What do socialists say? 

The first thing to note in any discussion of any of the bourgeois freedoms, including freedom of speech, are their relative and highly conditional natures. Any freedom is entirely relative to the social conditions of its populace. For example, an unfettered freedom to act would allow one to murder one’s neighbour on a whim. This would clearly be both unacceptable and highly destructive to social order of any kind. Therefore the freedom to act is taken as limited and is mediated and restricted by the social cement of its parent social organism. Any other course of action would lead, not to freedom, but to barbarism.

This is so obvious that it will not occur to people that their freedom is in any way compromised. Their individual freedom is subordinate to, indeed defined by, their membership of a social group. This is true of all freedoms: it is not, for example, acceptable for freedom of speech to be used for the conscious organisation of physical harm to an innocent fellow human. Of which, more later…..

In addition to the social mediation of freedom, there exists extreme conditionality in the exercise of said freedom, or, rather, freedoms. The (mediated) freedom of speech, for example, is subject to enormous variations in its exercise primarily down to class. The “right” to freedom of speech is technically the same for me as for Rupert Murdoch. Rupert however has a social standing that dramatically increases the credibility of what he says and his several billion pounds/dollars/renminbi etc ensure that his freedom of speech is much louder than mine!

One of the main organs of state power, the Police, is almost solely concerned with the forcible restriction of some people’s freedom to speak and to act in favour of a small elite at the very pinnacle of the social heap. Events like Hillsborough and Orgreave have shown the class bias of police actions in support of the institutions and the wealthy. History is positively stuffed with instances of the forcible, and entirely legal, detention of dissenters. Pacifists have been detained, and even executed in time of war in a country, Britain, supposedly built on the principle of inalienable freedoms, including freedom of speech.

Clearly, the more autocratic and authoritarian a state is, the more social limitation on democratic freedoms exists. An authoritarian state will not merely limit freedom for the preservation of social order, but will do so to limit dissent and/or resistance.

Socialists have no interest in the disintegration of civil society. The social mediation of freedom is a requirement for a genuinely free society. However, socialism is deeply threatened by the quite different exercise of authoritarian state power using the social mediation of freedom to undermine the exercise of those freedoms. Socialism – the collective exercise of social equality, what Marx called “social democracy” – has am implicit interest in the maximum degree of freedom ( including freedom of speech)that is compatible with the maintenance of civil society. This does not, however, mean the passive acceptance of bourgeois ideology, of the absolute sanctity of freedom of speech.

As Karl Marx explained, the ruling ideas and concepts (ideology) of any epoch are those of its ruling class. As the capitalist class was once a revolutionary class (English and French Revolutions, the US Revolution and Civil War) it was forced to promote certain values in order to attract the majority, non-capitalist class to its support, to give it a veneer of universality. Liberty of thought and dissent were two such values. In its reactionary dotage, capitalism is trying to strip the revolutionary core from such values to undermine their threat to the orthodoxy of a degenerate system. Therefore socialists must defend freedoms, especially freedom of speech, except in cases where capitalism is using such freedoms to undermine the revolutionary core of its own ideology. There is one particular and specific instance where capitalism uses freedom in order to destroy freedom, freedom of speech to destroy freedom of speech. 

Fascism is a feature of capitalism in crisis. It represents the last ditch defense of almost overrun positions. Capitalists do not like fascism: it is altogether too blunt an instrument and sacrifices too much of their personal freedom. It restricts the labour market excessively. But they will support, and even sponsor, it if their fundamental existence feels threatened. In the 1930s, the fear of capitalists was much exercised by the, ultimately unsuccessful, German revolutionary wave of 1919 – 1923. This mortal fear of revolution spurred the capitalists to heavily bankroll the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) and (1) play on the fears of the desperate middle class; and (2) facilitate the building of a mass strike-breaking and anti-communist street army. Let it also be remembered that Hitler became Reichskanzler through an alliance of right-wing Tory parties, not by winning an election. Once installed, Hetler dissolved and arrested the socialist and communist parties. Then he disbanded all other parties and organisations. Any potential organisational opponent was liquidated, all freedoms suspended. Fascism could not tolerate any rights or freedoms in its bid to dismantle the power of the working class.

Socialists, therefore, do NOT tolerate freedom of speech or organisation for fascism. This is not just a theoretical position: we have experienced the result of allowing fascism to use freedom, especially of speech, to undermine and destroy freedom itself. The result was millions of deaths, a punishing war and the near-genocide of the Jewish and  Roma peoples. “No Platform” is a specific denial of freedom of speech to fascists. To misuse it is to risk losing its validity as an anti-fascist weapon. This is not to say we abandon protesting at the meetings of Tories and bigots: protest is an entirely legitimate exercise of the freedom of speech. But we should not attempt to shut down the right to speak in the same way that we should would do against those who use freedom to destroy freedom itself.  

Tim Nicholls