“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
“Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
– Joseph V. Stalin
Often words like these are used when people talk about freedom of speech, the right to express an opinion or make a political comment or criticism. It’s a very long held saying that embodies a very complicated subject. Freedom of speech is complicated like every of freedom. There is no real freedom in the absolute as we are usually given; and which most arguments are based upon. It’s one of the most sacred tenets of the Constitution which every American proudly waves. In theory it forms one of the very foundational pieces of the American identity and society. Every activist, every protester will tell you that they believe in freedom of speech. Usually they say this as they are making some kind of speech or public criticism of something. No one is really willing to stand up and say that they don’t believe in free speech. Well I suppose there is some minority of fascists who are willing to say such a thing.
No One Believes in Freedom of Speech
Everyone says they believe in freedom of speech, but yet in truth almost no one really does. You can ask almost any person if they believe in freedom of speech and they’ll say yes. Immediately proceed to ask that same person if they are willing to invest in your new child pornography business. That person will turn around and tell you no. So really they don’t believe in freedom of speech, they believe in certain restrictions. You supposedly have this freedom in Western liberal bourgeois democracy, but show up to a protest and see what the reaction by the system is. Almost every person believes in placing some restrictions on speech. It is fair (and more accurate to say) that people believe in restricted speech. Personally, I am no different in this regard, I oppose some notion of total free speech. When we think of this phrase this is the image we get in our minds. A noble sentiment handed down from the Founding Fathers as some kind of ultimate inalienable right. It is intended to invoke an unrealistic idealist conception of personal freedom. This extreme personal freedom does not exist.
There will always be great contradictions in such a freedom, as freedoms are inherently contradictory. There is speech that I think shouldn’t be allowed, just as you think there is speech that should not be allowed. If were debate this long enough we will find ourselves disagreeing at some point about what should and what should not be allowed. This will happen with almost anyone. A Christian fundamentalist would say that anything that is accepting of homosexuality should not be allowed for moral reasons, and would actively seek to stop it. Many people are opposed to this bigoted view and actively seek to stop it. To the Christian fundamentalist the attempt to stop their expression that homosexuality is negative is an infringement upon their freedom of speech. The person opposed to them would claim that any attempt to suppress the idea that homosexuality is not negative would claim that doing so is an infringement upon their freedom of speech. Clearly there is an irresolvable contradiction here. Both cannot exist and prevent the other from speaking at the same time. There is no idealist notion that both will simply be allowed to speak, because both actively seek to silence the other. The contradiction here is antagonistic. They do not exist side-by-side without interaction, they exist in active opposition to each other, nothing is going to change that.
Everyone believes in stifling some speech in some form or another. We just disagree on what should be stifled and what should not.
There Cannot be Freedom of Speech
The problem stems from the idea that freedoms are somehow objective, things that exist independent of opinion and social construction itself. A position like this is held with the most fervour by people of the libertarian stripe, be they left or right. This is however untrue. There are no objective freedoms and there never have been. Any right wing libertarian, sovereign citizen, or “anarcho”-capitalist will tell you that there are “natural rights” which should never be infringed upon. This is of course totally false, there is no such things as “natural rights”. Rights do not exist in nature separate from people and their social interactions. If there was even a single person alive there would still be no rights. All rights are social constructs created to formulate the permitted and prohibited actions that take place during interactions between people in a social group. People make them, they do not naturally occur, rights are not something objective separate from the mind. This is why different societies have different ideas about what rights are and what they should be.
Those who rigidly adhere to the writings of the Founding Fathers as some kind of holy men who created an infallible idea of free speech (among other things) truly do not understand the times, nor the original intention in which it was created. When they wrote about all men who are created equal and set down certain rights, they literally only meant White land owning males. At the time African Americans and all women were considered property. Native Americans were considered to be savage animals who didn’t even qualify as human beings. People who did not own land were not considered equal to those who did. When the constitution was written, who do you think was able to take four months off work to travel to Philadelphia to write such a document? In fact it was originally held that only land owners were going to be allowed to vote. This rather different from what it is the far right groups today suggest in terms of free speech and other freedoms handed down to them.
The right to freedom of speech is not some universal objective freedom. No such thing can actually exist. People usually use the term free speech to: 1. to justify expressing an idea they wish to express, or 2. to brow beat anyone who disagrees with them. All freedom of speech exists inside of a particular context. Different speech means different things to different people, they have various interpretations. Because of this, societies define what speech is considered acceptable and what speech is not considered acceptable. These are usually formulated according to what particular ideals or what structural framework for the society exists. In other words, speech, permissible or otherwise depend on the form of interactions that take place between people. That speech which is not permissible is sometimes a threat to that established order which must be restricted. This occurs in every single society that has ever existed, there has never been an exception.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”
– Karl Marx, The German Ideology
Any society which wishes to maintain its stability, the social cohesiveness which keeps the society together, must engage in restrictions of freedom of speech. No society is immune from this. Socialist countries have banned pro-capitalist speakers from voicing their opinion just as capitalist countries have banned socialists from speaking, or at least having any impact. If one were to travel to a tribal society they would find much distain and suppression of someone who tried to introduce the concept of private property. All systems oppose certain speech in one way or another. No system may be touted as the champion of this utopianistic conception of free speech. All nations and system hurl declarations that they are the true holders of this freedom of speech, when in fact none of them are. They all stifle speech to some degree or another.
How Does this Control Manifest?
In American society they have a very pernicious system of controlling any speech that would dissent from the ruling ideology which gives power and wealth to the capitalist class. When people in Congress, other governmental institutions and mainstream media debate the economic course of the country, debate is reduced to two economic ideologies. They are Keynesianism and classical theory. Both of these theories, while different, represent the same thing: capitalism. Both theories strive for the preservation of the existing economic system from which the social system flows forth. (Commonly we know this as base and superstructure.) Debate between the two can be quite furious, even outright vile when tempers flare. Both sides accuse the other of being extremists. Keynesians will accuse classical economists of not being grounded in reality and blindly serving the interest of their corporate masters, while they proclaim to protect the integrity of capitalism from its own problems. Classical economists denounce the Keynesians of being communists, socialists, Nazis and all manner of nonsense. Meanwhile they proclaim themselves to be the true defenders of freedom. In truth they both defend capitalism from the different angles preserving the capitalist class and its power.
This illusion of choice extends right into the two party system right along those same lines between Democrats and Republicans. These two sides are usually represented the same way. Democrats tend to be Keynesians, they place a much higher value on life while being at least somewhat critical of the system they are in. Democrats are the “human face” of capitalism, the presentation which makes it seem like a humane system while carrying out all the horrors of it. Republicans tend to be the complete opposite. They don’t believe in having any illusions whatsoever. When they table legislation that harms the poor they openly declare that the suffering of those people is of no concern to them. They dogmatically champion the free market profit motive driven desires of the capitalist class even if it places their very economy in peril. This controlled speech also extends to criticisms of the ongoing wars. While the wholesale slaughter of the Third World for imperialist benefit takes place, both sides make the argument for their continuation choking out any real anti-war sentiment. When the horrors of the war are made public the conservatives will denounce those who speak of them as being unpatriotic, even going so far as to accuse them of aiding the enemy. They wish that those inhumanities be ignored and covered up for the sake doing what “needs” to be done.
The liberal by contrast will complain that these so-called excesses of war (they are in fact the nature of the war itself) must stop. They argue that the war must be “fought better” without all these horrible incidents taking place. The actions of the troops and the illusions given as justification for the imperialist war remain intact. The liberal position supports the war continuing while attempting to appease the conscience of a section of the population that doesn’t like the war or its inhumanities. Conservatives have no problem with heartlessness of imperialist war, the mass killings of innocent people. Liberals on the other hand only ask that the war be “fought better”, in a more humane way. As liberals are fond of saying, “you can be against the war while still supporting the troops.” The false pretext of the war is continually supported, being against dictatorships, fighting terrorism, protecting innocent civilians etc. All the while the country is merely carrying out imperialist conquest, but one that is made justifiable with an excuse to appease the liberal conscience. In all of this the real anti-war voice is effectively buried.
We can see this even in popular media. When hip hop/rap first came out in the late 70s or early 80s, it was an expression from a very marginalized section of the population. The songs spoke of systemic poverty and the conditions in which Black youth found themselves in via the lasting effects of segregation and gentrification. Frequently the songs brought terrible acts of police brutality and repression to light while it was ignored by the mainstream media. As that message and medium became more popular, reactionary forces in society and government began denouncing it with all kinds of nonsense arguments. Regardless, the music continued and spread to a wider and wider audience bringing that socially conscious message to more people. Once it was clear that this music and its message could not be silenced, the system began taking over the speech instead. Slowly but surely record labels began adopting the music offering money to those who had real talent and would perform. As the money rolled in the message began to shift. What was once a socially conscious message was slowly perverted into mindless glorifications of wealth and mindless luxuries. What contained mentions of the oppression of woman was turned into borderline pornography. What happened?
When there was speech expressed that truly criticized the system and spoke of the horrors it committed; but could not silence it, the system co-opted it. There is the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” This has been the strategy of the established power structure of Western liberal bourgeois democracy. If the message is too powerful and it can’t be stopped, then it must be co-opted and twisted into something that serves the system. How does the capitalist class do it? How do they stifle this speech? They are able to do this because of their dominating ownership of capital. They own the recording studios, the distribution methods, and most importantly the advertising connections. In other words they own the means of production.
“If people could go back to 1995 and before, they could say that hip-hop was uplifting. A good example would be when you could listen to a song for five minutes and all you heard was Rakim bouncing outrageous similes and euphemisms off his tongue and Eric B. blessing the ones and two’s. Not only was there depth in those types of tracks, but there was creativity and ingenuity. What about groups like Afrika Baambata whose songs lasted as long as infomercials? Eric B. & Rakim and Baambata are perfect illustrations of the true hip-hop culture because they were innovators and trendsetters. Back in the early ‘90’s rappers such as Buckshot of The Boot Camp Clik or even Queen Latifah would not stand for the brought down of hip-hop and where it was leading. They have always been opposed to mainstream artists who sacrifice artistic integrity in the lure for more money and how they degrade woman.
“Now in the 2000’s, you have the opposite of what rappers have been trying to prevent for years. You have rappers such as 50 Cent talking about how he loves money, Gucci Mane beating girls up -beat is a slang for sex- and everyone’s favorite rapper Lil Wayne saying to “f**k these bit**es” and even dudes. Hip-hop has taken a turn for the worst. African Americans make up the majority of the demographics of hip-hop listeners. Does hip-hop culture degrade or uplift African Americans? How would activist of our past answer this question if they were alive today?[…]”
– Dushawn Roberts, The Evolution of Hip-hop: Is it even Hip-hop?1
This is true even of liberal bourgeois democracy in its international relations. When the people of Venezuela voted in the Bolivarian Revolutionary Hugo Chavez, the bourgeois media immediately began a disinformation campaign to try and discredit the new government. Most of the funding for such actions came from the United States itself. It is usually smuggled in via non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the National Endowment for Democracy, which has a long history of imperialist intervention in Latin America alone.2 More than one plot has been uncovered where attempts at a coup were made against the country. A good account of one of these incidents can be found in The Chavez Code by Eva Golinger.3 Bourgeois media companies have been found making out right false accusations against the emerging socialist government. During the attempted coup against Chavez they deliberately mislead the public by editing out footage of pro-coup forces shooting innocent people. Instead they only showed those who fired back and then portrayed it as an unprovoked act of violence. The bourgeois media war against the Bolivarian revolution, with the strings pulled by the U.S. capitalist class, has consistently stifled the reality of the ongoing situation and has broadcast false information.
These so-called champions of freedom of speech, liberal democracy, won’t even allow another country to express itself. There is no freedom of speech coming from the supposed champion of it. It is all rhetoric. Why? Because there are competing interests at work that actively seek to undermine each other for their own benefit. They are not going to allow each other to speak and will constantly sabotage each other for their own benefit. Capitalism is predicated on competition, the creation of directly opposing forces. How could it possibly proclaim to allow such a lofty notion of “freedom of speech for all”? They can’t, and that’s the point.
The fact is no matter what the bourgeois ideology claims of liberal democracy, there is no real freedom of speech as they portray it. The truth is that no one can really claim to be the champion of freedom of speech in the real abstract idealist conception that is presented. All speech in every society is controlled to some degree or another with a the goal of preserving that society’s structure. No capitalist institution can claim to be the champion of the freedom of speech.
The Class War of Speech:
With all this having been said, how to we build a framework of freedom of speech in the socialist society? To understand this we must understand another principle, the principle of contradictions. As Marxists we understand societies as a series of contradictions that give motion to the system within it. Marx and Engels laid this out very well in the Communist Manifesto:
“In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
“The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
– Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1. Bourgeois and Proletarians
Mao added the knowledge that there are two kinds of contradictions in the socialist society which makes up the transition to communism. There are contradictions between sections of the masses and between the masses and the reactionaries. The first kind is a non-antagonistic one, the second is antagonistic. There are contradictions among the people and contradictions between the people and the enemy. These two types contradictions must be treated differently. When we struggle over which is the correct line, the right path to take in socialism, we are not talking to our enemies. We are talking to the people who may have different ideas about reaching the same goal. There is no need to treat debate among the people as acts of sabotage. Doing this only creates an environment hostile to debate and stifles creativity, expression and science. How can we advance towards communism if we don’t actively engage the people in debate? These contradictions among the people are not particularly antagonistic, they are contradictions that can be solved via policy and correct implementation of action. There is nothing to fear from this, it is the solving of problems by tackling them head on and challenging them.
When we talk of the other contradiction we’re talking about the one between the people and the enemy, a.k.a. reactionaries. This contradiction we refer to as an antagonistic one because each side seeks to destroy the other. Capitalism and socialism vehemently oppose the existence of the other. This is a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. They seek to destroy the society that we have built, they do not seek to make constructive criticisms as contradictions between the people do. We’re talking about the different between debate and sabotage. We need to clearly differentiate between the two.
“Whoever sides with the revolutionary people is a revolutionary. Whoever sides with imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism is a counter-revolutionary. Whoever sides with the revolutionary people in words only but acts otherwise is a revolutionary in speech. Whoever sides with the revolutionary people in deed as well as in word is a revolutionary in the full sense.”
– Closing speech at the Second Session of the First National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (June 23, 1950)
Our goal is to promote constructive debate about the path towards communism by using the entire brain power of the people in mass debates. By collecting all of our thinking power and political will together we can achieve things even greater than communism. We should support the entirety of the masses in debates on the issues we face, the contradictions that still exist among us so that we may solve our problems on the path towards the best society we can build. Yet at the same time we should not hesitate to crush any speech which would threaten our drive towards this goal. We should not simply allow the enemy to walk right into our castle walls and sabotage everything we are trying to build. We have a responsibility and a duty to protect the society we want to build. We aim for a class dictatorship of the proletariat over our class enemy the bourgeoisie, to prevent them from restoring their awful system.
Mao laid out quite well how this was to be accomplished in On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People:
“Our state is a people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the worker-peasant alliance. What is this dictatorship for? Its first function is to suppress the reactionary classes and elements and those exploiters in our country who resist the socialist revolution, to suppress those who try to wreck our socialist construction, or in other words, to resolve the internal contradictions between ourselves and the enemy. For instance, to arrest, try and sentence certain counter-revolutionaries, and to deprive landlords and bureaucrat-capitalists of their right to vote and their freedom of speech for a specified period of time — all this comes within the scope of our dictatorship.
“To maintain public order and safeguard the interests of the people, it is likewise necessary to exercise dictatorship over embezzlers, swindlers, arsonists, murderers, criminal gangs and other scoundrels who seriously disrupt public order. The second function of this dictatorship is to protect our country from subversion and possible aggression by external enemies. In that event, it is the task of this dictatorship to resolve the external contradiction between ourselves and the enemy. The aim of this dictatorship is to protect all our people so that they can devote themselves to peaceful labour and build China into a socialist country with a modern industry, agriculture, science and culture.”
– On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People (February 27, 1957)
This is one of the places where individualist socialism, or libertarian socialism fails. They seek to remove all restrictions on such activities like speech. They knowingly leave the gates of the castle open for invasion by anything that comes along. Due to their irrational fear which stems from incorrect ideas of the state, they sabotage the mechanism by which the proletariat would use to keep the enemy from having their speech as well as activities. In their near pathological drive to keep all forms of coercion from having an effect, they tie their own hands and place the masses at the mercy of the enemy. The force used by the bourgeoisie can only be countered by using proletarian force. There is no ultimate utopian freedom as they suggest. There is only a correct application of force in defence of the world that we want to build.
Both sides (capitalism and socialism) claim to be champions of free speech as they attempt to silence the other. No one believes in this liberal free speech line. Let us cast aside this facade and do what we should. We cannot hear the people if the enemy is allowed to drown us out with their phoney freedom. We should silence the enemy to hear the people and allow them to voice their concerns and debate their ideas in order to solve them.
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2. The Stealth Destabilizer: The National Endowment for Democracy in Venezuela, Counter Punch
The National Endowment for Democracy’s Forgotten Sordid History, jimbovard.com
National Endowment for Democracy: Paying to Make Enemies of America, antiwar.com
“Democratic Imperialism”: Tibet, China, and the National Endowment for Democracy, Global Research