Marx and free speech

For our ideas to blossom, we have to argue against censorship, says Eddie Ford

It is a common maxim on the left that there can be no socialism without democracy. Communists do not dissent from this orthodoxy. In fact, we constantly stress the absolute centrality of democracy to our programme and method of practice. The tragic follies and horrors of bureaucratic socialism, which so marred the 20th century, confirm this.

But what does democracy actually mean for our practice? When we examine the actions of some socialists and leftists, it quickly becomes apparent that their love of democracy is Platonic at best. When push comes to shove though, we see the stifling of democracy - often, ironically in the name of democracy and pluralism. The actions, which I discuss below, of comrades Nick Long and Toby Abse at a recent meeting of the Greenwich and Lewisham Socialist Alliance are a case in point.

For communists the matter is quite straightforward. Either democratic politics is the open circulation and clash of different and contending views or it is nothing.

So it should come as no great surprise that communists do not call for the banning of 'dangerous' or 'offensive' opinions. Means do determine ends. For instance, a state ban on the British National Party or David Irving's publications does not promote or advance the struggle for socialism - it actually turns it into its exact opposite. A well trod pathway perhaps, but not one we should want to go down again.

Some of these arguments must have been depressingly familiar to Karl Marx - who remained for his entire political life a "democratic extremist", to use the words of the outstanding Marxist scholar Hal Draper. In other words, Marx was a steadfast defender of the right to free speech and intellectual freedom. This was so from his days as a radical democratic journalist on the Rheinische Zeitung in the early 1840s to his penning of the Critique of the Gotha programme and beyond. Of course during this time span we see Marx's transformation, or development, from "a radical-democratic liberal into a revolutionary-democratic communist" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1 1977, p31). Yes, Marx came to reject the narrow political horizons of political radicalism. But the vital point to stress here is the continuity of his thought - he remained an uncompromising or "extremist" democrat to his death.

So when Marx in 1842 called his own viewpoint "real liberalism", as opposed to the "self-styled liberalism" of the existing liberal opposition in the German Diet, we should not regard this sentiment as merely an antiquated expression of his 'pre-Marxist' past - youthful and romantic excesses which the 'mature' or 'old' Marx dumped with embarrassment on his road to 'pure' scientific communism. Communists should grasp the democratic essence of Marx's comment, which leads him to state that "real liberalism" strives for "a completely new, deeper, more thoroughly developed, and freer political form corresponding to the consciousness of the people" (K Marx CW Vol 1, p388). It is not for nothing that scientific socialism has been described as the bastard child of radical liberalism.

Marx's heroic battles as a journalist and subsequently editor of Rheinische Zeitung against the Prussian state and its iniquitous censorship laws reverberate with contemporary relevance. The first duty of a truth-seeker, proclaimed Marx, is "to make directly for the truth without looking right or left ... Won't I forget the heart of the matter if it is more important that I speak in the prescribed form?" (my emphasis ibid p9-10). Political correctness is not a new phenomenon then. Of course, stressed Marx, freedom of the press is "not a perfect thing itself" - it is not the "all-in-all" of the matter. In other words, an open and free press cannot guarantee 'freedom' - ie, freedom from all inaccuracies, mistakes and distortions. But by dragging the grand affairs of the body politic into the limelight, it makes democracy itself a real living spirit as opposed to a ghostly presence.

Openness activates and enhances the "public mind", as Marx puts it. The role of the Weekly Worker is precisely to hold a mirror up to the SP, SWP, SLP, etc - to make them accountable for their actions and words. In turn the Weekly Worker itself is open to scrutiny and criticism, and hence to correction or amendment. This is an inherently educative - and political - process. What a stark contrast to the rest of the left press, with its anodyne formulations and ideological monolithicism, specifically designed to preclude an honest and frank political discussion. A fear of politics seems to permeate these dispiriting publications. But, as Marx emphasised, without a free, open and courageous press how can you ever know what is true and what is false? The Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 was well aware of this. So too were the bureaucrats in Stalin's Soviet Union. The dismal history of official Trotskyism also demonstrates what the lack of an open press can to do to a political movement.

Freedom by definition, however, means the freedom to disagree - and, what is more, the freedom to disagree without fear of reprisal or censure. Marx repeated this theme over and over again. Naturally, such a sentiment is alien to those who are bureaucrats by instinct - the "public mind" must be regulated. Any peruser of a publication like The Socialist will immediate tell you that the bureaucratic mind loves to do nothing more than impose a straitjacket on human thought. As Marx vividly wrote, "You marvel at the delightful diversity, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not ask the rose to smell like violet; but the richest of all, the mind, is supposed to exist in only a single manner? I am humorous, but the law orders people to write seriously. I am bold, but the law commands my style to be restrained. Grey on grey is the sole colour of freedom, the authorised one" (ibid pp4-6).

It is a deeply regrettable fact that the left today is similarly obsessed with producing an "authorised" version of the truth - whether it be on so-called 'institutional racism' or the 'no platform' policy. The 'truth' has always been such and always will be. Amen. The "grey on grey" of ideological conformity instead of the manifold colours and shades of life.

So it was at the Greenwich and Lewisham SA of February 10. Toby Abse of the half-dead Independent Labour Network and Nick Long of the half-alive Socialist Democracy Group demanded in a motion that the Greenwich and Lewisham SA - and the LSA as a whole - condemn the CPGB and expel us from the ranks (they even pretended that they enjoyed the support of Terry Liddle of the Green Party - see Letters). Our crime? Eddie Ford's short piece on the Lipstadt-Irving holocaust trial in the Weekly Worker (February 3). Ford's unqualified defence of freedom of speech was deemed to be 'pro-Irving' and in violation of the policy of 'no-platform' for racism and fascism - even though the author of this "disgusting article" made apparent the essentially repugnant nature of Irving's 'revisionist' crusade (drawing a comparison between him and Stalin apologists). Nevertheless all members and supporters of the CPGB/Weekly Worker must be "permanently excluded" from the Alliance, demanded the witch-hunting duo, unless the CPGB "publicly apologise for, and repudiate" Eddie Ford's anti-book-banning stance and send a copy of the apology to the media - the publications The Voice and The Jewish Chronicle were specifically named. Fortunately that part of the Abse-Long motion fell. Unfortunately the doctrine of 'no platform' for racists and fascists was unthinkingly voted through with the help of the SWP.

In other words, we must all follow a single ideological line when it comes to the question of anti-racism/fascism - ie, the "authorised one". This requires us to genuflect before mainstream thought and mouth the standard anti-racism. The only function of the left is to attempt to out-Macpherson Macpherson, not to develop a critique of official anti-racism. We are to believe that the 'institutionally racist' bourgeois state must be made 'under left pressure' to ban racist/fascist publications and organisations. Freedom of speech does not under any circumstances apply to racists/fascists. Irving's works must be swept from the bookshelves - even ritually burned on the high street. Maybe after that it will then be the turn of the Weekly Worker, as our censors turn their attention to Housmans, Bookmarks and Greenleaf.

Alarmingly, it seems that not only the hysterical Abse-Long duo and their half-hearted supporters in the Greenwich and Lewisham SA, but a wide swathe of the left hanker after the rules laid down by the Prussian state and which Marx so bitterly fought. The bureaucrats' regulations only allowed for what they considered a "serious and restrained pursuit of truth" - only opinions and views which were "well-intentioned in tendency" were to be permitted. "The jurisdiction of suspicion" ruled supreme, as Marx said. The sometimes vitriolic reactions to Weekly Worker reports and articles - as manifested at the February 10 meeting - demonstrates that ideas which fall outside the comfortable remit of politically correct anti-racism/fascism immediately become subject to "the jurisdiction of suspicion".

Marx regularly noted that the deputies in the Prussian Diet strongly objected to the regular publishing of their proceedings - they obviously regarded the Diet as their own private property and not as a body which enshrines the right of the people to representation. The cold stare of public scrutiny is indeed unsettling for those who think of themselves as the physical, and natural, incarnation of the 'public spirit' (or the working class) - and hence beyond criticism. How much better if the Weekly Worker refrained from detailing the weakness and foibles of the current left movement and its sometimes pathetic manoeuvrings.

Marx's comments on the Paris Commune are a sharp rejoinder to the left's morbid fear of openness: "The Commune did not pretend to infallibility, the invariable attribute of all governments of the old stamp. It published its doings and sayings, it ignited the public into all its shortcomings" (K Marx The civil war in France Peking 1966, p80). The role of a communist publication - and organisation - is not to "pretend to infallibility", but to highlight all the "shortcomings" of the workers' movement.

This of course can be extremely embarrassing at times, if not downright infuriating. Who positively wants to have their "shortcomings" paraded on the front page of a left newspaper? But the long-term interests of the workers' movement demand it. Marx wrote: "Keep in mind that you could not enjoy the advantages of a free press without tolerating its inconveniences. You could not pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose in losing a free press? A free press is the omnipresent open eye of the popular spirit ... It is the merciless confessional that a people makes to itself, and it is well known that confession has the power to redeem. It is the intellectual mirror in which a people beholds itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom" (K Marx CW Vol 1, p405 and pp60-61).

The "merciless confessional" of an open communist press is the only means to build a healthy and strong workers' movement which can reflect upon itself. The only alternative is to keep the movement like a "person swaddled in a cradle all his life, for as soon as he learns to walk he also learns to fall, and it is only through falling that he learns to walk. But if we all remain children in swaddling-clothes, who is to swaddle us? If we all lie in a cradle, who is to cradle us? If we are all in jail, who is to be the jail warden?" (ibid p49).

Unfortunately, we know that the SWP and others comrades in our movement think that workers must be "swaddled" - ie, protected - from 'bad' ideas. The recent call in Socialist Worker for Irving's books to be banned from public libraries revealed the "jail warden" spirit - and, as we have seen, some in Greenwich and Lewisham SA seem to be frustrated jail wardens as well.

Such authoritarianism was utterly alien to the 'libertarian' Marx. Shocking news though it may be to the likes of the SWP, he stoutly defended freedom of speech for reactionary views and opinions, arguing: "It goes without saying we would have made objections no less earnestly against banning the Elberfelder Zeitung, the Hamburger Correspondent, and the Koblentz Rhein-und-Moselzeitung [conservative-monarchist-clerical newspapers - DH], for the juridicial position is not altered by the moral character of the individual case, let alone its political and religious views." Marx adds that freedom of the press is shorn of rights "as soon as its existence is made dependent on its opinions. To this day there exists no code of opinion and no law-court of opinions" (ibid p157).

We sincerely hope that the Socialist Alliances do not become a "law-court of opinion". It is also worth reminding our comrades in the SWP and Greenwich and Lewisham SA that many of the opinions expounded in rightist publications like Elberfelder Zeitung would now be classified as racist and deeply anti-semitic. Did that faze Marx?

Engels made a vital point on freedom of speech. In March 1849 the Prussian crown unleashed a new wave of attacks on the freedom of the press. Engels belligerently stated in response: "Freedom of the press, the free competition of ideas - this means giving free rein to the class struggle in the field of the press" (ibid p38). That is, in the struggle of freely competing ideas, the reactionary and backward will eventually lose out. Defending the democratic right of free speech - even for Irving - does not amount, as has been cretinously suggested, to a "qualified defence" of him, let alone mean you are 'pro-Irving'. The most effective way to counter and defeat the reactionary sentiments of Irving - and others - is to follow Engel's advice and wage ruthless "class struggle in the field of the press". Comrades, what is there to be afraid of?

To insist on book-bans, censorship, state prohibitions, etc indicates that some comrades on the left can only imagine the workers as a slave class, to be permanently "swaddled" from challenging or complex issues - a class whose minds have to be made up for them. Definitely not a universal ruling class.

Communists have more faith - in the working class and the politics of consistent democracy. Attacking the "party functionaries" who wanted to stifle Marx's criticism of the SPD (his Critique of the Gotha programme was suppressed by the "socialist bosses" for 16 years), Engels famously quipped: "It is indeed a brilliant idea to put German socialist science, after its liberation from Bismarck's anti-socialist laws, under a new anti-socialist laws to be manufactured and carried out by the Social Democratic Party authorities themselves. For the rest, it is ordained that trees shall not grow into the sky" (to Karl Kautsky February 23 1891). As Engels exclaimed, "If we dare not say this [the criticism of the Gotha programme] openly today, then when?" This is the spirit that animates the Weekly Worker and the CPGB. Criticise everything "openly today" - not closed and "restrained" rebukes years down the line.

The Weekly Worker will do everything in its power to ensure that the trees do "grow into the sky" - allowing the most advanced ideas to blossom and leaving behind what is bad or backward.