A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Marcuse’s Relevance Today: Violence, Racism, and the Critique of Pure Tolerance

How Marcuse might help us combat violent US culture

by Charles ReitzAugust 23, 2019

In the wake of the numerous acts of racist and white extremist mass violence culminating in El Paso (22 killed) and Dayton (9 killed), and including also those at the Pittsburgh synagogue (11 killed), the historically black Charleston, S. C., church (9 killed), the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque (51 killed), the high school in Parkland, Fla. (17 killed), the rampage by Norway’s Anders Breivik (77 killed), and the less wheel-known murders at the Overland Park, Kansas, Jewish Center (3 killed), we radical philosophers as critical educators must begin to interrupt and end white extremist gun terror and hate speech through massive curricular and extra-curricular campaigns championing Herbert Marcuse’s critique of pure tolerance.

During the mid-1960s, Marcuse met Brandeis student Angela Davis, and began an intellectual/political relationship that lasted well-beyond her student years (Davis 2013; 2004). He published “Repressive Tolerance,” at that time (1965), and dedicated it to students at Brandeis. Marcuse’s essay contains insights and elements that make it extremely pertinent as we debate how to best protect human rights and human lives in this era of mass shootings and acrid backlash against the Left’s core critique of racism, derided by the Right as “political correctness.”

Today the Alt-Right, much like its precursor in the pre-9/11 New Right, is asserting a putative political need for a democratic society to maintain an absolute tolerance of abusive and even assaultive speech—as protected forms of “dissent.” It is now using the “charge of imperiling free speech … to silence oppressed and marginalized groups and to push back against their interests” (Stanley 2016). In opposition, Marcuse’s repressive tolerance essay called out in 1965 what is now more widely recognized today as “the free speech fallacy” (Stanley 2016). If we all have a de jure right to express any opinion in public, the de facto condition is that left opinions are usually marginalized and often suppressed, while Right-wing ones, which benefit the ruling class, are given free play. “This pure tolerance of sense and nonsense” practiced under the conditions prevailing in the United States today “cannot fulfill the civilizing function attributed to it by the liberal protagonists of democracy, namely protection of dissent” (Marcuse 1965, 94, 117). We need to stress this analysis of the false equivalence of reactionary and emancipatory speech, fascist and anti-fascist violence.

A strategy for the defense of equal civil rights and intercultural solidarity with victims of hate speech has been developed over the past decades by authors like Dolores Calderón (2009); Christine Sleeter and Dolores Delgado Bernal (2003); Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (1997); Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence, Richard Delgado and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1993); and John K. Wilson (1995). They each make the case that freedom of speech is not absolute and must be viewed in the context of its real political consequences.

Forty years ago, it was Marcuse who warned of the global economic and cultural developments that are now much more obvious given capitalism’s crescendo of economic failures since 2008, political and philosophical tendencies that are often referred to as “neoliberalism” and/or “neo-conservatism” in much current analytical work. Marcuse clearly understood these tendencies back then as organized counterrevolution, albeit a preventive one. They are an ideological and political assault undertaken by an increasingly predatory capitalism against liberal democratic change, not to mention the radical opposition. This was well before the post-9/11 era of U.S. counter-terrorism. Today the extensive counter-revolution entails: the police-state established by the U.S.A. Patriot Act, global “Terror War” (Kellner 2003), a “money-is-speech” Supreme Court, and intensifying political economic inequalities. Marcuse understood the capitalist state as an expression of material inequalities, never neutral, having been captured by the forces of class-, race-, and gender-based oppression. Within the current forms of unfreedom that are yet called democracies, real crimes by the Right (years before 9/11, as well as in its aftermath) are tolerated, even promoted and conducted, by the state—such as systematic police brutality, depriving millions of Americans of comprehensive health care, treating asylum seekers as criminals, implementing the death penalty in a racially biased manner, supplying arms and training to governments and armed groups around the world that commit torture, political killings, and other human rights abuses, etc. (Amnesty International, 1998).

Today radical philosophy and social science understand that incidents of bigotry or interpersonal discrimination are largely conditioned by underlying social forces and structures. Individual acts and prejudiced rhetoric are the tip of the iceberg; below the surface is the real social substance of racial discrimination. For example: the institutional realities of inequality in housing, employment, education, healthcare, media, law enforcement, etc. also serve as material agents of socialization, simultaneously generating overt and covert awareness of privilege for some, and a kind of lower-caste status for those directly abused.

Racial animosity and anti-immigrant scapegoating have once again been orchestrated in service to this system. The governmental policies and paramilitary tactics of “ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) directed against undocumented immigrants [being rounded up by the hundreds as I write this in August 2019] portend a chilling neo-fascist police presence in everyone’s future. Earlier in the 20th century, after World War I in the U.S., during the so-called Red Scare and Palmer Raids, the “sanctity of the prevailing order of society” was enforced through waves of governmentally-orchestrated counterrevolutionary patriotism, anti-immigrant Americanism, and resurgent white supremacy. Federal, state, and local governments in 1919 demonstrated that nothing was sacred when it came to the deportations of immigrants and criminal frame-ups of radicals, not to mention the mass lynching in Arkansas of 237 black men—unionizing sharecroppers and the returning black veterans supporting them.

Marcuse’s philosophy, practically from the beginning, addressed the deep roots of the capitalist system’s functioning and its crisis: the commodification of labor, burgeoning inequality, wasted abundance (especially in war), lives without meaningful purpose. The inadequacy of one-dimensional American liberalism was its obliviousness to the problematic nature of prevailing social and economic relations and its suffocation and repression of life’s internal inconsistencies and contradictions.

Marcuse made a special effort in One-Dimensional Man to encompass certain broadly critical anti-racist projects already underway in the U.S., like the demystification of the vaunted myths of affluence and melting pot assimilation in American life (extending the work of Gordon 1964). He understood the reigning Anglo-conformity and WASP patriotism and militarism in the U.S., as well as its economic instrumentalism, as single-dimensional insofar as these were oblivious to the problematic nature of prevailing social and economic relations. If abundance for all was a capacity of advanced industrial society, this was effectively cancelled by forces of capitalism, while affluence for some was the privilege of the propertied. Marcuse understood the limits of liberal democracy (Farr 2009, 119–136), and how the notion of the “affluent society” actually masked a gravely unequal, patriarchal, and monocultural form of domination. Of course, the conventional wisdom within the nation itself was largely oblivious to its own racism and other forms of prejudice.

In our own time, a precarious (yet increasingly awakened) working population is more aware of the intensifying racism and sexism in our epoch of rising social injustice: that racism and sexism are economic weapons with deep and grotesque consequences (past and present) as part of the capital accumulation process; that white privilege and male privilege have functioned primarily to secure the dominance of the 1 percent while politically dividing the 99 percent of working humanity against itself. The social movements of our age have been its civilizing forces. BLM [Black Lives Matter] has effectively educated the nation about the cavalier use of racist deadly force (on and off campus) and the real nature of undemocratic governance. So too, the uprising of women in the “Me Too,” “Time’s Up,” “She Persisted,” movements are teaching us all of the deep and longstanding patterns of insult, abuse, and violence present in the prevailing patriarchal institutions of employment, education, politics and the media in the U.S. The organized social struggles against racism, sexism, poverty, war, and imperialism, have educated wide swaths of this country’s population outside traditional classrooms about the structural foundations of alienation and oppression, power and empowerment.

How shall radical philosophy and social science best protect human rights in this era of white extremist mass shootings, police killings, reactionary attacks on multicultural education reform, and amid rival redefinitions of freedom? Marcuse proposes a vision of intercultural solidarity against the resurgent politics of race, class, and gender characteristic of preventive counterrevolution and authoritarian populism. Marcuse’s critique of pure tolerance is grounded in emancipatory political action for equality and liberty rights – i.e. human rights as a universal entitlement.

Revolutionary critical educators and students need to continue to take risks and struggle to infuse higher education with analyses of the “critical, radical movements and theories in history, literature, philosophy” (Marcuse [1968] 2009, 37). Critical theorizing must necessarily also have an emancipatory action component. Learning occurs in communities that help one another to apprehend the dialectic of the historical and material world and the changing social condition of humanity within it. Learning from real world struggles aims at an understanding of the principles of action required for human beings to grasp theoretically, and possess politically, the economic processes that today divest us of our own creative work and communal power. A genuinely democratic intellectual framework for anti-racist educational philosophy in this country is a task yet to be accomplished. It remains for us to craft such a social and educational foundation if we are to attain the emancipatory and anti-racist goals of Marcuse’s critical theory of philosophy and politics.

Amnesty International. (1998). United States of America: Rights for All. New York: Amnesty International USA.
Calderón, Dolores. (2009). “One-Dimensionality and Whiteness,” in Douglas Kellner, Tyson Lewis, Clayton Pierce, and K. Daniel Cho. Herbert Marcuse’s Challenges to Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Davis, Angela. (2013). “Critical Refusals and Occupy,” Radical Philosophy Review, Vol.16. No.2.
Davis, Angela. (2004). “Marcuse’s Legacies,” in John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb (Eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader. New York: Routledge.
Delgado, Richard and Jane Stefancic (1997). Must We Defend Nazis? Hate Speech, Pornography, and the New First Amendment. New York: New York University Press.
Farr, Arnold L. (2009). Critical Theory and Democratic Vision: Herbert Marcuse and Recent Liberation Philosophies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grabiner, Gene and Virginia E. Grabiner. 1982. “Where Are Your Papers, Operation Zebra, and Constitutional Civil Liberties,” Journal of Black Studies, March.
Douglas Kellner, Tyson Lewis, Clayton Pierce, and K. Daniel Cho. (2009). Herbert Marcuse’s Challenges to Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Kellner, Douglas. (2003a). From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
_. (2003b). Media Spectacle. New York: Routledge.
Marcuse, Herbert. [1968] 2009. “Lecture on Education, Brooklyn College, 1968” in Douglas Kellner, Tyson Lewis, Clayton Pierce, K. Daniel Cho (Eds.) Marcuse’s Challenge to Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
__. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance” in Wolff, R.P., Moore, B. & Marcuse, H. A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Matsuda, Mari J., Lawrence, C.R., Delgado, R., & Crenshaw, K.W. (1993). Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Sleeter, Christine and Dolores Delgado Bernal. (2003). “Critical Pedagogy, Critical Race Theory, and Anti-Racist Education: Implications for Multicultural Education,” in James A. Banks and Cherry A. Banks (eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stanley, Jason. (2016). “The Free Speech Fallacy” The Chronicle Review, March 18.