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Whose Speech and For Whom?

Recently, after having to reread and discuss Nadine Strossen's Hate Speech and Pornography for a class I teach, I was reminded again of the idiotic liberal obsession with "free speech".  Strossen, champion of the ACLU, is a particular example of this idiocy; her supposedly clever arguments paradigmatic of the logic employed by every liberal raving about the highest good of "free speech" and the terrible evil of censorship.  It is not hard to get the impression that, in the liberal moral universe, censorship is more evil than allowing people to starve because they cannot afford food.  This is because, in the liberal view of things, society progresses because of the supposed "openness" of a Millsian marketplace of ideas––just like capitalism and its invisible hand!

The aforementioned Strossen article is an excellent example of liberal "free speech" nonsense because the ACLU, of which Strossen is merely an ideologue, is a joke of an organization that, under the auspices of being progressive, has defended Nazis, misogynists, Zionists, and a myriad array of ruling class scum.  At the same time, in its quest to champion the right of the powerful and bigoted to express themselves, the ACLU has also managed to suppress the speech/expression of grass-roots progressive organizations that they've dubbed "anti-free speech".  Indeed, they had no problem allowing wealthy pornographers to employ their lawyers and ideologues, ruining the lives of innumerable working-class women organizers in the process, because the greatest good of "free speech" was on the line.  So too have they defended neo-nazis, imagining that the defense of free speech will make everyone's lives better even though some people are still shot trying to cross the border.  Hell, it even expelled communists from its ranks: guess those communists in the 1940s, as opposed to neo-nazis, don't have the right to freedom of expression!  And of course the ACLU has done a good job defending bourgeois liberty rights (i.e. such as their campaigns in defense of gay rights), but because it is an organization primarily caught within the terrain of "bourgeois liberty" it is still defined by all the contradictions of this liberty.

But once you define liberal free speech as the highest good you can promote innumerable innaccuracies and warped views of reality.  Take, for example, Strossen's belief that the Civil Rights movement was won because of the right of free speech.  Oh no, it wasn't people dying on the streets because they weren't considered to be agents worthy of free expression and so society had to be forced to consider them as humans in the first place; it wasn't the warzone of the South's experience of the Civil Rights movement where armed defense groups beat back KKK lynch-mobs with guns.  No: according to Strossen, the legal tactic of attempting to use free speech laws here and there to support the movement––a course of action that even the pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. eventually realized was a problem and thus alienated all his free-speech loving white allies––was the predominant strategy!  Or take her bizarre claims about Canada's hate speech laws (i.e. the Keegstra ruling): according to her view of the world, hate speech laws have turned Canada into a censorious state and we are regularly banning books we find hateful, even books by bell hooks!  (We aren't, actually, and the majority of her cited examples [and it is interesting to note that she cites herself in this article] are not true.)

Interestingly enough, America, despite its lack of hate speech laws or half-baked attempts to penalize misogynist pornography (i.e. Canada's Butler ruling which is admittedly a rather stupid and ultimately homophobic decision), is more of a censorious state than Canada or the other nations Strossen feels are infringing on civil liberties.  Thing is, up here in Canada we don't have the problem of special interest groups removing books from public libraries and schools on a weekly basis (though we do have other problems, also connected with the biggest problem of Capitalism), and our hate speech laws, because of the liberal manner in which they are cast, are somewhat toothless.  Indeed, Canada's supposedly super-censorious hate speech laws came to the attention of American liberals again when Anne Coulter was prevented from speaking on a university campus.  It was hilarious to hear a neo-con whose entire agenda is about terminating the freedom of every oppressed group in existence complain about the violation of her free speech––especially when Coulter, conservative that she is, probably hates the liberals and their beloved free speech (this is because reactionaries are reactionary because their ideology really belongs in a pre-capitalist and feudal era)––but make this complaint on a public Canadian television show.  And even the host, himself a repellant Canadian conservative, pointed out the contradiction; hell, he even argued that Canada permits more freedom of expression in general by informing Coulter that Canadians possessed access to both Fox News and Al-Jazeerah… ironically, just after babbling about how much better America was because of its First Amendment, she decided she wasn't very happy that Canada permitted Al-Jazeerah to broadcast.

In any case, all of this free-speech-is-the-highest-good liberal garbage is something I've found repellant for a very long time.  As a communist I don't care about the supposed "free speech" of reactionaries: in a revolutionary situation, many of the committed reactionaries who want to protect their hate speech will get themselves killed fighting on the side of the ruling class; the rest should be forced into reeducation programs.  This is just the logic of class truth, a logic that should echo the logical context of other historical truths: we don't allow astrologers to teach in astronomy departments at universities, after all, so why should we allow counter-revolutionaries any autonomy in revolutionary spaces?  Indeed, religious fundamentalists are trying to argue that biology departments are engaging in censorship and violation of free speech by refusing to teach six-day creationism in university classes… but we should understand that this is bullshit (I would hope) because science departments have no business teaching theories that are known to be scientifically wrong––might as well argue Biology should be teaching phrenology!  And this is why the free speech of reactionaries to be reactionaries should be suppressed: because, according to revolutionary ethics, it is wrong.

And because I'm a communist, who has no patience for liberal notions of free speech, I have little tolerance for the liberals who have wandered unto this blog, or unto other leftist blogs and websites, in order to complain about "censorship" when they are moderated for spouting counter-revolutionary garbage.  First of all, the very idea that they are being "censored" in tiny corners of the internet when they can air their status-quo beliefs almost everywhere else, and their beliefs are the beliefs promoted by capitalism, is logically non-sensical––it's a bit like complaining that you're being censored in a university mathematics class for yelling from the back of the classroom, ad infinitum, that you hate mathematics and no one else should take the class.  Secondly, the fact that they cling to the idea of bourgeois free speech as the highest good (otherwise you're a totalitarian, hahaha, take that commie bastard!), and that we might learn something by arguing with morons who aren't even going to listen to rational debate because they're just there to troll, demonstrates the limited level of their consciousness: the fact that you're complaining about your free speech when you're spouting chauvinist garbage (all of which means the reduction of freedom for real people in the real world while you continue to live your most probably privileged life) is laughable.

But unfortunately, and indeed very sadly, the deification of liberal free speech ideology has infected even the left.  Sometimes people who are called on their oppressive behaviour in leftist spaces and forums respond by summoning the liberal spectre of free speech.  Even worse, leftist movements who have experienced some form of state censorship degenerate by making the issue of censorship, rather than the political reasons behind the censorship, their activist priority.

The communist position, however, should be based on this question: who's free speech and for whom?  There is no freedom and no speech that is outside of class struggle.  To demand the freedom of the oppressed and global majority is to demand the removal of the freedom of the oppressor to oppress; to demand the free expression of the oppressed classes is to also demand the suppression of reactionary anti-person "free" expression.

This question should force us to realize that the liberal terms of free speech are already loaded.  Despite the supposed universality of this "greatest good", despite all the claims about a beautiful marketplace of ideas, the speech that is valorized and that has the most autonomy and hegemony in this society is the speech that amounts to the ruling ideas of the ruling class.  And if this speech as incorporated some ideas of equality and anti-chauvinism it is because of real and concrete struggles to force this speech into public consciousness––not because someone from an oppressed minority went into a chauvinist court one day, said "hey my free speech is being violated", and was rubber-stamped to free expression because of the bloody First Amendment.  Reactionaries may chomp at the bit of liberal restraint, but this is just because they are behind the times and are trying to pull capitalism back into fascist capitalist monolithism––an attempt, to be fair, that is always more visceral at times of crisis when capitalist states need to close ranks and promote austerity.

And this question should force us to think again of the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat" that was theorized in Lenin's State and Revolution, as well as the current "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" that defines the limits of our existence.  The latter, after all, currently sets the terms for free speech, decides what speech counts the most and should be accepted as the most popular, whereas the former will reverse these terms.  The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie forces us to accept the ruling ideas of the ruling class as common sense, suppressing challenges to this status quo by the "consensus" arm of hegemony: you have the right to say what you want as long as it doesn't get in our way, and we have the right to ridicule your ideas and prevent mass dissemination––we can even have our most reactionary agents pull your books from our public libraries, or have you removed from your university jobs!  And so the dictatorship of the proletariat should possess the same class awareness: suppress reactionaries, promote the ruling ideas of the ruling proletariat class, and work hard to enforce consent to a proletarian, rather than bourgeois, hegemony.  Whose speech and for whom: under capitalism we should understand that the speech on behalf of the bourgeoisie possesses the most autonomy; those instances that poke holes in this hegemony are due to class struggle.  Whose speech and for whom: under socialism we should understand that speech on behalf of the proletariat should possess the most autonomy, and we need to begin by enforcing a form of censorship similar to the form used by the bourgeoisie when it first came to power.

Indeed, bourgeois political revolutions were initially defined by the suppression of feudal ideology (i.e. the Terrors)… and then, when this ideology began to adapt itself to capitalism, by the suppression of proletarian ideology (i.e. the Property Defense League).  The fact that it pretends it is beyond censorship now––and the fact that the principal imperialist nation likes to imagine it is the most non-censorious––is nothing more than vanity.  For when we ask "who's speech and for whom" we realize that the speech of those who actually challenge the interests of normative class power is far more tenuous than those who embrace business and usual.  And this question should not lead us to wonder how we can make our speech more acceptable for the people in power––how we can be normalized––but how we can make our speech common sense.

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  1. While I think your criticisms of the contradictions of (liberal) free speech are interesting, I think some of your speculations regarding ideal speech laws under a hypothetical dictatorship of the proletariat tend to beg the question re: "proletarian speech." That is, I think you assume that all speech has an explicit class character which can be easily identified, and the speech of the class enemy can therefore be excluded without harming the free expression and development of "proletarian speech." I'm not saying that there is no basis for distinction; I'm saying that the line emerges out of debate and conflict, so we should work to remove the liberal distortions of free speech that prevent this conflict rather than trying to mirror those distortions.

    Also, the analogy with scientific discourse may not be entirely relevant here because, for one thing, while non-scientific discourse may not be legitimate in academic journals or biology classrooms, that doesn't mean non-scientific discourses are _inherently_ illegitimate and should be censored in all social contexts.

    1. Hi Jude,

      Thanks for these comments. I agree with your first paragraph and would argue that I wasn't setting forth a prescription for "proletarian speech" but just talking about how the bourgeois needed to be suppressed under a DoP in broad-brushstrokes. Originally I had intended to explain this in more detail, and with much more nuance, especially in light of real attempts to empower speech from below as opposed to simply stifle repellant anti-person speech. There are some interesting historical moments that reveal all the contradictory attempts of this problem that are worth investigating but this article, which was not meant to focus on the prescriptive moment but more on why the liberal notion of free speech should be rejected, was already getting too long as it was.

      The argument is not that we can easily tell how spoken claims/expressions are either proletarian and/or bourgeois, but just that there is *no* such thing as some "free speech" that is morally good in and of itself. Figuring out how to assess this and approach this is difficult, I agree, but the point is that anti-censorship ideology is not always a revolutionary position.

      Moreover, the argument about scientific discourse was an analogy about context. In the context of leftist spaces, for example, should be allowing anti-leftist ideology on the basis of "free speech"? No... And in fact, when people complain about censorship when they are told to screw-off from these spaces because of their hate/oppressive speech, the point you made actually stands: they aren't being "censored" because they can say what they want elsewhere. But for the broader context of a revolutionary society, where we want to establish a better world on the basis that all forms of oppression and exploitation are wrong, then any pro-exploitative and pro-oppressive ideas should be excluded in the same way that phrenology is excluded from a biology class: because it is WRONG and backwards and has no place anywhere except to lead people back to exploitation and oppression. This is why the class struggle in the realm of ideology under socialism is such a compelling idea for me... But again, how is that properly accomplished? This is a larger problem.

  2. May I link this in the policy section of our subreddit? This is good and I'm tired of arguing against free speech and I just want to have a handy link. Your call.

    1. You don't even need to ask, comrade. Link away.

  3. Shouldn't we as anti-revisionists start taking a stronger anti-censorship, pro-"free speech" ideology? Not because of a "right" or because reactionaries deserve a fair hearing, but because it's useful in the maintenance of socialism?

    Was Trotsky better defeated because Soviet leaders were refuting books Soviet citizens weren't allowed to read? And when our ideology not just recognizes but proclaims that the party can turn revisionist, can destroy socialism, that the bureaucracy and state can be turned from within to destroy socialism... wouldn't it be better to not censor the press, books, internet, etc?

    The same tools, laws, and norms that allowed the censorship of Trotsky or whites were later used to censor Mao and other true revolutionaries after capitalism was restored. You can read books by Progress Publishers attacking Mao where the quotes from Mao are just taken from quotes in Pravda. Because his books were banned. Because the new censors decided he was a counterrevolutionary.

    If the Soviet Union had no or virtually no government censorship of speech and press, would the reactionaries really have destroyed the revolution with easily refuted books? Wouldn't the people support the revolution all the more if they could wrestle with terribly wrong ideas themselves and reject them? And if the Soviets abided liberal notions of free speech, could the leaders have dismantled socialism and ideologically disarmed every true communist in the last thirty years of the USSR?

    If the state is revolutionary and censors the counter revolution, this is fine. But we know a revolutionary state can become a reactionary capitalist social-imperialist state. And if that turn happens, the revisionists inherit an incredible ability to censor every real revolutionary. How can we prevent capitalist restoration when no one can speak up? Even in wrong turns of policy - wouldn't the 1930s great retreat have been better if Soviet citizens could read the essays at least by foreign communists supporting gay rights and abortion rights instead of just a hateful screed by Gorky in the papers?

    And in the Internet age especially doesn't censorship just make enemies out of our supporters? All us communists in the west have read tonnes of horrible books and reject them. Knowing what we reject through direct engagement has steeled our socialist consciousness and armed us to fight reactionaries. Before WWII, Stalin handed out translations of Hitler's book Mein Kampf to the Politburo. They didn't become fascists. Would most Soviet citizens read that book and become Nazis, or come away with a greater hatred and understanding of the enemy? How can you know what's right when you've never seen what's wrong?

    Isn't what's important not the right to speak - but the right to hear?


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