50 Years Ago: Freedom of Speech and the Press

“Freedom of Speech”. “Free Press”, “Freedom of Assembly” etc. are hypocritical phrases successfully used to muddle working class minds. Under capitalism there is not, nor has there ever been, any of these things.

Before the war meetings could only be had either by direct permission or on the sufferance of the police. Whenever the authorities or even subordinate officials, wished, the meetings were stopped, and the Commissioner of Police could legally refuse to give any reason for his action. Printers offices could be, and were raided and publications suppressed at the discretion of the authorities. After the raid other action — such as prosecution on some legal point might be taken, but this was not necessary, and often was not done.

When the war started the passing of the Defence of the Realm Act brought these powers to a focus and enabled action to be taken rapidly and without the formalities that had been usual in certain cases. The so-called great English charter of personal liberty — the Habeus Corpus Act — is overridden by it, and scores of men and women have been arrested, thrown into jail and left there without trial and even without any charge being preferred against them, and inquiries are met with the curt answer—when one is given—that it is under D.O.R.A. Often they will refuse to state under which regulation even the action is being taken. With this single, glaring fact before us how shallow and foolish it sounds to claim that there is any “Principle of a Free Press”, or “Freedom of Speech” for the wage-slaves. They have them not and never have had.

The only way to obtain these “Freedoms” is the Socialist way. That is by organising to take control of the political powers for the purpose of entering into possession of the means of life—the land and instruments for producing and distributing wealth.

In this greatest of all class struggles the workers are quite correct in seizing every vantage point and every opportunity for spreading their propaganda and organisation; but they will be utterly mistaken and will only add to their own confusion by confounding these necessary detail struggles with the central object of the battle or raising them into “Principles” which have no existence in reality.

From an unsigned Editorial in the Socialist Standard, November 1918.