A Critique of Pure Tolerance

By Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse


The three authors will not agree in many things.  But they see tolerance as hypocritical and two are identified as analytic philosophers who are allergic to Hegel. 


Beyond Tolerance by Robert Paul Wolff

The virtue of a thing, Plato tells us in the Republic, is that state or condition which enables it to perform its function well.   The knife, sharpness etc.

So virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance allow us to live well.

For him the best people will come out of an aristocracy based on merit.

The virtue of monarchy is loyalty, military dictatorship efficiency.  Liberal democracy’s virtue is equality and socialist democracy fraternity.

The virtue of our modern pluralist democracy of America is tolerance.

Tolerance played a useful part in one stage of our country but not any longer.  The best way to transcend it, Hegel says, is incorporation.


::::::::::::PART ONE::::::


Democratic pluralism is a description and prescription.  It grew out of an attack on individualism of the classical liberal sort.

Classically power went from individuals to a representative democratic government that had authority over them (some hoped for more some for less). 

That broke down with industry as industry injected power groups in the 19th century.

A problem with democracy was that folks couldn’t understand what the decisions of the government were and why (too complicated) and it seemed irrelevant.  Permanent complex governmental institutions were needed. 

Labor organizations etc became mediating groups in the democracy for one.

----Three more factors have doomed direct democracy in USA.

    The first is the Federal system.  Law, education etc fall through several layers of bureaucracy. 

   A second is our penchant, Tocquevelle saw, for dealing with problems by associations.  With problems, some turn to God, some to the State, we forma committee and elect a treasurer.  Our churches not being able to be political affects this.  Some groups solve it directly, some make lobbying organizations.  One view of government is that it is a referee between competing groups.   The second is that it is more of an actual synthesizer.  It doesn’t determine a winner. 

Religion has had a great influence on our thought about plurality.  Little Italy, Little Armenia came later.  The typical ethnic group had its own church and newspaper in its mother tongue.  They entered politics at the precinct, city or county level.

And each group is to get its say even though Catholics outnumber Jews and Labor, management. 


As a descriptive theory, not normative, we see that early on this system emerged due to its needing to because of the reality of plurality, not that it was wanted.  It is the death of direct democracy when voters select a president they have not nominated, to decide issues which have not even bee discussed on the basis of facts which cannot be published.  It is a politics of style, of image, of faith. 


One view sees this type of pluralism as an unavoidable evil.  Another a useful means for preserving some democracy under the unpromising condition of industrialization.  The last says it is a good in and of itself. 

The last view starts with the idea that the personality is part of groups and that is a positive thing.   Without a group to rear us we are mute beasts.  Those that say we are to be individuals without groups are mistaken.  So plurality sort of is direct democracy.  Being part of competing groups thus makes us more loyal to the government that validates them.  It is a stronger loyalty than to the abstract federal nation.  If we either lose opposition or tolerance, we are the weaker for it.  But as long as I see my opponent as morally wrong, tolerance becomes appeasement.  Interests versus norms.   Wants versus morals.  The genius of America is that we treat conflicts of principles as conflicts of interest. 

Intolerance can create problems.  One way to mediate that is to loosen the ties which bind him to his group.  We are all brothers under the skin, so say humanists.  But we then end up with the evil of “mass man,” the unaffiliated faceless member of the lonely crowd. 

So tolerance is the best then. 


:::::::::::::::PART TWO::::::::::


J.S. Mill gives us classic liberalism in On Liberty.  In it he says that within the private sector society has no right at all.  Within the public it has the possibility of such a right based on utilitarian justifications.  This is like a big cosmopolitan center.  And utilitarianism is like the merchant ledger sheet.  Others become either instruments for or obstacles to my pleasure. 

Speaking dialectically opposed to classical liberalism is the pre-industrial philosophy of community.  This gives us tradition and connects us forward and backwards in time.  The greatest insight of conservative philosophy is that man is a social animal.   Those that live outside a community are either higher or lower than normal.  Like animal in bodily desire and like an angel in reason.  So socialization makes us communicate and better.

Durkheim’s Suicide looks at man when social has broken to point of disintegration.  The loosening of constraints of traditional values creates lawlessness, an absence of limits - so it gets sucked into an endless pursuit of pleasure.  This creates distance from society and one is sucked down to “anomic” state of emptiness. 

“Anomie” = a nominal = no law. 

Durkheim uses statistics to show that where freedom is greatest so are suicides.  Protestants have more than Catholics who have more than Jews.  Education also leads to suicide.  Exploring with community is like a baby exploring with the safety of Mom there to guide you. 

But Durkheim points out that we cannot go back.  Tradition has been superceded. 

Pluralism gives us both freedom and group. 

So one may have choice and tolerance, but not for the anti social beatnik.  All are in some society.



:::::::PART THREE::::::::::::

The weakness isn’t in the theory.  Pluralisms weakness is in its practice. 

Interest groups get so bound up in their interest that they cannot see contravening views.  Southern planters assumed that slaves were happy. 

They adopt “Ideology” in the negative sense that Karl Mannheim means it in his Ideology and Utopia. 


And the author will show ideological distortion in three ways. 
The first stems from the “vector-sum” or “Balance-of-power” interpretation.  The second the referee version and the third is based on the inherent abstractness of the theory.


Which groups are in society today?  Heritage groups that are tolerant without regard to race, creed, color or national origin.  Second Labor and business. Finally voluntary associations. 

At one point this may have been an accurate account of American society.  But individuals fall outside of these categories and are thus second class as they are ideologically blinded out. 

“The priest, the minister and the rabbi” jokes are a nervousness that turns into laughter when social tensions are resolved.  Only bigots don’t laugh at our reaffirmation of tolerance. 

The labor and management groups leave out the non-unionized labor.  The pluralist version covers this over.  `      

Those not in major groups go from inside to Un-American and outsiders quickly.  Toleration has its limits.  But they then quickly snap into in.  
Kennedy’s noticing of the poor in the post-war economy or the peace movement for Vietnam. 

The radical shift from out to in lies in the logic of pluralism.  If a sizable group does not represent you, you are extreme or fringe until big enough to be a player.

Thus the vector-sum model excludes some groups.  It is a brake on change. 


The referee model, in reality, favors the big and so is also conservative.  Favoring larger groups means government is not neutral.  Legitimate interests that have been suppressed, defeated or haven’t organized themselves will be perpetually out.  If a baseball cheats and bullies its way to dominance and the umpire keeps ruling in their favor…. Especially if they just enforce the rules (that are unfair). 


Lastly, in practice, many ideas get excluded.  The prison system cannot be reformed.  And the general good (i.e.; Arts) cannot be promoted - as it isn’t in any specific group’s agenda.  Thus crime and standard of living go down as wealth goes up.  Such values aren’t debated. 

And the wholesale reorganization of society is not a specific interest so socialism has no chance. Yeah!!!

Such a system will never decide that tolerance of plurality is against the national good. 




Pluralism is humane and more responsive to the evils of social injustice than either the egoistic liberalism or the traditional conservativism from which it grew.  But it is blind to that which afflicts the total body politic. 

It served its purpose, but now we must look at quality of life issues that affect all of America and battling interest groups won’t do it.  “There is a need for a new philosophy of community, beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance.” (pg 52)



By Barington Moore, Jr.

“I did not forsee, not having the courage of my own thought: the growing murderousness of the world….

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

            -William Butler Yeats


::::PART ONE:::::


This thesis was previously taken for granted without much justification.  That is that the secular and scientific outlook is adequate for both understanding and evaluating human affairs. 

This outlook doesn’t lead to watery acceptance, toleration of every doctrine being the same (due to the idea that all might have some value in some little aspect, nor to fanatical doctrinaire outlooks. 

The secular and scientific outlook can tell us when to be tolerant and when tolerance becomes intellectual cowardice and evasion. 

First, he doesn’t want to present a veiled approach that leads back to some sort of humanism.  He can’t live upon hope without verification. This isn’t scientific.

The first big objection to overcome is the idea that no two historians can agree on anything but superficial facts.  All things are value loaded and not scientific.  A Marxist and a Conservative historian will totally disagree and “No one ever convinces anybody of anything.” 

But we can agree that there is subjectivism without believing that there can be no agreement on important questions. 

Subjectivism exists because all history and knowledge should have some relevance to human conditions and needs.  And we should avoid arguing over the trivial (that which has no implications for human flourishing).  

After the pragmatic there is also an aesthetic criteria for truth.  This will provide more variation in the descriptions of reality.  But they may be less important in certain fields of knowledge. 

And if we are honest then the aesthetic, (somewhat relegated) the Marxist and conservative will supplement, not eliminate, each other.  Where they disagree and true important divergence is there, we need an appeal to evidence.  Tolerance for different “interpretations” based on different Weltanschauuungen merely befuddles the issue.

Social reality of the past and present have a structure and meaning apart from what the scholar tries to find or impose.  Theories help us to see the structure.  But the structure is there already.  Theories don’t create it.  

The truth is subjective and may be suppressed by the establishment, but if that is due to their hiding evidence, truth will win out.  The honest investigator has to be ready for findings and his political preconceptions to not match. 

There are limitations to objective knowledge.  But these cannot be elevated to general principles of research.  The dilettante who has incorrect knowledge about a hodgepodge of books and the specialist who keeps incongruities with facts hidden for promotion’s sake, both suck.

Toleration means we hear all views.  It doesn’t mean we accept all views.  Academic freedom doesn’t mean academic blindness.


::PART TWO::::::::


            In political areas people believe that the scientific approach has been tested and found wanting.  Scientific views will tell you how to eliminate Jews, but not if it is right.  So we need to go back to religious, quasi-Marxist or other metaphysical systems to establish values and goals. 

And, even if we note trends, such as the ever-increasing control we have over physical limits in the world, that doesn’t establish value. 

But this criticism also holds against the religious and metaphysical.  They are no more likely to hit objective truth than science.  Furthermore, God and his metaphysical surrogates are dead.   We must accept that. 

We must look for aspects of what is loosely called the “Human situation” that we can agree upon. 

For argument, some will say that their goal is to make human beings suffer.  Two rebuttals:  One that if you are serious you must be willing to take the consequences.  The second is if this is pushed far it is likely to lead to the disintegration of human society (including those that want the suffering). 

This view probably isn’t compatible with the continuance of human society.


A view that he respects is that all searches for values are metaphysical.  All is ambiguous creation.  But is it that ambiguous?  But don’t we aim at minimizing pain? 

Values are human demands put on the human environment.  We must find out what are the prerequisites for human existence. This changes with time.  It is not an attempt to escape to metaphysics.  It is reality based. 

He would have us prove that happiness and sustainability could be gotten by Germany even without the suffering of Jews. 


If the argument up to this point is correct, there are no absolute barriers to objective knowledge and objective evaluation of human institutions.  Objective here means simply that correct and unambiguous answers, independent of individual whims and preferences, are in principle possible.  And that scientific humility can be distinguished from cowardice.


::::: PART THREE::::::


You can measure the freedom of a society by the amount of controversy in it.  Totalitarian states have “national purposes” that allow no dissent.

Freedom to the point of not injuring others is allowed.  But how to distinguish real injury from outraged prejudice? 

Even a free society needs some disciplined people to make it run.  How much freedom can you allow before the decadence of a society crashes the freedom?

            How much criticism can you allow in the cold war?  Advocating for overthrow of capitalism?  How about advocating pacifism in a time of war? 

Can science help us with these questions? 


I believe it can.  If there is a substantial group of folk that want change.  Revolutionary violence, including dictatorship, has been the precursor of periods of extended freedom at several points in western history. 

But for revolution, one needs to calculate the cost in lives vs. doing nothing.  The intellectual is not to be committed to any political doctrine, but to speak the truth, whatever the political consequences may be.




Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.

This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against liberals.  It is compulsory behavior to established policies as approval for toleration is removed from the opposition.  Tolerance is turned from an active to a passive state.  Tolerance towards evil is now deemed good because it serves the cohesion of the whole.   It is a systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda. 


We are against delinquency, but not the delinquency of the civilization as a whole as it is bombarded with stupid messages. 

In a totalitarian system there is opposition.    Not in an accepting society.  There is a constant reference to liberties that have lost their effectiveness. 

Within the framework of such a social structure, tolerance can be safely practiced and proclaimed.  It is of two kinds:  1) the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on  man and nature is evident; and 2) the active, official tolerance granted to the right as well as to the left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace to the party of hate as well as that of humanity.  This non-partisan tolerance is “abstract” or “pure”.  It protects the already established machinery of discrimination. 

This is tolerated as long as they don’t make the transition from word to deed. 

Liberty must be confined to truth.  Liberty stipulates the ability to determine what to do and what not to do, what to suffer and what not to suffer.  The society can tell what is not conducive to a free and open society of progress.  The context that limits freedom must be continually undermined.  Only the reasonable solution to problems, as determined by the original positions can be possible. 

False words and deeds that go against liberation and tolerance may not be.  Art is okay as it stands against history.  They history absorbs art.  It isn’t tolerance towards extremes, but majorities.  

Only rational free speech can be allowed.  Free from indoctrination, manipulation or extraneous authority.  Unreasonable ideas evaporate into an utterly utopian dimension which is unreasonable and unrealistic.  No group, at any rate, is equipped with the truth or right and wrong.  All must be submitted to “the people” for arbitration.  But real freedom implies that they must be capable of deliberating.  But this is under monopolistic media.  And all that is not sanctified dissent is unreasonable.  All can be said.  Little can be heard.  At the same time, the ideas of true and false are obliterated by tolerance.   And tidbits of information are interspersed between commercials of reality.  For tolerance, objective tones must be struck.    Thus the death of outrage. 

All facts are mediated by their media presentation.  Education also breeds a distance to knowledge and an obscuring of truths for sides. 

Non-violence is a better thing than violence – though it confirms that you are out of power.  But the threat of violence gets attention to the marginalized.

He invokes Robspierre’s distinction of the terror of liberty and the terror of despotism.  Neither is ethical, but since when is history made according to ethics? [lets hope that is just rhetorical].


Collusion between management and unions isn’t imposed from above, but tolerated by them and the consumer at large.  We need to re-examine the issue of violence and the traditional distinction between violent and non-violent action.  Violence is  already in the prisons and mental institutions.  Non-violence is a necessity for the weak. 


In talking about have and have-nots, revoking violence a priori weakens you.  So false tolerance is that which masks oppression.  The distinction between false and real tolerance between progressiveness and regressiveness can be made rationally on empirical grounds.  They depend on the material and intellectual resources available to us.  Some countries don’t have the intellectual capital to have much of a direct style democracy.  The authority of reason isn’t only an intellectual, but also a political power.  In Plato rationality is confined to a small group of p-ks.  John Stuart Mill has all rational beings participating.  Where indoctrination is big, this is not possible. It isn’t possible for the leaders (self-rule rationally) in a democracy of the indoctrinated.  The problem is not that of an educational dictatorship, but that of breaking the tyranny of public opinion and its makers in the closed society.


Freedom may then require getting rid of the liberal creed of free and equal discussion.  And there may need to be restrictions of tolerance from regressive movements and discriminatory tolerance in favor of progressive ones.  That would mean the sanctioning and fostering of subversion by the government. 

You need a calculus of who does the most violence and where it comes from.  Violence from the left, brought an end to state violence for a bit. 

The French, English, Chinese and Cuban revolutions brought us the idea of progress [what about American, why does he leave this out?]

Though the popular destruction of Rome brought about regression. 

Tolerance of rightist ideas brought about fascism, this was ruler led oppression perfected.  Such removal of toleration of the right would only be needed in extreme situations (i.e. Nazi hate speech).

We need to propagandize against false consciousness and have education.  We must get away from Orwellian syntax and logic to developing the concepts that comprehend reality.  We need political education not “value free” education.  Facts need to be put in a context and they need to promote folks being opinionated, not “value free”.  In fact they need to be able to be against any argument, in order that they can fight repression of thought. 

Rather than being self serving, one should look at the source of their alienation.  Instead society focuses on sexual repression, letting go and this leads to real repression.  The focus becomes private and personal liberation and rebellion. 

There is a “natural right” of resistance for the oppressed and outnumbered in a “democracy”.  Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protects the established hierarchy. 


----postscript 1968------

Radical opposition hasn’t the money to reach public opinion.  Free competition in the exchange of ideas has become a farce.  The left has no access. 

Commercials and entertainment are playful conservative indoctrination:  Freedom requires equal access to the means of democratic persuasion.  Destructive elements must also be given access.  Is a dictatorship of intellectuals preferable to the current one of generals and politicians and businessmen? 

John Stuart Mill quote says that the educated should get more of a vote than the uneducated masses.   

Selective tolerance will never be the gift of the rulers.  They like “access” the way it is. 

We must be militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.