Free Speech, Democracy, and “Repressive Tolerance”
There has been, recently, controversy on the Left over “free speech.” Should radical leftists and anti-fascists disrupt speeches by right-wingers? Should leftists break up such meetings, charge the stage, and smash windows? Or should the leftists limit themselves to counter-demonstrations, boycotts, protest leaflets, and, perhaps, heckling? The controversy is not so much over public events by fascists—U.S. Nazis or Klan members, for example—but over right wingers who claim to not be fascists but “conservatives” who value free speech.
In working out an approach to this issue, a number of leftist thinkers—anarchists and Marxists—have revived interest in the ideas of Herbert Marcuse (1969). In 1965 (updated 1968), Marcuse wrote an influential essay, “Repressive Tolerance” (which appeared with essays by two others in the little book, Critique of Pure Tolerance). Marcuse (1898—1979) was one of the most influential Left theorists of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. A member of the Frankfort School, he was a scholar of Marx, Hegel, and Freud. Marcuse had an enormous impact and following. Given the general ignorance and muddle of much of today’s radical thinking, it is not surprising that there has been an attempt to revive Marcuse’s ideas about free speech and the limits of “pure tolerance.”