In understanding the intellectual development of the great social vision of our time, Cultural or Libertarian Marxism, it’s imperative to know about Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse was a German Marxist and part of the so-called Frankfurt School, committed to Critical Theory. Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer and Marcuse were Marxists who wanted to adapt Marxism to Western societies, and transplanted their modified Marxism to the campuses of the U.S. after fleeing Nazi Germany. Their views inspired the New Left of the 60’s and from their elite perch have filtered down to American culture. Marcuse’s view of repressive tolerance is at the heart of that cultural subversion, and it has become a linchpin of the Left in our day.
Hatred for classical liberalism
Like all other good Communists, Marcuse hated classical liberalism. By classical liberalism I mean the political philosophy that developed gradually in England from the Magna Carta and was transported to England’s colonies, the largest of which became the United States. Classical liberalism (not to be confused with modern liberalism) was shaped by Christianity. The Roman Church bequeathed to it the independence of the church from the state. In the ancient world, the state pervaded all of society. The Western church demanded, and got, independence. It broke the monopoly of the state’s authority. Second, Protestantism contributed liberty of conscience. Politically, this meant creating a zone of privacy around the individual. In turn, this generated individual rights, enshrined in bills of rights. Classical liberalism is marked by religious liberty, individual liberty, economic liberty, separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutions, and the rule of law. It generated the glories of the British Empire as well as the prestige and prominence of the United States. Most significantly, it created societies in which families and churches are free to live within the boundaries of the rule of law. Classical liberalism means maximum, law-based liberty for citizens.
For Marxists like Marcuse, that’s the problem. When you have that kind of liberty, some people and groups flourish and some do not. Some are rich, others poor, and most somewhere in between. Churches and families can reward and punish members. Businesses can establish policies preferring one kind of individual over another. Classically liberal society creates equality under the law. But equality under the law does not lead to equal results. It brings out the latent inequalities in humans. Some are wiser or smarter. Others are lazy and procrastinating. Some are intelligent and some are not. Some are born into wealthy families and some are born into poor families. It is this latent inequality of the human condition permitted by classical liberalism that Marxists simply cannot abide. For classical Marxists, the issue is economic inequality. But for the Libertarian Marxists like Marcuse, it is inequality across the board.
Two kinds of tolerance, two kinds of repression
Marcuse offered an ominous counterproposal. It’s expressed in his (in)famous 1965 Brandeis University lecture titled, “Repressive Tolerance.” He means by this the tolerance within classically liberal societies like the United States and England. These societies do not guarantee equality of results (people getting the same wealth, acceptance and prominence), only the equality of processes (everybody is treated the same under the law). Therefore, classically liberal societies are repressive. By allowing individuals and families and churches the liberty to live their lives, these societies create the conditions that foster inequality. So, actually, according to Marcuse, they are repressing individuals who are entitled to equality even while these societies loudly champion tolerance.
Marcuse’s solution is to create an entirely different kind of society. You can’t talk about tolerance objectively across societies. You can only talk about tolerance within a particular (kind of) society. In other words, he is after a different kind of tolerance than we have known in classically liberal societies. But how do you get there from here? For Marcuse, people looking for the just society, led by the elite like him, must reeducate an entire culture. But the presupposition for this reeducation is the repression of, and intolerance towards, all of those elements that would guarantee classical liberalism. Consider this long quote:
Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior ….
Earlier he wrote:
[T]olerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private [!] religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.
Marcuse is saying that, by their very nature, democracies allow their own subversion by a subversive majority, who are opposing the inherent oppression of society. If there are impediments to the subversion, the way to get rid of them is to undemocratically silence them. The people he has in mind, of course, are the people who oppose the subversive program: classical liberals, Christians, modern conservatives, and so forth. This means that the subversives should loudly demand their right to free speech while denying free speech to people who oppose them. Sound familiar?
Marcuse understands the importance of language in this program of subversion. The meaning of words must be destabilized. If you can destabilize words, you can destabilize the culture. If you can convince women that abortion is all about “choice,” and not about killing, it’s much easier to legalize abortion. If you can get people to refer to homosexuality as an issue of “equality” rather than subversion of the family, you can legalize homosexual “marriage.” The goal, according to Marcuse, is to “break the established universe of meaning.” Marcuse is a linguistic nihilist: the common meaning must be destroyed to make way for new meaning in a new culture.
Nor is it’s simply a matter of repressing the speech of your cultural enemies. You must also censor their thoughts. In Marcuse’s words, the work of cultural subversion “must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this [opposing] consciousness. To be sure, this is censorship, even precensorship ….” The subversives must eliminate words and images that reinforce and preserve classical liberalism. For instance, images of aborted pre-born children must not be allowed. Words like “crazy,” “insane,” “retarded,” “gay,” “tyranny,” “gypped,” and “illegal alien,” must be purged. There must be no such thing as academic freedom as classical liberalism understands it. There must be only the freedom to indoctrinate students in the just society. In other words, freedom, just like tolerance, must be defined differently in the Libertarian Marxist society than in societies like England and America, shaped by Christian truth.
The intellectual elites lead this campaign of subversion. The culture suffers from “false consciousness” out of which it must be educated. This is the job of the intellectual elites: to lead the benighted masses away from their false consciousness of classical liberalism that fosters individual and religious freedom and, instead, lead them to abolish this freedom to produce the egalitarian society. This is the secular, statist, egalitarian society for which today’s radical Leftists are working.
And, if necessary, education and indoctrination must be supplemented by revolutionary violence. Marcuse is quite clear about this. He refuses to posit a moral equivalence between the violence perpetrated by classical liberals and the violence committed by subversives. The former is evil; the latter is justified. In fact, he argues that since history is not made by ethics, ethics are of no importance. In other words, might makes right. The ends justify the means. He writes that oppressed minorities — and this means people who lack wealth or prestige or acceptance — have the right to extralegal violence if they exhaust all legal means. No one has a right to judge them immoral or unethical. (Think: Black Lives Matter and the call to kill cops.) Marcuse offered a program for annihilating Christian culture and classical liberalism and replacing it with Libertarian Marxism. He had takers.
Those takers became college professors and journalists and foundation presidents and “community organizers” and artists and musicians. They have wielded massive influence on the West from 1960-2016. Their vision is the commanding social vision of our time, working out its implications right before our eyes.
To create Christian culture, Christians must vanquish that vision.