We cause offence
Following the lead of the liberal bourgeoisie, the dominant section of the left takes a ‘free speech, but ...’ approach. Jack Conrad defends the unrestricted right to organise, strike, assemble … and speak
Free speech is vital for the working class and socialism. Why? Socialism can only be an 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 against awkward, stupid or simply downright horrible ideas. No, the first condition for self-liberation is self-knowledge - impossible without the “unrestricted freedom of speech and the press”.1
Great revolutions of the past - such as Holland 1566, 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 telling lies.
However, the workers’ revolution, the communist revolution, is different. Not only is the socialist commonwealth a prelude to general freedom, it is synonymous with popular control from below, which by definition requires honesty, clarity, the fullest access to information, and free and open debate. In short, we need the truth.
Of course, the truth can rarely be established without a long, often bitter fight. Even with astronomy, biology, geology, physics and the other ‘pure’ sciences, that is the case. Appearance and essence interpenetrate, but never neatly 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, including outright persecution, are magnified a thousandfold when it comes to Marxism. Why should that be so? The answer is hardly difficult to fathom. Marxism is disloyal to all existing states and their constitutions; Marxism is committed to superseding the market; Marxism is committed to ending the ecological destruction wrought by the M-C-M' imperative. Marxism threatens billionaires, 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 rejects soggy compromises. Marxism fights for extreme democracy and working class 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. Money, profit, wage labour and the freedom to work endless hours 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 GCHQ, MI5, the bewigged judges, the criminal, libel and copyright laws, the prison system, the army, the riot police and the spycop infiltrators - Marxism faces concerted opposition in the form of the many and various paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie. Prostituted academics, smug TV pundits, smartass radio hosts, advertising subsidised newspapers, well endowed think-tanks, pious clerics and calculating 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 epochal struggle against capitalism is necessarily predicated on winning the battle of ideas within the working class movement itself.
We must do more than defeat overt enemies - the Starmerites, Fabians, Labour First, the Tribune group, etc. There are false friends too: the champions of narrow trade unionism, pacifism and the official Labour left. Even more importantly, what passes itself off as Marxism, but is patently not Marxism, must be ruthlessly hunted down - Stalinism, Maoism, Eurocommunism, Mandelism, Healyism and Cliffism being obvious examples. In short, Marxism can only unite the working class by conducting a protracted, but necessarily 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 but necessarily 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 flourish - in other words, 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, the ‘right’ not to be upset, the ‘right’ to be protected against harsh language. 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 unfettered 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, social-imperialists, pacifists, etc - and in turn is subject to insult, offence and worse by those very same forces and elements: ‘First they came for the communists’ (pastor Martin Niemöller, 1946).
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.”2 Not because we are naive believers in a John Stuart Mill fair play and live and let live. 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 philistine bullshit.
Does that imply that Marxists are loftily indifferent to what is being peddled in the social media, the mainstream press, radio and TV under the name of free speech? Obviously not. Using whatever strength we have available to us, we actively engage in the battle of ideas, first with the vanguard, propaganda (= many ideas, aimed at the few), then agitation (= a few, or even one idea, aimed at the mass).
We certainly oppose everything which divides and therefore weakens the working class: racism, religion, sexism, national chauvinism, trade union sectionalism, etc. We fight to overcome all that divides, all that weakens the working class. But not by state prohibitions. Not by ‘safe spaces’ codes of conduct. Not by censorship. No, 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.3 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 had decreed, in 1819, 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 - adopted by the Labour Party, the National Union of Students, the UK government, amongst countless others - that “Applying double standards [to Israel] by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”4 But what other “democratic nation” is engaged in a similar ongoing colonial-settler project? What other “democratic nation” says it is “not the state of all its people”? What other “democratic nation” systematically discriminates against half the population under its control? Allowing criticism only by treating Israel as “democratic nation” is, in fact, to disallow criticism.
In his extended reply to the Prussian authorities, Marx elegantly mocked article 2 of the censorship law:
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?5
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!6
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 own 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 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.”7
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 Fox News, LBC and GB News. Then we have Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, the great replacement theory, QAnon, David Icke, Patriotic Alternative and the whole army of internet trolls. Free speech also allows dubious intellectuals to provide superficially convincing arguments for the foulest ideas: eg, 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 an 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.8
Then there was criticism of religion. In 1842 Marx fearlessly campaigned against the Prussian state’s legal protection of the Protestant 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”.9
Of course, he never thought that freedom of expression was a perfect thing in itself - some kind of ‘be all and end all’ panacea. 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.
Against this background, what to make of those on the left who justify clamping down on free speech in the name of ‘safe spaces’ and preventing offence? We fought against such an approach in Left Unity during our short involvement between 2013 and 2015. Indeed we argued that ‘safe spaces’ as a political concept ought to be rejected as being both “illusory” and tending “to poison discussion”.10
The same goes for kicking people off social media sites on the basis of them using uncomradely language or causing upset. Here we are specifically talking, of course, about the Unofficial Weekly Worker Readers and Supporters group on Discord.11 Naturally, every organisation has the right to decide its own borders, but this should be done on the basis of definite political principles. Not ‘safe spaces’ speech policy. Note, the Unofficial Weekly Worker group has porous, virtually non-existent borders. Would-be members are required to be readers of this paper and little or nothing more.
Then there are those on the left - eg, Tony Greenstein - who say that “free speech is not an absolute right”. That it does not include, for example, the right to “shout fire in a crowded theatre” (ironically used in the context of the abortive attempt to establish the Labour Campaign for Free Speech in 2021, the phrase, as we were told, coming from justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v United States, in 1919). Nor, supposedly, does free speech “include the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc)”.12
Let us unpick this attempt to equivocate, to narrow, to turn upside 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, 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. Minor qualifications, exceptions, caveats, the ifs and buts ought to be left, to use a phrase, to the small print.
What about citing Oliver Wendell Holmes as a guiding authority for the labour movement and the approving reference to the 1919 case of Schenck vs United States? A foot-in-the-mouth gaffe surely.
Suffice to say, Schenck vs United States 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 the Anglo-French war against the Central Powers in April 1917.
The US entry into what was an inter-imperialist conflict saw deep divisions. There was a considerable 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 and disenfranchisement for life. In 1920 inmate 9653 ran in the presidential election from his prison cell in order to uphold the first amendment (guaranteeing free speech). Again, he got close to a million votes.13
Schenck vs United States was a landmark decision, endorsing the Espionage Act (1917). A unanimous Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, concluded that the first amendment, 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.14
The facts of the case are perfectly clear and well known. Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were executive committee members of the Socialist Party of America - Schenck was general secretary. He oversaw the printing and mailing out of more than 15,000 leaflets. They were sent to men selected for conscription and 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 men were advised not to comply with the draft, on the grounds that military conscription constituted involuntary servitude, which is prohibited by the 13th amendment.
After a jury trial Schenck and Baer were convicted of violating the Espionage Act. Both 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.15
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.16
Frankly, anyone approvingly quoting this, what is an assault on free speech, in the context of establishing a labour movement free speech campaign, 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 the drippy Polly Toynbee and steered through parliament by the execrable Harriet Harman. Their list of characteristics 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 Yahweh’s chosen people and the necessity of suppressing alien religious cults amongst them. Genesis vi-ix and the Noah flood narrative tells how Canaan, son of the cursed Ham, should be “a slaves of slaves” (later used to justify black slavery in the US17). 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 Yahweh commanding that every “ox, sheep, camel and ass” be killed too.18 Then we have the fearsome denunciations of homosexuality in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Throughout, the oppression of women is 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. William Shakespeare’s canon includes The taming of the shrew, The merchant of Venice and Othello - all very difficult nowadays because of their treatment of women, Jews and 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? Should they be redacted like the works of Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl? What about 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’.
Yet 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.
However, the real obsession of the ‘free speech … but’ advocates is fascism.
What fascism was in the 1920s and 30s is very much open to question. Eg, should Franco Spain be categorised as fascist? Despite the Falange, in my opinion, no. What about today? Is the British National Party fascist? Arguably. What about Nigel Farage’s Reform Party? Hardly. The National Front? Probably. National Action? Definitely. Others present very different answers.
But, whatever the difficulties involved in categorising what is and what is not fascist, we are told that fascism is “not a political current like any other and should not be treated as such.” Fascists organise violent physical attacks, stoke hatred and “are dedicated to destroying every vestige of democracy” (SWP central committee member Simon Basketter).19 It is as if the “other” political currents - most notably, conservatives and liberals - were responsible for generously bestowing what passes for democracy upon us, rather than conceding, step, by bitterly fought step, to demands from below. Either way, for the likes of Basketter, fascists constitute an exception from “other” political currents and cannot be allowed to organise or speak.
Funnily enough, this approach is eerily reminiscent of the anti-Catholicism of a bygone age. In his Areopagitica (1644) the poet John Milton made a powerful plea for the free expression of different opinions. However, not Popery! Why? Because, “as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate”.20 In his Letter concerning toleration (1689), John Locke followed the same line of reasoning: since Catholicism is suppressive of toleration, it should not be tolerated.
For the ‘free speech, but …’ left, it is as if the fascist message is so powerful, so seductive, so impossible to resist that the any thought about free expression must be put aside in favour of a ‘bash the fash’ approach. I am not sure about the exact origins of ‘bash the fash’. But I think it probably dates back to third-period ‘official communism’ in the late 1920s-early 1930s - in particular in Germany.21 It has, though, been thoroughly internalised by Antifa activists and those who still like to pass themselves off as modern-day Trotskyites.
Hence when faced with this statement: “We stand for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication”, the ‘free speech … but’ left instinctively responds with accusations of liberalism. The historically literate will recognise, however, that the statement is directly taken from the programme of the RSDLP, agreed in 1903. The RSDLP was, of course, not the Russian Social Democratic Liberal Party: but the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party - the party of Vladimir Lenin, Jules Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Leon Trotsky.
For our ‘free speech, but …’ opponents the only way to deal with a fascist is either through state bans or non-state violence. Hence, ‘bash the fash’. 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 foolishly 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 ‘no platform’ approach has, of course, been used by Sir Keir Starmer to purge the Labour Party, used by Zionists against pro-Palestine BDS campaigners, used to silence radical feminists, etc, etc. By elevating what can be a serviceable tactic into an iron-fast principle, the left has helped fashion the very weapons that are now directed against us.
And the simple fact of the matter is that the right - the far right, the alt right, the fascist right, the post-fascist right - do not just preach hatred: they also offer hope in a world devoid of hope, they offer a future for a world that appears to have no future. So another perfectly legitimate tactic is solidarity! That is how Ricky Tomlinson - one of the Shrewsbury pickets done for conspiracy in 1972 - moved away from the National Front and the far right. It was the left which “raised money, organised campaigns and helped look after my family”.22 He became not only a famous actor, but 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, 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 CPUSA 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”. 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 SWP’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 the 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”.23
In fact, as things turned out, the invitation to appear before the 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”.24 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 initially 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 American SWP.25
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 to 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.26 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 had 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 American 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.27
Yes, we need tactical flexibility. Elevating one tactic into a rigid, eternal, unchanging principle is the exact opposite of revolutionary radicalism.
K Kautsky Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2020, p89.↩︎
R Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York 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.↩︎
M Macnair, ‘Left Unity: safe spaces are not liberating’ Weekly Worker May 29 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1012/left-unity-safe-spaces-are-not-liberating.↩︎
See PCC statement, ‘Upholding the free speech principle’ Weekly Worker March 9 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1433/upholding-the-free-speech-principle.↩︎
‘End the contradiction’ Weekly Worker February 18 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1335/end-the-contradiction.↩︎
See E Freeberg Democracy’s prisoner Cambridge MA 2010.↩︎
SR Haynes Noah’s curse: the Biblical justification of American slavery Oxford 2007.↩︎
Socialist Worker February 25 2020.↩︎
J Milton Areopagitica 2006, p63.↩︎
See E Rosenhaft Beating the fascists? Cambridge 1983.↩︎
See R Tomlinson Ricky London 2008.↩︎
L Trotsky Writings 1939-40 New York 1977, p434n.↩︎