Herbert Marcuse: Power of Repressive Tolerance

Herbert Marcuse‘s resonant and insightful words:

“In the contemporary period, the democratic argument for abstract tolerance tends to be invalidated by the invalidation of the democratic process itself. The liberating force of democracy was the chance it gave to effective dissent, on the individual as well as social scale, its openness to qualitatively different forms of government, of culture, education, work–of the human existence in general. The toleration of free discussion and the equal right of opposites was to define and clarify the different forms of dissent: their direction, content, prospect. But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge; in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly. Under the rule of monopolistic media–themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power–a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society.

Herbert Marcuseone of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, was a remarkable philosopher, sociologist, an inspiring political theorist. This powerful quote taken from “Repressive Tolerance”, a truly recommended chapter which was first published in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965) along with two more articles by Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore.  In this sharp and thought provoking essay Marcuse brilliantly shows “how the changes in advanced democratic societies, which have undermined the basis of economic and political liberalism, have also altered the liberal function of tolerance.”

Herbert Marcuse. 1965. “Repressive Tolerance.” Pp. 81-118 in Critique of Pure Tolerance. Boston: Beacon Press. (open access)
– an additional open access version of the chapter (pdf), including explanatory footnotes.

herbert marcuse

Herbert Marcuse official homepage.


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