Herbert Marcuse’s Revenge

MarcuseHerbert Marcuse, a man who managed somehow to reconcile revolutionary romanticism and opposition to all that exists with the cushy lifestyle of the high-profile academic, once enthused the spoiled brats of the whole Western world with his turgid prose, Teutonic pedantry, vacuous utopian abstractions, and destructive paradoxes. All that endures of his work, I suspect, is a familiar two-word phrase: repressive tolerance.

This, if I remember correctly, was the kind of tolerance found in capitalist countries, where people could say and do what they liked, the better to disguise from them the real conditions of their own enslavement and prevent them from following their true (which is to say revolutionary socialist) interests. True freedom was only achievable through everyone’s agreeing with Herbert Marcuse and acting as he suggested—or directed.

History repeats itself, as Marx said, but not in precisely the same form. First comes tragedy, then farce. It is the same with the concepts of radical intellectuals, except that they first emerge first as foolish and then return as despotic. Repressive tolerance: that is what Brendan Eich, the deposed chief executive of the Mozilla Foundation, recently experienced.

Mr. Eich, you will remember, put forward a view of marriage that, until very recently, was universally acknowledged, namely that it was a social, contractual and sacramental arrangement between a man and a woman, in just the same way that a horse for Mr. Gradgrind was a graminivorous quadruped. Marriage, whether you thought the institution good or bad, was between a man and a woman; it just was so. Homosexuals, and even the polymorphously perverse community, thought no different. Suddenly, within an historical batting of an eyelid, this definition has become not only invalid, but a sign of the most terrible bigotry.

Mr. Eich’s crime, then, was that of not moving with the times—of being, as one press account put it, “on the wrong side of history.” Of course, a murderer might excuse his act by saying that his victim was on the wrong side of history, but I will leave aside the problem of the cunning of history in the Hegelian sense.

It is true that Mr. Eich backed his words with some of his own money, but why should he not have done so? He thought the cause a good one, as do a considerable proportion of the population, who sense that homosexual marriage is not so much an extension of rights as another nail sunk in marriage’s coffin, its interment having long been desired and indeed plotted by radical intellectuals. For if marriage is not between a man and a woman, why should it be anything in particular at all? More than one opinion on the subject is therefore possible, at the very least.

On the other hand, none of Mr. Eich’s own fundamental rights was infringed by his more-or-less forced resignation. This was because the foundation was not saying that Mr. Eich had no right to say what he said in public or to make his monetary contribution; it was saying that he had no right to do these things and be chief executive of the Mozilla Foundation. This is a vitally important distinction. Possessing the duly constituted right to impose conditions on employees, the foundation’s directors did nothing wrong, in any formal sense, in forcing his resignation.

In a free society, people who employ others should be permitted to hire, not to hire, to fire, or to retain employees for any reason they choose, including the most discreditable or arbitrary ones. (Public employment is another matter.) For while it is true that no free society can long flourish where people exercise no virtue, there can be no free society in which people are forced to behave virtuously—where what is deemed virtuous is laid down by law and moreover subject to gusts of moral enthusiasm.

We all live (thank goodness) in a matrix of many different communities, interest groups, and economic, religious, and social bodies. If we are members, for example, of a philatelic society, we discuss stamps with our fellow members, not abortion or the death penalty or the proper rate of income tax, let alone do we require certain opinions on those subjects as a condition of membership. People willingly suspend the expression of opinion on such matters, as not being germane to the purposes of the society. We maintain friendly relations with people with whom, on some things, we might violently disagree.

When we become monomaniacs on any subject, however, we make opinion on that subject the touchstone of our willingness to associate with, employ, or otherwise engage with our fellow citizens. We make correct opinion the whole of virtue, so that we cast the holder of incorrect opinion into outer darkness as far as our sympathies either with or against him are concerned. No doubt there are some opinions so appalling that they are genuinely beyond the pale of civilized society (though it must also be remembered that very good people do sometimes express appalling thoughts), but holding to an immemorial view of marriage can hardly be one of them.

One of the reasons our society appears less tolerant than it ought to be, and why so many people are now afraid to speak their mind in so many situations, is that a spirit of puritanism of opinion is abroad. This puritanism is not puritanical in the old sense. On the contrary, it is inclined to attach itself to libertinism. But it wants to send to Coventry all those who think that the removal of restraints on conduct is not necessarily a good thing. It brands them as ipso facto bigots (as, of course, some but not all of them will be), and is prepared to punish them, so far as is possible, for holding the wrong opinions.

Thus are created what one might call microclimates of totalitarianism in which people live in fear: fear of losing their jobs, fear of social ostracism for having said or even thought the wrong thing.

This is a problem that is neither of the government’s making nor susceptible to solution by government. (Indeed, government action can only exacerbate it.) The problem lies in the human heart—in its lust for power and thirst for domination, in its pride in its own goodness.

Tolerance is a habit of the heart that is acquired by self-restraint and not merely through a set of political arrangements. If we are not tolerant of those with whom we disagree, we are not tolerant. After all, it takes no great tolerance to tolerate those who agree with us. Insofar as our societies remain tolerant, it is not because the people who compose it are tolerant. It is because they are not politically powerful enough to impose their views on everyone else.

The new puritans, viewing themselves as tolerant, would be prepared to repress the intolerant—by definition, those with whom they disagree. Thus does repressive tolerance come to have a real meaning in our time. As Herbert Marcuse’s favorite philosopher, Hegel, said: The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

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  1. gabe says

    Actually, the problem is not toleration – but the expectation nowadays, that one must not only accept certain behaviors but CELEBRATE them.

    “For while it is true that no free society can long flourish where people exercise no virtue, there can be no free society in which people are forced to behave virtuously—where what is deemed virtuous is laid down by law and moreover subject to gusts of moral enthusiasm.”

    Is not that what happened to Eich – being compelled to act virtuously, at least as defined by the proponents of the current gust of moral enthusiasm?
    One must ask, would Mozilla, or has Mozilla fired those who supported gay marriage with contributions.
    I would be more open to this argument if Mozilla’s policy was a bit more equal in this regard – say no public pronouncements on political or social issues while CEO.

    • Jim Quinley says

      I agree that a business is not in violation of an employee’s rights if it runs him off for opposing homosexual marriage. It then follows, does it not, that no rights are impinged if an employee is run off for supporting homosexual marriage; supporting, say, in the least equivocal manner, that being the entering into of such a marriage. How would that fly in the universe of the tolerance police?

  2. johnt says

    It has been a remarkably rapid downhill slide that has brought us to this point. Granted the debate on politics has always had it’s rough edges, its seamier side, but the mood has gone past mere anger. As the effect and reach of politics has expanded, its power increased, its budgets ever larger, regulations more intrusive, it has as not before in America become a secular religion for far to many. To critique the reach and magnitude of government today is the new sacrilege, but already a false god.
    Marcuse though influential missed his progeny. Not through him alone has the gospel of domination and power has the word spread through the great emptiness that pervades many in America. But of all things government?

  3. libertarian jerry says

    Herbert Marcuse,who seems like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel,is the epitome of the Cultural Marxist. The radical Left couldn’t confront Western capitalism head on, because for the first time in history a relatively free market had created and enormous Middle Class, so the Left decided to take over and change Western Culture in order to achieve their collectivist ideals. This was done by taking over,to a large extent, the Main Stream Media,Public Education,Hollywood,TV,popular culture and of course what the Left called “the long march through Academia.” All of this long time attack on Western Culture,to a large extent,was designed to destroy the nuclear family,religion,morals and basically the old culture of independent thought and self reliance. This “old culture” was to be replaced with a culture of dependency,conformity to collectivist ideals and the primacy of the State,basically a socialist society. Of course the State would be run and controlled by these same Leftists,or those that inherited Leftist views,and who worked to tear down the old values. In the end,sadly to say,the Left and their elitist cohorts have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Single parent “families,” same sex marriage,welfare dependency and a majority of the people looking for the State to solve their problems are a few of the triumphs of the Left, who have,through the onslaught of Cultural Marxism,opened the floodgates of collectivism into Western civilization. In the end,the Left couldn’t take over the economy so they took over the culture and through that culture they went on to captured the economy. This was not Herbert Marcuse’s revenge but his victory.

    • gabe says

      Aided and abetted (funded) by the comintern. See Venona Papers, etc.
      Also, funded the attack on Pope Pius X11 through payments to the writer and producer of the Deputy – you are correct – it is not revenge but victory.

  4. Hugh Oxford says

    As a very accomplished programmer who changed the world, Mr Eich will be acutely aware of the importance of language, words and logic to making anything that functions properly. As with a computer program, for society to function properly, words must have meanings, but more importantly, meanings must have words.

    Marriage is the word we have always had in the English language for something important and meaningful – the sanctioning and recognition of the biological, sexual, physical unions of men and women: the way human societies order, structure, promote and protect motherhood, mating and procreation. It is inherently, necessarily and inextricably “gendered”. It is not a slight on anyone who doesn’t find the opposite sex attractive that a word should have one specific meaning, and not another completely different one.
    It prejudices the very workings of society for the political system to disconnect physical, biological, sexual marriage from the legal definition of marriage. Mr Eich is the sane and rational one in this room, and his detractors are the dangerous ones who shouldn’t be coding anything important.

  5. Charles Vers says

    Mr. Eich got exactly what he deserved.

    Not because of his position on gay marriage but because when the his honor was impugned he turned and ran.

    Mr Eich got exactly what he deserved because he was a coward.

  6. gabe says


    You raise a very interesting point. This is a course of action that while open to all, is availed by few.
    What would be the outcome if more folks avail themselves of the option of “standing in place and fighting.” goodness, the lefties do it all the time – why not the right.
    Oops, I forgot, that might upset the GOP establishment.

    take care

    • Charles Vers says

      It was a simple exercise for Mr. Eich. He simply had to say he would resign when President Obama resigned as they both held the same position at exactly the same time.

  7. BeckyC says

    Eich refused to apologize for his contribution when he was asked to recant. In this, he stood like an oak tree. He was not a coward. I’m grateful.

  8. Groty says

    What I find fascinating is how progressives have successfully tarred their opponents as uncompromising. In reality, the progressive stand on issues is even more uncompromising because they are absolutely certain that they have the moral high ground. They get away with it first and foremost because they CLAIM to be open to dialogue (which they are not); that they arrive at their policy proscriptions using only reason and logic (absent ideology); and that the whole progressive enterprise is guided purely by morality and altruism. On what basis can one legitimately oppose that? (Someone with access to the right technology should do a word search to see how often Obama frames issues in terms of whether they are “legitimate” or not. I picked up on his use of the word “legitimate” pretty early in his first term, but I wonder if most people are aware of frequency with which it is employed. And it comes from the notion that he’s thought through his positions using logic, reason and morality, while the other side that is driven purely by ideology – which often makes their opposition illegitimate).

    So in the progressive mind, there really is no “legitimate” opposition. They start with the morally superior position arrived at using logic and reason, exclusively. The whole open to dialogue thing is mostly a ruse. (Again, go back and see how often Obama has SAID he’s open to talking to the other side about “legitimate” concerns or ideas – only to dismiss whatever ideas were raised by the opposition). That means progressives, and only progressives, arrive at their ideas using reason, logic, and morality. Everybody else is an ideological hack. Opposition to all of their pet projects: diversity, multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism, gay marriage, can only be because the opponents are selfish, biased and prejudiced. Progressives don’t call their opponents racists, bigots, homophobes, misogynists, etc. simply to shut down debate. They really believe it. Because if the opposition were as enlightened as progressives are and arrived at their positions using reason and logic guided by morality (as progressives do), there would be no need to debate because there would be no opposition. It’s a pretty neat rhetorical trick. It means there can never be any “legitimate” opposition to their agenda, so there is no reason for them to debate. Or to compromise.

  9. John Snowden says

    What gets me is how open and brazen this was. The rest of us are being taught a lesson on what we can believe and express. Gay activism is arrogant and over confident. It should be put in its place as a dysfunctional, maladjusted, self-righteous minority. It’s a tiny minority movement with far too much influence. None of us are obliged to approve of and to promote their behaviours or their ideology.

  10. says

    “For if marriage is not between a man and a woman, why should it be anything in particular at all?” Dalrymple hit the nail right on the head there, and distilled the whole bizarre “issue,” mess, or farrago of gay “marriage” down to its essence.

    • Simon S. says

      Indeed, “why should it be anything in particular at all?” does hit the nail on the head. If marriage can be between a man and a man, a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, why not also allow polygamy and polyamory? Why not allow a single individual to marry themself and gain the legal advantages of being married person (e.g possible tax advantage, right to adopt etc). As the definition of marriage starts to become wider, it starts to become less meaningful. Maybe the point is, why should marriage have any legally recognised status at all? If 2 (or more) people want to make a fair and legal contract with each other about their living arrangements, what business is it of the rest of society?


  1. […] Herbert Marcuse’s Revenge Herbert Marcuse, a man who managed somehow to reconcile revolutionary romanticism and opposition to all that exists with the cushy lifestyle of the high-profile academic, once enthused the spoiled brats of the whole Western world with his turgid prose, Teutonic pedantry, vacuous utopian abstractions, and destructive paradoxes. All that endures of his work, I suspect, is a familiar two-word phrase: repressive tolerance. […]

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