Freedom of expression is supposed to be a cornerstone of democracy. All views, even the most disagreeable, must be allowed to compete in an open marketplace of ideas. Capitalism, we are told, is the only system capable of facilitating such tolerance; communism would crush dissent beneath the iron heel of conformity and the ‘party line’. Yet, as we write these words, students and academics are being beaten and arrested on dozens of campuses across capitalist America for their ‘unacceptable’ views. Communists, meanwhile, are the only ones mounting a consistent defence of free speech – from our own class perspective.

Under a regime of formal bourgeois democracy, anyone can say (more or less) what they wish, as long as the banks and big monopolies decide what happens. But in times of crisis, the nominal ability of ordinary people to speak their minds is seen by the capitalists as a threat to their authority. Far from an immutable right, freedom of speech is becoming a dangerous luxury the ruling class can ill afford. With their propaganda increasingly failing to sway public opinion, the direction of travel is towards ramping up repression.

Free speech under attack

In the past seven months, millions have hit the streets to protest Israel’s war of slaughter in Gaza, which is armed, funded, and abetted by all the Western imperialist countries. This open opposition to their key Middle Eastern ally threatens their major geopolitical interests and billions of dollars worth of investments. Thus, so-called liberal democracies across Western Europe have banned solidarity marches, and sent in police to arrest and harass protestors. Meanwhile, their prostitute press has branded peaceful anti-war demonstrations antisemitic mobs, to justify the repression of ‘hate speech’.

The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie has been thrown into especially sharp relief by the coast-to-coast wave of protest encampments at universities in the USA. Students and faculty members are demanding their institutions divest from Israel, while the latter butchers civilians. Isn’t this the protestors’ right? Isn’t freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution? Aren’t prestigious universities like Columbia, Harvard, MIT etc. supposed to be centres of open discussion?

The ruling class and its agents can always find excuses to limit freedom of expression by citing threats to public safety, the threshold for which they set themselves. The establishment press and politicians from both main parties in the United States have unleashed a hail of hysteria, calling for protestors to be expelled, arrested and even deported, citing the “safety of Jewish students”. Even though anti-Zionist Jewish students have been prominently involved, and the only real violence has come from university authorities calling in the police and state troopers, armed with batons, rubber bullets and riot gear. 

The whole situation carries ominous echoes of Kent State University in 1970, where national guardsmen shot dead four student anti-war protestors. This occurred amidst a nationwide protest movement that threatened the foundations of US imperialism, and thus incurred a brutal crackdown. For instance, in 1968 at Columbia, over 700 anti-war protestors were arrested in one day. We could also cite Ronald Reagan’s offensive against the ‘Free Speech’ movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, or the Red Scare and McCarthyite witch-hunts. In all these cases, the US capitalist class weren’t prepared to let a piece of paper like the First Amendment stand in the way of their interests.

In recent years, right-wingers have whined about the “suppression of free speech”, especially at universities, in response to the alleged suppression of conservative and anti-LGBT views by a pervasive “woke agenda”.

For example, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbot bragged in 2019 about signing a bill into law protecting free speech on campuses. Fast forward five years, and he tweets a video of state troopers breaking up an encampment in Austin with the caption:

“These protesters belong in jail… Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled. “

Compare and contrast as well the police’s tendency to handle far-right demonstrators with kid gloves, while brutalising workers and youth protesting injustice.

The enforcement of free speech rights in practice largely protects the right of reactionaries to spew hatred, while limiting opposition to capitalism’s crimes.

Not only open reactionaries, but liberals and reformists too have exposed their shameless double standards on this question. For instance, a few weeks ago, a hue-and-cry was raised over a Belgian court shutting down a far-right ‘National Conservatism’ conference. Papers and politicians of all stripes, who cheered on the suppression of pro-Palestine demonstrations for months, denounced this affront to free speech, and the conference went ahead. Meanwhile, days earlier a ‘Palestine Conference’ in Germany was unilaterally shut down by the Social Democrat-led government of Olaf Scholz. Some speakers, including former Greek Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis, were banned from all political activity in the country!

Our liberal democrats simply shrugged. “But communism denies free speech altogether!” the bourgeois protest. “Under communist rule, the party would control the press!” And who controls the press under capitalism? As Lenin explained: “the exploiters, the landowners and the profiteers own… 9/10 of the stocks of newsprint, printing presses.” Today, 90 percent of the media in the United States is controlled by just six corporations, owned in turn by capitalist fatcats whose interests are bound up with the status quo, and who can be relied upon to defend it in print. Meanwhile, bourgeois politicians’ privileged access to the media means their opinions hold far more sway than mere mortals’. Individual journalists are under immense pressure from the state, advertisers and their editors not to rock the boat.

The few who dare to challenge the establishment line end up ostracised, hounded out of work, or worse: as in the case of Julian Assange, who rots in jail for exposing the crimes of US imperialism. The situation is no better online. Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men, purchased Twitter with the express purpose of allowing freedom of expression to flourish. But he has been accused of exploiting the platform to boost attention for his reactionary friends and admirers while throttling left-wingers. Billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg collaborate with the state to facilitate surveillance of our online activities.

Meanwhile, the US government is banning TikTok by decree to spite China, even while TikTok itself arbitrarily censors content. As long as the media is a plaything of the rich, and is entangled with their interests, it will never be free.

“Well, communists would never allow dissenting opinions to their one-party rule!” the bourgeois retort. In fact, there was great diversity of opinion inside and outside the Bolshevik Party, before and after the Russian Revolution. Lenin himself was occasionally in a minority on various key questions, which were resolved through debate. While it is true factions and parties were eventually abolished and the dissident press suppressed, this was in the middle of a Civil War, where the regime was fighting for its life. Opposition parties openly supported the Tsarist counter-revolution that sought to drown the revolution in blood. Name one capitalist regime in history that permitted freedom of press and organisation to a rebel faction during a civil conflict!

To quote Abraham Lincoln, who banned the pro-slave-owner and anti-war press in the North during the American Civil War: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair on the head of a wily agitator who induces him to desert? I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.” Free speech and the Russian Revolution Our enemies paint only one side of the picture of the Russian Revolution. The revolution also saw an outpouring of intellectual and creative energy from people who were finally able to speak their minds without the Tsarist secret police breathing down their necks. There was a yearning by ordinary workers and peasants to express themselves.

Even the reactionary Woodrow Wilson administration had to concede the following: “At the height of the Civil War, since every army unit and local soviet wanted to have its own paper… there was a great proliferation of publications. At the end of the Civil War there were more periodicals printed in Russia than there had been in peacetime.”

Given the dire circumstances, this is remarkable. Artistic expression also flourished under the Bolsheviks. Before Stalinist degeneration, great permissiveness prevailed in cultural matters.

Such is admitted even by the conservative Oxford Historian Max Hayward: “[The revolutionary censorship’s] main function was to prevent the publication of overtly counter-revolutionary works… It did not interfere with basic literary freedom in matters of form and content.”

Furthermore, the great Russian dramatist Stanislavski, who was not a Bolshevik, stated in 1928: “When the political events in our country had caught us… our Government did not force us to dye ourselves red and pretend to be what we were not.”

Far from ending freedom of expression, the revolution gave millions of Russians a voice by removing the iron grip of tsarism from their throats, and beginning to put the reigns of society into their hands. Communists today call for unwavering defence of free speech by the working class, utilising their fighting organisations and methods of struggle. Not because we have a superstitious belief in universal rights applicable to all people, at all times, in all possible worlds.

But because our class can use democratic handholds to advance its interests. In the same way, the capitalists attack free speech and further arm their repressive apparatus to preserve their class interests.

The brutality of the bourgeois clampdown on Palestine solidarity is teaching a new generation a painful but important lesson: free speech is not a guarantee under capitalism, it is a weapon in the class struggle.

By using this weapon, in addition to all the other means at our disposal, communists aim to dismantle the system that puts the press, culture and state apparatus at the disposal of a parasitic profiteering minority. By fighting for revolution, an end to capitalism, and a socialist future, we aim to open up universities, the media and the world of culture to the masses, giving billions of men and women a voice for the first time.