Friday, January 16, 2015

The curious contradictions of censorial socialists, and a few comments about Charlie Hebdo


The history of dictatorship and the history of censorship are one. The dictator's name reveals it: dictators say who may speak. Euripedes understood the oppressive nature of censorship—in The Phoenician Woman, he wrote, “This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.” Tacitus knew the sweetness of free speech—in the Histories, he wrote, “It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.”

The printing press was the first great weapon in the war for free speech. Kings and priests fought it furiously—the English banned the Geneva Bible because its translation was insufficiently deferential to kings. But presses are expensive, and as A. J. Libling noted, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

In 1842, as a young editor battling censorship, Karl Marx wrote, “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. It is a people's frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.”

Marx was not blind to the challenges that come with free speech. He noted, "You cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!"

But he knew those inconveniences are temporary, because free speech is self-correcting. In his words: “The true censorship, based on the very essence of freedom of the press, is criticism. This is the tribunal which freedom of the press gives rise to of itself."

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels called for "Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State." There’s no hint of approval of censorship there—the Manifesto calls for centralizing farms to feed people, not starve them. The internet has given us something like what Marx and Engels imagined, a place where speech is not controlled by the owners of presses.


The history of socialism overlaps three great struggles for equality, one over race (Marx said, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”), one over sex (the socialist Charles Fourier gave feminism its name), and one over speech. The socialist concern for free speech is partly tactical—capitalists have always tried to silence socialists. But the greater concern is the love of human progress. Where there is no debate, ideas are not tested, and science and art grow weak. In the decades after Marx’s paean to the free press, he revised and honed his thoughts, but he never withdrew his support for free speech.

Lenin showed he was Marx’s student when he promised, “Genuine freedom and equality will be embodied in the system which the communists are building and in which there will be no opportunity for amassing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any working man (or groups of working men, in any numbers) for enjoying and practising equal rights in the use of public printing presses and public stocks of paper.”

Mao followed the same reasoning when he said, "Two principles must be observed: (1) say all you know and say it without reserve; (2) Don't blame the speaker but take his words as a warning.  Unless the principle of 'Don't blame the speaker" is observed genuinely and not falsely, the result will not be 'Say all you know and say it without reserve.’"

Criticizing Stalin's censorship, Leon Trotsky said, "...only those blind or simpleminded could think that the workers and peasants could be freed from reactionary ideas by the banning of reactionary press. In fact, it is only the greatest freedom of expression that can create favorable conditions for the advance of the revolutionary movement in the working class."

The United States' most successful socialist politician, Eugene Debs, was imprisoned for a speech in which he announced: “I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.” Debs may have been remembering the words of Oscar Wilde, who wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism, “even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free.”

For Wilde, as for most socialists, the goal of socialism is freeing the human soul everywhere.

But if that’s true, what gave birth to censorial socialists?


The first censorial socialists didn’t understand that the means shape the ends. Given the power to silence their opponents, they censored as gleefully as capitalists and monarchists had. Censorial socialists have always been rebuked by democratic socialists like George Orwell, who knew the right to free speech must include the right to offend. He wrote, "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations,” and “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

A second group of censorial socialists began in the US in the 1970s. Liberal bourgeois thinkers at private schools for the United States’ economic elite like Derrick Bell, father of Critical Race Theory, and KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, coiner of “intersectionality”, promoted identity-based politics as an alternative to socialism's universal approach. Following the tradition of middle-class reformers like Thomas Bowdler and Anthony Comstock and ignoring both science and history, they taught that the right way to fight racism and sexism is by policing language.

Today’s censorial socialists ally with identitarian capitalists by calling for laws against hate crimes and hate speech—to them, an idea is the same as an act. In adopting the identitarian concept of justice, censorial socialists aid the forces they claim to oppose. As David Harvey noted in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, “Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.”


These distinctions play out in the responses of socialists to the Islamist slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, an anti-authoritarian leftist humor magazine that, in the words of Charb, its murdered editor, mocks “priests, rabbis, and imams”.

Some socialists say cartoons mocking Muhammad are racist. They must not see any distinction between Middle-Easterners, a people, and Muslims, a religion, and must not make any distinctions among Muslims—Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, and Salafists are identical to them. They cannot know that The Qu’ran does not forbid depictions of Muhammad or any living thing—only conservative sects believe that's forbidden. They either believe that all Muslims are the same, or that the beliefs of conservative Muslims should trump those of liberal ones.

Some socialists say the European outrage over the massacre is over white people being killed. They must not know that Mustapha Ourrad was one of the murdered Charlie Hebdo workers or that the police victims include Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim, and Clarissa Jean-Philippe, a black woman.

Some socialists say the beliefs of conservative Muslims should be respected because they are the beliefs of the dispossessed. They must not notice that in every ideological war, the fighters in the front lines are poor—American soldiers and Zionist settlers are also among the world's dispossessed. Would those socialists argue that imperialism should be respected for the sake of the poor people who support it? They must not know that Wahhabism is promoted by some of the world’s wealthiest princes and financiers, or that the first great success of the founders of Al Qaeda was overthrowing Afghanistan’s socialist government with the aid of the United States. Like people who say a rape victim’s clothes were too provocative, they insist Charlie Hebdo’s speech was too offensive. It must please them that their allies include rightwing Christian opponents of free speech like Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League.

And some socialists mock the very idea of free speech. They say it is a liberal notion, failing to see any difference between liberal philosophy and liberal capitalism. They recognize that bourgeois free speech, like bourgeois democracy, is run for and by the bourgeoisie, but instead of demanding free speech for all, they petition their bourgeois rulers to ban the speech that offends them. They cannot see a simple truth: Censorship has always been the tool of the oppressor. Free speech is to the tool of the liberator.

ETA: From Political correctness devours its own children | Nick Cohen: Writing from London: "...Trotsky’s warning about the Bolshevik party’s claim that it represented the working class. A rapid descent follows, Trotsky said: “The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”"