1980s >> 1986 >> no-983-july-1986

Socialists and Free Speech

“Here, dad, what’s that bloke doing standing on a platform in the middle of the pavement?”

“Ignore him, son, he’s a nutter.”

“But why’s he shouting about socialism?” “Because he’s got freedom of speech. Now, take no bloody notice of him –you’ll only encourage him to come back.”

“Is anyone allowed to stand up there like that?”

“Of course, they are: this is a free country. I fought for the likes of him to have his say. Now, get a move on or we’ll miss EastEnders:”

The socialist on the outdoor platform, shouting to whoever will turn their gaze from the distractions provided by their masters, does not owe anything to the democratic inclinations of the capitalist class. The bosses who own and control the resources of society are an undemocratic class; whatever power the workers they exploit possess has been won in struggle. The first trade unionists were crushed by the coercion of the state, and only when the bosses learnt that wage slaves could not be stopped from organising were trade unions recognised. Free speech –that much cherished right which workers in Britain are urged to receive with gratitude from their employers –was won (to the limited extent it has been won) only after long struggle by workers who understood the value of democracy.

When the workers of Manchester assembled to discuss their grievances in 1819 the bosses responded by demanding the silence of the crowd –a silence which was achieved through the barrels of the rich men’s guns. In its infancy as a ruling class, the capitalists realised that workers thinking, criticising, talking, organising, assembling was a mighty threat to the power of the minority which is the political basis of the capitalist system. In the 1820s Lord Liverpool’s Tories passed the notorious Gag Acts, making it illegal for groups of workers to meet together and virtually criminalising open political debate. Brave men and women of our class ignored the bosses’ gag and persisted in the effort to persuade their fellow workers of the need for social change. Those great democrats have their counterparts today in the modern capitalist dictatorships –from Soweto to Moscow –and socialists can have nothing but admiration for the efforts of these battlers against tyranny.

The socialist pioneers in Britain in the 1880s made great use of the public platform as a means of spreading the case for a new kind of society. Indeed, as early as 24 June, 1855 Karl Marx attended an illegal public meeting in Hyde Park. In an article in Neue Oder-Zeitung Marx described the scene and the struggle:

“At 3 o’clock about 50,000 people had gathered at the appointed spot on the right side of the Serpentine in the huge meadows of Hyde Park. Gradually the numbers swelled to about 200,000 as people came from the left bank too. Small knots of people could be seen being jostled from one spot to another. A large contingent of police was evidently attempting to deprive the organisers of the meeting of what Archimedes had demanded in order to move the earth: a fixed place to stand on. Finally, a large crowd made a firm stand and the Chartist, James Bligh, constituted himself chairman on a small rise in the middle of the crowd. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police Inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon-swinging constables explained to him that the park was the private property of the Crown and that they were not allowed to hold a meeting in it. After some preliminary exchanges, in the course of which Bligh tried to demonstrate that the Park was public property and Banks replied that he had strict orders to arrest him if he persisted in his intention, Bligh shouted amidst the tremendous roar of the masses around him: “Her Majesty’s police declare that Hyde Park is the private property of the crown and that Her Majesty is not inclined to lend her land to the people for their meetings”.

Bligh urged the crowd to move elsewhere, the workers, angered by the Crown’s contempt for their right to meet and speak, stayed and fought and one of them, by the name of Russell, was murdered by the police.

The Marxists of the Socialist League set up their platforms on street corners and in parks and the revolutionary content of their message led the police (acting under the orders of the ruling class) to smash their meetings. One place where many socialist speakers were arrested was Dod Street in London. On Sunday, 20 September 1885 the police moved in to the meeting after it had been closed and arrested eight League members. Marx’s son-in-law, Edward Aveling, gave evidence in court and when warned by the despicable magistrate, Saunders, that if he spoke at Dod Street he too would be locked up, Aveling responded “I shall speak there each Sunday till I am locked up.” The prosecuted speakers were found guilty and William Morris was then arrested for daring to shout out “Shame”. The following summer the state was even more active in its fight against free speech; in his Notes on Propaganda Morris noted that:

“This summer we were much annoyed by the police who persisted in interfering with our open-air meetings … it was made clear that the law could be so wrested as to make impossible any meeting on public ground not specially set apart.”

By the turn of the century every major British city had its outdoor speaking places and large crowds assembled to hear differing points of view. In these open-air universities working-class scholars were made. It was in this setting that The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1904. Right from the start The Socialist Party recognised that intelligent persuasion was the way to make socialists; our platform was then, and is now, democratic and open to criticism. Indeed, it has long been a Party tradition to allow serious opponents on to our platform for a few minutes to state the case against socialism, The value of serious heckling against opponents has always been realised and socialists have always been eager to give the defenders of capitalism a hard time. But never have we indulged in or supported the disruption of our opponents’ meetings; like the workers who fought hard for the opportunity to speak openly, socialists understand that nothing is to be gained for our class by stifling ideas. When in the 1930s, Communist Party members attempted to break up Socialist Party meetings, arguing that whoever was not a Stalinist was a fascist, it was they who were the Red Fascists.

The Socialist Party still uses the outdoor platform as a propaganda weapon, although we know that new material conditions require new communication methods and it is not as important now as it was in 1904. In London and Dundee, and several places in between, socialists use the platform to put the argument for democratic social revolution. The critics still criticise and the would-be comedians tell their bad jokes and the listeners who stop to scoff often go away with some new ideas. Since 1984 in Hyde Park our speakers have witnessed a new problem (not only noted by socialists, but also by the police, journalists who have visited the park and other speakers and regular attenders). a gang of verbal vandals intent on smashing up meetings. On several occasions while these disrupters have been in action speakers have been stopped from speaking as a result of organised chanting drowning them out, others have been subjected to racist and other vicious abuse and on more than one occasion violence has been threatened. One of the gang is an official in the Kensington Young Conservatives and the son of a West London magistrate. We refer to this gang of dedicated anti-democrats to make clear that there are still those whose response to the logic of the socialist case is to do their best to shout it down. They will not succeed.

Not only from the university-smashing FCS types does the threat come. The Leninist Left, with their contemptuous view of workers as a class who are only capable of following leaders, is eager to prevent certain would be leaders from being heard. This view is expressed by Lucy Kaminska in a letter to the Guardian opposing the giving of a “platform for speakers with known racist, sexist and anti-gay views”:

“What meaning can “freedom of speech” hold in a Britain where blacks, Asians and Jews are attacked and murdered by neo-fascist thugs…”Rational arguments” clearly fail to dissuade these criminals from their actions, so why should their ideologues be given a platform?”

Whatever the emotive force of Kaminska’s view, that view needs to be questioned. We are told that neo-fascist thugs will never be dissuaded by intelligent persuasion. Does that mean that they are inherently inferior to people like Kaminska? If she believes they are, then why not go further and argue that they should be denied the vote –or imprisoned? But who is to define what is a neofacist thug? All racists –including the Labourites who are committed to immigration controls? Those who favour violence –including the majority of workers who vote for war policies? And where is the evidence that these deluded workers will not respond to rational arguments? After all, the Left has long opposed debating with racists, so how do they propose to convince them?

The way to defeat anti-socialist ideas, including racism and sexism, is by democratic discussion. Rather than giving publicity to capitalism’s most obscene defenders by shouting them down and letting them appear as martyrs, socialists must be present at their meetings to defeat their arguments in public. The best treatment for the likes of Martin Webster or John Carlisle or Enoch Powell is the lash of socialist logic, leaving them to endure the public scorn of workers who have seen through the idiocy of their propaganda. Remember, fascists are experts at kicking, socialists are experts at reasoning –if we are to defeat them we need to use our best weapon, not theirs.

The Leninists who do not think that wage slaves have the capacity to see through the nonsense of capitalist ideology regard free speech as a concept which should be denied to those who will confuse workers’ minds. (In that case it should apply to them). If the Leninists think that a Tory MP will confuse students at a university they attempt to shout him down – so giving him maximum media publicity. In an article in Socialist Worker (5 April 1986) entitled What Price Free Speech? the writer asks, “where should the line be drawn? It should be drawn at the point where it can be effective”. In other words, you shout down speakers as long as you can get away with it. The article argues that university Catholic and Jewish societies should be left alone, despite their unacceptable ideas, because it will not be effective to smash up their meetings. We must assume from this that if the SWP regards The Socialist Party’s ideas as dangerously mistaken –which it does –, then they should be able to break up our meetings, the only principle determining when this will happen being whether the SWP’s action can be effective. The only difference between the SWP and the National Front in this respect is that the latter are less open about their methods of undemocratic behaviour. The Leninists stand in complete contradiction to the historical efforts of workers to gain the right to express ideas openly to one another.

Under capitalism the worker who speaks freely is open to the ridicule of those who have been conditioned to fear freedom. Our voices are all but drowned out by the pernicious blasts of the capitalist media which functions as a silencer on the minds of the working class. But still we make our voices heard and, combined with the hard lessons of capitalist experience, those who ignore us today will be echoing our message in the times to come.

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