Paradoxes of speech

Left no-platforming plays straight into the hands of the right. The right pretends to champion free speech and in turn no-platforms the left. Gaby Rubin reports on the June 25 CPGB aggregate

Last Sunday CPGB members and invited supporters met online for an aggregate. The meeting was divided into two parts: first, Mike Macnair introduced a session on the centrality of freedom of speech, which was followed by a second session on organisational matters.

Comrade Macnair began by pointing out that the Tory Party insists that it stands for free speech. It has appointed a free speech tsar. In reality, though, it acts to suppress unacceptable points of view through culture war campaigns conducted by the advertising-funded media. He discussed four areas where the closing down of free speech can be clearly seen.

First was what he called “knavery and folly”. Comrade Macnair gave the example of gender-critical feminists, such as Dr Kathleen Stock, who lend themselves to reactionary ideology - as did anti-pornography campaigners such as Andrea Dworkin in the 1970s, who, in effect, went on to serve as a cover for censorship and religious bigotry. What these gender-critical feminists do today is strengthen those who will eventually censor them.

He then brought up the capitalist media’s version of heckling and barracking. It is used to drown out dangerous ideas. Meanwhile, the internet, although originally lauded as a haven of free speech for everyone, has also become a platform for those with the most money.

How do we combat these factors? In the long run it is necessary that the mass of the working class supports the notion that “This person/group does not speak for me”. Unfortunately, however, the current left press is not exactly doing a good job. Take the Morning Star, which has to tread carefully due to its relationships with China and the trade union and labour bureaucracy. Meanwhile the papers of the various confessional sects are little better than advertising sheets. Except that, often, they are even more boring.

Many of the left takes it as axiomatic that fascists must be denied free speech through no-platforming. This has gone from being a tactic to a principle, one that has been taken over by the Tories and the rightwing media and turned against the left - the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie being the most glaring example.

The next area comrade Macnair pointed to was defamation. An example he gave was George Galloway being libelled by The Daily Telegraph at the outbreak of the Iraq war - the newspaper accused him of being in the pay of Saddam Hussein, for which he was eventually paid damages. But it is clear that such allegations are an attempt to silence awkward voices.


A whole number of comrades joined the discussion. Bob Paul raised the targeting of the most vulnerable sections in society by a capitalist media which uses them as scapegoats. Peter Manson criticised the SWP, who want to silence fascists so that ordinary people will not be infected by their ideas. He gave the example of Nick Griffin of the British National Party on the BBC’s Question time in 2009. Griffin was demolished, in particular by Bonnie Greer. As a result, the BNP split and split again and fell into total irrelevance.

Scott Evans brought up the question of disassociation, when members of a left group dare to publicly disagree with the sect’s line. Jim Nelson spoke about the lengths the state will go to in order to limit freedom of speech - giving the example of Julian Assange and the “stitching up” of his case.

Carla Roberts highlighted the attack on the jury system in the courts. For her part, Anne McShane gave the example of migrants being burned out of their living quarters in Ireland. How do we deal with people publicly advocating such actions? Another example is the harassment of women going into abortion clinics. Is this freedom of speech, she asked?

Comrade Macnair came back in to stress that what the left had done with its insistence on no-platforming was to disable itself - the need is for open and transparent discussion. As for the Assange case, it was not only about Julian Assange himself, but also about intimidating journalists and others from ‘going too far’ in what they write. With respect to juries, he said, judges have been trying to limit their rights for centuries. Responding to comrade McShane, he stated that countering those who threaten violence by threatening them in the same way can be acceptable.

Jack Conrad said that freedom of speech is an essential weapon in the class war. But he agreed that we certainly do not discount the use of violence, which the class enemy is certainly prepared to use as necessary. Stan Keable said that if others try to prevent our free speech we must insist on that right - we must not allow ourselves to be silenced.

Farzad Kamangar spoke out against the promotion of “safe spaces” by sections of the left. Many who feel threatened support that concept, without realising the damage done to free speech as a result. In reality this is the same argument that is used in the Labour Party, when it comes to so-called ‘anti-Semitism’: any criticism of Israel can be viewed as anti-Semitic.

In his response, comrade Macnair said our principle should be unrestricted freedom of speech. He asked, therefore, if conditions of civil war inevitably imply the suppression of speech. Giving the example of British Union of Fascists march on Cable Street in 1936, he stressed that self-defence is, of course, perfectly justified, but it was a tactical issue whether the far right should be opposed by violence or open debate, depending on the circumstances.


After a short break, various questions of organisation were discussed.

Comrade Conrad stated that CPGB finances were currently in good shape. He gave the example of our recent publication of The little red climate book - we must be in a position to take such initiatives as and when necessary. Labour Party Marxists finances were similarly healthy, reported Stan Keable, while Peter Manson added that the Weekly Worker is also in good shape - thanks to the ongoing support of so many of our readers, of course.

Following what amounted to a question and answer session, the agenda turned to the question of this year’s Communist University, to be held in central London this August. Most of the speakers have now been confirmed. As in previous years, there will be three sessions a day.

The use of the ‘hybrid form’ (online as well as in-person) posed some problems last year, so this year online sessions will hopefully be limited to those who are unable to attend in person, either because of long-distance travel or health problems. Obviously all CPGB members should make every effort to attend in person.

Finally the CPGB’s annual fundraising drive, the Summer Offensive, was launched. The campaign will close on the final day of CU, when hopefully the target of £20,000 will have been raised and greatly surpassed. Comrades attending the aggregate gave pledges worth a total of £9,000.