Herbert Marcuse on Tolerance

A Research Guide by Ameen Khdair

Herbert Marcuse in 1955


Widely regarded as “the Father of the New Left,” despite his own rejection of that appellation, Herbert Marcuse stands as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Twentieth Century. A German-American philosopher, social theorist, critical theorist, and political theorist, Marcuse was a prominent member of the German Frankfurt School before fleeing from the Third Reich and moving to the United States. One of the fundamental features of Marcuse’s work, which sets it apart from other critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, is that Marcuse’s writings do not dwell solely in esotericisms and therefore represented a critical theory that is easily adapted into practice.

An understanding of Marcuse’s philosophical roots is necessary to properly understand his insightful analysis of societal ills. Much of Marcusean thought is derived from a philosophical, rather than simply economic, understanding of Marx’s writings. Marcuse’s reading of Marx is based in the fact that capitalist society alienates the worker from the worker’s labour when labour is understood as an ontological category. The profound philosophical impact that Marx identifies, which Marcuse perceptively recognizes the significance of, is that this alienation of man is also the devaluation of life and the perversion and disconnect of man from reality. What Marcuse clarifies from this philosophical understanding of Marx is that rudimentary Marxist concepts of alienated labor and private property are historical concepts as opposed to inscrutable facts. Marcuse historicizes Marx’s theory by demonstrating that dismissals of Marx’s work fail to understand the historical origin of the theory.

Marcuse’s reading of Marx provides the foundation for his revolutionary critique because Marx reveals the false historical facticity of capitalism that engenders an inherent existential catastrophe in man. For Marcuse, reform of such a system is impossible because reforms operate on the same ideological terrain that produces this catastrophe; reform would simply reproduce the aforementioned crisis. Instead, Marcuse, in Aristotelian fashion, advocates a total revolution against the one-dimensional thinking that capitalist society introjects.

This background on Marcuse’s reading of Marx helps to illuminate the ideological foundations of Marcuse’s critical theory with regards to tolerance. The following annotated bibliography contains a combination of primary and secondary sources concerning Marcuse’s conception of critical theory. The primary sources are the writings of Marcuse himself, while the secondary sources consist of various readings of Marcuse’s theories. Among the most relevant of Marcuse’s writings are his essay “Repressive Tolerance” and his book One-Dimensional Man.

Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources: The Writings of H. Marcuse

Marcuse, Herbert. “The Foundation of Historical Materialism.” Frankfurt School: The Foundation of Historical Materialism by Herbert Marcuse 1932. Accessed November 25, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/historical-materialism/index.htm

  • One of Marcuse’s earlier pieces, this essay provides a glimpse into the foundation of Marcusean philosophy. Analyzing the philosophies of both Hegel and Marx, Marcuse clears up misconceptions and misperceptions of Marx. He astutely recognizes that Marx’s critique of the political economy is fundamentally philosophical. This philosophical understanding of Marx’s writings allows Marcuse to see, as Marx did, the alienation of man, the devaluation of life, and the perversion and loss of reality; Marcuse then can analyze alienated labor as the history of man and his reality. This perception and theorization of man and reality is crucial for understanding Marcuse’s writings on tolerance because it undergirds Marcuse’s understanding of reality.

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason & Revolution. 1941. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/reason/index.htm

  • His first published work in English, Marcuse’s aim in Reason & Revolution is to reveal that German idealism, particularly as expressed by Hegel, does not provide the ideological foundations for Nazi authoritarianism. The book stands as a prime example of critical reasoning and dialectic thinking, both of which are distinguishing features of Marcuse. One of the more powerful observations in the work is Marcuse’s criticism of Hegel’s belief in human rationality. Marcuse regards Hegel’s belief in reason as ahistorical; reason demonstrating its ability to discern truths does not manifest itself in practice historically. This book also harkens back to Marcuse’s essay on historical materialism.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

  • One-Dimensional Man stands as one of Marcuse’s most popular and recognizable works as it was nearly biblical for the students of the New Left. Marcuse argues in the work that the consumerism of capitalist industrialized societies discourages critical thinking, promotes a hegemonic monopoly of power in society, and made organizing oppositional movements exceedingly arduous. Throughout One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse demonstrates a synthesis of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and Marxian philosophy in order to counter the erosion of the individual’s “inner” self, which is a byproduct of industrial society.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Repressive Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. Accessed October 5, 2016.  http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/65repressivetolerance.htm#top

  • Marcuse’s most explicit writing on the idea of tolerance, his essay “Repressive Tolerance” is a call for intolerance towards prevailing institutions, attitudes, and opinions. Recognizing that tolerance is an end in itself, Marcuse calls for the repression of many conventions of practiced tolerance in contemporary society. The essay is rooted fundamentally in Marcuse’s larger philosophy and critical theory in which “Repressive Tolerance” fits in quite nicely. For Marcuse, intolerance to prevailing social norms is a requisite for true tolerance because the radical oppression of attitudes anathema to true tolerance is the only way to uproot the deeply ingrained false conception of tolerance that is the result of industrialized society.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Socialist Humanism?” Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, Garden City New York: Doubleday (1965): 107-117

  • Marcuse’s published lecture presents socialist humanism as an alternative to traditional Occidental conceptions of humanism. Marcuse rejects paradigmatic humanism and regards it as a form of violence; Marcuse argues that the violence of the Soviet Union and the violence of the West are simply two expressions of the same idea. Marcuse poses as a solution to this question of violence socialist humanism in the Marxian sense. Again, Marcuse reveals the extent to which he is influenced by Marxian philosophy; however, in this piece, Marcuse moves past Marx. Marcuse recognizes that contemporary industrial society paradoxically takes care of humanistic goals while simultaneously pursuing and creating an inhuman reality. In moving beyond Marx, Marcuse advocates that socialist theory can lay the groundwork for dissolving the false humanist status quo.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society.” Frankfurt School: Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society. Herbert Marcuse. 1967. Accessed November 26, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/aggressiveness.htm.

  • Marcuse argues in this piece that the strains and stresses that afflict individuals in advanced industrial, or affluent society, are due to the normal functioning of this type of society as opposed to defects in the individual. In this piece, Marcuse expresses an all-encompassing view of humanity in which biological functions, social functions, and psychological functions act simultaneously, as opposed to being understood as isolable categories.  Furthermore, he advocates for the negation of contemporary affluent society by rejecting its values which perpetuate the alienation of man from labor and by extension from reality altogether. Moreover, Marcuse employs a Foucauldian understanding of discourse to underscore the extent to which contemporary society enacts totalitarian domination over the masses.

Marcuse, Herbert. “The End of Utopia” and “The Problem of Violence and the Radical Opposition” in Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia. Translations by Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shierry M. Weber Boston: Beacon Press, 1970. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/67endutopia/67EndUtopiaProbViol.htm

  • Both lectures reiterate Marcuse’s belief in the necessity of a socialist break from history. In other words, Marcuse’s use of the phrase “the end of utopia” refers to the notion that a new definition of socialism is required in order to negate the dominate modes of society and conventional modes of thinking; failure to do otherwise would not amount to any real revolutionary change. Additionally, Marcuse talks at length about the New Left and their role as a precursor for actual revolution. In his discourse on the student protests of the 1960s, Marcuse defense civil disobedience as a legal and ethical means of resistance.

Marcuse, Herbert. The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse, ed. Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

  • Feenberg and Leiss compile a number of Marcuse’s writings from over the course of his career that are integral to understanding Marcusean critical theory. Marcuse’s essays demonstrate the necessity of social transformation toward democratic socialism combined with Enlightenment values. The combination of the two are fundamental facets to Marcuse’s understanding of critical theory. Furthermore, the utopian element evident throughout Marcuse’s work is particularly conspicuous in his 1955 book Eros and Civilization. The collection is divided into three parts: the first part introduces Marcuse’s political thought, the second places Marcuse in dialogue with contemporary intellectual trends, and the last contains some of Marcuse’s most important and idiosyncratic philosophical beliefs.

Marcuse, Herbert. Towards A Critical Society: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Volume Two, ed. Douglass Kellner. New York: Routledge, 2001.

  • The collected writings in this book, edited by Douglas Kellner, are vital for understanding Marcuse’s critical theory. These texts present Marcuse in his most idiosyncratic state and distinguish him from other writers at the Frankfurt School, like Horkheimer and Adorno. Marcuse sharply criticizes dominant forms of oppression prevalent in affluent industrialized society from a deeply philosophical perspective. The collected writings consist largely of unpublished manuscripts that exemplify Marcusean critical theory. Of particular note, though not limited to, are his 1966 preface to Eros and Civilization, his lecture at Stanford in 1965 “The Containment of Social Change in Industrial Society,” the unpublished manuscript “Cultural Revolution,” and his article in The New York Times, “Watergate: When Law and Morality Stand in the Way.”

Marcuse, Herbert, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Volume Six, ed. Douglass Kellner and Clayton Pierce. New York: Routledge, 2014.

  • Kellner and Pierce’s selected Marcusean texts come from mostly unpublished material found in the Frankfurt Archive of Herbert Marcuse and Kellner’s own personal collection. These writings reveal that Marcuse believes that revolution can come from the overthrow of traditional social order by developing political, economic, cultural and social relations that break the dominant spheres of control. Furthermore, the texts reveal the deep extent to which Marxian philosophy influences that of Marcuse. Of particular note in this collection are “The Concept of Negation in the Dialectic,” “The History of Dialectics,” and his published letter in response to Dr. Banowsky’s criticisms, “The True Nature of Tolerance,” in which Marcuse clarifies Banowsky’s misinterpretation of his essay “Repressive Tolerance.”

Secondary Sources:

Abromeit, John and W. Mark Cobb. Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

  • Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader is a collection of papers by sixteen different Marcuse scholars that presents an extensive assessment of Marcuse’s critical theory at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While the work is divided into four sections, the most relevant writings occur in the first and second parts. The first part deals with the legacy of various aspects of Marcuse’s critical theory. On the other hand, the second part of the work deals with Marcuse’s reception among contemporary thinkers. The collected essays in both sections are useful because they reveal not only the impact of Marcusean critical theory, but also because Marcuse is placed in dialogue with his critics.

Cunningham, Joseph. “Praxis Exiled: Herbert Marcuse and the One Dimensional University,” Journal of Philosophy of Education vol. 47, no. 4 (2013): 537-547.

  • Cunningham examines Marcuse’s theories presented best in his seminal text One Dimensional Man as they relate to Marcuse’s belief that college students served as revolutionary subjects. This article examines the corporatization of higher education as Cunningham frames the failures of the student movements of the 1960s as falling victim to the worst form of a Marcusean one dimensional society. He examines how the once ripe revolutionary potential of college students has come under the capitalist control that Marcuse had deconstructed.

Farr, Arnold L. Critical Theory and Democratic Vision: Herbert Marcuse and Recent Liberation Philosophies. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009.

  • Farr’s book attempts to rethink the project of democracy from the point of view of Marcusean critical theory. While Farr’s application of Marcuse’s theories to modern predicaments is eminently interesting, the most relevant facets of his work are his analyses and explications of Marcuse’s critical theory. In the second chapter of Farr’s work, Marcuse’s intellectual genealogy is explained, which provides context for Marcuse’s belief in revolution. Chapter 3 exposes the degree to which critical negativity permeates Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and acts as a framework for liberation. Additionally useful are chapters 5 and 6 which examine Marcuse’s theories developed in One-Dimensional Man in order to clarify popular misconceptions while also demonstrate the demand for social change.

Fopp, Rodney. “Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Repressive Tolerance’ and his Critics,” Borderlands E-Journal: New Spaces in the Humanities vol. 6, no. 1 (2007). Accessed November 27, 2016. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol6no1_2007/fopp_marcuse.htm

  • Fopp excavates Marcuse’s key arguments in “Repressive Tolerance” while also critiquing Marcuse’s critics. Fopp’s clear articulation of Marcuse’s central assertions make this essay a useful companion to the original text. Among the recurring themes that dominated critiques of Marcuse was his essay’s partisanship, perceived inconsistencies, implied advocacy of autocracy, approval of violent means to overthrow violent institutions, and Marcuse’s disregard for notions of academic neutrality. Fopp exonerates Marcuse by reorienting Marcuse’s arguments to the context of his actual essay and away from quotations taken out of context that lead to his perceived inconsistencies. Fopp shows that those allegations made by polemicists against Marcuse miss the point of his essay entirely.

Graubard, Allen. “One-Dimensional Pessimism: A Critique of Herbert Marcuse’s Theories,” in Beyond the New Left, ed. Irving Howe. New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1968.

  • Graubard provides a nearly scathing critique of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. He accuses Marcuse of hyperbolic pessimism while also derides the Sisyphean goal of Marcuse’s critical theory, which is to provide a comprehensive analysis of society. Graubard also accuses Marcuse’s style of producing grandiose generalizations that are drawn from cherry-picked examples of the worst of society. Graubard’s critique is useful mostly because it is demonstrative of the facility with which Marcuse is misread and his concepts are misunderstood. For all of Graubard’s apparent familiarity with the Marxian philosophy underpinning Marcusean critical theory, Graubard seems unable to grasp Marcuse’s claim and analysis of society. This leads Graubard to interpret work as lacking evidence either because he does not understand the evidence put forth by Marcuse or because he is so preconditioned by the one-dimensional society that he is blind to it.

Holman, Christopher. Politics as Radical Creation: Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt on Political Performativity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2016.  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/10.3138/j.ctt5hjv3m.

  • Holman’s book brings together the supposedly diametrically opposed theories of Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. Arendt herself, as Holman notes, was an outspoken critic of the Frankfurt School’s view of critical theory. Marcuse’s writings, specifically his attitude and interpretations of Marx, are used to develop a new theory of democracy that is radical in the Marxian sense of the word. Holman’s contribution to studies of Marcuse is his emphatic effort to counter prevailing readings of Marcuse that misinterpret and misconstrue Marcusian philosophy. Furthermore, like Arendt, though not nearly as polemical, Holman takes a critical approach to Marcuse and engages him as such. Furthermore, Holman emphasizes Marcuse’s Marxist heritage as fundamental to interpreting and understanding Marcuse’s writings.

Kellner, Douglass. “Introduction: Herbert Marcuse and the Vicissitudes of Critical Theory” in Towards A Critical Society: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Volume Two, ed. Douglass Kellner. New York: Routledge, 2001.

  • Kellner’s introduction is a good place to begin research on Marcuse because of its biographical account of Marcuse’s life and its intellectual genealogy of Marcuse. Kellner adeptly describes the Marxist roots of critical theory in the Frankfurt Institute and the effect of this approach had on Marcuse’s thinking. Critical theory is a methodology which enacts “immanent critique” to criticize existing social conditions and theories from the perspective of historically constructed ideals, and principles. For Marcuse, as Kellner elucidates, critical theory is characterized by radical critiques of the forces of domination and the search for oppositional forces and liberation from hegemony.

Kellner, Douglas and Clayton Pierce “Introduction: Marcuse’s Adventures in Marxism” in Marxism, Revolution and Utopia: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Volume Six.  New York: Routledge, 2014.

  • Kellner and Pierce highlight the astute observation that the idiosyncrasy of Marcuse’s work is his critical, pragmatic, and non-dogmatic approach to the theories of Marx and Hegel. Moreover, they underscore Marcuse’s synthesis of both the work of both authors in order to provide a frame for analyzing Marcuse’s writings. Through this lens, Marcuse’s work can be seen thematically as continuously striving for a more perfect society. Moreover, as Kellner and Pierce underscore, Marcuse’s activist version of critical Marxism is relevant in the modern era because of Marcuse’s radical critique of existing society; his writings are therefore instrumental in developing emancipatory alternatives.

Marks, Robert W. The Meaning of Marcuse. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.

  • Marks’ The Meaning of Marcuse provides a useful, even if at times critical, explanation of Marcuse’s writings. Marks seems to grasp the deep extent to which Marcuse’s critical theory penetrated industrial society to reveal its inadequacies; however, Marks is also unfair to Marcuse in some facets of his critique. For example, Marks’ assault on Marcuse’s inaccessibility, which Marks claims causes Marcuse’s points to be lost in a fog of scholastic jargon. Additionally, despite Marks’ claims to understanding Marcuse, he legitimizes critics, such as Sidney Hook, who have misread his works by failing to engage them critically. Nevertheless, Marks’ work is useful because of his explanation of the grievances of Marcuse’s critics and of Marcuse’s work itself, even if both are somewhat tangential to Marcuse’s intended meanings.

Whitfield, Stephen J. “A Radicale in Academe: Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism vol. 9, no. 2 (2015): 93-124.

  • Whitfield situates Marcuse within both his historical context as well as that of Brandeis University. Through extensive biographical narrative Whitfield’s article provides a profile of Marcuse’s time in academia. Marcuse’s pedagogical impact on his students at Brandeis is revealed through the laudations of former students and contemporary faculty alike. In addition to commendations, Whitfield also details Marcuse’s critics, among them Michael Walzer; however, as Whitfield notes, the company with whom Walzer associates Marcuse in his critique consists of “modern masters” such as Gramsci, Orwell, Camus, and Foucault, which underscores Marcuse’s intellectual stature.