WeeklyWorker

28.01.2021
London’s Speakers Corner: a model

Light and air

Paul Demarty insists that unrestricted free speech is central to the communist project

This article is a version of an opening I delivered at the Communist Party members’ aggregate on January 23, motivating a new section of the CPGB’s Draft programme on freedom of speech and related liberties.

The rather short text - which, as amended, is reproduced below - could, in principle, be a lot shorter. The first demand is for “unrestricted freedom of speech” - a formulation identical in substance to that of the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks - and the rest is essentially commentary. The further demands concern specific restrictions on freedom of speech, which it is crucial for us to oppose explicitly, rather than under the word “unrestricted”.

Why? Unrestricted freedom of speech is a very simple idea; but the human race has yet to conceive of an idea so simple it cannot be made complicated when material interests are involved.

Class interest

We will mention the deeper background only briefly. In the whole history of class society, free expression is very much the exception rather than the rule. In the European context, the republican and democratic norms that emerged sporadically in classical antiquity only ever went so far (slaves and women, naturally, being excluded; but remember that even Socrates was executed for ‘perverting the youth’). The late antique state tended towards tyranny, and the medieval era saw intellectual life placed in the grip of the church at its most corrupt.

The rise of the urban classes, particularly the bourgeoisie, created a class interest in breaking the existing intellectual monopolies; and, with the invention of movable type, literacy began to penetrate further and further down the class structure. With the bourgeoisie’s triumph in any given country came proletarianisation of the wider population, the creation of a class with no power beyond its sheer collective mass and its human capacity to direct that mass intelligently - therefore sharp, effective communication is needed for its liberation. The bourgeoisie, now ruling, has a clear class interest in blunting such communication.

That is all very schematic, but the underlying point is that control of information is a material interest: it is part of the total social means of production, and a crucial mechanism whereby any society can be governed - as crucial as force of arms, since arms are wielded by people, who must be convinced not to turn them on the governors. Johannes Gutenberg’s device was not the first printing press, of course: that existed in China a thousand years earlier. Its purpose at that time is telling - to enable officials to circulate information amongst themselves, out of view of the toiling masses. The class struggle ultimately governs the transitions between particular forms of such control. The birth of the mass workers’ movement presents the first existential challenge to control of expression as such.

Unrestricted free speech is both a condition and an objective of revolutionary working class politics. The other freedoms we list out here are in fact primarily important to communists as communicative activities: what is communicated in successful revolutionary praxis is the need, the will and the technique for the working class to take over the running of things.

Thus, to take an example, freedom of trade union association certainly has the salutary effect of improving living conditions for some groups of workers; but the more important effect from the revolutionary point of view is to reduce ‘learned helplessness’ in the face of the capitalist class, to politically expose the enemies within and without the movement (the labour bureaucracy and so forth, and the state and cops), and to obtain measures of workers’ control that educate the involved workers - however inadequately - in running things for real. Thus our programme, elsewhere, aims to make unions into “schools for communism”. If trade unionism is reduced to merely bread-and-butter demands, or even if those demands are valued over and above general class consciousness, the result is sectionalism.

Demands

First of all, in line with ‘liberal’ views of freedom of speech, we demand freedom from state interference in public communication. We demand the state is deprived of its rights to illegalise organisations, which (in terms of those we might sympathise with) have, of course, included Irish republican organisations and others deemed to be of doubtful state loyalties.

But we also oppose it in the case of bans on (for example) National Action, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Anjem Choudhary’s various jihadi crews recently. We make a point of opposing ‘hate speech’ laws and other restrictions ostensibly targeted at our enemies, since our true enemies are the custodians of the capitalist state, and they will learn very rapidly who their true enemies are, when the left gains in strength, and act accordingly.

This reminder, I think, is timely. Across the pond, sections of the left have been swept up in an enthusiasm for revenge against the Capitol rioters, with almost all liberals and many ostensible socialists favouring extensive state action against ‘domestic terrorism’ and corporate deplatforming of ‘extremists’. Yet this attitude feeds off a longer-standing fetish for adding ‘except fascists’ or ‘except racists’ to avowals of support for freedom of speech. Thus our friend and sparring partner, Tony Greenstein, wants that exception to be upheld in the Labour Campaign for Free Speech’s official programme, and the Socialist Party in England and Wales avows it when it condescends to mention free speech. This is an error. We do not believe the state when it promises to point a gun in someone else’s face only; still less when it promises so only by way of lies of omission, as with the incoming Biden administration. We urge the same scepticism, and indeed militant opposition, on the working class and its partisans.

We oppose all state secrecy too: our purpose, again, is to prepare the working class for rule, and therefore we acknowledge no right of privacy on the part of those who carry out the functions of government. We call out, additionally, ‘economic’ restrictions on free speech - intellectual property laws, such as copyright and patents, and oppressive ‘commercial confidentiality’ protections. The baleful effects of such laws need barely be mentioned - stunting creativity and scientific progress in the name of private profit, and further denying the masses access to information on ‘how things work’.

I will say in passing, further, that we include, under the rubric of state restrictions on free speech, laws against libel and defamation, which defend the powerful against the powerless almost without exception. This is a particularly acute problem in Britain, where our Kafkaesque libel laws were strengthened by the European Union’s general data protection regulation (one matter where left Brexitism would be justified, were it likely that something better would replace it … ).

But state restrictions are not the whole of the problem. The ‘except fascists’ culture on the left is at the centre of most of broader society’s conniptions on the question of freedom of speech. ‘Except fascists’ begs a question: only fascists? Surely the primary reason free speech would be denied to fascists is that they are open racists.1 So, freedom of speech - except for fascists and non-fascist racists. But is racism worse than misogyny? Homophobia? Transphobia?

Racism is certainly more universally condemned than certain ideologies that may plausibly be accused of misogyny, transphobia and so on. Which results in what are called the ‘free speech wars’ - the number one inducement for people to say the words ‘free speech’ today; but which is not primarily concerned with state restrictions. Instead, civil society organisations hegemonised by leftwingers and liberals, especially universities, take it upon themselves to restrict anti-liberal, bigoted interlocutors through bureaucratic measures.

In reply, rightwingers take up the weapons of ‘culture warfare’, and proclaim themselves defenders of free speech, against ‘cancel culture’. Their demands, however, are not oriented to a sustainable mass movement that can represent itself, but rather the state, which is called upon to ensure free speech in these environments. This resolves to forbid people from issuing statements of protest against purportedly unacceptable speech, or demonstrating against it, or whatever; that is, suppressing free speech in the form of the freedom to protest.

Naively, then, we are in an unfortunate position. We might side with people who are broadly in line with, let us say, the central egalitarian thrust of communist morality, but politically opposed to freedom of speech ‘for fascists’ (etc, etc); or we might side with repellent bigots because our political view corresponds in the very short term with the complaint that ‘you can’t say anything any more, thanks to these snowflakes’. Straightforwardly taking the latter course - like Spiked, say - must lead us down the road of demanding the repression of the ‘snowflakes’, and thus undermining even the momentary common interest, so that is out.

We are left with convincing the left - including at least some of the ‘snowflakes’ - to value freedom of speech in itself, as indispensible political infrastructure for our own projects. Thus we demand an end to bans and proscriptions in civil society institutions like student unions as well; we want our comrades to become accustomed to political combat with actual stakes, however small. But this demand is subordinate to our demands against the state: society should not be a ‘safe space’ for bigots and fools, any more than it should be so for well-meaning liberals.

Closely linked to this question is that of the internet. We demand the socialisation of all basic internet infrastructure, and the abolition of the subsidy of the media through advertising. The former is a risky thing, but ultimately unavoidable. Infrastructure of this sort is naturally monopolistic; if we cannot so revolutionise state power to prevent the state internet company from shutting people off, socialism is plainly doomed - just as it would be in the case of other utilities like water, power and so forth being reduced to organs of patronage.

The latter is a long-standing demand of ours, and indeed of the more farsighted of our predecessors in the movement. It was Kautsky who denounced die käufliche Presse - the ‘press for sale’ - as a crucial support for specifically bourgeois corruption of public discourse; Lenin explicitly proposed the forcible separation of advertising and journalism. If we had a revolution, of course, advertising as a whole would rapidly disappear, but it is worth fighting for short of the revolution since its victims will be those outlets that survive not because of active partisanship, but because they are subsidised by the collective power of the capitalist class. Partyist forces on the left do not worry about ‘where the money will come from’ - it will come from partisan self-sacrifice or not at all.

Recent history has made that rather more urgent. It is the mother of all advertising subsidies that powers the great social media platforms. There is not really much economy of scale in terms of human communication in having a small number of monopolistic social networks; but there is in targeted advertising on those networks. It is advertising that gives us Facebook as it actually is. Moreover, online advertising is almost comically monopolistic, even compared to legacy media (something like 90% of all online ad revenue goes to Facebook and Google alone). In order to head off anti-trust litigation in the United States, the big platforms are increasingly assertive in censorship. The dynamic is a little like the Hays Code - that weirdly neurotic self-censorship programme adopted by Hollywood to prevent Congress from interfering in its profits - except on a far larger scale.

So we have had the deplatforming of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook, and then the ejection of the rival rightist Parler network from the internet altogether, courtesy of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Closer to home, the Socialist Workers Party found itself suspended from Facebook on January 22; and we ourselves have found it very difficult to advertise any meeting on Facebook that touches on Middle East politics. It is in the interests of maximal free speech that AWS (along with other cloud giants, and lower-level net infrastructure corporations) should be socialised, and Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on deprived of their monopolistic subsidies and thus put out of our misery.

Text agreed at CPGB aggregate

The interests of the working class require the open struggle of ideas and the ability to freely organise. Therefore communists demand:


  1. I mean in common discourse; of course, Marxists theorise fascism differently, as Jack Conrad explained last week (‘Goodbye Donald Trump’, January 21).↩︎