The Real Problem with Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse

Today, I want to talk about a topic that is very important, but has been generally overlooked: the conflation of Freudian repression with oppression in a social justice sense in the Theory Left, and what effects this has had on the social and political landscape.

Let’s start by revisiting that infamous 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse. In the past few years, a lot has been said about the anti-free speech implications of that essay. Its premise has been simplified by some, to be simply about withdrawing tolerance to hateful ideas so that oppression can be prevented. As if we were simply talking about a more militant version of Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance. However, I believe that is an oversimplified view of things. Indeed, if it were about preventing intolerance and oppression, if Marcuse’s concern was about free speech leading to oppression of minorities, why would the essay be titled ‘repressive tolerance’ and not ‘oppressive tolerance’?

How Marcuse Conflated Two Kinds of ‘Liberation’

To put it simply, ‘repression’ and ‘oppression’ refer to different things. Marcuse was clearly aware of this, given that both terms were used in the essay. To understand what Marcuse meant by repression, I think we need to look at the broader context of Marcuse’s work. Much has been said about Marcuse’s roots in Marx, but I think Marcuse’s worldview, and hence the Western Theory Left in general, owes even more to a particular interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis. Those familiar with Marcuse’s work would know that when he used ‘repression’, he meant it in the Freudian psychoanalytic sense. Hence, given the title of the essay was ‘repressive tolerance’ and not ‘oppressive tolerance’, his main complaint against the free market of ideas was that ‘repressive’ cultural values could prevail. Of course, there also appears to be a conflation of ‘repression’ and ‘oppression’ throughout this work and some of his other works, so sometimes his works have been used to justify withdrawing tolerance from oppressive ideas. But it is clear that he is rather more concerned about ‘repression’ than ‘oppression’. Indeed, those familiar with Marcuse’s 1955 book Eros and Civilization would know that Marcuse disagreed with Freud that repression is inevitable in civilization, as he devoted an entire book to his counter argument that society could be reorganized so as to minimize the need for ‘repression’, which he thought was the key to making human beings happier. This provides further evidence that Marcuse was actually primary concerned with liberation from Freudian repression, rather than ending oppression in the social justice sense.

The more important thing is that, the influence of the Marcusean worldview, which was indeed very influential among the student activists of the late 1960s and the 1970s, means that in much of the Theory Left’s theory, oppression, as in the social injustice sense, and repression, as in the Freudian sense, are often conflated. This, in turn, is related to the fact that Marcusean ‘liberation’ is very different from our conventional understanding of liberation, in that it is ultimately about removing Freudian repression, rather than simply removing social injustice. To a large extent, many on the Theory Left appear to even be no longer consciously aware of the difference. However, social oppression and Freudian repression are two very distinct concepts. To get to the bottom of all this, and to understand one of the core problems of the Theory Left, I think we need to end this conflation once and for all.

Is ‘Repression’ Always Bad?

I think we should start with what ‘repression’ means. The problem with Freudian psychoanalysis is that it was from a time before psychology became empirical and scientific. Therefore, like all Freudian terms, the concept of ‘repression’ is likely to be a mixture of different phenomenon, some good, some bad, and some perhaps confused. Therefore, to oppose ‘repression’ as a whole, as Marcuse (but not Freud) did, could risk throwing out some essential things about our civilization, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. In the most basic sense, ‘repression’ simply refers to the restraint of our primal, animalistic desires for the sake of maintaining civilization. Freud actually thought this was an inevitable part of civilization, but Marcuse disagreed. Marcuse believed that society could be reorganized so as to minimize the need for ‘repression’, which would be the key to making human beings happier. Now, there is of course no empirical evidence, or even logical argument, that Marcuse’s ultra-utopian vision would work. Indeed, Freud thought that freeing human beings from all ‘repression’ would lead to civilization collapsing. And I think common sense, as well as the implications of what we know about human biology today, would be on the side of Freud rather than Marcuse.

Anyway, what is clear is that Freudian repression is an entirely different thing than oppression in the social justice sense. Racism is, by definition, oppressive, but it can’t really be said to be repressive. On the other hand, to enter into a commitment of lifelong monogamy, as in marriage, is clearly not oppressive in the social justice sense, because it is a voluntary choice made by individuals. However, it could indeed be said to be repressive, because it does include a promise to restrain from certain primal instincts in the future, for the sake of building a relationship and a family together. Hence, what is oppressive may not be repressive, and vice versa. And more importantly, while oppression is always bad, some forms of repression can be good and necessary, and even make us happy! After all, the joy of being a human being is that we live in a civilization, and we are not at the mercy of our primal instincts all the time. I think this is something that Marcuse failed to appreciate enough.

A Dystopian World Without Emotional Restraint

The conflation of liberation from oppression with liberation from Freudian repression in the work of Marcuse and others have had a long standing effect on the Theory Left, with the effect of wrongly assuming whatever is ‘repressive’, that is whatever requires emotional restraint, to be oppressive. However, this view is not only wrong, it is actually harmful to the cause of social justice. While unfairly distributed demands of emotional restraint may be part of a picture of social injustice, it is clear that not all demands of emotional restraint are incompatible with social justice. Where emotional restraint is fairly and proportionally expected of each individual, it can be the essential ingredient in many civilizing pillars of the social fabric, like the example of marriage previously illustrated. As I argued in previous episodes, I believe the Theory Left’s erosion of civilizational foundations, at least partly inspired by the Marcusean ideal of abolishing Freudian repression, has led to a breakdown in the social fabric, causing a rise in reactionary conservatism and resistance towards various social reforms. Therefore, I believe that the misguided aim to abolish ‘repression’ has indeed harmed the actually important aim to end oppression.

Furthermore, an important part of a healthy and vibrant liberal democracy is the concept of a social contract. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that every society needs a strong social contract. But in liberal democracies, where ideas are freely debated, and the people choose their governments and their policies, having a strong social contract is especially important. And part of having a strong social contract is emotional restraint on the part of citizens. We all need to participate in the agreed process, in a rational and decent manner, for the democratic process to work. This is why it is not oppression or ‘tone policing’ to encourage people to present their concerns in a rational and polite manner. Rather, it is the key to achieving effective consensus and reform. The dominance of anti-restraint thinking has led to this point being forgotten all too often.

The effects of anti-restraint thinking are not limited to the Left either. A libertarianism without emotional restraint ceases to be an intellectual libertarianism, and rather becomes vulgar libertarianism, in the style of ‘I should be able to do whatever I want, whenever I want’. Among conservatives, the loosening of emotional restraint has led to the unleashing of reactionary rage towards all unfamiliar and uncomfortable phenomenon, a change that has effectively turned much of conservatism into kneejerk reactionarism. As you can see, the Marcuse-inspired encouragement of liberation from emotional restraint in the past few decades has had really unhealthy effects on the political culture, across the political spectrum. We should start recognizing this, so we can turn the ship around before it’s too late.

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.

She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.



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Author & musician. Moral Libertarian. Disrupting the woke vs anti-woke echo chambers and making the West truly liberal again.