In 1965 Herbert Marcuse published an article entitled "Repressive Tolerance" in the collection A Critique of Pure Tolerance. The critique of modern society he presents in this paper will not be new to anyone familiar with his work or with the work of others from the first generation of the so-called Frankfurt School: the administered society,
the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations...
In fact, this essay is a very succinct summary of many of the views of the Frankfurt School and makes for a relatively good introduction to some key themes (although it would be a mistake to see the Frankfurt School as presenting a single coherent view).
However, what might be of interest in light of the recent episode on terrorism as well as the discussion of the Occupy Movement in the philosophy of race episode is what Marcuse has to say about the use of violence and the the limits of toleration in our 'administered society':
To discuss tolerance in such a society means to reexamine the issue of violence and the traditional distinction between violent and non-violent action. The discussion should not, from the beginning, be clouded by ideologies which serve the perpetuation of violence. Even in the advanced centers of civilization, violence actually prevails: it is practiced by the police, in the prisons and mental institutions, in the fight against racial minorities; it is carried, by the defenders of metropolitan freedom, into the backward countries.
In other words, Marcuse is claiming that our administered society is shot through with violence - violence that is used to maintain the status quo. If we going to discuss tolerance, we must realize that 'pure tolerance' or tolerance without limits is toleration which goes against the telos of tolerance: truth and autonomy. We should not, in Marcuse's opinion, tolerate such 'regressive movements'. He goes on to put into question the distinction between violence and non-violence:
This violence indeed breeds violence. But to refrain from violence in the face of vastly superior violence is one thing, to renounce a priori violence against violence, on ethical or psychological grounds (because it may antagonize sympathizers) is another. Non-violence is normally not only preached to but exacted from the weak--it is a necessity rather than a virtue, and normally it does not seriously harm the case of the strong. (Is the case of India an exception? There, passive resistance was carried through on a massive scale, which disrupted, or threatened to disrupt, the economic life of the country. Quantity turns into quality: on such a scale, passive resistance is no longer passive - it ceases to be non-violent. The same holds true for the General Strike.)
Two things stand out in Marcuse's questioning of the dualism between violence and non-violence. First, he seems to be saying that non-violence is forced choice of the weak. It is only through violence that non-violence becomes a viable option. This then makes sense of why we should not tolerate the 'regressive movements' because they are advocates for the violent forces that run throughout society. Second, Marcuse wants to claim that non-violence on a massive scale turns into violence.
Robespierre's distinction between the terror of liberty and the terror of despotism, and his moral glorification of the former belongs to the most convincingly condemned aberrations, even if the white terror was more bloody than the red terror. The comparative evaluation in terms of the number of victims is the quantifying approach which reveals the man-made horror throughout history that made violence a necessity. In terms of historical function, there is a difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence, between violence practiced by the oppressed and by the oppressors. In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil--but since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards? To start applying them at the point where the oppressed rebel against the oppressors, the have-nots against the haves is serving the cause of actual violence by weakening the protest against it
Here we see a new dualism which arises out of the false dualism between violence and non-violence: a dualism between revolutionary violence and reactionary violence (which seems to follow a similar, but importantly different, line of thought that is found in an early essay by Walter Benjamin). On the one hand, reactionary violence, the violence of the oppressors, is used to preserve the status quo and the world as it now stands. On the other hand, revolutionary violence, the violence of the oppressed, is a violence which is necessary, though still inhuman and evil, to eliminate the violence of the oppressor and open up the possibility of a humane society - a society where true tolerance can flourish.
It is unclear to me how we should take Marcuse's argument. Should we take it as societal psychotherapy where, as Adorno says, "Only the exaggerations are true"? In that case the essay maybe seen as a way of waking people up to a false understanding of tolerance and neutrality (think of the debates on MSNBC and Fox News) but not a call to violence - perhaps a call to a more authentically democratic world? Or is Marcuse is advocating for revolutionary violence and if so a violence against who? Further, it is unclear to me if revolutionary violence would be terrorism - surely Al-Qaeda is reactionary but what about Animal Liberation Front? - or if it falls under some other category.
I, for one, have more sympathy with Adorno when he said to a German newspaper during the student protests,
I postulated a theoretical model for thought. How could I suspect that people want to realize it with Molotov cocktails?
For more on Marcuse, check out this documentary: