Socialists believe in free speech

A very interesting issue that has arisen recently is whether or not there should be a call for restrictions on the legal right to free speech. Let’s see what Sean Healy, who was a national executive member of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, said about this issue in 1997. Quote.

Some of the immediate problems with advancing this line of political censorship are clear. A demand from the left for censorship of even the most racist group sets a very bad precedent which can later be used to restrict free speech for the left and progressive movements. […]

But the debate also raises the broader issue of what the position of socialists is towards free speech in general.

Socialists stand for and demand the broadest democratic rights for all sections of the population. This includes defending the right of everyone to free speech, the right to organise and the right to assembly.

In the first instance, this militant defence of democratic rights for all flows from the very nature of socialism. Socialism is based on extending democratic principles to all sections of political, social and economic life, rather than keeping democracy constrained at the level of pure formality (as it is at present).

In contrast, it is capitalism, in spite of all its pretensions, that is forced to continually try to restrict democratic rights. […]

But our defence of democratic rights and free speech is also based on a deeper understanding of the link between socialism and democracy. For socialism to become a reality, it has to win the adherence of the overwhelming majority ? and that most easily takes place in a situation where open debate is possible.

It’s in such an atmosphere that the wholly destructive nature of all racist and reactionary ideas can become clearest, in particular through demonstrating in practice that it is such ideas that constitute the greatest threats to the democratic rights of the majority.

Any restriction of democratic rights by capitalist governments, no matter what its intention, is an attack on the working class’s ability to discuss and debate what politics are best suited to advancing its interests.

This position of principled support for free speech and the broadest democratic rights has been the position of the socialist movement since the period of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It has not only been central to defending the movement’s own ability to function, but has also be central to winning the allegiance of working-class people.

Marx and Engels themselves had to defend themselves on more than one occasion from attempted restrictions of their democratic rights. Similarly, Lenin, Trotsky and other leaders of the Russian Revolution had to fight against arbitrary arrest, censorship and repression by the Tsarist autocracy. […] Free speech and other democratic rights have also had to be defended from attack by the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorships of China and the Soviet Union.

There have been some situations in which socialists have supported some restrictions on democratic rights: but these have exclusively been in the context of civil war between the working class and the capitalists, where such moves were necessary to prevent the triumph of the capitalist forces.

But […] today, when the issue is one of reaching working-class people with socialist ideas, what’s needed is to ensure that the socialist movement is associated in the minds of all with the most militant defence of democratic principles and the right of all to free speech. End quote

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