Of the many contentious debates currently burning among the communist left is that concerning freedom of speech and the extent to that we should—or shouldn’t—recognize it. It is a complicated question that deserves deep investigation. As with all of the “rights” we rent from bourgeois society, they are never as they appear and the realities of exercising them are always more complicated than the detached summaries we are given by bourgeois mouthpieces. We also cannot write off the exercise or non-exercise of bourgeois right to the revolutionary movement, after all it is the nominal acceptance of this precept that allows articles like this to be published legally for a more readily reachable audience. This “right” is impermanent, as history has shown us, and subject to the arbitrary will of those who hold institutional power. Yet, such protections are obviously helpful so long as they exist.
The most interesting and compelling position that has come to prominence on the communist left has been decidedly antagonistic to the liberal notion of “freedom of speech” as some kind of inalienable right. This position has been mobilized as the primary retort to the calls by the far-right to honor their freedom of speech, often as a response to the tactics of anti-fascist organization perceived as undermining fundamental rights. Those who have congealed around this position have good instincts, and have planted themselves boldly in opposition to fascism and the far-right rather than wilting in the face of nonsense virtue-signaling from our opponents. Yet, it is time that we correct this position to make it compatible with the strategic aims of the revolutionary movement.
The State and “Freedom of Speech”
Unfortunately, this position, as correctly antagonistic to liberal discourse as it is, contains a critical error, at least in the way it has been deployed at the current juncture. The conclusion that most have come to in this camp is that freedom of speech does not matter, and should be opposed. True enough, when we have access to state power we should be honest with the political nature of the proletarian state, but that is the reality of state power, and that is what we should be quick to point out. The state is, after all, a tool of class dictatorship, the concrete representation of class ideology used to repress enemy classes and advance the interests of a class alliance that seeks to hold on to power. This is as true in the bourgeois state as it will be in the proletarian state, the difference is in the class that it serves. As such, we realize that free speech is not something that should be necessarily opposed, but something that should be recognized as meaningfully non-existent; that is, if we understand free speech as existing beyond casual conversation and the debate over favorite colors and hair products.
Free speech, at least speech that matters to us, is conducted through institutions that magnify ideas and present them to the masses (universities, public space, print media, the internet, etc.), and these institutions are of a definite class character in our current society and will be in the one we wish to construct. The freedom of speech we are familiar with operates best when the rule of the bourgeois class and its neoliberal bloc is at its most secure, and begins to deteriorate with their loosening grip on power. That is precisely because the institutions that can be utilized to magnify ideas, those that make our speech important, are under the direct or indirect influence of the bourgeois dictatorship. There is an obvious disconnect between the imagined “open society” demanded by liberal and neoliberal doctrinarians, and the reality of maintaining a class dictatorship.
Be that as it may, the legal protections offered by the first amendment and those like it have been a valuable tool in structuring our defense before the forces of state repression. These protections are made less and less relevant with the intensification of struggle against the imperialist bourgeois dictatorship, but for the period of maturation it has proven indispensable. The alternative to such legal protections, though fleeting and temporary, is the open, unchallengeable violence of the state. That is something many believe we are already experiencing, but we must wake up to the reality that if it were the experience of communists today then all institutions not thoroughly dispersed among the people, underground and practically invisible, would have been totally destroyed by now. We are aware, in light of the tactics employed under COINTELPRO, what the state is capable of, and know that much worse is employed elsewhere as a solution to political rebellion.
We must accept, without shame, that the right to publicly declare and advocate for our ideas is a valuable right, one that we must defend. Unfortunately, the lack of strategic outlooks have lead some to work diligently for the purpose of curtailing this right, often in ways that appear outwardly progressive and with no reversible qualities. We are, of course, referring to the cheerleading by many “radicals” the active empowerment of the state and non-state institutions in neoliberal society in the repression of certain forms of political speech. In this case, what is primarily targeted is hate speech and neo-fascist propaganda. It is not wrong to challenge the dangerous, reactionary views of the far-right in their attempt to seize hold of political currents to propel themselves to power. The problem arises when we begin doing this through a partisan support for repressive action organized at the highest echelons of the neoliberal power structure.
Building Real Counter-Hegemony
Granted, the real force behind the support for laws and repressive action carried out by the state and corporate forces is centrally located in the “radlib” camp, those leftists who, despite talking a good game about revolution and opposition to white supremacy, fail to break with neoliberalism. These ideas have found their way into the broader communist left where at very least there is an ambivalence to the active empowerment of state and corporate forces, who have most recently cut their teeth on our enemies. We are aware, from past experience and what is happening right now, that their can and will change, and we can can easily find ourselves in the crosshairs of a renewed campaign of state and corporate repression at any time.
This was proven by the reversal of even the most innocuous and “progressive” laws against neo-fascist groups and activities. We have mentioned before the arrests of several students in masks, who were charged under laws put in place to target klan members in the 1970s. Now, the same tactics celebrated in their use against the alt-right by google and digital infrastructure companies have also been demonstrated to be reversible. We must realize that the task of defeating the far-right does not require, nor should it even condone, collaboration with state and corporate forces in ways that only stabilize and solidify neoliberal power. We must remember that our primary goal as communists is the seizure of state power, it is the establishment of a proletarian state, and we cannot do that if we are empowering the existing, neoliberal state.
What we must instead move toward should be the development of real counter-power. We must demand the right to publicly advocate our ideas as well as mobilize effectively to shut down the far-right that actively seeks to outmaneuver and destroy us. It must be made absolutely clear that the primary task of every communist is the defeat of imperialism and the establishment of socialism. In doing so, we must also recognize the consequences of an effective campaign to undermine the state and its repressive apparatuses.
As the bourgeois dictatorship is fractured, and its institutions displaced, all politically stable and powerful hegemonic opponents to the current state power gain a relative advantage. Relative, because of the differing levels of development and integration with their social base and its capacity for independent political action. Our work in destabilizing neoliberal power will inevitably give room to all serious oppositional forces, which we will have to remain vigilant in confronting and outmaneuvering in our move toward the acquisition of state power. The demands for the “open society” promised by liberals will, ultimately, give space to the far-right in advocating their ideas as well. That is something we should not shrink in the face of, because the place to defeat them is on the streets, with our own institutions of power and progress, not in the courts and the executive powers. If we cannot defeat them without the backing of bourgeois authority, then we cannot win.
Moving Forward and Setting Tasks
We must rise to the challenge, and accept the responsibility of leadership over those who would depend on us to confront neoliberal imperialism, and crush the far-right upwelling in the core countries. Through all the menial acts and laws passed with the intention of limiting the organizational capacity of the far-right, none have succeeded in preventing the recurring success of movements like the alt-right. They certainly did not prevent Trump from being elected, and have succeeded only in serving as a baseline justification for the repression of whatever forces they deem to be their most immediate enemy, which, in any moment of power for the communist left, is us. For that reason we must resist flimsy justifications by the state and corporate power for more repressive precedents on the basis of combating fascism. They are its progenitors. If it were not the moribund neoliberal system there would not be the alt-right, so we cannot entrust them, who have inherited all of the fundamental contradictions responsible for the far-right resurgence, with the defeat of these reactionary elements.
As for the question of “free speech” in neoliberal society, we must act in a purely partisan way and demand precisely the kind of meaning that threatens the unquestioned hegemony of the imperialist state. Our speech will not be relegated to sidewalk conversations or arguments over trivial “likes” and “dislikes.” The free speech we demand must include the demand for access to all institutions that make speech powerful, and which give ideas their time in the sun. Any and all moves to restrict this must be opposed. Restricting speech and ideas is a task for our movement in the physical obstruction of our political enemies from organizing, and relegated to our own independent political activities, not that of the neoliberal state. More than anything, we must aspire to develop a powerful counter-hegemonic movement, displace the hegemony of the bourgeois state, and outmaneuver all reactionary anti-state forces. The people most threatened by the march of the far-right depend on us, not the neoliberal state, for real action in their defense. It is time we build a capacity to deliver, rather than pushing responsibility onto our principal enemy.