A Note on Marxism and Freedom of Speech

In a discussion of one of my posts from a couple of days ago, Dan writes:

Overall, it seems to me a Marxist view of the world – and apologies in advance if I’m (unintentionally) mischaracterising your politics slightly – can be useful when critiquing the banks, the political system, or American foreign policy. But less useful when discussing other matters. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the key, and opposing, issues in play are religious fanaticism and freedom of speech. (Neither concept figures large in Marxist ideology, so your instinct appears to be to ignore or dismiss these aspects.) Issues like immigration, multiculturalism and the history of Western misdeeds in the Middle East are also relevant to the controversy to a certain degree. The perfidy of property ownership, however, seems to me to have fuck all to do with anything here. Freedom of speech is the fundamental principle of a free society. It is the surest defense against tyranny. Religious fanaticism is among the worst blights on the modern landscape. In the words of the late Pete Seeger then, which side are you on?

Clearly there are some matters where Marxist traditions of thought are of little use. Like when unblocking a drain, or making your home energy efficient. But I think Dan’s wrong to dismiss them when it comes to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I doubt they can be used to explain everything about it, like the ballistics, or the precise thought processes that went through the killers’ minds. On the particular issues that Dan cites, however, Marx and others along those lines do have interesting things to say. I’m referring to ideology.

Dan is right to say that neither ‘religious fanaticism’ nor ‘freedom of speech’ figure large in Marxist ideology (I’d just say Marxist thought). But the reason for this is that Marxist thought by and large (and not just Marxist thought) is very suspicious of allowing abstract ideas taking hold.

For Marx, writing in The German Ideology, the ruling ideas in every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, which is also the ruling intellectual force. That’s not to say such ideas are the only ideas in circulation. It is just that the ruling class, when it comes to concepts like ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘freedom of speech’, will seek to present its version as the only ‘rational, universally valid’ ones.  Hence when we talk about religious fanaticism and freedom of speech in the everyday, there’s a good chance we are talking about the ruling class’s version of those concepts. So, ‘religious fanatic’ will apply to political leaders in Iran –for example- but will far less likely apply to the rulers of Saudi Arabia or the Prime Minister of Israel, since the latter are strategic allies of ruling elites in the West. Which side are you on?

Dan thinks property ownership has fuck all to do with anything. But it is property ownership, perhaps above anything, that is the fundamental principle of the society in which he and I live. We appear to agree elsewhere in our discussion that the amount of money –a form of property- you have behind you has a large bearing on how free you are to speak about things. A media billionaire can say what he likes. His employees are not so free. In many parts of the world where freedom of speech is brandished as the highest of values, the words “let’s join a union”, for instance, can land you on the breadline.

Now, whilst Dan thinks that this sort of situation sucks, and so do I, where we differ is that I don’t think ‘well-at-least-it’s-not-North-Korea’ is a good enough justification for this state of affairs. For me, but not just me, this isn’t an adequate description of what a free society looks like. Marx also notes in the same text that in ‘ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is’. But when it comes to freedom of speech, or even just freedom, we are far more inclined by habit to accept the official merchandise as the genuine article.

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