Father of Political Correctness


How Herbert Marcuse Convinced a Generation that Censorship IsTolerance & Other Politically Correct Tricks

by Robin Phillips

The ancient Greeks had a school of philosophers known as theSophists, who took pride in their ability to prove impossible things. Somesophists even hired themselves out at public events, where audiences couldwatch spellbound as they proceeded to prove propositions that were obviouslyfalse.

The sophist philosopher Gorgias (4th century b.c.) invented aningenuous argument to prove that: nothing exists; and even if something exists,nothing can be known about it; and even if something exists and something canbe known about it, such knowledge cannot be communicated to others; and even ifsomething exists, can be known about, and can be communicated about, noincentive exists to communicate anything about it to others.

It would be nice if such sophistry had been limited to ancientGreeks. However, the 20th century saw a thinker whose nonsense rivaled and evensurpassed anything produced by the sophists. His name was Herbert Marcuse(1898–1979), the guru of the 1960s counterculture.

Marcuse is important, not because he was able to take sophistry tonew levels of truth-twisting heights, but because histruth-twisting thought has been formative in defining so much of the collective"common sense" (or more accurately, common nonsense) of our age.

How formative? In 1968, when students in Paris revolted, they toreapart the city carrying banners that read "Marx/Mao/Marcuse." In hisforward to Marcuse's book Negations: Essays in Critical TheoryRobertYoung said that "among pure scholars [Marcuse] had the most direct andprofound effect on historical events of any individual in the twentiethcentury."

The Frankfurt School

Marcuse came from a generation of intellectuals who hadexperienced the devastation of World War I. This pointless war, togetherwith the Spanish influenza, which followed on its heels and wiped out as manyas the war had destroyed, produced a generation of exhausted and cynicalintellectuals ready to embrace the false optimism of either fascism or Marxism.Many who adopted the latter course came together in the Institute for SocialResearch at the University of Frankfurt in Germany (formally called the Institute for the Study of Marxism).Their movement was characterized by a unique intellectual vision that came tobe known as "the Frankfurt school."

That vision was essentially Marxist, but with a twist. WhereasMarx believed that power rested with those who controlled the means ofproduction, the Frankfurt school argued that power rested with those whocontrolled the institutions of culture. The school would come to includesociologists, art critics, psychologists, philosophers,"sexologists," political scientists, and a host of other"experts" intent on converting Marxism from a strictly economictheory into a cultural reality.

Marcuse was a key intellectual in the movement, along with TheodorAdorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, WilhelmReich, Georg Lukacs, and many others. These men were disillusioned withtraditional Western society and values. Lukacs, who helped found the school,said that its purpose was to answer this question: "Who shall save usfrom Western Civilization?"

"Terror and civilization are inseparable," wrote Adornoand Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Thesolution to terror was therefore simple: dismantle civilization. Marcuseexpressed their goal like this: "One can rightfully speak of a culturalrevolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole culturalestablishment, including [the] morality of existing society." Lukacs saw"the revolutionary destruction of society as the one and only solution tothe cultural contradictions of the epoch," and argued that "such aworldwide overturning of values cannot take place without the annihilation ofthe old values and the creation of new ones by the revolutionaries."

Lukacs used the Hungarian schools as a front line for instillingthis cultural nihilism. Through a curriculum of radical sexeducation, he hoped to weaken the traditional family. Historian William Borstrecounts how "Hungarian children learned the subtle nuances of free love,sexual intercourse, and the archaic nature of middle-class family codes, theobsolete nature of monogamy, and the irrelevance of organized religion, whichdeprived man of pleasure."

To America

When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the Frankfurt school wasforced to disband, relocating first to Geneva, and later, after most of itsintellectuals fled to the United States, at Columbia University. FromColumbia, its ideas were disseminated throughout American academia.

On the surface, post-war America seemed like the last place thatwould give this anti-Western philosophy a hearing. After all, the entireWestern world, but especially America, was acutely conscious of the way fascismhad nearly wiped out their civilization. The Nazis had risen to power on a waveof fashionable neo-paganism and primordial tribalism that presented itself asan alternative to theculture of the modern West. In a number of ways, therefore, the defeat ofHitler represented a triumph for Western values. In America, this victory wasfollowed by the renewed cultural optimism characteristic of the late 1940s and1950s, which, among other things, manifested itself in the baby boom.

The genius of the Frankfurt School lay in its ability to convertthis newfound confidence into a force for sabotaging society. Thestrategy involved a clever redefining of fascism as an extreme right-wingheresy. According to this narrative, Nazism had been the outgrowth of a societyentrenched in capitalism. ("Whoever is not prepared to talk aboutcapitalism should also remain silent about fascism," commented sociologistMax Horkheimer.) Cultures that attached strong importance to family, religion,patriotism, and private ownership were declared virtual seedbeds of fascism.

The historical revisionism reached its height with Marcuse, whoestablished himself as the most well-known member of the movement because ofhis ability to effectively communicate with the youth. Marcuse was adoptedas the intellectual guru of the hippie movement, and he, in turn, providedthe younger generation with a steady stream of propaganda to sanctify theirrebellious impulses. (It was Marcuse who invented the catchphrase "Makelove, not war.")

For Marcuse, the only answer to the problem of fascism wascommunism. "The Communist Parties are, and will remain, the soleanti-fascist power," he declared. For this reason, he urged Americans notto be too hard on the totalitarian experiments of their communist enemies,asserting that "the denunciation of neo-fascism and Social Democracy mustoutweigh denunciation of Communist policy."

Whistling & Work Theory

The Frankfurt thinkers taught that those who held conservativeviews were not just wrong, but neurotic. By converting conservative ideas intopathologies, they set in motion the trend of silencing others throughdiagnosis rather than dialogue. "Psychologizing" politicalopponents became a substitute for debating them.

It wasn't just their political opponents who fell under the hammerof psychoanalysis. By pioneering a discipline known as "Critical Theory," the FrankfurtSchool was able to deconstruct all of Western civilization. Instead of showingthat the values of the West were false or deficient, they diagnosed the cultureas being inherently logo-centric, patriarchal, institutional, patriotic, andcapitalist. No aspect of Western society, from cleanliness to Shakespeare, wasimmune from this critique. Even the act of whistling fell under thedeconstruction of Adorno, who said that whistling indicated "control overmusic" and was symptomatic of the insidious pleasure Westerners took"in possessing the melody."

It is doubtful that Marcuse ever got too worked up over whistling,but what did make him really mad was labor. A good day's honest work was one ofthe most repressive aspects of the civilization he hoped to undermine. As analternative, Marcuse urged what he called "the convergence of labor andplay."

The libido was the key to this pre-civilized utopia.Marcuse called for a "polymorphous sexuality" involving "atransformation of the libido from sexuality constrained under genital supremacyto eroticization of the entire personality." Once this transformation tookplace, labor would no longer occupy such an important role in the West. In Eros and Civilization Marcusewrote that "labor time, which is the largest part of the individual's lifetime, is painful time, for alienated labor is absence of gratification,negation of the pleasure principle."

In his book Intellectual MoronsDanielJ. Flynn helpfully compares Marcuse's views on labor with those of Marx:

Marx argued against the exploitation of labor; Marcuse, againstlabor itself. Don't work, have sex. This was the simple message of Eros andCivilization, released in 1955. Its ideas proved to be extraordinarily popularamong the fledgling hippie culture of the following decade. It provided arationale for laziness and transformed degrading personal vices into virtues.

This elevation of laziness included self-conscious rejection ofthe "work" of keeping oneself clean. Thus, Marcuse argued that thosewho returned to a more primitive state must reject personal hygiene andexperience the freedom of embracing a "body unsoiled by plasticcleanliness."


Flynn put Marcuse's entire philosophy in a nutshell when hecontended that Marcuse "preached that freedom is totalitarianism,democracy is dictatorship, education is indoctrination, violence isnonviolence, and fiction is truth." As this suggests, Marcuse was a geniusat "granting positive connotations to negative practices." This trickreached the height of doublespeak when Marcuse preached that tolerance isactually intolerance, and visa verse.

Guided by Marcuse's sophistry, the notion of tolerance came tomean the complete opposite of whatit had formerly signified. No longer was tolerance the act of allowing orforbearing with another person's viewpoint or values despite one's disapprovalof them. This was the notion espoused by liberals of the Enlightenment andembodied in the quotation (falsely attributed to Voltaire), "I disapproveof what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."Though this notion of tolerance, like any other type of liberty, has obviouslegal limits, it was based on the Christian idea (not always perfectlyfollowed) that we should refrain from deporting, imprisoning, executing, orhumiliating those whose beliefs, practices, and behaviors we dislike ordisapprove of.

Marcuse considered traditional tolerance to be "repressivetolerance," which needed to be replaced with "liberatingtolerance." Significantly, liberating tolerance involved"intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movementsfrom the Left." Movements from the Left included the activism ofvarious groups that Marcuse encouraged to self-identify as oppressed, includinghomosexuals, women, blacks, and immigrants. Only minority groups such as thesecould be considered legitimate objects of tolerance.

Commenting on this new type of tolerance, Daniel Flynn wrote:

Tolerating what you like and censoring what you don't like, ofcourse, had a name before Marcuse came along. It was called intolerance.Intolerance had an unpopular ring to it, so Marcuse called it by its morepopular antonym, tolerance. This word was often modified by liberating, discriminating, and true. Further corruption of languagecame via his criticism of practitioners of free speech as"intolerant."

What emerged from the shadow of this new tolerance was a type ofintellectual redistribution. Instead of redistributing economic capital from the middle classto the working class, as Marx had urged, the new tolerance sought toredistribute cultural capital.Marcuse made no secret that this was his ultimate goal, admitting that hecommended "the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inversedirection, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left byrestraining the liberty of the Right." This was achieved in a number ofways, including what Flynn has described as "attitudinal adjustment"effected by "psychological conditioning through entertainment, the classroom, linguistic taboos, and other means [that] transmit their ideology throughosmosis."

In the years since Marcuse, the notion of tolerance has completedits metamorphosis. Whereas under the old notion of tolerance, a man had to disagree with something in order totolerate it, under the new meaning, there can be no disagreement; rather, aperson must actually accept all values and viewpoints as being equallylegitimate (the obvious exception being that we must not tolerate the oldnotion of tolerance.)

Unlike many of his philosophical descendants, Marcuse wasperfectly conscious of the double standard he advocated, making no secret ofthe fact that he was willing to stamp out academic freedom in order to shiftthe balance of power. He even acknowledged that this new model of toleranceinvolved "the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groupsand movements which promote aggressive policies," while "therestoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions onteachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their verymethods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universeof discourse and behavior." What Marcuse was saying is even more radicalthan Gorgias's claim that nothing exists. It amounts to this: Freedom of thought and freedom of speech can only beachieved by rigid restrictions on thought and speech.

In arguing for "the cancellation of the liberal creed of freeand equal discussion" (from his essay "Repressive Tolerance"),Marcuse helped undermine the ancient university motto lux et veritas. Themodern university, with its vigilant policing of ideas and its politicallydriven censorship policies, was given its intellectual legitimization byMarcuse.


While it is doubtful that anyone took Gorgias's thought seriously(least of all Gorgias himself), Marcuse's ideas have been taken so seriouslythat they have formed the intellectual foundation both for the academic Leftand for the machine of political correctness that drives much contemporarymedia bias.

Gorgias knew that he was being irrational, but he did so for theenjoyment of demonstrating his intellectual powers. Marcuse also knew he wasbeing irrational, but he believed that irrationality was good. For him, logicwas a tool of domination and oppression, whereas, he wrote in One DimensionalMan, "the ability to . . . convert illusion intoreality and fiction into truth, testify to the extent to which Imagination hasbecome an instrument of progress."

Marcuse served stints at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brandeis, andthe University of California at San Diego. In each of these institutions, hepreached his gospel of nihilism, in which negative concepts and words werecontinually twisted into positives. Up until his death in 1979, he continued toconvince people to "convert illusion into reality."

The truly amazing thing is that so many people have believed hisillusions. •

Robin Phillips is the author of the book Saints and Scoundrels and is working on a Ph.D. in historical theology throughKing's College, London. He blogs at http://robinphillips.blogspot.com.

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