A Friendly Debate About Herbert Marcuse, with R.J. Eskow

In which R.J. defends Marcuse, plus some leftover thoughts about the author of "Repressive Tolerance"

The above is a video of a debate between old friend Richard “R.J.” Eskow and myself about Herbert Marcuse. As you can see from the graphic, Richard had some fun with the idea that this was a hardcore intellectual battle to the death. Actually, he just had friendly complaints about a recent review I wrote, complaints that were shared by many subscribers, which is why I’ve posted the discussion. In addition, I wrote a few last thoughts on the subject:


Earlier this week I published a long criticism of One-Dimensional Man and Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse. In reviews, I always try to keep in mind the quote by Kurt Vonnegut, that anyone who gives way to rage in book criticism is “like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” One should never, ever take these things too seriously. But I lost my sense of humor with Marcuse.

Some commenters noted I spent much of my career detailing many of the same themes of exploitation, thievery, corruption, and deceptive propaganda in American society Marcuse wrote about in books like One-Dimensional Man. However, I covered those issues with the attitude that they were fixable, always believing that if I could get to a place where I myself understood a problem, anyone else could get it too. One of the first things that struck me about Marcuse is that he does not seem to believe this at all. He wrote in Repressive Tolerance about the uselessness of submitting information to “the people” in any jumble of “contesting opinions,” because doing so implies that “the people are capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge.”

For a passage like that to read as anything but the most intense snobbery requires quite an explanation. As it happens, Marcuse had one. It wasn’t that he believed the common run of people were not capable of responsible thought, he insisted, merely that in modern society, they were so overwhelmed by propaganda and capitalist indoctrination that they were deprived of the capacity for true knowledge. In his words, the conditions for “autonomy” were absent, so long as people had to struggle to survive. Therefore, such a society did not yet exist “anywhere.”

As such, the traditional American can-do legends about rolling up one’s sleeves to lick the problem at hand were of course fake. Marcuse permitted himself a rare laugh at the expense of a book that was a hit in his time, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. In One-Dimensional Man, he wrote at great length about “the power of negative thinking.” He meant it in a different way, trying to make a dialectical point about the “antagonistic structure of reality” that would have been lost on most of the five million Peale readers. Still, in the first pass over all this in One-Dimensional Man, I found myself weirdly offended on behalf of schlock American self-help jargon (and the goofy work of Peale, an author Donald Trump revered as “his pastor”).

Thinking about this, I realized what bothered me most about Marcuse, and about the stream of imitators his writings seem to have inspired, especially lately: his hostility to peculiarly American concepts, not just the innumerable bad and shallow aspects of our culture, but precisely the good things. For all its flaws, this country has a few fantastic design ideas, in particular our long list of individual rights and freedoms. What’s always distinguished us as a people is that we don’t let anyone tell us what to think.

King George was the first to get the message, the PR flack from the power company will hear it from Erin Brockovich today, and in between, there’s been a sea of poor restaurant managers, bank directors, school principals, health inspectors, customer service representatives, referees, and countless other real or imagined authority figures who’ve gotten earfuls whenever they made the mistake of trying to tell us the score. Around the world, they call us ugly Americans, but look, that ball was on the line:

I’d have thought someone like Marcuse would appreciate this quality of ours, since assholedom as divine right was surely an intentional regulatory mechanism, designed to help prevent exactly the kind of autocratic hell he’d escaped in Germany. Raise people to think it’s their prerogative to decide who’s right and who’s not, and they’ll not only get used to the idea, they’ll fight with sticks and bats anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. The three branches of government are a nice system, but in our society, the individual obstinacy of our people has always been the ultimate check and balance.

The core idea of Repressive Tolerance is that one can build freedom by way of unfreedom, and this strikes me as an idea that’s not just very unlikely to be correct, but deeply un-American. It’s what’s troubling also about the gloomy collectivism dominating today’s intellectual culture, which looks at the unreconstructed individual as the worst kind of menace, always and everywhere a potential purveyor of harm, deception, and oppression, instead of what I think he was designed to be in our culture, the first line of defense against more organized forms of misery.

Old friend Richard “R.J.” Eskow and I ended up discussing exactly this question in the above video. He objected to some of the caricatures of Marcuse as an effete Euro who wouldn’t go near a Budweiser or a Harley as excessive, and he was probably right. At the same time, I do think there are things to be proud of in our culture, and I absolutely didn’t mean our beer or our motorcycles, a point I hope came through in our talk. We argued, but reasonably and respectfully — “I’m proud of us!” was his later comment — and I hope those who found the initial review unfair will see some comfort in Richard’s generous objections.