The Illusionist

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

The ancient Greeks had a school of philosophers known as the Sophists, who took pride in their ability to prove impossible things. Some sophists even hired themselves out at public events, where audiences could watch spellbound as they proceeded to prove propositions that were obviously false.

The sophist philosopher Gorgias (4th century b.c.) invented an ingenuous argument to prove that: nothing exists; and even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something exists and something can be known about it, such knowledge cannot be communicated to others; and even if something exists, can be known about, and can be communicated about, no incentive exists to communicate anything about it to others.

It would be nice if such sophistry had been limited to ancient Greeks. However, the 20th century saw a thinker whose nonsense rivaled and even surpassed 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 to new levels of truth-twisting heights, but because his truth-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 tore apart the city carrying banners that read "Marx/Mao/Marcuse." In his forward to Marcuse's book Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Robert Young said that "among pure scholars [Marcuse] had the most direct and profound effect on historical events of any individual in the twentieth century."

The Frankfurt School

Marcuse came from a generation of intellectuals who had experienced the devastation of World War I. This pointless war, together with the Spanish influenza, which followed on its heels and wiped out as many as the war had destroyed, produced a generation of exhausted and cynical intellectuals ready to embrace the false optimism of either fascism or Marxism. Many who adopted the latter course came together in the Institute for Social Research 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 to be known as "the Frankfurt school."

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

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

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

Lukacs used the Hungarian schools as a front line for instilling this cultural nihilism. Through a curriculum of radical sex education, he hoped to weaken the traditional family. Historian William Borst recounts how "Hungarian children learned the subtle nuances of free love, sexual intercourse, and the archaic nature of middle-class family codes, the obsolete nature of monogamy, and the irrelevance of organized religion, which deprived man of pleasure."

To America

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

On the surface, post-war America seemed like the last place that would give this anti-Western philosophy a hearing. After all, the entire Western world, but especially America, was acutely conscious of the way fascism had nearly wiped out their civilization. The Nazis had risen to power on a wave of fashionable neo-paganism and primordial tribalism that presented itself as an alternative to the culture of the modern West. In a number of ways, therefore, the defeat of Hitler represented a triumph for Western values. In America, this victory was followed by the renewed cultural optimism characteristic of the late 1940s and 1950s, which, among other things, manifested itself in the baby boom.

The genius of the Frankfurt School lay in its ability to convert this newfound confidence into a force for sabotaging society. The strategy involved a clever redefining of fascism as an extreme right-wing heresy. According to this narrative, Nazism had been the outgrowth of a society entrenched in capitalism. ("Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism," commented sociologist Max 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, who established himself as the most well-known member of the movement because of his ability to effectively communicate with the youth. Marcuse was adopted as the intellectual guru of the hippie movement, and he, in turn, provided the younger generation with a steady stream of propaganda to sanctify their rebellious impulses. (It was Marcuse who invented the catchphrase "Make love, not war.")

For Marcuse, the only answer to the problem of fascism was communism. "The Communist Parties are, and will remain, the sole anti-fascist power," he declared. For this reason, he urged Americans not to be too hard on the totalitarian experiments of their communist enemies, asserting that "the denunciation of neo-fascism and Social Democracy must outweigh denunciation of Communist policy."

Whistling & Work Theory

The Frankfurt thinkers taught that those who held conservative views were not just wrong, but neurotic. By converting conservative ideas into pathologies, they set in motion the trend of silencing others through diagnosis rather than dialogue. "Psychologizing" political opponents became a substitute for debating them.

It wasn't just their political opponents who fell under the hammer of psychoanalysis. By pioneering a discipline known as "Critical Theory," the Frankfurt School was able to deconstruct all of Western civilization. Instead of showing that the values of the West were false or deficient, they diagnosed the culture as being inherently logo-centric, patriarchal, institutional, patriotic, and capitalist. No aspect of Western society, from cleanliness to Shakespeare, was immune from this critique. Even the act of whistling fell under the deconstruction of Adorno, who said that whistling indicated "control over music" 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 of the most repressive aspects of the civilization he hoped to undermine. As an alternative, Marcuse urged what he called "the convergence of labor and play."

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

In his book Intellectual Morons, Daniel J. Flynn helpfully compares Marcuse's views on labor with those of Marx:

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

This elevation of laziness included self-conscious rejection of the "work" of keeping oneself clean. Thus, Marcuse argued that those who returned to a more primitive state must reject personal hygiene and experience the freedom of embracing a "body unsoiled by plastic cleanliness."


Flynn put Marcuse's entire philosophy in a nutshell when he contended that Marcuse "preached that freedom is totalitarianism, democracy is dictatorship, education is indoctrination, violence is nonviolence, and fiction is truth." As this suggests, Marcuse was a genius at "granting positive connotations to negative practices." This trick reached the height of doublespeak when Marcuse preached that tolerance is actually intolerance, and visa verse.

Guided by Marcuse's sophistry, the notion of tolerance came to mean the complete opposite of what it had formerly signified. No longer was tolerance the act of allowing or forbearing with another person's viewpoint or values despite one's disapproval of them. This was the notion espoused by liberals of the Enlightenment and embodied in the quotation (falsely attributed to Voltaire), "I disapprove of 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 obvious legal limits, it was based on the Christian idea (not always perfectly followed) that we should refrain from deporting, imprisoning, executing, or humiliating those whose beliefs, practices, and behaviors we dislike or disapprove of.

Marcuse considered traditional tolerance to be "repressive tolerance," which needed to be replaced with "liberating tolerance." Significantly, liberating tolerance involved "intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left." Movements from the Left included the activism of various groups that Marcuse encouraged to self-identify as oppressed, including homosexuals, women, blacks, and immigrants. Only minority groups such as these could 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, of course, had a name before Marcuse came along. It was called intolerance. Intolerance had an unpopular ring to it, so Marcuse called it by its more popular antonym, tolerance. This word was often modified byliberating, discriminating, and true. Further corruption of language came via his criticism of practitioners of free speech as "intolerant."

What emerged from the shadow of this new tolerance was a type of intellectual redistribution. Instead of redistributing economic capital from the middle class to the working class, as Marx had urged, the new tolerance sought to redistribute cultural capital. Marcuse made no secret that this was his ultimate goal, admitting that he commended "the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right." This was achieved in a number of ways, including what Flynn has described as "attitudinal adjustment" effected by "psychological conditioning through entertainment, the class room, linguistic taboos, and other means [that] transmit their ideology through osmosis."

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

Unlike many of his philosophical descendants, Marcuse was perfectly conscious of the double standard he advocated, making no secret of the fact that he was willing to stamp out academic freedom in order to shift the balance of power. He even acknowledged that this new model of tolerance involved "the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies," while "the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior." What Marcuse was saying is even more radical than Gorgias's claim that nothing exists. It amounts to this: Freedom of thought and freedom of speech can only be achieved by rigid restrictions on thought and speech.

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


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

Gorgias knew that he was being irrational, but he did so for the enjoyment of demonstrating his intellectual powers. Marcuse also knew he was being irrational, but he believed that irrationality was good. For him, logic was a tool of domination and oppression, whereas, he wrote in One Dimensional Man,"the ability to . . . convert illusion into reality and fiction into truth, testify to the extent to which Imagination has become an instrument of progress."

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

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

From Salvo 20 (Spring 2012)
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has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #20, Spring 2012 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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