Who is there in the world today that is educated and would dare say they do not believe in or stand by free speech? It is a truism nowadays that free speech is a fundamental aspect of liberty, an undeniable piece of pluralist democracy. Within the socialist camp there are also many that believe that speech must never be abrogated. I stand against this position for free speech, not on grounds that it is naïve or wrong, but on grounds that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what speech itself entails. The misunderstanding of free speech stems from the common lack of questioning the intended purpose of speech and its relation towards the concept of free speech.
What is free speech? It’s the right to say whatever you want without anyone, government or individuals, silencing you. Speech is just words after all, and words are just hot air, not actions. Why should mere words be feared by anyone? There is something funny about free speech, and that is that if free speech is speech without censorship this only realistically applies as a guarantee for speech with content which would give reason for someone to silence it with none to defend it, i.e. unpopular speech and speech that challenges positions of power. As Chomsky rightly states, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in at all.” Free speech is a guarantee towards the speech of those in some sort of minority by its very concept. Were everyone to merely speak things that were already acceptable there would be no necessity for the concept of free speech.
A question should be raised: what is speech and what is it for? Isn’t speech for the purpose of communication, and isn’t communication for the practical effect of conveying meaning, to share information of experience, and for understanding and moving others to action in some way? It is true that many people speak a lot without saying much, but this empty speech is not a kind which meets censorship, nor would anyone who listens really notice a qualitative difference if it was silenced. Speech, being a social activity with the aim of causing some social reaction beyond acknowledging you expelled air from your lungs, thus has a peculiar position with regards to its social freedom. This peculiar position of speech in its activity and in its purpose creates a contradiction in the very idea of free speech. What is this contradiction?
The contradiction of free speech is that the speech which it concerns is always subversive speech, speech which aims at the changing of the status quo towards its dissolution, yet the very possibility of the appearance of such speech is premised on the powerlessness of that speech to fulfill its purpose of conveying the meaning which causes action. Under states, and one could arguably extend this to society as such, subversive speech is free only because it fails to be fulfil the purpose of speech, to get a message through and move others to action. Society, as it exists as a norm of cultural and material life amongst a people, inherently is anti-free speech in that society naturally creates a bulwark for itself in individuals through internalization of an ideology that blocks such subversive messages from getting through under normal conditions. Those on the fringes, the outcasts and would be radicals, may be tolerated in their activities and speech only on the condition that they do not spread their way of life and beliefs, that is, only on the condition that they remove themselves from society altogether. It is for this reason that even peaceful attempts to shift the status quo ‘forward’ can and will be stopped if this ‘forward’ happens to be at fundamental odds with the structures of social power. No state that is a true state will suffer to allow activities that lead to its own dissolution. No group with a grip on power to shape social direction will suffer a counter ideology to impinge on its hegemony. Speech with content against the status quo is only allowed in two instances: when it is so unpopular as to be powerless due to hegemonic ideology or perceived unreality of means to goals (the case of communism today), and when the content of the speech is already in the process of being coopted away from its radical aims and being integrated into the standard hegemonic ideological framework (feminism, anti-racism, socialism). When speech does not meet these requirements it does not necessarily fall to the state to silence, groups of people whose identity is so intertwined with the normal ideology themselves will ensure to silence such speech through illegal, often brutal, means which the state willingly overlooks.
One does not have to look exclusively towards class relations in order to see the contradiction of free speech. The modern LGBT movement is an example of the way speech ceases to need to call for itself free speech. The LGBT movement in its initial days in the 60s and 70s was a minority movement with minority support. In as far as the movement needed to claim free speech for itself it was only because the movement’s speech was already unfree. Not only were they censored through ignorance, they were actively brutally silenced. Why? Because of the sex phobia and homophobia of Christianity, the overwhelming majority religion in the western world. To allow the LGBT community to openly speak its case was tantamount to acknowledging the end of Christian morality as an integral part of society and to deny the church power over social norms. Christian hegemony would not allow itself to be subverted by the possible encroachment of atheistic and seemingly amoral ideas that would make its biggest direct political power source dry up. The sexual revolution was already tearing down the dominance of old Christianity, and the move to accept the LGBT community would only lead to a further loss of power. Even as the LGBT movement gained legal victories and protections groups of fundamentalists would take it upon themselves to brutally silence not just the speech of the movement, but its very existence, all with the government turning a blind eye to the injustices committed. When in the last ten years the LGBT movement finally got its message across and began to be coopted by the structures of political and social power, the notion of free speech is not to point to as the reason for its success. Quite the contrary, it is the long struggle of the movement that finally won for itself the right of speech through the reality of the power of its speech. The price of this victory, however, has been that the revolutionary roots of the movement were ripped away from it and transplanted unto liberal soil through cooption. What was once a movement of free love, anti-marriage, anti-capitalism, anti-gender, now has become coopted into the fold. They demand the right to marry, they demand a right to be able to enjoy their capitalist wealth, and they revel in their joining the fold of the normal capitalist and monogamist norms.
An example of this can be seen in the capitalist centers of imperialism. One is allowed to be a communist today, to engage in communist theorizing and group activities, to attempt to engage in discourse with the rest of society, only because it is clear to the powers that be that this speech does not carry a content that will lead to its intended purpose of ending the status quo. The content of communist speech, of anti-state and anti-capitalist aims, are so thoroughly seen as unrealistic even if desirable, or are plain loathed due to the internalized ideology of liberalism, that the powers that be have no fear to let communists speak for they are convinced they shall accomplish nothing even if they gain some followers towards their ideas, and the capitalists have been right. This veneer of free speech is one of the most powerful boons of capitalist ideology to itself: to claim its unfreedom as freedom and have even its enemies believe it. The powers that be have learned valuable lessons about human individual and mass psychology, have learned that to give crumbs to the hungry staves off revolution, and that to give free speech to its enemies staves off real subversive activities as they spend their time belching hot air that means nothing to no one. It is a sad irony that the Left does not realize that they’ve been bought off by spooks that only work to make themselves feel free because they can appear to be so even though they are not. The worker appears free, but the reality is that they are not. This is an old game by now, and the Left plays into it worse today than ever.
This is, of course, the case so long as capitalism’s hegemony remains unthinkable to challenge for the common person who sees the problems as just a temporary hiccup. As a history of labor movements show, when people begin to become receptive to the message of the content of radical communist speech, when there begins to be a real movement, real action that begins change generated by this message, then the curtain of free speech falls and reveals its empty reality. Free speech is shown to exist as a veneer that hides the unreality of its speech. The concept of free speech as a legal protection exists only because the purpose of speech itself is already dead and illegal for those who claim it. You may openly say, “I’d kill our president to end the wars he’s maintaining” only because you actually won’t, and no one else will either.
A good analogy for speech is the oxymoron of legal protests. The aim of protests is to get a message across to not just those in power, but to others in society who ignore one’s plight. The way this is accomplished most successfully is through coordinated disruption of everyday life. Nothing gets someone who doesn’t care about one’s problems to listen better than inconveniencing them to the point that they cannot ignore it anymore. When the state sanctions your mass demonstrations in order to keep ‘order’ and ‘safety’, your action becomes powerless, it loses the power of the form of protest. Legal protests accomplish nothing precisely because they lack the disruptive power of protest. It does not matter that a thousand people marched down a closed road with signs and chants when no one who hasn’t heard the message was there. Likewise, it does not matter that you can speak freely when the designated area of free speech is on the outskirts of the university campus, and it does not matter that you can say whatever you like when whatever you say wasn’t of interest to anyone anyway. You can call for the downfall of the government, the death of a government leader, the lynching of bankers, the outlawing of religion, etc. even though very few agree with you, or even when many do. Why? Because your speech carries no power, no capacity to actually make what you call for happen. The moment your speech has power is the moment you find that you no longer have free speech, you violate the agreement: Speak all you like, but only so long as you don’t say anything meaningful to rock the balance of the boat of power.
What does this have to do with socialism? It has to do with the necessity of understanding that free speech in socialist society functions under the same rule as capitalist society: the minority that is the enemy may speak so long as they say nothing of consequence. Censorship as silencing is a political tool used by not just class domination, but all group domination, to ensure the survival of hegemony in periods of critical weakness. To call for free speech without holds in the socialist revolutionary period of social transformation is to call for the freedom of the enemy to engage movements against the transition. It is an overly idealistic view which thinks that the people cannot be turned against their own interests with a silver tongue and convenient failures that may be the cause of sabotage. The enemy, being in the minority of power and populace in the revolution, is the only one to gain from free speech in the revolutionary period. Communism is an idea with a precarious position in its historical unfolding. In the materialist understanding of communism, there is a necessity of a very self-conscious commandeering of community by the community, and to allow counter hegemonic ideologies fundamentally at odds with communist aims to thrive in the critical period is to add further unnecessary uncertainty to the project of realizing human freedom through rational economic planning and rational social shaping.
To be against free speech is not to be against the speech of the working class and the irrationally suppressed or exploited. Speech is the won right of the workers in and through the struggle of the revolution and its transformative period. Just as capitalism allows a multitude of parties and flavors of capitalism to coexist insofar as none violate the fundamental mode of capital, so too can socialism allow a flourishing of socialist parties and groups insofar as they do not violate the fundamental mode of social production. But what about socialism and the speech of the unfairly oppressed? To that it must be said that speech must struggle, and it is in being real speech struggling against the norm that it finds its eventual social recognition as allowable speech which is free without need of external decree.