Good enough for us

Le Pen and censorship

The most famous of all intellectual Frenchmen was Voltaire who in rough translation said: “Though I may disagree with everything you said, I shall fight for your right to say it.” 

Some three weeks ago European parliamentary immunity was removed from a most notorious and unintellectual Frenchman by the name of Le Pen.  A man often accused of racism and being a neo-fascist - charges that have more than an element of truth in them.  The reason for removing this immunity was a statement he made in Germany. When asked about the extermination of the Jews under the Nazi regime, he replied that the matter was merely a detail of World War II.  If he had made such a statement in France or Britain, there would have been no question of prosecution, irrespective of parliamentary immunity.  However, the Federal Republic of Germany has passed a law forbidding any comments that tend to diminish or dismiss the Holocaust or can be interpreted in a light favourable to the Third Reich.

It is, of course, true that there can be no absolute right to say what one wills. On the most obvious level crying “fire” in a crowded theatre is an action that would rightly be punished. Nevertheless the suppression of an individual’s right to express an opinion on any matter - particularly a historical one - could only be justified, certainly by a workers’ state, in exceptional circumstances.

Communists are the most vigorous champions of democracy. Frederick Engels in 1889 denounced the French government for annulling an election in which an extreme rightwing candidate, Georges Boulanger, won the first round. Though Engels had been super-critical of Boulanger on the grounds that he was a potential military dictator, nevertheless people had voted for him and no communist could agree with violation of the democratic process.  Marx for his part persistently denounced censorship as a general evil against society and knowledge: it is usually working people who are deprived as a result. 

The most famous case in recent history in Britain was Lady Chatterley’s lover where the prosecuting counsel actually asked the jury whether they would allow their servants to read such a book.  In addition to the censorship of literary work, political, religious or scientific works can also be judged ‘unsuitable’. Simon Rushdie’s book Satanic verses had censorship imposed upon it by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, and in this country it is still possible to commit blasphemy against the Church of England.  There are moves to include other religions than the Church of England in the blasphemy laws.   As far as political censorship is concerned, the Official Secrets Act is frequently used, not so much to protect state secrets, but to stop people letting the cat out of the bag with regard to the shenanigans of politicians. Clearly information regarding the supply of arms to an unsavoury regime is not viewed as suitable for public consumption.

Under the guise of protecting private individuals, there are guidelines restricting the reporting of the lives of public personages. In fact, the establishment is primarily concerned with suppressing information which would be a political embarrassment. The relationship of Tampax, the Prince of Wales and Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles was the kind of item which calls into question not only Charles’s credibility, but the existence of the monarchy itself.

Let us remind ourselves that the major employers of censorship and suppression of ideas in this century have been those claiming to act in the name of communism. This did us much more harm than all the censorship and book burnings of the Nazis. Apart from besmirching the idea of genuine socialism, such measures within the Soviet Union helped to deprive it of any rationality, damaging the economy and preventing the bureaucracy even from thinking itself. Science also suffered under the blows of censorship: the rejection of the germ theory of inheritance by Lysenko and the Soviet establishment held up all sorts of biological and agricultural developments, as well as causing no end of problems for western communists.

To turn to the original question of Le Pen, the first thing to note is that it is seldom possible to destroy an argument by suppressing it.  Only when it is brought into the light of day through mass discussion can the argument be shown to be fallacious.  More importantly, because there must be at least a grain of truth within an idea for it to gain credibility, then that grain frequently assumes an exaggerated dimension instead of being viewed as just a small part of a contradictory picture.

This is most obvious in the remark regarding the destruction of the Jews as a “detail” of World War II.  In one sense the mass murder of six million Jews is a “detail” of the carnage which cost the lives of 50 million people. Although the death camps were obviously of major significance, World War II was not fought over the Nazi’s policy of exterminating the Jews. It was primarily fought over the relative position of Germany in a world imperialist struggle. It is also true that there were plenty of other people besides Jews that were killed by the Nazis: Serbs, gypsies, homosexuals and - dare I mention it? - they even killed one or two communists, some of whom were themselves Jews. The concept of the Holocaust has been used by, on the one hand, the state of Israel to suppress Arabs and, on the other hand, western governments (including Germany) who find naming Hitler and his anti-semitism as the sole cause of the World War II not only helps cover up the massacres of minorities throughout Europe, but also obscures its main feature - the outcome of global capitalism’s general crisis. None of this is to say we agree with Le Pen.

Unfortunately the same knee-jerk reaction to censorship is expressed by many on the left. There was a recent campaign to ban the sale of Mein Kampf in WH Smith. One of our comrades was actually told by an SWP member that only “bona fide students” should be allowed to see the book. It was pointed out that Mein Kampf was published in French and English by the respective communist parties in the first place. This had the obvious purpose of showing what was being advocated. The SWP comrade seemed unaware that he was actually parroting the attitude of the ruling class. The establishment also believes that only ‘properly accredited’ people should have access to certain material, while the rest of us should be shielded.

The fact remains that all censorship is inimitable to the emergence of truth. What is good enough for them is good enough for us.

John Bayliss