Freedom of Speech

In trying to get speakers for the various Beyond the fringe – The Future of the Left sessions we have drawn criticism about some of the speakers we have invited or faced attempts to prevent others from speaking.

A few comrades have refused to take part in any of the fringe meetings at all because x or y are taking part or speaking. Beyond the fringe -The Future of the Left should stand for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication-a position that stands in direct opposition to arguments justifying restrictions on free speech framed in the language of the Equalities Act and ‘protected characteristics’, or which claim that alleged racists and fascists should be denied freedom of expression.

This general argument is drawn from the long-established traditions of the Labour movement which supports the freest expression and debate, and which opposes all censorship and restrictions, especially when imposed by states and religious authorities.

Although rooted in wider intellectual currents from the Reformation and the Enlightenment onwards, for socialists these arguments against restrictions on expression and publication are not simply about abstract or general freedoms that have been fought for by the Labour movement.

For Marxists in particular unrestricted free speech is central to our political project of the self-emancipation of the working class because our politics require the fullest democracy and freedom to express ideas and disagreements: the struggle against capitalism is necessarily predicated on winning the battle of ideas within the working-class movement itself.

These general arguments would be widely accepted within left politics, but, for us, problems arise with the ‘free speech plus restrictions’ approach that has been adopted by some on the left. The important question is who defines the categories of restriction? Are they based on the’ protected characteristics’ of current law, as defined by the state and its official multiculturalism? Our experience of the ‘anti-semitism’ witch-hunt should alert us to the ways that such categorizations of ‘offence’ and ‘hate’ can be used to silence political opposition to the current status quo. Furthermore, in arguing for restrictions on freedom of expression are we not supporting the right of the state to police political and social debate, or giving institutions the power to ‘cancel’ controversial ideas in the interests of preventing offence and distress to groups with ‘protected characteristics’? In this way we actually help to provide a justification for the very laws, and restrictions that will be directed against us.

The most popular iteration of the ‘free speech, but…’ argument concerns racism and fascism. The idea of ‘no platforming’ racists and fascists has been elevated almost into a principle by many on the left, with the result that, for some, this form of ‘no platforming’ has, in effect, become a call for state bans or other official action. If we leave aside the general principles and the problematic issue of definition that I mentioned above-who defines fascism, for example? -we also need to consider the effectiveness of ‘no platforming’ as a political strategy. Many of the arguments for ‘no platforming’ are either based on an inaccurate understanding of the history of pre-1939 Europe, or on the very different experience of post-war anti-fascist or anti-racist movements. Even during the periods of virtual civil war in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Nazis and Fascists attempted to smash the organized working class, the labour movement did not simply defend itself physically, but also went on the political offensive to undermine support for the right by countering their ideas and fighting for socialism and working-class power. Physical force, whether defensive or offensive is perfectly legitimate as a tactic, but so too is debate and political persuasion that offers an alternative to the dead-end of fascism.

Bigoted and reactionary viewpoints must be fought in the open, not via bureaucratic cancelling, safeguarding or safe spaces policies, or through the revolutionary posturing of ‘no platform for racists and fascists’. We have confidence in our project to win the working class and the oppressed to a movement to overthrow capitalism. Moreover, building such a working-class movement ultimately rests on a battle of ideas, and so the struggle for revolutionary politics is inextricably linked to the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, publication, and organization.