Some years ago, Michael Hanby observed that we are all Marxists now. By this, he meant that everything has become politicized for all of us, whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated somewhat since then: Now, a large and influential number of us are also Marcusans, taking our cues from one of the leading lights of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse. The reaction to the recent Harper’s letter and the current conflicts at Princeton University bear witness to the fact that freedom of speech, once considered an axiom of a free society, is now being questioned by the artistic and intellectual classes who, paradoxically, are its very fruits. And this notion that freedom of speech is merely a species of repression is one that Marcuse eloquently expressed in his 1968 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.”
Along with his Frankfurt colleagues, Marcuse must take the blame for the assumption by large swathes of the left that obfuscation and obscurity are sacramental signs of the “real presence” of insight. Indeed, the combination of his inspirational revolutionary stance with his inability to write a clear sentence (let alone an entire lucid paragraph) effectively granted a plenary indulgence to trendy academics and academic wannabes for crimes against the English language.
We should not dismiss Marcuse’s thought, however. His book Eros and Civilization was central to the refraction of Freud through a Marxist lens, thus politicizing psychology and paving the way for the sexual dimension of the revolutions of 1968 and beyond. And his One-Dimensional Man was a classic example of the dog biting the hand that fed him, being a critique of the very American culture that had given him safe haven during the Nazi regime. If critical theory in its demolition of the past can often degenerate into an ideological justification of ingratitude, then Marcuse was both its pioneer and its poster boy.
The left did not invent the use of commercial power to shape policy. It is actually an inevitable concomitant of a free society. Yet, enabled by the power of social media, today’s attacks on freedom of speech are remarkable for several reasons: they seem to represent more of a problem on the left than on the right; the cancellations apply not simply to the ideas to which the emerging cultural establishment objects but to any individual who dares to espouse them; and their power and scope is potentially terrifying.
Two factors are at play here, both of which find justification in the work of Marcuse. First, that the problem is more one of the left than the right is the result of the shift in left-wing concerns over the last century from traditional categories of struggle and oppression (predominantly economic) to those of psychology. This makes oppression a far murkier concept and brings words and speech to the forefront of the political struggle. Freedom of speech thus becomes part of the problem, not the solution.
Second, those using incorrect speech or floating unacceptable ideas are the equivalent of medieval heretics. They are wrong not because they have genuine intellectual difficulties or disagreements with the cultural establishment’s orthodoxy but because they are wicked people—either wicked by intention or wicked because they are the unconscious tools of a wicked system. Either way, they need to be closed down. That is why even silence on whatever is the heresy du jour has suddenly become violence. To fail to espouse the new orthodoxy, or even to be in tacit support of it, is to deny it by signaling an apparent indifference to its status as truth.
There is one more Marcusan element in all this: an underlying utopianism that is long on desire and attractive rhetoric and rather short on practical details. At least Marx, in The German Ideology, made some attempt to give some substance to the future workers’ paradise. Eschatological man would hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle of an evening, and enjoy literary discussions after dinner. Marx may have offered an unlikely hybrid of a western Pennsylvania outdoorsman and a denizen of a Manhattan cocktail party, but at least he tried. Marcuse offers no such vision. And his failure seems to apply to his contemporary followers, who speak much of justice and community—while dismantling traditional categories, especially sexual codes and notions of the family—yet offer little in way of concrete visions of what justice and community might actually look like. The credo on the Black Lives Matter site is a good example of this phenomenon. Leszek Kolakowski’s trenchant criticism of Marcuse on this point seems equally applicable to his heirs:
He seeks to provide a philosophical basis for a tendency already present in our civilization, which aims at destroying that civilization from within for the sake of an apocalypse of the New World of Happiness of which, in the nature of things, no description can be given.
The radical left seems to have a vested interest in destroying our civilization from within for the sake of some apocalypse or other. That is a dangerous place for us to be. And both corporate interests and the intellectual establishment seem to be pressing the cancel culture with seemingly irresistible power. The time may be approaching when we will find ourselves faced by the imperious demand that we all move our feet to the rhythm of a Marcusan mazurka or risk being driven from the dance floor.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. His forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is due to be published in November.
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