We light fires
One half of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech does not believe in free speech. They want a ‘free speech, but ...’ campaign. Jack Conrad explains why the left should champion the unrestricted right to organise, strike, assemble and speak
Free speech is vital for the working class and socialism. Why? Socialism can only be the act of self-liberation for the great majority, by the great majority. Therefore it follows that the working class cannot be treated as a little child who has to be guarded from awkward, ugly, upsetting and dangerous ideas. No, the first condition for self-liberation is self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is impossible without self-confidence. The working class has to be treated with respect, treated as a class that can raise itself to the position where it is capable of ruling society.
Great revolutions of the past - such as England 1642, America 1776 and France 1789 - were carried out in the interests of a minority. But wider sections of the population had to be mobilised, had to be turned into a social battering ram, if success was to be gained. That necessitated hiding real aims, making extravagant promises and rousing the most passionate enthusiasms.
However, the workers’ revolution, the communist revolution, is different. Being the act of the overwhelming majority, being the victory of democracy, being popular control from below, by definition it requires honesty, clarity, the fullest access to information and free and open debate. In short, we need the truth. Without that we have no chance of success.
Of course, the truth can never be established without a long struggle, often a bitter fight. Even with astronomy, biology, geology, physics and the other ‘pure’ sciences, that is the case. Appearance and essence interpenetrate, but never correspond. So moving, striving towards the truth always takes considerable time and considerable intellectual effort. Sometimes it is called genius.
Meanwhile, vested interests, those with a reputation to lose, the naturally conservative, conduct a stubborn, rearguard action - do everything in their power to sideline, block or silence bearers of new, revolutionary discoveries and insights. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, William Harvey, Edward Jenner, Johannes Kepler, William Paley and Charles Darwin all faced campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication, if not outright persecution.
That being the case with the ‘pure’ sciences, it is perfectly understandable that campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication, if not outright persecution, are magnified a thousandfold when it comes to Marxism. Why should that be so? The answer is not hard to fathom. Marxism is committed to superseding the market and ending the ecological destruction wrought by capitalism. Marxism threatens monarchs, established churches, the secret state and the military top brass. Marxism opposes the confessional sects, quack reformers and dead-end sectionalism. Marxism upholds principle and militantly rejects soggy compromises. Marxism spreads the flame of extreme democracy, class war and socialism.
Though a tiny minority, the bourgeoisie begins with a great advantage. The dominant ideas in capitalist society are the spontaneously generated ideas of the bourgeoisie. Exploitation is uniquely concealed behind what Marxists call commodity fetishism. Capitalists are often admiringly believed when they boast that they are society’s wealth creators. Wage-slavery, unemployment, money, profit are all considered perfectly natural by wide swathes of the population. Marxism therefore has to hack through the thicket of ‘common sense’.
But there is more confronting us than that. Much more. Leave aside the police, army, GCHQ and MI5. Marxism faces concerted opposition in the form of the many and various paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie. Well rewarded academics, TV pundits, radio hosts, lying newspaper journalists, think-tank experts and career politicians combine to manufacture and disseminate a tide of half-truths, quarter-truths and outright untruths.
Inevitably, this - together with the actuality and seeming naturalism of capitalist society - ideologically affects, colours, distorts the views of many. Hence the struggle against capitalism is necessarily predicated on winning the battle of ideas within the working class movement itself.
We must do more than fight overt enemies - the Blairites, Fabians, Open Labour, Labour First, the Tribune group, etc. There are false friends too: the champions of narrow trade unionism, pacifism and the official left. Even more importantly, what passes itself off as Marxism, but is patently not Marxism, must be ruthlessly hunted down - Stalinism, Maoism, Eurocommunism, Healyism and Cliffism being obvious examples. In short, 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.
Question: what are the best conditions under which to conduct a protracted and aggressive struggle to establish what is right and what is wrong; what is truthful and what is untruthful? Answer: conditions where questioning is the norm, where serious study, thought and debate are encouraged, and where there is the unrestricted right to organise, strike, assemble and speak.
Our opponents often seek to shield themselves by citing the ‘right’ not to be offended. Needless to say, for Marxists, there exists no such democratic right. Democracy, if it is for real, if it is not just for show, means the unhindered exchange of all manner of different viewpoints, some of which will be regarded as deeply insulting, offensive and doubtless even threatening.
Marxism itself immediately comes to mind. Marxism causes offence, Marxism is incendiary, Marxism is a threat - specifically to the bourgeoisie, reactionaries, nationalists, liberals, reformists, etc - and in turn is subject to insult, offence and worse by those very same forces and elements: ‘First they came for the communists’.
Nevertheless, neither under capitalism nor under socialism would we entertain any notion of calling for state measures to protect Marxism. In the immortal words of Rosa Luxemburg, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”1 Not because we are naive believers in fair play and live and let live toleration. We are convinced that Marxism, because it is so solidly founded and is always a work in progress, constantly being enriched and renewed, is strong enough to withstand all the lies, slander and bullshit.
Does that imply that Marxists are loftily indifferent to what is being peddled on the internet, the press, radio and TV under the name of free speech? Obviously not. Using all our strength, we actively engage in the battle of ideas in order to win the mass of the population. We oppose everything which divides and therefore weakens the working class: racism, religious hatred, sexism, homophobia, national chauvinism, trade union sectionalism, opportunism, etc. We fight to overcome all that divides, all that weakens the working class. But not by state prohibitions. Not by codes of conduct. Not by censorship. Our weapon is criticism.
Karl Marx himself, it can usefully be pointed out, was a lifelong opponent of censorship. Even as a young man, in 1842, he was to be found passionately arguing in favour of unrestricted freedom of the press against the Prussian state and its censors: “Whenever one form of freedom is rejected, freedom in general is rejected,” he defiantly wrote.2
Marx conducted an heroic struggle, first as one of the main contributors to and subsequently editor of the Cologne-based paper, Rheinische Zeitung - the Prussian state imposed double and then triple censorship; finally, in March 1843 the authorities closed it down.
Magnanimously, the Prussian king announced that censorship would “not prevent serious and modest investigation of the truth”. Serious! Modest!
Such loaded words bring to mind the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s seemingly reasonable statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”3 But what other country is engaged in a similar ongoing colonial-settler project? What other country says it is “not the state of all its people”. What other country systematically discriminates against half the population under its control? Allowing criticism on these terms is to disallow criticism.
In an extended reply to the Prussian authorities, Marx elegantly cut through the cant:
Is it not the first duty of the seeker after truth to aim directly at the truth, without looking to the right or left? Will I not forget the essence of the matter, if I am obliged not to forget to state it in the prescribed form.4
No writer can discover the truth if placed in a bureaucratic straitjacket. Nor did Marx want anyone telling him how and with what words to write:
You marvel at the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not ask the rose to smell like violet, but must the richest of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour!5
Marx claimed the right to treat the ludicrous seriously and the serious ludicrously. The truth can never be what a government commands. Ministerial bigwigs, puffed-up bureaucrats, the securocracy have no interest in letting the public into the truth - only in perpetuating and increasing their powers: something which goes hand in hand with endemic suspicion, demands for silence and a pathological fear of exposure. Thought itself must be manacled, placed behind high walls and put under the guard of prison wardens.
During those times - the early 1840s - Marx took delight in showing how the servile deputies of the Prussian diet (parliament) sought to put a stop to the regular reporting of their proceedings in the press. Their debates were regarded as a private matter and no business of the mass of the population.
When journalists daringly lifted the veil, they were accused of irresponsible behaviour and treated as spies, who had revealed vital secrets. Members of the diet could no longer uninhibitedly express themselves. They felt constrained when they knew that some untrustworthy stranger would be publishing their words. Indeed that was the case.
Over the years, as parliamentary reporting has become the norm in most countries, as the democratic space in society has inch by inch been extended, professional politicians have turned to the art of lying, deception and double-talk. Marx’s glowing description of the Paris Commune serves as a criticism of both 19th century parliaments and those on the left today who exhibit the exact same 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 initiated the public into all its shortcomings.6
Obviously, free speech comes with some highly unpleasant consequences. Poison daily oozes from the pages of the Daily Mail and The Sun into the minds of the most gullible sections of the population. The same goes for Sky News, ‘Good Morning Britain’ and Fox News. Then we have Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, the Covid-deniers, QAnon, David Ike, Britain First and the whole army of internet trolls. Free speech also allows talented intellectuals to provide superficially convincing arguments for the foulest ideas: Samuel P Huntington (Clash of civilisations), Charles Murray and Richard J Herrestein (The bell curve), David Irving (Hitler’s war). The latter used his training as a historian, his access to archives and his considerable language abilities to deny or belittle Hitler’s role in the Nazi holocaust.
But the last thing we should do is call for censorship and bans. On the contrary, there must be freedom, even for sick, daft and crazy ideas. Marx tellingly writes:
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.7
Then there was religion. In 1842 Marx fearlessly campaigned against the Prussian state’s legal protection of the Christian faith from “frivolous” and “hostile” attack. Such little phrases were nothing but gagging devices. Replying to the censors, Marx went to the heart of the matter: “Religion can only be attacked in a hostile or a frivolous way: there is no third way”.8
Of course, he never thought that freedom of expression was a perfect thing in itself - some kind of be-all and end-all. Free speech is not the same as general freedom. But it is surely one of its preconditions. Free speech brings self-confidence, free speech brings self-knowledge.
Free speech, but ...
Against this background, what are we to make of the successful amendment to the Labour Campaign for Free Speech’s charter moved by Tony Greenstein? It adds this very big ‘but’:
Free speech is not an absolute right. It does not include the right to “Shout fire in a crowded theater” [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v United States (1919)]. Free speech doesn’t, for example, include the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc).
Let us unpick this attempt to equivocate, to narrow, to water down. We agree: no right is absolute: eg, the right to national self-determination, the right to organise, the right to practise one’s religion. When one right clashes with another right, the general interest must prevail. The right to national self-determination does not mean the right to provide a base for launching a counterrevolutionary war. The right to organise does not mean the right to unleash murderous assaults on Muslims, black activists, leftwingers and trade unionists. The right to practise one’s religion does not mean the right to oppress women. But that does not stop us promoting, headlining, boldly advocating the right to national self-determination, the right to organise, the right to practise one’s religion ... or the right to freely speak and publish.
The minor qualifications, the exceptions, the caveats, the ifs and buts can be left, to use a phrase, to the small print. That is surely the case, when it comes to the founding charter of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech. Upfront the main principles. Highlight the key principles and arguments. Leave everything else out.
What about comrade Greenstein citing justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as a guiding authority for the labour movement and the approving reference to the 1919 case of Schenck vs United States? An embarrassing mistake of the first order.
Comrade Greenstein has some training in, some experience of, the law. He, therefore, surely knows the ins and outs of Schenck vs United States (1919). Suffice to say, its significance has nothing to do with shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre or cinema. No, its significance lies squarely in the concerted attack on free speech launched by the Woodrow Wilson administration after America broke with non-interventionism and joined with the Anglo-French war against the Central Powers in April 1917.
The US entry into what was an inter-imperialist war saw deep divisions. There was a not inconsiderable minority of the population which had both German origins and sympathies. But it was the socialist left which was singled out. Thousands were arrested. Amongst them Eugene V Debs, the five-times presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America. In the 1912 election he secured 913,693 votes (6% of the total). Having delivered an impassioned anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, Debs found himself sentenced to 10 years in prison and disenfranchisement for life.9 In 1920 he ran in the presidential election from his prison cell.
Schenck vs United States, was a landmark decision, it underwrote the Espionage Act (1917). A unanimous Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Wendell Holmes, concluded that the first amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, did not alter the “well-established law in cases where the attempt was made through expressions that would be protected in other circumstances”. Holmes said that expressions which in the circumstances were intended to result in a crime, and posed a “clear and present danger” of succeeding, could be punished.10
The facts of the case are clear enough and well known. Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were members of the executive committee of the Socialist Party of America - Schenck was general secretary. The SPA’s executive committee agreed, and Schenck oversaw, the printing and mailing out of more than 15,000 leaflets. They were sent to men selected for conscription. The leaflet urged defiance: “Do not submit to intimidation”, “Assert your rights”, “If you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain.” The leaflet advised the men not to comply with the draft on the grounds that military conscription constituted involuntary servitude, which is prohibited by the 13th amendment.11
After a jury trial Schenck and Baer were convicted of violating the Espionage Act. Both then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that their conviction, and the statute which purported to authorise it, were contrary to the first amendment and that the Espionage Act had what today we would call a ‘chilling effect’ on free discussion about the unjust nature of the war.12
However, the Supreme Court held that the conviction of Schenck and Baer was constitutional. Even though the law stated that it was only an offence if there had been “successful obstructions of the draft”, the court ruled that “common-law precedents allowed prosecution for attempts that were dangerously close to success”. Attempts made by speech, or writing, could be punished like other attempted crimes. The first amendment did not protect speech encouraging men to resist the draft, because, “when a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured, so long as men fight, and that no court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right”. In other words, the court held that wartime circumstances allow for greater curbs on free speech than would be allowed during peacetime.
The opinion’s most famous and most often quoted passage is this:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic ... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.13
Frankly, a labour movement campaign promoting free speech that approvingly quotes what is an assault on free speech in its founding charter is beyond parody.
We now come to this statement: “Free speech doesn’t, for example, include the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc).”
This is straight from the Equalities Act 2010, written by Polly Toynbee and steered through parliament by Harriet Harman. Their list of characteristics which are legally protected from discrimination, harassment and victimisation include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Needless to say, none of us wish to incite racial hatred or advocate harm to anyone simply because of their age, disability, gender reassignment, etc. But, as we all know, life is complex. The Old Testament is fundamentally premised on the superiority of god’s chosen people and the necessity of suppressing alien religious cults amongst them. The Book of Joshua is full of fanciful stories of the Israelites annihilating the armies of their enemies, razing their cities and committing genocide down to the very last man, women and child … there is even god commanding that every “ox, sheep, camel and ass” be killed too.14
Then we have the fearsome denunciations of homosexuality found in Leviticus 18 and 20, in the tales of Sodom and Gomorrah, and David and Jonathan. Throughout, the oppression of women and the possession of slaves are taken for granted.
Should the Old Testament be banned, should those who believe it is the word of god, who publicly cite its particularly horrible passages be silenced … because free speech does not include the right to preach racial hatred or discrimination? No, no, no, not in our opinion. We can, we want to, explain in historical and materialist terms the contradictions, the falsehoods, the truths, the conflicting class interests that weave together to make the Old Testament. The same goes for the New Testament. The same goes for the Koran.
Then there is the literature of more recent times. The works of William Shakespeare include The taming of the shrew, The merchant of Venice and Othello - all very difficult nowadays, because of their treatment of women, Jews and black Africans. Charles Dickens and a good slice of 19th century novelists could be found guilty on similar grounds. Should they be removed from library shelves? What about the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin? They called for the extermination of the Jews. Should their writings be banned? Should modern-day advocates of the “socialism of fools” be denied a voice? What about the Zionists? Then there is DW Griffith and The birth of a nation. Should we be allowed to watch this early 20th century cinematic masterpiece? Its heroes are the Ku Klux Klan, its villains black men. What about Mein Kampf? Should we be barred from reading it? After all, it is saturated with anti-Semitism, absurd claims of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy and contempt for the Chinese, Negro and Slav ‘races’.
But if we are going to understand history, if we are going to understand where we have come from, we must insist on being able to read, watch … and criticise everything. We could go on and on. But, no, the point has been made.
And what about ourselves? The reason we need organisations such as Labour Against the Witchhunt and the Labour Campaign for Free Speech is that we are under sustained attack. Thousands have been suspended or expelled from the Labour Party … and the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign is spreading further and further into workplaces, into schools, into universities. The Tory government - that supposed champion of free speech - wants to force universities to adopt the IHRA fake definition of anti-Semitism.
Another weapon in the hands of the witch-hunters is the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, set up under the provisions of the 2010 Equality Act. As we all know, it investigated the Labour Party over baseless accusations of anti-Semitism. Its report duly found the party guilty and specifically named two individuals, who it said were acting on behalf of the Labour Party: Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley. And that is exactly the problem. Virtually any criticism of Israel and the Zionist project of colonising Palestine - be it a thoroughgoing analysis, a few garbled remarks in front of a TV camera, a cartoon, or a social media ‘like’ - is now deemed as discriminating against, harassing and victimising Jews as Jews. That is why we insist on free speech.
However, the real obsession of Tony Greenstein, Graham Bash, Matthew Jones, Dave Hill, et al at the launch meeting of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech was fascism.
What fascism was in the 1920s and 30s is very much open to debate. Eg, should Franco Spain be categorised as fascist? Despite the Falange, no. What about today? Is the Wigan-based British National Party fascist? Arguably. What about Ukip? Maybe. What about Nigel Farage’s Reform Party? Hardly. The National Front? Probably. The English Defence League? Probably too. National Action? Definitely.
But, whatever the difficulties involved in categorising what is and what is not fascist, we are told that the only thing fascists want to do is kill, torture and exterminate. Therefore they cannot be allowed to speak or organise. It is as if their sadistic message is so powerful, so seductive, so impossible to resist that the left must abandon all thought of free expression and hold to an absolute ‘bash the fash’ doctrine. I am not sure about the exact origins of this ‘principle’. But I think it dates back to the late 1960s and France. It has certainly been thoroughly internalised by those who like to pass themselves off as modern-day Trotskyites.
Labour Party Marxists sought to underline our commitment to democracy by introducing an amendment to the founding charter of Labour Campaign for Free Speech: “We stand for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication.” Somewhat bizarrely, it too was successful. So the Labour Campaign for Free Speech stands for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication and restrictions on freedom of speech and publication. The muddle can only be sorted out by serious debate and a well-informed vote. A diplomatic compromise will definitely not do.
Anyway, in the name ‘bash the fash’ comrades Greenstein, Bash, Jones and Hill accused us of being liberals with our “unrestricted freedom of speech and publication” amendment. The historically well-informed will know, however, that the phrase is directly borrowed from the programme of the RSDLP, agreed in 1903. The RSDLP was, of course, not the Russian Social Democratic Liberal Party: it was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party - the party of Vladimir Lenin, Jules Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Leon Trotsky.
For our opponents the only way to deal with a fascist is through violence. The only way to deal with a fascist is to “introduce them to the pavement”. Not only silly posturing: it is politically stupid. Physical force, whether defensive or offensive, is perfectly legitimate as a tactic. But so is debate. The BNP’s Nick Griffin was shredded by Bonnie Greer when he agreed to appear on the BBC’s Question time in October 2009. Immediately afterwards the BNP began to unravel and Griffin was humiliatingly given his marching orders. Meantime, while Question time was being broadcast, the SWP was huddled outside Television Centre jumping up and down demanding ‘no platform’ for those who incite hatred and advocate harm.
That slogan is now is being used by Sir Keir Starmer in the Labour Party, used by Zionists against Ken Loach in Cambridge, used to silence radical feminists, etc, etc. By elevating what can be a serviceable tactic into an iron-fast principle, we helped fashion the very weapon that is now directed against us.
And the simple fact of the matter is that the right, the far-right, the alt right, the fascist right do not just preach hatred: they also offer hope in a hopeless world, they offer a future for a world that appears to have no future. So another perfectly legitimate tactic is persuasion. We should talk. My guess would be that this is how Ricky Tomlinson - one of the Shrewsbury pickets done for conspiracy in 1972 - broke from the National Front. Today he is not only a famous actor: he is a committed socialist. So it is not the case that the only good fascist is a dead fascist. No, the only good fascist is an ex-fascist ... and there are plenty of them.
Looking back at history, it is clear that Leon Trotsky’s approach is not a million miles removed from ours. Leave aside the 1903 programme of the RSDLP, let us look at his attitude towards state bans.
In October 1939 Trotsky accepted an invitation to travel from his Mexican exile in order to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies. He wanted to denounce the Communist Party of the USA … and the US Nazi Party - but also denounce state moves to ban them.
This committee of the House of Representatives should not be confused with the Senate committee later made famous - notorious - by Joseph McCarthy. Nonetheless, it too investigated, hounded, demonised and sought to outlaw the ‘subversive’ activities of the Communist Party of the USA and its various fronts - New York theatres and Hollywood being particular targets for the witch-hunters.
Apparently, then, Trotsky was prepared to assist an organ of the US bourgeois state in what was quite clearly a nasty and thoroughly dangerous attack on an “organisation in the workers’ movement”. We too have been denounced in similar terms by pseudo-leftists such as Andy Newman and Liam Mac Uaid for agreeing to appear on the BBC’s Newsnight.15
Naturally, the CPUSA and the other affiliates of Comintern let forth a barrage of protest in order to silence Trotsky. They hated what he had already said. They dreaded what he would say in front of the HUAC.
Obviously here was a testing moment. And under outside pressure it was hardly surprising that weaker elements in the wafer-thin ranks of Trotsky’s organisation in America wobbled and buckled. Had Trotsky put his narrow factional interests above those of the class? Was it right for him to use such a platform? Should he not think again? Was he about to cross class lines?
That was the position of James Burnham - at the time a member of the US Socialist Workers Party’s political committee. A little later, as we all know, he switched over to become a vicious anti-communist ideologue. After World War II he advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
Anyway, in 1939, as a soft, but loyal Trotskyite, he introduced a motion to the SWP’s political committee disapproving of Trotsky’s willingness to accept the invitation to appear before HUAC. Burnham’s motion politely requested that Trotsky reconsider and refuse to testify. But he urged the SWP to disassociate itself from Trotsky - if he went ahead. Burnham was defeated, however. The SWP approved of Trotsky’s plan because of the “propagandistic value of such testimony to our movement”.16
In actual fact, as things turned out, the invitation to appear before HUAC was first delayed by the US state department, then cancelled by Dies himself - the excuse being that he could obtain no “assurances from Mexico that Trotsky would be permitted to return”.17 A barefaced lie. Assurances had been provided to the US consul in Mexico by the secretaria de gobernación in Mexico City. Trotsky concluded that Dies acted out of political, not technical, considerations. Trotsky had been contacted first by phone and then by telegram. He recounts that he “immediately” accepted the invitation from the Dies Committee. Trotsky recognised an “excellent opportunity” when he saw one. Of course, he consulted his immediate household in Mexico, but he felt that such an opportunity should not be lost. It “must be utilised”, he insisted, writing to the SWP.18
The HUAC should be considered as, firstly, a parliamentary investigating committee; secondly, as a kind of tribunal. Trotsky, asks, rhetorically, should we boycott parliament, should we boycott bourgeois courts? Obviously not.
He knew that the Dies Committee was reactionary and “pursues reactionary aims”. He wanted, however, to combat those reactionary aims. Even though a mere witness, he confidently thought he could do that in spades. Simultaneously, he wanted to use the committee as a tribune in order expose the history of Stalinism, counter the attacks made upon him by CPUSA leaders such as Earl Browder and tell the truth about the Moscow trials. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, etc, etc, etc were not fascists, saboteurs or counterrevolutionaries. They were innocent victims of Stalin’s killing machine.
To sacrifice such an “extraordinary political possibility” because of the spinelessness of backward comrades “would be a crime”, Trotsky thundered.19
Trotsky had nothing in common with the reactionary political aims of Dies. He intended to use the HUAC as a public platform to oppose repressive measures and laws - and not only those directed against the CPUSA. He was against the suppression of any other “extremist” party, the fascists included. The whole of the working class would suffer as a result of any narrowing of democracy - but especially its advanced part.
Trotsky was eager to denounce the tortuous zig-zagging of the CPUSA and show that it brought persecution down upon its own head. After all, it has been demanding that the US state deal severely with the fascists and the Trotskyites. Trotsky promised to tell the truth. The truth about the Stalinites and the truth about US capitalism. That “was the reason why Mr Dies dropped his plan” to call him as a witness, concludes Trotsky.
Trotsky made these highly relevant and pointed set of remarks, writing to the US SWP:
To avoid temptation and escape the risk of sin by abstaining, not appearing, not intervening, is a purely negative, passive and sterile radicalism. To appear if necessary on the foe’s territory and to fight him with his own weapons - that is revolutionary radicalism.”20
Yes, we need tactical flexibility. Elevating one tactic into a rigid, eternal, unchanging principle is the exact opposite of revolutionary radicalism.
R Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York NY, 1997, p389.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p181.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p111.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 22, Moscow 1986, p340.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, pp164-65.↩︎
1 Samuel xv,9.↩︎
See J Conrad, ‘Tell it as it is’ Weekly Worker October 4 2007.↩︎
L Trotsky Writings 1939-40 New York NY 1977, p434n.↩︎