In my early twenties, I read an expedition was being planned in search of the grave of Genghis Khan. Being young, game, and interested in writing on an adventure, I inquired about tagging along.
I found a professor at Harvard connected with the mission, whom I quizzed about its likelihood of success. The man laughed and eventually revealed the team had little idea where Khan was buried. Some colleagues merely dug up a few stories of Khan’s death that would be enough to take in a sponsor.
I was blown away. How, I asked, could the archaeologists justify that?
“Son,” he laughed. “They’re intellectuals. They can justify anything.”
People complain about QAnon, but truly lasting, impactful lunacy is always exclusive to intellectuals. Everyone else is constrained. You can’t fish on land for long. Same with using a chainsaw for headache relief. An intellectual may freely mistake bullshit for Lincoln logs and spend a lifetime building palaces. Which brings us to Herbert Marcuse.
Often called the “Father of the New Left,” and the inspiration for a generation of furious thought-policing nitwits of the Robin DiAngelo school, Marcuse was a great intellectual. Most Americans have never heard of him — he died in 1979 — but his ideas today are ubiquitous as Edison’s lightbulbs. He gave us everything from “Silence Equals Violence” to “Too Much Democracy” to the “Crisis of Misinformation” to In Defense of Looting to the 1619 Project and Antiracist Baby, and from the grave has cheered countless recent news stories, from the firing of Mandalorian actress Gina Corano to the erasure of raw footage of the Capitol riot from YouTube.
Marcuse is so influential that subscribers thought it would be a good idea to review his books, rather than go one-by-one through the seemingly interminable list of homage texts dominating bestseller lists in recent years. When I told a friend, he warned with a chuckle about the author’s “spectacularly bad synthesis,” mimicking the old Reese’s Peanut Butter cup jingle: “You got your Marx in my Freud!” I read One-Dimensional Man, and a painful collection essays that included the famed Bible of post-liberal thinking, Repressive Tolerance. Conclusion number one: a person more hostile to the sensual possibilities of literature would be difficult to imagine. Reading Marcuse is like eating a bowl of thumbtacks. The style is nothing, however, next to the ideas. My God, the ideas!
Berlin-born Herbert Marcuse was drafted into the German army in 1916, but didn’t see action in World War I. Fortune, obviously concerned with his destiny as the arch-priest of anti-thought in 21st century America, placed him in a rearguard unit. Despite the lack of combat experience, he came out of the war disillusioned, among other things by the experience of watching the German socialist opposition support the war.
After studying at the University of Freiburg, he worked for years at a bookstore, then went back to school, studying under famed philosopher Martin Heidegger. He hoped to help solve the urgent question animating many young intellectuals of his time: what form of Marxism would eventually triumph across the civilized world?
Then, just as Weimar Germany degenerated into exactly the social conditions under which Marx predicted proletarian revolution, German communism flopped, Heidegger became a Nazi University Rector, and a stunned Marcuse soon exiled himself to Switzerland and eventually America, where he would spend the rest of his life trying to come up with an explanation for what happened.
Marcuse’s understandable grief and horror over the rise of Nazism, coupled with a humorously powerful loathing for his adopted American home, led him to write the work that first made him famous, 1964’s One-Dimensional Man.
The smash #1 bestseller sold 300,000 copies and detailed Marcuse’s long-awaited explanation for a) why the proletariat had not risen in postwar Germany, and b) why there was no sense in waiting for it to do so going forward. He explained: not only was the material condition of the worker in modern capitalism insufficiently brutal to spur him to revolution, but technological advances coupled with expanded freedoms allowed even the lowliest employee to fully integrate into the “one-dimensional society,” a consumerist hell of mostly met material needs, “pleasure,” “fun,” and “socially permissible desirable satisfaction,” all of which “weakens the rationality of protest.”
In this world where the commonest shlub can “have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just turning a knob on his set,” it would be impossible, Marcuse lamented, to produce the kind of class alienation Marx envisioned. What’s the point of having the right to dissent, if conditions disincline the citizen to revolution?
Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized. Such a society may justly demand acceptance of its principles and institutions…
In the later book, An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse anticipated 21st-century liberal attitudes by concluding that the working-class was an actively regressive social force:
By virtue of its basic position in the production process, by virtue of its numerical weight and the weight of exploitation, the working class is still the historical agent of revolution; by virtue of its sharing the stabilizing needs of the system, it has become a conservative, even counterrevolutionary force.
After One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse in the 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance set out to argue that the very “stabilizing” rights and freedoms that facilitated this treacherous class integration were the problem that needed conquering. What resulted might be the most impassioned argument against individual rights ever written. It makes the Directorium Inquisitorum read like Dr. Spock on Parenting.
Repressive Tolerance is a towering monument to the possibilities of nonsense in the academic profession. The essay’s 10,000 words, alternately hilarious and breathtaking, are circular thinking and the absence of self-awareness raised to the level of art. We don’t often encounter an author capable of denouncing “the tyranny of Orwellian syntax” while arguing in the same breath, literally and without irony, that freedom is slavery.
Marcuse starts down this road by quoting John Stuart Mill, who he notes is “not exactly an enemy of liberal and representative government” (am I hallucinating a Twitter-like tone of haughtiness in such passages?). Even this Enlightenment hero, sneers Marcuse, admitted liberal rights are not absolute. “Liberty, as a principle,” Mill wrote, “has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.”
But don’t we have something like liberty, in a society that grants us the vote, a free press, the right to assemble, dissent, even plot revolution? No, says Marcuse, because liberty “stipulates the ability to determine one’s own life,” an impossibility in our world. He explains:
The problem of making possible such a harmony between every individual liberty and the other, is not that of finding a compromise between competitors, or between freedom and law, between general and individual interest, common and private welfare in an established society, but of creating the society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning.
(One noticeable human tic in the otherwise unrelenting metronome of Marcuse’s prose — the man writes like a car alarm left on — is a weird overuse of the word vitiate).
In other words, real freedom doesn’t exist in the balance between the many individual liberties doled out to persons and institutions alike in societies like ours, but only in the post-revolutionary “created” society of absolute freedom as imagined by the author, a utopia Marcuse tabs the “pacification of existence.” (The ostensibly antiwar leftist’s use of that term just as America was beginning its “pacification” campaign in Vietnam is another of the essay’s quirks).
Therefore, Marcuse wrote, any existing rights and freedoms “should not be tolerated,” because “they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.”
Settling for anything less than an absolute utopia of painlessness, or admitting any delays on the route there, even in the name of progress, is repression. As he put it, in America, the “exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counterviolence)” only served to “strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties.” In other words — drumroll — freedom is slavery:
Freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude…
After completing the first stage of this Orwellian pole-dance, Marcuse marches up and down the runway, flinging paradoxes left and right. Not only is freedom servitude, but tolerance is intolerance! Democracy is totalitarianism! Equality is inequality! For the latter formulation, he used an argument that would be later deployed in reverse by Fox News to explain its infamous “Fair and Balanced” motto: “More representation of the Left would be equalization of the prevailing inequality.”
He also argues progress is reaction, stability is emergency, and law is lawlessness, because “law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy.” Marcuse doesn’t state it, but the basic premise that all prerevolutionary reform is a trick of the oppressor also explains the current attitude toward racial relations, under which downplaying racial difference is racism and antiracism must conversely mean emphasizing its transcendent importance.
You’ll recognize the view of violence in Repressive Tolerance. Marcuse had a twofold take. First, violence is obviously violence, when practiced by police, or the wards of prisons and mental institutions. Violence is even violence, he says, as practiced by revolutionaries like Robespierre (“even if the white terror was more bloody than the red terror,” Marcuse hastened to add, not wanting to completely abandon the guillotine to criticism). Whether practiced by the oppressor or the oppressed, he went on, “in terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil.”
This is no prohibition against violence, however, because:
Since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards? To start applying [ethics] 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.
Summing up: violence is always violence, as a matter of ethics. However, since ethics are not ethical, not only is violence not violence, but non-violence is violence, when practiced by the oppressed against the oppressor. This is the mentality behind last summer’s firing of analyst David Shor for re-tweeting a study suggesting nonviolent protest is effective, as well as the bizarre mania for calling things that were actually violence not violence (e.g. “mostly peaceful” protests, etc), while things that manifestly are not violence, like grade school teasing or cultural appropriation, are regularly described using the word.
As for the question of exactly how conditional one’s rights should be, Marcuse insisted that “extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger.” This sounds reasonable until you read on: “I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation, and that it has become the normal state of affairs.”
Marcuse remember had just finished a book explaining that revolution was obviated in a society where civil liberties were “too significant to be confined by traditional forms,” and whose “capacity to spread comforts” inspired widespread “voluntary compliance” with its more. Now, that same society was described as presenting such “extreme danger” to the citizen that suspension of all civil rights was necessary.
To be fair to Marcuse, he was trying to argue that the “one-dimensional” society was “radically evil” because it created a kind of totalitarianism of the consumer instinct, in which the individual becomes one with the state through his worship of product, learning to understand happiness only as something that can be bought. While the supreme beneficiaries of this paradise of buying increase their wealth and political control, the state drops bombs abroad, and at home abuses prisoners, minorities, and the “unemployed and unemployable.” Meanwhile, the tyranny of affluence leads to:
The systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence…
I think most of us can agree that “radical evil” is a term that fits many parts of the American experience, from Tuskeegee to the moonscaped hamlets of North Vietnam and Cambodia to the Covid-racked prisons of today. Surely also we are exhibiting the symptoms of a deeper sickness when we plop our kids in front of screens to make them wanters-of-things, to save time while we adults chase the affluence dragon.
But Marcuse’s main complaint was that despite technological advances that could have lessened the need for work, the individual of his time was still “compelled to prove himself on the market.” If we could only end the need to struggle through the “pacification of existence,” he insisted, that “might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity.” The “extreme danger” was choosing any other path.
To say this is a warped concept of “danger” is an epic understatement:
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“Hi, I live in a society whose citizens choose to struggle in the market rather than enter a workless Eden of pure freedom, in which man’s vital needs will be tended to by a productive apparatus placed under the centralized control of persons like myself…”
People who do intellectual work should feel a responsibility to make sure the words they use at least roughly correspond to their ostensible meaning, but like a lot of German intellectuals, Marcuse had been mired in dialectical comparisons for so long that his sense of proportion was fucked beyond recognition. The man cited aggressive driving in arguing an emergency so dire that a suspension of all civil liberties was warranted.
There’s a reason some German scholars are said to prefer reading Clausewitz in English, because it’s clearer. With Marcuse, the translation doesn’t help. He was the real-world embodiment of Orwell’s utopian linguists who were impatient to rid the world of all those annoying words for shades of difference. Once you have a lock on “good,” why bother litigating degrees of its opposite? Bad is bad. He thought in binary pairs, and freely conflated concepts like inadequacy, misgovernment, and indifference with cruelty, repression, persecution, and terror, a habit of mind that’s inspired a generation of catastrophizing neurotics who genuinely don’t know the difference between disagreement and an attempt on their lives.
We saw it in health officials who went from condemning anti-lockdown protests to, a week or two later, declaring that racism — not on their radar prior to the murder of George Floyd — was a “lethal public health issue” superseding the pandemic. We saw it with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applying the transitive property of whatever nineteen times over to make Ted Cruz’s decision to refuse certification of the Electoral College mean he was “trying to murder me” and “almost had me murdered.” Same with the New York Times employees who declared their lives were thrust in peril by soon-to-be-fired editor James Bennet’s decision to run an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton:
The argument-from-emergency ties in with one of Marcuse’s most quoted passages: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” This is another precursor to the Roger Ailes/Fox formulation that leftism is so hegemonic that one needs to pull the steering wheel of society hard to the right just to move in a straight line. (Both arguments are absurd). Marcuse famously believed toleration of competing views repeated the error of Weimar Germany, where “if democratic tolerance had been withdrawn, mankind would have had a chance of avoiding Auschwitz and a World War.”
This wasn’t a new idea. It had been expressed by (among others) Plato, in his argument for the rule of philosopher-kings. In book 562(c) of the Republic, he wondered, “Does not the excess (of liberty) bring men to such a state that they badly want a tyranny?” Philosopher Karl Popper addressed this line in The Open Society and Its Enemies, in a passage that hilariously has become one of the most popular memes on Left Twitter. It is impossible to make even a tepid argument in favor of free speech online these days without being swarmed by dingbats posting this image:
Yes, they are referring to a passage that Popper actually wrote: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
However, the Popper passage is actually found in the notes to The Open Society and Its Enemies, as an explanation rather than an endorsement of Plato’s argument against tolerance. In fact, the body of The Open Society and Its Enemies contains a passionate common-sense argument against Platonic intolerance and “benevolent dictatorship.” Popper begins with the observation that’s obvious no matter what your level of schooling: “All theories of sovereignty are paradoxical.”
A society built around individual rights and freedoms does risk allowing illiberal forces to take advantage of those freedoms. But how does anyone outside of a Farrelly brothers movie come up with autocracy as a solution to the threat of autocracy? As Popper wrote, the “Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state… is likely to lead to a dictatorship,” among other things because it contains all the same pitfalls inherent in any government. “Any difference of opinion between Utopian engineers must therefore lead to the use of power instead of reason, i.e. to violence,” wrote Popper.
Common sense seems to strike Marcuse’s old-world mentality as too gauche, a cheap shortcut, “hitting below the intellect,” as Oscar Wilde once put it, describing the American habit of “brute reason.” Marcuse’s disgust before the crassness, superficiality, and violence of the United States bleeds through in his books. Even when describing, say, America’s unique capacity for generating and distributing material wealth, he used phrases like “the better and more equitable distribution of misery and oppression.”
Marcuse had no right being blind to the beauty of the American experiment, since his life was graphic proof of it. This was a man who became a wealthy international celebrity selling a book arguing that after fleeing Nazi Germany, he found “democratic totalitarianism” teaching at Brandeis University. In this sense, One-Dimensional Man reads like The Gulag Archipelago, minus the logging. Or confinement. Or political repression of any kind. In fact, Marcuse’s letter from the American gulag reads quite a lot like Monty Python’s “What have the Romans ever done for us?” skit:
Rather than feel blessed to live in a country where a man can achieve wealth and fame writing one of the stupidest books in history, Marcuse became more embittered. This shines through in Repressive Tolerance, which doubles as an impassioned manifesto against enjoyment of any kind in the here and now, which Marcuse regarded as a kind of sin against the future Utopia. “For the true positive is the society of the future and therefore beyond definition and determination,” he wrote, adding that “the existing positive is that which must be surmounted.”
Marcuse would have fit with the Puritan settlers, who were ready to hang the first man who laughed at a fart (rather than waiting to do it in the afterlife). The humorlessness and love of the lash that have always been part of America’s DNA, from The Scarlet Letter through the Anti-Saloon League, are part of the reason Marcuse’s ideas still have so much purchase. He was obsessed with determining “correct and incorrect” action and speech, deciding what is art and what is “pseudo-art,” which messages are intolerably regressive, etc. He was happy to tell you how to calculate this. For instance, he declared Dostoyevsky to have a regressive message, but because it was “absorbed, aufgehoben in the artistic form,” the bad thing was “canceled by the oeuvre itself.” So, okay for putting on the shelves of the “pacified” state.
He was the inspiration for the attitudes of modern America, which is suspicious of all forms of enjoyment divorced from political intent. Forget humor, our popular culture doesn’t even feel safe celebrating sex, unless it’s tragic or transgressive. We’re living out the Woody Allen joke, “I finally had an orgasm, but my doctor said it was the wrong kind.”
It’s all Puritanism, seething at any delays in building that ladder to heaven, the only difference being that the Puritans, being Christians, at least believed in original sin and forgiveness, i.e. you still got to go to Heaven after the thumbscrews. The new secular incarnation believes forgiveness is the only sin, while due process and the presumption of innocence just delay justice.
Rehabilitation just can’t be risked, without imperiling society’s victims. “The exercise of civil rights by those who don't have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise,” Marcuse writes, adding that “liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.”
All the revelry in suppressing rights gets to the real reason Marcuse has come back into vogue. Strip the rhetorical bells and whistles from books like One-Dimensional Man and Repressive Tolerance and what’s left? A white, affluent, upper-class intellectual frustrated by the lack of a popular mandate for his vision of political takeover. The original plan of riding proletarian revolution to power thwarted, Marcuse early on concluded that the working-class needed a push from more knowledgeable political actors. He wrote in 1947:
Marx assumed that the proletariat is driven to revolutionary action on its own, based on the knowledge of its own interests, as soon as revolutionary conditions are present. . . . [But subsequent] development has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution.
By the mid-sixties, however, he realized that the working-class wouldn’t do the job even if pushed. Therefore, other groups must provide the necessary revolutionary energy:
Those who form the human base of the social pyramid—the outsiders and the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the persecuted colored races, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions.
I’d have more sympathy for this point of view were it not so obvious that Marcuse’s embrace of the “persecuted colored races” was opportunistic afterthought. His real endgame is absolutist rule by our intellectual betters. Explaining that “the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge,” he goes on to prove that the broad main of people are not so capable. They lack the discernment to know the “objective truth which can be discovered,” to separate correct from incorrect, among other things because too many incorrect opinions are allowed to circulate.
Ultimately, he writes, “if the choice were between genuine democracy and dictatorship, democracy would certainly be preferable. But democracy does not prevail.”
As such, “The radical critics of the existing political process are thus readily denounced as advocating an 'elitism', a dictatorship of intellectuals as an alternative.” This sounds bad! But, he insisted in 1965, when one considered that the current business and military elites had such a bad record, “political prerogatives for the intelligentsia may not necessarily be worse for the society as a whole.”
Summing up, this is a theory of an intellecutal elite forced to seize absolute power on behalf of racial minorities, the disabled, and other oppressed groups, while canceling free speech and civil rights for all others, and especially for the corrupted mass of working-class people, who are no friends of the revolution but actually ignorant conservatives obstructing the road to “pacification and liberation.” Does this sound familiar?
Marcuse had it wrong. Fifty-plus years later, American society does much worse at satisfying material needs, and the ordinary working person is less and less often invited to share the “stabilizing needs” of the system with its rulers. Even Marx was closer to correctly describing today’s politics. What has been successfully integrated, by the very consumerist oligarchs Marcuse supposedly despised, is would-be dissident literature like Repressive Tolerance.
Back in the sixties, Marcuse was denounced by Pope Paul VI, while establishment political figures decried his support of groups like the SDS, the Weathermen, and the Black Panthers. He was seen as a thorn in the side of the status quo. Today Marcuse is the status quo. His muddle-headed theories are the cover story for a new theory of corporate vanguardism that places an ennobled political elite in charge of replacing our messy system of freedoms and principles with a more “centralized” control of the “productive apparatus,” the exact thing Marcuse hoped for in One-Dimensional Man.
The American system, flawed as it was and is, was designed to prevent this kind of concentration of power, through checks and balances and the protection of individual rights. Those protections have been under assault throughout our history by monopolists and other reactionaries, who never had a gift as luscious as Marcuse: a self-styled progressive arguing to the masses that they should cast democracy and ethics aside for their own good.
For Marcusean ideas to be venerated now by elite millionaire politicians, clad in kente cloth scarves and funded by banks and weapons-makers flying Black Lives Matter banners, is the perfect ending to this slapstick career. Nothing about Marcuse was American, except his most important quality: he was a quack, which made him not just one of us, but a figure of respect and influence in this society. He died too soon for the White House, but he’s well on his way to becoming our own Iron Felix, his statue erected in place of those piddling fake patriots with names like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
The man who probably wouldn’t have touched a Harley, a blues guitar, a Budweiser, or a baseball without a Haz-Mat suit will spend eternity watching his name become locked in association with the red, white, and blue, with American tanks and rifles spreading his doctrine of unfreedom to every corner of the globe. You could laugh at the irony — capitalism can even absorb this — but this particular character wouldn’t get the joke.