How far does free speech go?

January 15, 2015

Keith Rosenthal adds to an ongoing discussion with some thoughts on free speech.

THIS IS a contribution to the ongoing discussion over the recent killings in Paris and the aftermath. In particular, it is a response to the comment of Todd Chretien and Alan Maass ("Resisting the right-wing tide"). I share these thoughts in the same comradely spirit and with the same points of agreement as expressed in the preface to Chretien and Maass' contribution.

It seems to me that there are two separate, yet related questions at debate. One is on the general topic of free speech. The other is a specific evaluation of the politics and context of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the attitude socialists should take towards its content.

I won't add anything on this latter topic, as I feel I do not know as much about it as the various other contributors on either side of this discussion. On the topic of free speech, however, I do want to raise some disagreements I have with Chretien and Maass' argument.

The starting point, and one which we all agree upon, is that in practice, there is no such thing as free speech or other such abstract "rights" under capitalism. The same as with the right to vote, assemble, etc., the "rights" of the economically dominant class always count for immensely more than the rights of the oppressed and exploited by virtue of the fact that the former own the means to exercise those rights, and they also own the state, which backs up their superior rights with actual or potential force.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

That being said, it is also true that socialists advocate the extension of any and all such rights--"incomplete and distorted" as they are--to the oppressed and exploited. We do so not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a means to an end--i.e., the overthrow of capitalist society.

Because we understand that the state is an instrument of class rule and domination, and because it is this state which confers rights and privileges onto the population, we have no illusion in the supposed inalienable or inviolable nature of such rights. In fact, as Chretien and Maass point out, the ruling class regularly violates the very rights it claims to hold sacrosanct whenever it suits its interests.


BUT CHRETIEN and Maass' argument becomes too abstract on the question of free speech when they reply to a specific suggestion raised in a preceding comment by Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady ("No tolerance for Islamophobia"). They write:

Sofia and Wael suggest that we should seek to "BAN racism like Charlie Hebdo's from being published through legitimate means, such as political organizing and public pressure." But bans have to be administered. Sofia and Wael acknowledge this when they propose "organizing for laws protecting Muslims from hate speech [which] can and should be a part of a broader fight against Islamophobia and racism."...

While we sympathize with the anti-racist sentiments that lead people to propose [such laws], in practice, they accomplish the opposite. They strengthen the hand of the state or institutions that uphold a system based on oppression--and the consequence, again and again, is that laws against hate speech are used against the oppressed.

What else to read

SocialistWorker.org readers are debating the response of the left to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. The discussion began with an International Socialist Organization statement titled "Don't let this horror be used to stoke bigotry."

Further contributions include:

Aaron Hess
Real and vicious Islamophobia

Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady
No tolerance for Islamophobia

Alan Maass and Todd Chretien
Resisting the tide of racism and repression

Keith Rosenthal
How far does free speech go?

Mike Friedman, Mike Healy and Daniel Factor
Views on Paris in brief

Don Lash
Who do we trust with our rights?

Joe Allen
Free speech and the state

Joel Reinstein
Is free speech the issue?

I am aware that this line of reasoning has historically been part of the ISO's political tradition, but I think it's worth reconsideration.

Laws against hate speech may very well be used by the ruling class against the oppressed. But then again, we also know that virtually all laws under capitalism are used against the oppressed, regardless of the conditions of their original promulgation (or if they can't for some reason be used against the oppressed, they are eventually ignored or curtailed). The ruling class does not need to wait for the left to provide them with the opportunity or strength to do so.

In the U.S., for instance, the system of mass incarceration and police repression is constantly being strengthened to immense proportions, but not because the left has been demanding that it crack down harder on corporate criminals, racist institutions or right-wing vigilantes. The ruling class does not need to gain strength from or twist the meaning of hate-crimes legislation advocated by progressives in order to advance its war on Black people and poor people in this country.

Indeed, it is hard to see how calling for the state to repress white supremacist or anti-abortion extremist organizations, for instance, could possibly give it any further license to repress Black people or the left than it already feels empowered to.

To be even more concrete, in relation to the current Black Lives Matter movement, what do we say to those who call for the "killer cops" to be put in jail? What about when the movement called for George Zimmerman to be arrested and jailed for the murder of Trayvon Martin? Or what about calls for the reduction of the size of the police force through mass layoffs? I think it is wrong to oppose such measures on the grounds that this would then empower the state to more freely jail the oppressed or lay off other sectors of public workers. Clearly, these latter things are happening anyway with a vengeance.


TRUE, BANS have to be administered. But all things under capitalism are administered by the capitalist ruling class and its various institutions. Until we can abolish the bourgeois state, and as long as the bulk of the working class still sees it as legitimate, we are compelled to reckon with it. We cannot afford to either abstain from it, or sow illusions in it, but must rather approach each question tactically and on its own terms in relation to what will advance the struggle; that is, the class consciousness and organization of the working class. Appealing to universal "rights" or abstract "principles" cannot alone answer these questions.

We should neither take the stand of some liberals (like the ACLU)--who for the sake of formal consistency actively defend the rights to free speech for both Nazis as well as revolutionary socialists--nor that of some anarchists or libertarians who think they can simply will away the power of the state by consistently ignoring it.

Rather, we understand that in a class society, the extension of rights (in substantive form, rather than merely on paper), is often a zero-sum phenomenon. The right of a worker to a legally enforced living wage necessarily contradicts the right of the capitalist to engage in an unrestricted contractual relationship with a given worker. The right of a woman to be free from sexual harassment at work necessitates the limitation of the rights of her male colleagues or boss to "free speech" when such speech creates a sexually hostile work environment.

Thus, while Lenin argues in the quote included in Chretien and Maass' piece that socialists must push for the maximum possible extension of democratic rights which capitalist society will allow, it is also the case that one of the first acts of the victorious Russian revolution which Lenin helped lead was to abolish the right of the capitalist class or its representatives to vote and to radically curtail their "right" to free speech and assembly.

Of course, there is a world of difference between the bourgeois state under capitalism and a workers' state under socialism.

Nonetheless, it is the case that both are forms and functions of the class struggle. And in that struggle, our side has to be prepared to use every and any means at our disposal to advance the movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority towards the goal of the overthrow and suppression of the capitalist class, and replace it with the democratic rule by the working class.

For only then can we substitute the hypocritical and hollow "universal rights" preached by bourgeois society--not to mention its exploitation, inequality, and violence--for the actual right and ability of the immense majority to enjoy freedom on a scale hitherto unknown in human history.

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