In 1970 I spent the summer with a lot of heavy books. I was in my late twenties. That summer was a kind of sabbatical for me, a reassessment, as I bowed out of my first fling at doctoral studies. Among my heavy books were those of Herbert Marcuse, especially One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.
Marcuse, for those of you unfamiliar with him (and I suspect that would be nearly everybody under 50) was a political philosopher who was becoming the go-to theorist of the New Left movement that was taking over many American campuses.
Marcuse was a popularizer in the classic sense: He took ideas that had been floating around, in this case the ideas of the so-called Frankfurt School of Social Research, and made them accessible to multitudes of youth drunk on a new-found, unexpected power.
Norman Mailer provided swagger for the New Left. Franz Fanon created the myth of white racism and oppression that was the raison d’être for the New Left. R. D. Laing and Ken Kesey enlisted psychological deviance in service to the cause. The street theatrics of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman took care of the aesthetics. Gore Vidal fashioned leftism as an aristocracy. But it was Marcuse, who died in 1979, who attempted to formalize the movement into a doctrinal system.
In 1970, Marcuse’s formulas sounded like the musings of an academic déclamateur, an old prophet manqué attempting to suck up to the new boys on the block. Who is this old German Jew trying to kid, I asked myself? Apparently, he made quite an impression on them. His books sold by the hundreds of thousands and are still in print today.
I can remember to this day Marcuse’s prescriptions for authoritarianism. (Leftist ideologies, which begin as liberation from authority, invariably turn authoritarian.) One of his most famous dogmas was “repressive tolerance.” Tolerance, he wrote, would be exercised only to the Left. “No enemies on the Left,” had insisted the community organizer icon Saul Alinsky. To the Right, in Marcuse’s catechism, repressive tolerance would permit no legitimacy. He called for the “systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions,” by which of course he meant those opposed to the New Left.
“Certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed,” wrote Marcuse. These were his philosophical prescriptions then; they are today descriptions of familiar political and cultural realities. In the realm of public opinion, Marcuse seems to have prevailed. What conservative today, what Christian, is not aware that he or she is under some kind of presumptive judgment? As columnist Daniel Henninger writes, “Marcuse created political correctness.”
Barack Obama was only nine years old in 1970 when I was hiding out for a few months in my parents’ spare California bedroom to read Marcuse. I don’t know if the young Barry Dunham ever read Marcuse in his Occidental, Columbia or Harvard days, but there is little doubt that he imbibed the philosopher’s ideas. Barack Obama is Marcusean through and through.
One of the fundamental questions of our time is whether Republicans and conservatives will discover, or discover in time, who they are dealing with in Barack Obama and his transformed Democrat Party. Indications so far are that they have a long ways to go. It is not Barack Obama’s intention to tolerate any opposition to his policies and worldview. The handsome face and calm demeanor mask a ruthless Marcusean repressive tolerance.
My copies of Marcuse’s works have long since disappeared, as had his ideas for many years. We all thought— though we shouldn’t have—that they had been consigned to the dustbin of history in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They are back now, deeply ingrained in the public psyche, and we have once again to take them on, not only on the campuses of universities this time, but in the highest reaches of government and society itself.
Now, where is my old edition of The Strawberry Statement?