Free speech: The permitted shades of grey
Karl Marx stood for free speech, in the tradition of the first amendment to the US constitution, writes Eddie Ford
Democracy and socialism are inseparable, and there can be no democracy without freedom of speech. That should be the bottom line for anyone who calls themselves a socialist, let alone a Marxist. But try telling that to those who dominate Manchester Left Unity. They have suspended Laurie McCauley from membership for having the temerity to write a “public article” in the Weekly Worker.1 Specifically his ‘crime’ was to include “personal attacks”, “breaches of members’ privacy”, “unreasonable attacks on our branch” - and other such outrages against socialist morality. Frankly, the comrades responsible for this move should hang their heads in shame.
Unfortunately, this morbid fear of open criticism and politics - and its attendant culture of complaining victimhood - is not confined to Manchester LU. We should be so lucky. Rather, it is a deeply entrenched mindset amongst large sections of the left - which treats politics almost as if it was a conspiracy. The failures that are the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Workers Power and other such sects stand as sad testimony to the bankrupt nature of this kind of approach.
Well, communists say, down with the thought police. We have a duty to tell the truth, both to LU members as a whole and the working class movement in general. Which in turn requires easily accessible information, the oxygen of democracy - hence the vital role of the Weekly Worker, including the article by comrade McCauley. It is the sort of thing we need more of in LU, not less.
For us in the CPGB, bad or incorrect ideas are best tackled through an honest and open political exchange, not through disputes committees, rule books, censoring, etc. We stand unequivocally for free speech and the right to critically report all political meetings. After all, the House of Commons once used to have special rules designed to keep its procedures private - those who dared write a “public article” risked fines or imprisonment. Now some in LU seemingly want to mimic such anti-democratic practices - but, lacking a police force, courts and jails, they resort to disputes committees, suspensions and threats.
The truth can never be established without a long struggle - and, more often than not, a bitter one. That is true even for the pure or natural sciences like mathematics, biology, geology, physics, etc, History has shown that vested interests - those with a reputation to preserve or a departmental empire to lose - always conduct a stubborn rearguard action. They will do whatever they can in their considerable power to sideline, block and silence bearers of new discoveries and revolutionary insights. Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilee, René Descartes, William Harvey, Johannes Keller, William Paley, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Jay Gould - to name just a few - all faced systematic campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication, if not outright persecution.
Given this is true for the natural sciences, then it is inevitable that campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication - including state oppression - are magnified a thousand times when it comes to Marxism and the fight for human liberation. How come? Because Marxism is extreme democracy and thus threatens the church, the monarchy, the judiciary, the secret state, the military and the trade union bureaucracy. Because Marxism is against the market, and promises to end forever the exploitation and the gilded existence of its personifications.
However, though a minority, the bourgeoisie begins with a great advantage. The dominant ideas in capitalist society are spontaneously the ideas of the bourgeoisie. Exploitation is uniquely concealed behind what Marxists call commodity fetishism. Capitalists are often admiringly believed when they boast on the BBC that they are society’s ‘wealth creators’, despite the fact that it is obvious nonsense. Wage-slavery, unemployment, money, profit - all are considered perfectly natural by wide swathes of the population. Marxism therefore has to hack its way through the thicket of ‘common sense’.
But there is far more confronting us than that. Leave aside the police, army, MI5 and special branch - formidable though they are. Marxism faces stiff and unrelenting organised opposition in the form of the many and various paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie. Philosophers and journalists, bishops and historians, teachers and media commentators, evolutionary psychologists and establishment politicians all combine together to manufacture, or disseminate, a daily tsunami of half-truths, innuendo, diversionary bunk and outright cynical lies about Marxism.
Inevitably, under these circumstances - together with the seeming naturalism of capitalist society and class division - ideology colours, distorts and shapes the views of many who sincerely regard themselves as Marxists. Things become confused, lines of demarcation blurred. Hence the struggle of Marxism to unite the working class against capitalism is necessarily predicated on winning the battle of ideas in the working class movement itself. That which divides and therefore weakens the working class must be defeated - religious sectarianism, sexism, homophobia, national chauvinism, trade union sectionalism and so on. There must also, however, be a battle of ideas with what passes itself off as Marxism - revisionism, Stalinism, Maoism, Cliffism and Eurocommunist broad partyism being the most obvious examples. The long and the short of it being that Marxism can only unite the working class by conducting a protracted and aggressive struggle to establish what is right and what is wrong, what is truthful and what is untruthful. And what are the best conditions under which to conduct the struggle for the truth? An organisation where questioning is the norm, where there is serious study, where thought and debate are encouraged, where free speech and open criticism are the norm.
But this insistence on freedom of speech is not some peculiar Weekly Worker quirk or idiosyncrasy - it is grounded in the entire Marxist world view: ie, the writings and teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Straightforwardly, to reject freedom of speech is to reject Marxism itself and hence the entire project of universal human emancipation. Why? Socialism, the first stage of communism, can only be the act of self-liberation for the great majority by the great majority - not merely the winning of a parliamentary majority or the passing of an enabling act. Therefore it follows that the working class cannot be treated as little children who are incapable of handling awkward, upsetting and complicated questions.
Marx stood in the tradition of the first amendment to the US constitution (1791) and against everything that might curb “freedom of speech” or infringe on the “freedom of the press”. This was true from his days as a radical democratic journalist on the Rheinische Zeitung in the early 1840s to his death in 1883. Marx’s revolutionary democratism was not a youthful and romantic excess which the ‘mature’ Marx dumped with embarrassment on his road to ‘pure’ scientific communism - as ridiculously claimed in Althusserian and other circles. Marx stated that “real liberalism” strives for “a completely new, deeper, more thoroughly developed and freer political form corresponding to the consciousness of the people”.2 In that sense, what we now call scientific socialism is the child of genuine radical liberalism.
In fact, Marx’s heroic battles as a journalist and subsequently editor of Rheinische Zeitung against the Prussian state and its iniquitous censorship laws reverberate more than ever with contemporary relevance. The first obligation of a truth-seeker, declared 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?”3 Of course, not being an idiot, Marx stressed that 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 the long-term interests of the workers’ movement, and human liberation, demand nothing less. “You could not enjoy the advantages of a free press without tolerating its inconveniences,” noted Marx - just as “you could not pluck the rose without its thorns!” He went on to argue: “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 make 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.”4
Just as importantly, as Marx put it, openness activates and enhances the “public mind”. The role of the communist press is, or at least it should be, precisely to hold a mirror up to the debates within LU and everything else on the left - to make them accountable for their words and deeds, or misdeeds in this particular case. Expose the political free riders. Get people thinking. That is the Weekly Worker.
In turn, it goes without saying, the paper itself is open to scrutiny and criticism, and hence to correction or amendment. Anyone can submit a letter or article to the paper. (Not that we have, contrary to some suggestions, a libertarian editorial policy of printing anything and everything. But we do not shy away from publishing arguments with which we disagree.) This is an inherently educational and political process, painful as that thought must be for some. Frankly, what a refreshing contrast the “merciless confessional” of the Weekly Worker is to the rest of the achingly dull left press, with its anodyne formulations, dreary articles and ideological monolithicism - specifically designed to preclude an honest and frank political discussion. Just keep the sheep in line.
Freedom by definition, however, means the freedom to disagree - and, what is more, the freedom to disagree without fear of reprisal, censure or suspension. Or, in the immortal words of Rosa Luxemburg, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”. By logical extension, this freedom includes the right to be ‘offensive’ or ‘unreasonable’ - otherwise it is not freedom at all. Marx repeated this message over and over again. Naturally, such a sentiment is alien to those who are bureaucrats by instinct: the “public mind” must be regulated and a straitjacket must be imposed on human thought - get the rule book out, call in the disputes committee. As Marx 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.”5
1. Weekly Worker May 22
2. K Marx CW Vol 1, p388,
3. Ibid p9-10, my emphasis.
4. Ibid pp405, 60-61.
5. Ibid pp4-6.