The Left’s Repressive Tolerance

As one watches hundreds of Columbia University students march through New York demanding an end to the state of Israel and the removal of all Zionists from their presence; as one watches Loyola University’s “Anti Racism Center Fellow” demand that “all you ugly ass little Jewish people” “get the f*ck out of here;” as one watches NPR retaliate against the internal watchdog who called it out for its radical leftist bias and then watches as the watchdog’s (now former) colleagues turn on him and insist that he is a liar, two things are worth keeping in mind. First, these are all the fruits of the “tolerant” left, the people who insist that “diversity is our strength” and that narrow-mindedness is the most heinous sin of all. Second, the “tolerant” left’s manifest intolerance is not an accident, nor is it an example of hypocrisy. It is, rather, intentionally and lucidly undertaken. It is the purposeful and unapologetic manifestation of an ideology that the left adopted decades ago in its remorseless pursuit of cultural and political hegemony.

Once upon a time, the American Left was—at least in theory—thoroughly dedicated to the ideas of free speech and free expression. The leftist students of the University of California, Berkeley, spent years protesting and agitating for an end to speech codes, making their campus the home of the “Free Speech Movement.” The American Civil Liberties Union fought tooth and nail to enable neo-Nazis to exercise their First Amendment rights to march through Skokie, Illinois.  The left rallied around pornographer Larry Flynt in his fight against Rev. Jerry Falwell, who sued Flynt for libel over a crass parody. Leftists loved free speech and wanted everyone, everywhere, to enjoy its inarguable benefits. Or so they said.

The catch is that while the American Left professed a deep and abiding affection for the idea of free speech, it never really cared about that idea at all. Indeed, it never really cared too much about any ideas. One thing that has always distinguished the American Left from its European counterparts is its complete disinterest in theories and philosophy and its attendant obsession with power and the tactics necessary to achieve it.  What little philosophical thought the New Left did absorb in the 1960s was that which reinforced its non-intellectual origins and aims. “The Port Huron Statement”—the New Left’s founding charter (and a document bought and paid for by the United Auto Workers union)—was not, as it is often described, a statement of “ideas.”  Rather, it was a statement of strategies—strategies for achieving and maintaining power.

Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School Marxist revisionist who stayed in the United States after his colleagues returned to Germany, has long been considered the in-house philosopher of the New Left, the man whose ideas animated the 1960s radicals and their successors. Although this role has been largely exaggerated (not the least by Marcuse himself), one aspect of his work did indeed have a profound impact on the New Left. The leaders of the New Left who were familiar with Marcuse were mostly interested in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which the left has taken as a “how-to” manual for fixing society.  In this essay, Marcuse argues that “classical liberalism,” i.e., the Anglo-American liberal model, is a doctrine of faux objectivity that uses the pretense of “abstract tolerance” to maintain the “prevailing” truth and thus to create a system of social oppression.  Or, to put that into English, modern society purports to present a free, open, and tolerant exchange of ideas but is, in reality, rigged so that the ideas that perpetuate the ruling class and its governing ethos are always dominant.  Marcuse put it this way:

When a magazine prints side by side a negative and a positive report on the FBI, it fulfills honestly the requirements of objectivity: however, the chances are that the positive wins because the image of the institution is deeply engraved in the mind of the people. Or, if a newscaster reports the torture and murder of civil rights workers in the same unemotional tone he uses to describe the stock market or the weather, or with the same great emotion with which he says his commercials, then such objectivity is spurious–more, it offends against humanity and truth by being calm where one should be enraged, by refraining from accusation where accusation is in the facts themselves. The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression.

The only corrective to this condition, Marcuse argued, is first to destroy the “established framework” and then to “liberate” tolerance from this oppressive construction.  In order to achieve true tolerance and true freedom, society must first be made to be intolerant to and repressive of those ideas and thoughts that prevent said liberation.  “Liberating tolerance,” he wrote, “would mean intolerance against movements from the right and toleration of movements from the left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: … it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.”

“Repressive Tolerance” became the core communications tactic of the American Left. It elected to preach tolerance in the abstract but to practice intolerance against its ideological counterparts—all for the sake of achieving an ultimately tolerant society.

If that sounds convoluted and ridiculous, that’s only because it is. In large part because of Marcuse’s rationalization and its outsized influence, the American Left feels no compunction whatsoever about any perceived hypocrisy.  In fact, it actually feels a surge of righteousness in its duplicitous bullying.  It is redeemed by its repressive tolerance.

I won’t pretend that the American Right is necessarily a bastion of free speech fundamentalism.  It’s not.  But the right’s free speech issues can at least be countered because they are hypocritical, as the preponderance of opposition has traditionally been.  The left’s issues are much thornier and much more difficult to untangle, largely because it refuses to accept hypocrisy as a legitimate critique of its position.  “Free speech for me but not for thee” isn’t a critique to the left.  It’s the blueprint.

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: Illustration of hand stopping speech bubble of female speaker