What Socialists say about free expression
The question is not an abstract one—the question comes to the fore in debates about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and the Labour Party, about “no platforming” on university campuses, and about trans rights. A one-size-fits-all answer has to be avoided—concrete circumstances demand concrete answers.
That is because the right to free speech is more complicated than might appear at first sight. For one thing, despite it supposedly being a universal right, the only people who can really exercise it are those who wield power —particularly, the media moguls.
For the vast majority, free speech is a pretty hollow right. That doesn’t make it meaningless. Just as the vote was not grant-ed to us except through past struggle, so too free speech is the product of a long fight by ordinary people to gain a voice—a fight that continues, as we can see in the campaigns for freedom of information—Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Chelsea Man-ning, etc.
What this means is that socialists defend the right of the individual to free speech in its class context. Freedom of expression for a press mogul like Rupert Murdoch is the opportunity to spread lies that serve the interests of the ruling class.
Freedom of expression for our side is a matter of how that right can be used to give a voice to the oppressed and exploited and increase their capacity to resist.
This distinction applies to the argument about whether it is permissible to describe Israel as a racist state. The Labour Party’s adoption of the flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition meant anti-Semitism being con-flated with anti-Zionism.
Critics of Israel in the Labour Party have been witch-hunted as anti-Semites because they dared to criticise the racist nature of the Zionist state and champion Palestinian rights.
This has had ramifications way beyond the Labour Party for anti-racism work—as Ken Loach’s enforced resignation as judge for the Show Racism the Red Card school competition shows.
The demand for free speech is therefore vital in the struggle to prevent the delegitimisation of the Palestinian struggle against imperialism—and against racism more broadly.
The clamping down on real debate about anti-Semitism and Zionism has opened up attacks on Muslims. This is clear from reactions to the suspension of Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, from membership of the Labour Party over remarks about UK Muslims being “a nation within a nation” and how few of them wore Remem-brance Day poppies.
Phillips has denied being Islamophobic, but as Lady Warsi (former Conservative party chair!) has correctly pointed out, he “cannot treat Muslims as a homogenised group when it suits him, then later deny they are racialised”.
Yet the way his suspension has been criticised by leading Labour right wingers has served to minimise the gravity of the charges against Phillips.
The Daily Telegraph claimed that their criticisms are echoed in its report of what a Labour official was reported as saying: “Anti-Semite or racist: very hard to be suspended. Critical of Jeremy Corbyn or Jennie [Formby, then Labour General Secretary]: swift suspension or expulsion.”
And Phillips himself was surprised, he told BBC Today, that a democratic party could not have “a healthy debate about how we address differences of values and outlook”—a debate he and his backers deny in respect of Zionism, racism and the Israeli state.
In effect, then, “free speech” is invoked to legitimate Islamophobic remarks. A much worse example can be seen in respect of Noah Carl, a researcher who was appointed in 2019 to a post at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.
But it turned out that his research was far from academically respectable. It eventually came to light that he had attended the secretly-run London Conference on Intelligence in 2017.
Previous attendees had included an unapologetic eugenicist and an advocate of child rape, and as the science writer and broadcaster, Adam Rutherford, pointed out in the Guardian, it was clear that “pseudoscientific nonsense was being discussed” on matters of race and intelligence.
Such was the protest over the revelation that the college terminated his appointment. Carl’s main defence was, as he put it in his paper on race, genes and IQ, that “stifling debate around taboo topics can itself do active harm”.
He even had the nerve to quote (but misspell the name of) the great black anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass, on the subject of free speech.
Following his dismissal, Carl became a cause celebre for the right, a supposed victim of unthinking and prejudiced academics. An opinion piece in The Spectator magazine accused the Master of St Edmund’s College of “jettisoning academic freedom for the sake of the affected feelings of an outraged mob.”
Support also came from Toby Young, head of the government-backed New Schools Network, and from a leading article in the Times, “which described Carl as the latest victim of the authoritarian Left.”
Free speech has become a rallying cry for sections of the right that want to normalise racism and paint anti-racism as un-democratic and dictatorial. This has become a real issue in some colleges and universities, where “free speech” is being used to gain a platform for reactionary politics, not only in respect of ethnic minorities, but in respect of women, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Quite rightly, the left has to campaign to remove such noxious individuals and stop “free speech” societies, primarily through mass campaigning. But this raises the question of “no platforming”—stopping individuals from speaking at college meetings and conferences to which they have been invited.
This is a tactic that cannot be used indiscriminately—it must only be applied to fascists, not to reactionaries we dislike.
This is for good reason. Fascists are distinguishable from other far right forces not necessarily in terms of their ideas. The ideological lines can be very blurred—classic anti-Semitic tropes are now routinely repeated by politicians from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban.
What distinguishes fascists is their aim of building an extra-parliamentary street fighting force capable of smashing all forms of democracy. If they resort to “peaceful” methods it is only as a means to that end.
To allow them the right to debate is to strengthen their ability to terrorise their opponents—particularly minorities and the left. No platforming of fascists is there-fore absolutely correct.
This is, of course, an infringement of the right to free speech. For some, this is never permissible. Forty years ago, the distin-guished linguist and libertarian, Noam Chomsky, defended the French Holocaust revisionist,
Robert Faurisson, on the Voltaire-an grounds that “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” and de-nounced “the shameful campaign to silence him.”
Chomsky seemed unable to see the danger this posed in giving respectability to the growing forces of French fascism, whose then leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was to dismiss the gas chambers as a mere detail of history. Context is the critical factor.
Voltaire’s plea was progressive when Enlightenment thinkers were attempting to break the ideological monopoly of feudalism.
It is not a progressive demand when used by those who would destroy freedom of speech—and it is possible to win most people to this position, if only on the common sense grounds that individuals cannot exercise their right to free speech if by so doing it endangers others.
But “no platforming” loses its rationale when applied more generally to holders of reactionary beliefs—especially, if used to attempt to settle differences in the movement.
For that reason it is wrong to target trans critical feminists in this way. Offensive, wrong and reactionary as their arguments may be, they are not fascists, nor an existential threat to the movement.
We don’t want them to shelter behind accusations of persecution. We want instead to win the argument in open debate—as it has occurred in the National Education Union, and other unions—and thereby win commitment to having trans rights respected and campaigned for.
Any suggestion, therefore, that trans critical activists should be denied a voice is counter-productive.