Why the left needs free speech
August 17, 2022
Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg addressing a crowd during the International Socialist Congress, Stuttgart 1907

“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game..Free speech is life itself.” –Salman Rushdie

“I’m neither left or right. I’m just staying home tonight,” –Leonard Cohen

The Stepford Wives was a movie that came out in 1972 and might not be very well remembered today but which nonetheless contributed a useful metaphor for describing certain aspects of our society. Briefly, the Stepford Wives were the possessed and submissive versions of their original human selves, surreptitiously transformed one by one and reappearing as empty husks of what they had once been.

Stepford Wife also describes what is commonly referred to as ‘the left’ in today’s discourse. This left has been hijacked by power; it’s the Stepford Wife of political ideologies, a possessed husk of what it once was.

“The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form.” – Karl Marx

Since the 19th century, free speech has been the essential beating heart of what we have come to call the left. Free speech nourished the critical thinking and vision of that ideology.

“…left-wing rejection of free expression ultimately demonstrates a lack of faith in the power of our own beliefs, as it is the person who cannot win an argument that seeks to prevent one.” –Freddie deBoer

When the principle of free speech is betrayed–as it was in the totalitarian Soviet Union–or abandoned as it is today, the result is an ideology that has become the submissive enabler of everything it has always sought to reject.

What is the left?

Traditionally, being leftist meant criticizing class inequality, worker exploitation, the indignity of capitalism and the profit motive. The ideological parents of the left were concerned with class, internationalism, anti-capitalism, social justice, and wealth redistribution. They were deeply anti-authoritarian.

Leftists used free speech to inspire activists at the center of all the great social movements of change since the Industrial Revolution. The left was prominent in battles for worker’s rights, women’s rights, and against class oppression, corporate monopoly, slavery, colonialism and racial injustice.

“The right of free speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed” –Frederick Douglass

In Europe, leftists challenged monarchy, religious hierarchy and the oppressive grip of an entrenched aristocracy. In the U.S., leftist ideology fueled the battles for unionizing the workplace, the Civil Rights movement and anti-war dissent from WW1 through Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the Bush presidency, the left was skeptical of the growing and unprecedented power of the chief executive. It was watchful and critical of the state and its ability to imprison without explanation and wage war without oversight. The left was outraged by the massive consolidation of technology companies and the financial industry and their growing ability to purchase politicians and write their own laws.

“Freedom of speech is the freedom to promulgate and spread the progressive ideas that I believe have allowed our society to grow; that freedom, however, cannot be limited only to those who express progressive views” – Ira Glasser

The left is a big tent, but it must include belief in free speech

We won’t try to define any particular brand of leftism except in the broadest possible terms and to say that there is one essential ingredient that it must include: free speech.

Today’s left serves rather than challenges power

Leftist analysis of capitalism, which once centered around class, has been rejected in favor of identity politics. Speech is conflated with violence, and punishment is swift for those who use words deemed to cause harm or offense.

To be ‘right-wing’ or to have ‘right-wing ideas’ has been defined so broadly that it has become meaningless. When you call everyone who strays from your approved speech a fascist or a Nazi, what language do you have to identify real fascists when they appear?

When every single element of the oligarchy that rules us–Wall Street, the defense industry, hedge fund giants, tech companies, and the security state– all loudly support your demands for racial justice and the use of inoffensive language, can you really continue to believe that they feel in any way threatened by your ideology? In what way are you challenging power?

“Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.” -Rosa Luxemburg

In spite of the fact that Karl Popper and the Paradox of Tolerance has become a mantra of the liberal-left, policing “harmful” wrong-speech does not prevent the rise of intolerance and fascism. It didn’t work when Weimar Germany tried to suppress Nazi speech and even shut down Nazi newspapers and jailed their leaders. Their efforts to censor made the fascist ideology all the more interesting and popular. This same dynamic is true in present day Germany and France; both make full use of hate speech laws to suppress intolerance and deprive the ‘far right’ of a platform. The result has been a steady rise in the power and influence of far-right ideology in both of these countries.

As Marx put it, “In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter..is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers.”

The left today is in an existential moment. It must shake off this Stockholm syndrome posing as a political movement or it will have suffered total defeat.

The first step is to stand up once again–for free speech.

 

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