Is Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” actually a cover for cancel culture? Stephen Eric Bronner responds.

Stephen Eric Bronner responds to Matt Taibbi’s article, “Herbert Marcuse and the Journalistic Appropriation of Philosophy,” The Global Teach-in: Democratize the Crisis (February 18, 2021).

Jonathan Michael Feldman asked Steve Bronner to respond to Matt Taibbi’s article. Here is what he said:

Jonathan, I’m sorry about not replying to your original post. It deserves a response. In fact, the article you criticize is itself an example of repressive tolerance. You are quite right, of course, insofar as that concept has nothing to do with cancel culture or the like for a number of reasons: The first is that every serious idealist or Marxist–whether Lukacs, Adorno, Sartre or Marcuse– refuses to reduce the value of an intellectual work to the politics/prejudices/ or assumptions of its author.

Marx and Engels praised the “petty bourgeois” Balzac; Lukacs praised “the bourgeois” novelist Thomas Mann; Sartre wrote three volumes on Flaubert; Adorno called upon critical theorists to reappropriate the repressed truths of conservative writers; and Marcuse wrote the following: “Marxist theory is not family research. The progressive character of art, its contribution to the struggle for liberation cannot be measured by the artists’ origins nor by the ideological horizon of their class. Neither can it be determined by the presence (or absence) of the oppressed class in their works.”

In the Idealist and Marxist traditions, a work of art (or any intellectual work) is an objectification: it stands in relation to the artist in the way that a child stands in relation to its parent: residues, prejudices, and the like are carried over from one to the other, but the child becomes his or her own person or as Marx put it with resect to art “takes on a life of its own” and “creates its own audience of art lovers” — that cannot be defined in advance.

Marcuse himself engaged any number of politically questionable philosophers and writers.

As for repressive tolerance, its critical power comes from questioning the way in which current society in general and mass media in particular relativize truth and falsehood as well as intelligence and ignorance. Once the reactionary idiot gets on the same stage as Chomsky, for example, both are treated as equals. We see this constantly, and it soon becomes apparent that “each has his opinion.” The inability to distinguish between them according to Marcuse, and quite correctly, strengthens those in power because critical reflection is stifled. In this respect, he believed, that the original emancipatory character of tolerance, which justified itself through an attack on superstition, dogma, and the like, had become dialectically transformed into its opposite.

Repressive Tolerance was meant as a “think piece” that sought to provoke critical reflection; it fulfilled its purpose.

In my view, the problem with it was less how repressive tolerance works than how to deal with it. Marcuse never answered the question; censorship always (!) projects authoritarianism, if only because 1) it requires a bureaucracy to function and 2) enables bureaucrats to make decisions.

Two examples: Mae West was asked how her risqué jokes got through the censorship of the 1930s, and her reply was that the censors didn’t get the jokes.

I also have an example of my own: When Reclaiming the Enlightenment was translated into Farsi, it had to go through the censor. My translator contacted me and said we had to cut the last line of the introduction. I said–Ok I will close with something else. Translator writes back horrified; No you can’t do that because then the whole manuscript will need to go through another censor. Apparently the first censor was trying to do me a favor.

That kind of arbitrariness finds its way into cancel culture which has its “roots” not in the tradition of the left but the right. 

Discussing that, however, must wait for another day.

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