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The Marxist Idea of Free Speech Is Ridiculous

Post #1772 • April 12, 2016, 11:22 AM

Jonathan Chait, in a recent piece defending liberalism from the illiberal left, summed up the the latter's argument against free speech by noting that the Marxist dismissal of individual rights leads inevitably to their suppression. Any Marxist government immediately sets about snuffing out the political rights of parties or ideas deemed reactionary (a category that also inevitably expands to describe any challenge to the powers that be), he wrote. Repression is woven into Marxism’s ideological fabric.

That earned him a rebuke from Tyler Zimmer at the socialist publication In These Times, in a piece entitled Why Jonathan Chait Is Wrong About Marxism, Liberalism and Free Speech. Chait batted it away easily enough, but rarely have we obtained such a clear view into the illiberal-left mind. This is no mundane confusion. It's the kind of ugly rhetorical tangle that can't be concocted without a PhD in the postmodernism-infected humanities. (Zimmer's was newly minted in 2014 at Northwestern. He teaches English at Northeastern Illinois University.)

Zimmer dismisses Chait's damning invocation of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao as a tattered Cold War script. It is vital to Marxist credibility to divorce the theory from the bloody history of its application, and Zimmer obliges: ...these authoritarian monstrosities had virtually nothing to do with what Marx himself said or did.

Disregarding the overstatement, this is arguably true. Marx separated himself from religious communists by markedly not spelling out how to immanentize the eschaton. (Zimmer makes this very point, that Marx and Engels refrained from devising detailed blueprints of what they saw as an ideal society.) As Marx envisioned it, the internal contradictions that would cause capitalism to produce the workers' revolution would also transform the ensuing chaos in which women are reduced to property and all property is then expropriated to the common store, crude and thoughtless communism as he put it, into communal emancipation and enjoyment. Somehow. That blank was left to Stalin and the like to fill in.

Nevertheless, Marx's extreme anti-individualism, expressed as disdain for the egoistic self and praise for the species-being (see his odious essay On The Jewish Question) could hardly be realized without collective force. The question awaiting an answer was whether the better strategy for achieving it was gradual infiltration (the original Fabian coat of arms was a wolf in sheep's clothing) or violence at ever-increasing scales. Contemporary socialists continue to argue about this. Marx is hardly off the hook for Mao.

For that matter he's distantly responsible for Melissa I Need Some Muscle Over Here Click, who not coincidentally also holds a PhD in the postmodernism-infected humanities, and exemplifies the Marxist attitude about free speech. Prof. Click (erstwhile) demonstrates how worship of the species-being devolves into solipsism and megalomania. The egoistic self, whatever its faults, conceives of itself as an individual and no more. Representatives of the species-being think of themselves as legion, as the very embodiment of the greater good. Faculty supporting Click wrote to the University of Missouri, We believe that her actions on November 9 constitute at most a regrettable mistake, one that came, moreover, at the end of several weeks during which Click served alongside other faculty and staff as an ally to students who were protesting what they saw as their exclusion from and isolation at the University. Having assaulted a student journalist and calling for imminent violence against him, she and her public relations team said of the ensuing consequences that her speech rights had been abridged. She dissembled to the Washington Post that hardly anyone had earnestly asked whether my protected right to speak out as a US citizen requires that I must be perfect while doing so. To be fair to the general public, few people reach such lofty peaks of amoral narcissism.

Zimmer then gets to the heart of his objection. The Marxist argument isn’t that free expression is a bad thing; the argument is that liberals have an anemic, purely formal understanding of free speech rights that ignores the fact that, in practice, the ability to make one’s voice heard in public debates is extremely unequally distributed. Trump, for instance. Donald Trump and I both have the same formal, liberal right to free speech. But in practice, Trump’s immense wealth grants him orders of magnitude greater ability to express his views in public.

Anyone familiar with the difference between negative and positive rights, and between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, will immediately recognize the problem here. But to continue, his solution is to allow speech to the extent that it promotes emancipation. Marxists value free speech because they are committed to building a society where all can decide matters of public concern democratically, as genuine equals.

But only to that extent.

[T]he Marxist has a consistent way of explaining why speech that aims to dominate or marginalize others should be challenged rather than protected: it is contrary to the very values animating our commitment to free speech in the first place. ...the rationale for disrupting Trump’s rally in Chicago wasn’t to prevent him from saying merely offensive or disagreeable things. It was about standing up to social forces that have the publicly stated aim of marginalizing and scapegoating some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

As Chait puts it in his rebuttal, It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. Theory indicates, and history shows, that this conception of rights grants them to whoever possesses the authority to define oppression. The broad aggregates of humanity that are possible under collectivism, conceived as the proletariat, the people, genuine equals, or what have you, become the pretext for persecuting anyone who fails to get in line. Either representation of the collective will is entrusted to an individual, and that individual turns out to be Lenin, or rights turn on the whims of the democratic process and we've arrived at the cartoon in which two cheetahs and a gazelle vote on who is going to get eaten. There are only individual rights and we do not submit them to negotiation by the collective.

Zimmer's choice of Trump as an example is interesting. As Chait discovered, it's entirely possible to find contemporary socialists prepared to advance violence against oppressive forces. This is a consistent position, assuming that they represent the collective good from which everyone's rights supposedly derive. Zimmer probably imagines himself coming to the brave defense of poor minorities.

But the Trump campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, is a four-word oppression narrative: America was great, it is now not great, and the inchoate, protean, bozo-nationalist policies of Donald Trump promise to return it to greatness. His supporters apparently feel themselves to be at the mercy of indifferent Washington mandarins and a porous border with Mexico. Their idea of oppression would deprive Zimmer of free speech, and possibly much more, if that's how we decided on who has rights. Good thing for him that we don't.

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