems to me such idiocy that I cannot understand how such an interpretation has come into being. What I mean and said [in RT] was that there are movements, which manifest themselves in propaganda as well as action, of which it can be predicted with great certainty that they will lead to an increase in repression and destruction. These movements should not be tolerated within the framework of democracy. Here is a classic example: I believe that if, in the Weimer Republic, the Nazi movement had not been tolerated once it had revealed its character, which was quite early, if it had not enjoyed the blessings of that democracy, then we probably would not have experienced the horrors of the Second World War and some other horrors as well.

48. Ten years after the publication of the Postscript of RT (1968) Marcuse conceded that he was 'intentionally provocative in the essay because [he] saw the danger of a tendency, not in this country [the United States], but mainly in Germany of a new toleration of Nazi and proto-Nazi movements' (Malinovich 1981: 381). Playing the provocateur may explain some of his critic's reactions. Later he also acknowledged that his position came across as 'stronger' than he intended, and that 'refinements and qualifications may be possible or necessary' (Malinovich 1981: 381). But, he insisted, such concessions need not be used to moderate or temper his position too much because '[he] certainly would not give up the position [in RT] as a whole' (Malinovich 1981: 381). Marcuse's challenging paper remains - as does repressive tolerance. But it also offers an approach useful for critique and change.


Dr Rodney Fopp is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of South Australia. He teaches social and political theory to arts and international studies students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. His interests also include the perspectives and influence of German émigrés who migrated to English speaking nations prior to the Second World War.


1. Hereafter the abbreviation RT will be used to refer to both the article and the Postscript. As this is an article about RT it makes no pretensions to locate this work in Marcuse's broader work or to discuss the relationship between RT and his other work. I would argue that RT is an excellent entrée into Marcuse work but have been unable to uncover such an attempt except the rather shrill debate immediately after the article was published. But see Wolff (1974), who locates RT in Marcuse's One Dimensional Man (1964) and claims that RT was originally intended for the earlier book. For more sympathetic yet critical assessments see Berki (1971), Callinicos (1985), and Green (1967).


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