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A Virtue in Question

A Critique of Pure Tolerance

by Robert Wolff, by Barrington Moore Jr., by Herbert Marcuse
Beacon, 117 pp., $2.45

The prime movers of the liberal tradition have always recognized that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. John Locke provides a case in point. In his celebrated Letters on Toleration, Locke defended the widest possible legal and political tolerance of private persons and associations. He made exceptions, however, of three groups: Catholics both because they would abrogate the liberties of others and because they owe allegiance to a “foreign power,” Mohammedans because their traditional practices render them in effect unassimilable by a Western European body politic, and atheists because in denying God’s existence they show themselves to be impervious to distinctions between right and wrong. As Bertrand Russell once said, John Locke was the most conservative of revolutionists. Perhaps this is the reason why, although his political philosophy frequently goes out of fashion, it never quite becomes obsolete.

Of course mankind has come a long and tortuous way since Locke’s time, so long a way that Professor Robert Wolff, whose essay is perhaps the most “liberal” of the three that comprise this disquieting little book, finds it possible simply to dismiss Locke’s philosophy of government as “irrelevant” to the problems confronting the Western democracies in our time. Wolff and his associates do not, like Locke, hold merely that tolerance is subject to critique and hence to limitations; they are, rather, largely disillusioned with it as a virtue of contemporary political and social life. Indeed, they consider it to be a mask, if not a positive cause, of the indifference, inequality, and malpractice endemic in all modern liberal democracies, and particularly in the United States. They are convinced not only that the mask must be lifted so that the ugly realities behind it may be exposed, but also that the cause must be extirpated. This is why the book is so disturbing. Many of us share with Professors Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse the conviction that radical politico-social changes are necessary, not just in “underprivileged” areas that have lately thrown off the yoke of political imperialism, but also at home where the munificence of the welfare state serves, among other things, to blanket the desperation of vast numbers of human beings. But few of us as yet are prepared to deny political toleration to those who now block such changes. Like Locke, so to say, we are conservative revolutionists. Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse are not. They accept certain possibilities which “we” have barely contemplated. And whether in the end we agree with them, we are in their debt for obliging us to consider whether tolerance, as now practiced in our country, is a luxury which we can no longer afford.

IT SHOULD BE ADDED at once that our authors have not written a common manifesto, nor have they sought to obscure their differences of outlook upon the fate and hope of mankind. How such a book came to be written at all (to a quandam neighbor, like myself, they seem a rather unlikely trio to have joined in such a venture) is explained in their rather ebullient Forword. Some time back, when they were all members of something called “the larger Cambridge community,” they used to meet as friends and “passionately” argue the issues dealt with in these essays. When at last it occurred to them to set down their respective views about tolerance in the context of modern political life, they were evidently somewhat surprised by the fact that an “authority on Kant” reared in the Harvard tradition of analytical philosophy (Wolff), an “authority on Hegel,” deeply influenced by both Marx and Freud and antipathetic to analytical philosophy (Marcuse), and a homegrown positivistic sociologist who regards “all philosophy as dangerous and absurd” (Moore), could all find their way to similar conclusions about matters of such vast importance for the future of American democracy. My own impression, however, is that if they went on arguing they would probably find that their agreements are unstable and very possibly superficial. Wolff, and, for all his bluster, Moore are merely estranged from the tradition of Anglo-American liberalism, whereas Marcuse always has remained outside it. This, I believe, is why, for all his “indignation,” Marcuse preserves an air of ironical detachment toward the episode of liberal democracy, but Wolff and Moore, on the contrary, seem virtually deracinated. It is precisely for this reason that Marcuse, unlike his associates, can blandly propose to withdraw tolerance “from regressive movements before they can become active….” (italics in text). I don’t say that Wolff and Moore could not conceivably be brought to such a pitch—they have certainly set no explicit limits to their own intolerance of rightist masqueraders. But their position, by comparison with Marcuse’s, seems abstract and unprogrammatic, in one sense almost apolitical. For better or worse, Marcuse has at once a far more developed philosophy of history, and a more developed sense of history, than his associates. And Marcuse’s philosophy of history, like Marx’s and unlike Hegel’s, has as its purpose not merely understanding the world he lives in, but changing it beyond recognition.

Professor Wolff hardly lives up to his billing as a philosophical analyst who is “allergic to any emanations from the spirit of Hegel.” For, although his stated purpose is “to understand the philosophy of tolerance as well as to subject it to criticism,” he nowhere examines tolerance as a general principle of social, or even of political, action; nor does he relate it to those universal goods, such as peace, or those basic rights, such as liberty, that have been thought by Locke and his successors to require tolerance as a general condition. On the contrary, Wolff treats tolerance as merely the characteristic “virtue” (in a quasi-Platonic sense of the term) of the sort of pluralist democracy that has gradually evolved in this country and England. Viewed in this stylized way, tolerance is no more than “that state of mind and condition of society” that enables a society like ours to function well in relation to its own ends. Wolff does not study the full range of those ends, either actual or professed; nor does he, therefore, justly weigh their merits. Reading him, one would have no notion that tolerance is anything more than an “ideology,” in Karl Mannheim’s pejorative sense of the term, which serves merely to disguise and to reinforce the prevailing system of political, economic, and social power, along with the injustices that accompany it. As one follows him, one finds Wolff, like Hegel, turning the supposed “virtue” into its antithesis, and then treating the resulting “vice” as a club to thwack the system with which he chooses to identify it.

NEVERTHELESS, Wolff’s essay has force as well as some originality. According to him there exist two main variants of pluralist political theory. The first of these, which he calls the “referee theory,” holds that the proper role of the central government is to set out the ground rules for legitimate competition between various private and semi-private associations so that none of the interests represented will abuse their power or gain control of some vital sector of communal life. The second, or “vector-sum,” theory treats government as a “place” where competing forces are somehow “resolved into a unified social decision.” As any one can see, these theories do not entirely jibe. There is always the possibility that actual vector-sums will violate or radically alter existing ground rules, or that rigid maintenance of the ground rules will prevent “natural” resolutions of social or economic forces from occurring. Both theories, according to Wolff, (inevitably?) reinforce prevailing tendencies toward ideological distortion inherent in pluralism. The vector-sum theory distorts reality because groups such as the migrant workers in California, which are not represented by recognized associations, exert no steady pressure upon political decisions. The referee theory distorts reality because the government is unable to referee games not played according to the rules, as, for example, in the case of the political “games” that are played behind the scenes within the political parties or within the branches of the central government itself. As referee, the government systematically, if often unconsciously, favors the stronger interests, particularly in intra-group conflicts, by the mere fact that it deals only with established leaders. And in general, a pluralist democracy (inescapably?) serves to obscure and to legitimate deep-lying evils in the existing order.

There is truth in this. What is to replace pluralism, however, Wolff does not say. He dismisses both Rousseauean “direct democracy” and Lockean representative government as irrelevant to the problems of large-scale industrial societies. For the rest he contents himself with the hope for “a new philosophy of community that goes beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance.” Amen. As Rousseau himself long ago insisted, we must reject the image of the community as battle ground for competition between the wills of all. But the problem, now as in his time, is to find a governmental “agent” that will truly represent the general will. To this problem, Wolff contributes not the vestige of a solution.

PROFESSOR MOORE professes to hate philosophy, but he is a philosopher all the same, and a highly dogmatic one at that. His effusion on “Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook” has two loosely related parts. In the first, he alleges that “the secular and scientific outlook” suffices not only for “understanding” but also for evaluating human affairs; according to him, it can even tell us “when to be tolerant and when tolerance becomes intellectual cowardice and evasion.” Nowhere, of course, does Moore show us how his secularist ideals can be validated through procedures exclusive to the scientific outlook, still less how they would enable him to resolve by rational means disagreements between himself and non-secularists over the intellectual limits of tolerance. He believes that as a general rule the truth will subvert the established order, since all establishments are bound to conceal the sources of their power. And so he defends tolerance of the scientifically oriented scholar. But he has little use for a conception of academic freedom, or tolerance, which serves as a cloak for the protection of “orthodoxy.” Just how far he would go in curtailing the prerogatives of his academic colleagues is unclear. But I have the impression that Professor Marcuse and perhaps even Professor Wolff, at least in his Kantian vein, might have a hard time of it in a positivistic intellectual environment of the sort that appeals to Moore.

Professor Moore’s “message” is hard to gauge. He certainly appears to defend the idea of revolution in our time, although he is at pains to criticize the Bolshevik Revolution, which so badly “miscalculated” the cost of the revolution in Russia in human suffering and degradation. He holds that revolutionary violence, including dictatorship, has been the precursor of periods of extended freedom at several points in western history. But he cites no instances. He also contends—I think with some justice—that one cannot peremptorily lump violence, dictatorship, and fanaticism in one category and freedom, constitutionalism, and civil liberties in another. What he fails to show is that his attitudes have any genuine scientific basis or that any of the unnamed revolutions that have turned out so well could have been justified in advance of the fact by studious applications of the scientific method.

Moore’s essay closes with some equivocal ruminations on the intellectual’s role in the world of revolutionary politics. The intellectual should fearlessly ready himself and others for revolutionary tionary change. His business is “relentless, critical exposure—destructive criticism of a destructive reality.” Yet, unlike the political leader, he does not have to decide whether to support or to oppose the revolutionary of his age. His task, indeed, is “not to be committed to any political doctrine or ideal, not to be an agitator or a fighter, but to find and speak the truth, whatever the political consequences may be” (italics in text). I find this quite inadequate. What if the intellectual, through his powers of analysis and prognostication, should become convinced that, say, liberal democracy is a valid system of political organization, at least for ourselves? Ought he not, in the name of truth, agitate for his conviction? Or what if he believes that liberal democracy is doomed and that it ought to be supplanted? What then? In the end Professor Moore, like any tame “scientific” academician, repudiates his own “competence” to do anything about the world he lives in.

Initially, Professor Marcuse takes a view of the intellectual’s function that seems not unlike Moore’s. As he puts it, the task and duty of the intellectual is “to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian…to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.” Actually, Marcuse’s whole activist style of thought has nothing to do with Moore’s raucous but indecisive positivism. Marcuse is ideologically dedicated in a way that neither Moore nor Wolff seems fully to understand. His aloofness from certain levels of political controversy stems not from any sense of the limitations of his role as an intellectual, but from his characteristic philosophical and historical convictions that such controversies cut no ice. In a way, Marcuse, like Marx, is a pragmatist, indeed a shrewder and more determined pragmatist than Moore, who professes to relate ideas to consequential action but in fact is scandalized by the consequences that ideas can have.

MARCUSE, alone among his colleagues, makes some effort to distinguish tolerance as a principle and ideal of human relationships from the de facto legal or social tolerations that form, or are thought to form, the characteristic virtue of particular historical regimes. He, like Locke, relates tolerance to liberty. However, his conception of liberty is radically different from the classical liberals: As he understands it in his German-idealist way liberty does not mean merely absence of constraints that prevent one from doing what one wants, but “liberation” from those largely hidden and “regressive” factors within society, as within the individual personality, that stand in the way of “genuine” or “true” self-determination. Here, of course, are echoes of Plato, Rousseau, and Hegel, for whom freedom consists in doing what you like when you have an “integrated” personality, when you fit into the just society, or when you are a part of the “progressive” movement of historical change in your age. Accordingly Marcuse, like his forerunners, is perfectly prepared to suppress “regressive” elements in society that impede liberation. Whether garden-variety liberties can survive the ministrations of such a “liberating tolerance” is not a question that greatly interests Marcuse.

Ironically, the authors of this critique of tolerance are guilty of the very same fault they ascribe to the liberals: that is, they attack symptoms rather than their causes. In so doing, they either leave the cause itself without a cure (as in the case of Wolff and Moore), or else suggest a cure—suppression of the Right (as in the case of Marcuse), which would probably kill the patient. It is true that in the guise of tolerance, most of us submit to, if we do not implicitly condone, some intolerable social evils. But this no more implies that tolerance as such is a vice than it does that liberty, of which tolerance is the shield, is an evil. So far as the critique of tolerance is concerned, therefore, Locke is still greatly to be preferred to the authors of this book.


Varieties of Liberalism January 26, 1967

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