Looking closer at free speech

March 15, 2017

Jonah ben Avraham contributes to the discussion on the left and free speech.

IN HIS recent article "Marxism and democracy," Alan Maass weighs in on the ongoing debate on the left surrounding democracy, freedom of speech and our side's strategy in confronting the right wing:

When we challenge the right--whether in protesting the policies and actions of a reactionary government, or in confronting individuals and groups which try to spread right-wing ideas and organize on the basis of them--we want it to be clear that our side is fighting for more democracy.

We can't pin any hopes to some shortcut of getting the "powers that be" to curb the right's influence or stop their actions. We need to defeat the right, politically and organizationally, by winning the majority of people to oppose them.

This argument should, of course, be foundational to any socialist perspective on confronting the right. The state of the bourgeoisie will always, in every instance, use whatever tools it has at its disposal to undermine and push back revolutionary workers' movements. Because of this, when revolutionaries consider relating to the state's repressive capacities, they should always have as their end goal the restriction of those capacities.

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This Leninist theory of the state, however, can only do so much in answering the questions facing our movement today.

While Maass' characterization of the Marxist tradition as a consistently democratic one is a necessary reminder when anarchist parties to this debate have, in pursuing Black Bloc tactics, shown themselves to be fundamentally undemocratic, we must be weary, as Marx argued in his 1844 essay "On the Jewish Question," of conflating the kind of democracy we seek with liberal frameworks overemphasizing negative protections of human rights.

Specifically, a Marxist defense of the freedom of speech will look different from a liberal one, which concerns itself primarily with "respectful debate" and "dialogue." After all, even the actions that Monique Dols points to in her excellent defense of mass mobilizations against the tactics of the Black Bloc defied liberal standards of respect for the right wing's freedom of speech.

In this period characterized by political polarization, it is important that our side not make the mistake of viewing the "powers that be" as our allies in fighting the right. In moments of crisis, capital is willing to turn toward fascism if it means the destruction of socialism.

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But we must also not make the mistake, as many on the liberal left do, of fetishizing the call for freedom of speech for all as if our ideal political outcome is an ongoing, robust debate between socialists and fascists.

Our ultimate goal is to smash fascism, along with capitalism, and build a new world in which racist, sexist and any number of other oppressive conclusions are unthinkable.

Our freedom of speech is a freedom of speech that helps us accomplish that goal.

SO WHAT does a Marxist freedom of speech look like?

For one, as Dols argues, "free speech...guarantees the right to speak without intervention from the state. It doesn't guarantee the right to speak unopposed or uncontested from below."

It is this latter principle that should bring socialists to reject out of hand right-wing narratives about the silencing of free speech on college campuses.

Whether it's the absurd claim that Zionists must keep their Islamophobia to themselves at Columbia University in order to "survive" or the reactionary response to a letter by Yale faculty dissuading students from wearing racist Halloween costumes, the right (as well as segments of the liberal establishment) in recent years has aimed to appropriate progressive language of "inclusion" and "safe spaces" in order to attack anti-racist resistance.

We should unapologetically defend mass protests and social movements that aim to expose racists for what they are, regardless of their complaints of exclusion or failure to engage in "civil dialogue." These arguments are ploys at shutting down our side's right to resist, and have nothing to do with an authentic defense of democracy and speech rights.

The question remains, however, to what extent the freedom of speech that socialists protect is the freedom for the left to speak.

One common answer is "No platform for fascists." Fascists, the argument goes, pose an existential threat to not only the left, but oppressed people, and must therefore be stopped at every turn from having any hearing. By this logic, any action that shuts down the right--be it an individual act of terrorism, the actions of a small clique of anarchists or the mobilization of a large mass of people--is a victory for the left.

There is much to be sympathetic toward in this argument. The thought that "freedom of speech," a right meant to protect the ability of minorities to advocate for themselves even under an unfriendly government, could apply to neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer who openly call for ethnic cleansing is repulsive.

Indeed, as socialists fighting to protect free speech, our task is not to defend hate speech as an act of protected political speech. While liberal organizations like the ACLU may find the most pressing task of the day to be the legal defense of the next KKK rally, we should speak against the right of genocidal speakers or political agents to have their message heard.

Despite our rejection of right-wing speech, however, we must take Maass' argument seriously: The state is not our ally, and any advocacy on our part of the state's right to intervene against the right will only be used against us when the left grows to the point of posing a substantial challenge to the state's power.

Likewise, the argument that we must silence the right by any means necessary fails to account for the fact that we simply don't have the ability to do so.

To engage in adventurist tactics for the sake of shutting down a given speaker, event by event, would not only bring about disastrous repression by the state against our side, but would also turn public opinion squarely against us. The right would gain more of a hearing, not less, and the left would be an even weaker force incapable of fighting back.

Succeeding in silencing a right-wing speaker can be a huge victory for our side. In some cases, like at UC Berkley, it promises to protect vulnerable communities who might be directly endangered by a speaker. In others, it simply allows our side the chance to see our power exercised in a highly visible way and can serve as a lesson for broader and broader layers of people what we can do when we unite in our masses.

But such an act can only be successful on our terms. The tactic of silencing a speaker or shutting down a rally can only be utilized effectively within a broader strategy of mobilizing the greatest number of people possible at every possible juncture.

We are strong enough to be successful and popular enough to sway public opinion only when we embrace the greatest possible degree of collective action.

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