A Critique of Pure Tolerance

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A Critique of Pure Tolerance
A Critique of Pure Tolerance, first edition.JPG
Cover of the first edition
Authors Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., Herbert Marcuse
Country United States
Language English
Subjects Tolerance
Freedom of speech
Publisher Beacon Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 123
ISBN 978-0807015599

A Critique of Pure Tolerance is a 1965 book by the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, the sociologist Barrington Moore Jr., and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The book has been described as "peculiar" by commentators, and its authors have been criticized for advocating intolerance and the suppression of dissenting opinions.


The book consists of three papers, "Beyond Tolerance" by Wolff, "Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook" by Moore, and "Repressive Tolerance" by Marcuse. In his contribution, Marcuse argues that the ideal of tolerance belongs to a liberal, democratic tradition that has become exhausted. Liberal society is based on a form of domination so subtle that the majority accept and even will their servitude. Marcuse believes that under such conditions tolerance as traditionally understood serves the cause of domination and that a new kind of tolerance is therefore needed: tolerance of the Left, subversion, and revolutionary violence, combined with intolerance of the Right, of existing institutions of civil society, and of any opposition to socialism.[1] Marcuse claims that tolerance shown to minority views in industrial societies is a deceit because such expressions cannot be effective. Freedom of speech is not a good in itself because it allows for the propagation of error; Marcuse believes that "The telos of tolerance is truth". Revolutionary minorities hold the truth and the majority has to be liberated from error by being re-educated in the truth by this minority. The revolutionary minority are entitled, Marcuse claims, to suppress rival and harmful opinions.[2]


Academic journals[edit]

A Critique of Pure Tolerance received a negative review from the sociologist Nathan Glazer in the American Sociological Review.[3] The book was also reviewed by the philosopher John Herman Randall Jr. in The Journal of Philosophy and L. Del Grosso Destreri in Studi di Sociologia.[4][5]

Glazer described the book as "peculiar". He credited Marcuse with being open in his advocacy of intolerance, but accused Wolff of being incapable of distinguishing "facts from theory" in his criticisms of tolerance and pluralist democracy. He disagreed with Wolff's view that "The application of the theory of pluralism always favors the groups in existence against those in formation", maintaining that it was contradicted by many historical examples, including the civil rights movement of the 1950s, and described his views as "politically naive." He accused Moore of advocating violence, and wrote that Marcuse appeared to support measures such as breaking up meetings and destroying the literature of his opponents. He considered it fortunate that "the means by which he might impose his opinions are not terribly impressive."[3]

Evaluations in books[edit]

Writing in 1970, the philosopher Maurice Cranston called the book Marcuse's most popular and disturbing work to date. Cranston commented that the book was published, "in a peculiar format, bound in black like a prayer book or missal and perhaps designed to compete with The Thoughts of Chairman Mao as devotional reading at student sit-ins."[1]

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that Marcuse's theory of the right of revolutionary minorities to suppress opinions "is perhaps the most dangerous of all Marcuse's doctrines, for not only is what he asserts false, but his is a doctrine which if it were widely held would be an effective barrier to any rational progress and liberation". He accused Marcuse of having "taken over from liberal and right-wing critics of the European revolutionary tradition a theory which they falsely ascribed to the left, but which was rarely held until Marcuse espoused it." MacIntyre, argued, against Marcuse, that the proper end of tolerance is not truth but rationality, and that Marcuse's proposals undermined the possibility of rationality and critical discussion. He also argued that Marcuse's case against tolerance made those radicals who espouse it "allies of the very forces which they claim to attack."[6]

Ronald Bayer, the author of a survey of attitudes to homosexuality in American psychiatry, identified Marcuse's arguments about "repressive tolerance" as an influence on gay rights activists, who disrupted lectures by psychiatrists and refused to tolerate the views of their opponents as they campaigned for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental disorder.[7]

Other views[edit]

Wolf von Laer, in a podcast titled Campus Speech and the Libertarian Student Movement, cites the influence of Marcuse as an unacknowledged source for the disruptive tactics of the "New Left" on today's campuses.[8]

See also[edit]