Marcuse and Obama: No Small Change

Ron Radosh, writing on PJMedia, dug back into New Left history and political theory in coming up with an explanation for the IRS's targeting of conservative groups.  Radosh provided a telling quote from Herbert Marcuse's theory of "repressive tolerance" article of 1965. I doubt whether it really applies to the IRS scandal but it's timely in other ways.

"Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and blocked if they are by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc."

Those of you who've read the Federalist Papers will recognize that Marcuse replaced the Founders' fear of "the tyranny of the majority" into fear of "the tyranny of the minority" and, therewith, an opportunity for revolution. For Marcuse -- as for his heirs in much of today's Left -- it's just fine for any old majority to determine America's direction. Fine, that is, so long as the majority wants "change" and not the perpetuation of the status quo. ("Change" is "progress," don't you know?) You'll notice that, for Marcuse, it's the majority's duty to shut the minority up when and if the latter calls for tolerance of views opposed to change. The very demand for tolerance is repressive in itself. And even if the minority represents, say, 149.999999 million of 300 million people, we can't allow the airing of its repressive notions. But that's fine, because, as Marcuse's ultimate mentor Karl Marx (in his Theses on Feuerbach) said in similar language to this, the point of thinking about politics is not to understand the world but to change it.

Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" struck a note of truth about current "progressive" politics that I immediately felt resonating -- sort of like a tuning fork on a sore nerve, and as unsurprisingly -- with something else I'd recently read, Barack Obama's commencement speech at Ohio State University on May 5.

Here follow some quotes from that speech.  The resonances between Marcuse and Obama are obvious, but I put them in boldface nonetheless. Further below, I do have a few comments.

"You [graduates] have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we'd see when we sat where you sit. And yet, despite all this, or more likely because of it, yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas - that people who love their country can change it. For all the turmoil; for all the times you have been let down, or frustrated at the hand you've been dealt; what I have seen from your generation are perennial and quintessentially American values. Altruism. Empathy. Tolerance. Community. And a deep sense of service that makes me optimistic for our future. ...

"But if we're being honest, as you've studied and worked and served to become good citizens, the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust. ...

"But I think of what your generation's traits - compassion and energy, a sense of selflessness and a boundless digital fluency - might mean for a democracy that must adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of technological, demographic, and wrenching economic change. ...

"And that's precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government -- the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone. ...

"Still, you'll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self -- rule is just a sham with which we can't be trusted. ...

"We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard
and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self -- government. ...

"That's how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want.  That's how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things - rebuild a middle class, reverse the rise of inequality, repair a deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids. ...

"Change will be a constant, just as it has been throughout our history. And we still face many important challenges.  Some will require technological breakthroughs or new policy insights.  But more than anything, what we will need is political will, to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens."

Now, the point of the comparative exercise above is not to prove, once and for all, that Obama's a Marxist. Whether he is or isn't hardly matters. More important to me, at least, are a number of notions more broadly held. For example, there's Obama's claim that his election by a majority is more important than someone else's claim of the same sort, because his modest majority accurately reflects what the overwhelming majority of the American people really want (if only they knew it).  This is the claim of an elitist party, one that knows better than you do what you want.

Obama's Ohio State remarks also presume that the past (including its social and political values, the Constitution, etc., which a very large number of Americans, Obama voters included, have significant regard for) is as irrelevant to the future as how nearly half the population voted.  Why? Because "times have changed" and "change" will now be continuous.

The basic question raised by all this is whether the urge for "change" is a greater democratic or American value than preservation of those things wrought over the past 237 years.  Obama very effectively raised that question at Ohio State.  And when he said "change," he clearly didn't mean "small change" or the simple righting of particular things that may be wrong.  He meant "CHANGE."

Ken Jensen is a semi-retired historian of Marxism -- Leninism and former contributing editor of Studies in Soviet Thought.

Ron Radosh, writing on PJMedia, dug back into New Left history and political theory in coming up with an explanation for the IRS's targeting of conservative groups.  Radosh provided a telling quote from Herbert Marcuse's theory of "repressive tolerance" article of 1965. I doubt whether it really applies to the IRS scandal but it's timely in other ways.

"Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and blocked if they are by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc."

Those of you who've read the Federalist Papers will recognize that Marcuse replaced the Founders' fear of "the tyranny of the majority" into fear of "the tyranny of the minority" and, therewith, an opportunity for revolution. For Marcuse -- as for his heirs in much of today's Left -- it's just fine for any old majority to determine America's direction. Fine, that is, so long as the majority wants "change" and not the perpetuation of the status quo. ("Change" is "progress," don't you know?) You'll notice that, for Marcuse, it's the majority's duty to shut the minority up when and if the latter calls for tolerance of views opposed to change. The very demand for tolerance is repressive in itself. And even if the minority represents, say, 149.999999 million of 300 million people, we can't allow the airing of its repressive notions. But that's fine, because, as Marcuse's ultimate mentor Karl Marx (in his Theses on Feuerbach) said in similar language to this, the point of thinking about politics is not to understand the world but to change it.

Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" struck a note of truth about current "progressive" politics that I immediately felt resonating -- sort of like a tuning fork on a sore nerve, and as unsurprisingly -- with something else I'd recently read, Barack Obama's commencement speech at Ohio State University on May 5.

Here follow some quotes from that speech.  The resonances between Marcuse and Obama are obvious, but I put them in boldface nonetheless. Further below, I do have a few comments.

"You [graduates] have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we'd see when we sat where you sit. And yet, despite all this, or more likely because of it, yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas - that people who love their country can change it. For all the turmoil; for all the times you have been let down, or frustrated at the hand you've been dealt; what I have seen from your generation are perennial and quintessentially American values. Altruism. Empathy. Tolerance. Community. And a deep sense of service that makes me optimistic for our future. ...

"But if we're being honest, as you've studied and worked and served to become good citizens, the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust. ...

"But I think of what your generation's traits - compassion and energy, a sense of selflessness and a boundless digital fluency - might mean for a democracy that must adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of technological, demographic, and wrenching economic change. ...

"And that's precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government -- the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone. ...

"Still, you'll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self -- rule is just a sham with which we can't be trusted. ...

"We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard
and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self -- government. ...

"That's how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want.  That's how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things - rebuild a middle class, reverse the rise of inequality, repair a deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids. ...

"Change will be a constant, just as it has been throughout our history. And we still face many important challenges.  Some will require technological breakthroughs or new policy insights.  But more than anything, what we will need is political will, to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens."

Now, the point of the comparative exercise above is not to prove, once and for all, that Obama's a Marxist. Whether he is or isn't hardly matters. More important to me, at least, are a number of notions more broadly held. For example, there's Obama's claim that his election by a majority is more important than someone else's claim of the same sort, because his modest majority accurately reflects what the overwhelming majority of the American people really want (if only they knew it).  This is the claim of an elitist party, one that knows better than you do what you want.

Obama's Ohio State remarks also presume that the past (including its social and political values, the Constitution, etc., which a very large number of Americans, Obama voters included, have significant regard for) is as irrelevant to the future as how nearly half the population voted.  Why? Because "times have changed" and "change" will now be continuous.

The basic question raised by all this is whether the urge for "change" is a greater democratic or American value than preservation of those things wrought over the past 237 years.  Obama very effectively raised that question at Ohio State.  And when he said "change," he clearly didn't mean "small change" or the simple righting of particular things that may be wrong.  He meant "CHANGE."

Ken Jensen is a semi-retired historian of Marxism -- Leninism and former contributing editor of Studies in Soviet Thought.