Free speech and fighting the right on campus

The attempt by student activists over the past year to confront right-wing speakers on college campuses—from Charles Murray to Milo Yiannopoulos to Anne Coulter—has raised a far-ranging and important debate on the left about free speech: what it is, who it is for, and how to challenge the Right. The right wing (but also the liberal) use of “free speech” as a bludgeon against protesters on campuses has kicked up a vile backlash against student protest that should compel us to stand up and defend the rights of students to protest. Already this year, several states have had “free speech” legislation introduced or passed that will push for universities to impose harsher punishments on student protesters—restricting the democratic rights of students in the name of “free speech.”1

At the same time, a critical discussion about what stance the Left should take toward free speech in general, and right-wing speech in particular, is necessary. Alongside this are connected questions: What are the

tactics activists should employ in challenging the Right? How do activists build a movement that can effectively challenge and push back against the growing right wing in this country that feels emboldened by Trump’s election? This debate is an important one for the Left to engage in because of the many implications for the present and future of our movement. Socialists have a unique stance that can help to provide some historical perspective and theoretical guidelines for the discussion.

I begin with a discussion on the socialist stance on freedom of speech more generally, and then I will address the admittedly more complicated issue of tactics and how to approach right-wing speakers. I will argue that socialists should reject both the liberal approach to free speech as well as the ultraleft approach to the question. The liberal perspective on free speech maintains that in the “free marketplace” of ideas the rational will win over the irrational, and that we shouldn’t protest the Right because we give them undue attention. The ultraleft perspective on free speech dismisses the relevance or importance of free speech and exclaims readily that freedom of speech is not applicable for those who have reactionary ideas.

The revolutionary socialist perspective requires that we chart out an independent approach that both defends the right to speak without intervention of the government or campus administrations, while it also embraces and builds up the capacity of left and progressive forces to protest and fight back against reactionary ideas, and more critically, reactionary policies and actions.

The background

Throughout February and March of 2017, right-wing ideologue Charles Murray was on a lecture tour around the country with the American Enterprise Institute, speaking on the topic, “Are elites to blame for the rise of Donald Trump?” Murray is a widely discredited pseudoscientist whose work has been used to dismantle social safety-net spending and to bolster the prison industrial complex. Murray advances a “culture of poverty” argument to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He has a history of using his pseudobiological arguments to explain class and racial inequality, even blaming the increased polarization of wealth and inequality in society on the expansion of education in the 1950s and 1960s. Murray coauthored with Richard J. Herrnstein the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve that offered, according to critic Stephen Jay Gould, “claims and supposed documentation that race and class differences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable.”2 His work, to this day, is based on increasingly discredited and disproven intelligence and standardized testing measures rooted in the eugenics movement.3

Murray’s speaking tour went largely unnoticed until March 2, when students at Middlebury College decided to confront his ideas in a variety of ways. The students organized a protest outside, pressured the university president not to introduce and therefore provide legitimacy for Murray, and a third group focused on what do inside the event. The inside group researched his ideas and wrote up a statement. Ultimately, this group decided they did not want to engage in a Q and A-style discussion that was stacked against them, and they decided to shut him down. When Murray started to speak, they stood, turned their backs to him, and read their own statement, making it impossible for him to deliver his speech. When Murray couldn’t continue he was escorted into another room and his speech was live-streamed. Events took a turn for the worse outside the event when a scuffle (that the organizers of the protests had nothing to do with) reportedly left a professor injured.4

Murray’s speaking tour fits squarely into the mold that right-wing organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have created since the anti-political correctness campaigns of the late 1980s and early 1990s.5 As part of the effort to push back against the political and ideological gains of the 1960s and 1970s (on issues of imperialism, racism, sexism and—in the case of Murray—against biological determinism), the Right has now taken up the banner of academic freedom and freedom of speech in hypocritical ways. Organizations such as FIRE claim that the greatest threat to free expression on campuses has to do with protecting the “feelings” of oppressed groups on campuses. They frequently stand behind the invitations to provocative right-wing speakers such as Murray. They then position themselves as defenders of free speech when student protesters stand up to the speakers’ reactionary ideas. In this way, the call for “free speech” is being used as a bludgeon by the Right (and by compliant university administrators) against student protest. This is not limited to cases in which right-wing speakers come to campus. The mantle of free speech has also been used to discredit a variety of anti-oppression movements on campuses ranging from the movement against sexual violence6 to the movement against racism, from Missouri to Yale.7

The Far Right, which has been given legitimacy by the first six months of the Trump administration, has attempted to use the mantle of free speech to hide its deeply reactionary agenda. College campuses such as UC Berkeley have become rallying points for the forces of racist vigilantism to hide behind the banner of free speech. As Mukund Rathi has reported, Berkeley College Republicans invite racist provocateurs like Coulter and Yiannopoulos, calculating that they “have something to gain whichever way these events go.” If the event comes off successfully, they spread their ideas; if they are disrupted, they claim their free speech rights are being suppressed. “This provides further opportunities to organize behind the cloak of ‘free speech,’” notes Rathi, “a right that the Far Right wants tocurtailwhen it comes to other people.”8

In a particularly vile example of the right wing’s abuse of the mantle of free speech, the thirty-five-year-old white supremacist responsible for the murder of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best ranted the following, as he walked into the courtroom to face charges: “Free Speech or die, Portland! You got no safe place. This is America! Get out if you don’t like free speech.”9 And just days after the Portland attack, a twenty-four-year-old man attacked a transit worker while ranting about First Amendment rights.10

The right wing’s hypocritical use of free speech to attack the Left was on clear display this commencement season. When the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health invited Linda Sarsour to speak at its graduation ceremony, the Islamophobic right wing smeared Sarsour with claims that she supports “sharia law” and terrorism. Sarsour, an organizer of the January 21 Women’s March, came under attack, receiving death threats, and a rally against her led by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent when the Islamophobes attacked counterprotestors.11 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, was subjected to similarly racist and misogynist threats in the wake of her speech at Hampshire College’s commencement, where she described Trump as a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” She received a flood of death threats after Fox News aired a clip, forcing Taylor to cancel some scheduled speeches in light of credible threats on her life.12

Few of us would expect the bigoted mouthpieces of the right wing, such as Fox or Breitbart, to defend progressive or leftist speakers. But even the usual liberal suspects neglected to show up for Taylor or Sarsour. As Sarah Jones argues in New Republic,

It’s striking that [Taylor’s] situation has garnered almost no outrage from the usual free-speech defenders. There are no columns in the New York Times, or The Atlantic or New York magazine. There are no fevered tweets, no hand wringing on her behalf, Instead, we have yet another Times column about the excesses of college liberals.13

As Taylor pointed out on social media, these violent threats reveal the true nature of the Right and expose their claims to stand for any kind of “freedom”:

The Right usually does not show up with picket signs and rallies to oppose speakers they don’t like. They come in the night under the cover of social media assaults and night riding emails. We have to expose the sham of “free speech” the Right invokes for what it is: a demand for platforms aimed at demeaning, harassing, and intimidating the people they despise.14

The racist and bigoted character of this kind of harassment is worth highlighting. The Guardian newspaper commissioned a study of its own comments section in April of this year. The research looked into the 70 million comments left since 2006 and found that this kind of threatening speech is not distributed equally among writers. They found that the ten Guardian reporters who got the most threatening and dismissive commentary were all women and people of color. Those who received the least were all white men.15 These two examples in which progressive and left-wing speech has been countered with vile threats and intimidation are particularly egregious and must be taken seriously in the current context, in which there has been a significant rise in racist and bigoted murders and attacks.16

Free speech in the revolutionary socialist tradition

It is one thing to expose the hypocrisy of the Right’s pretended commitment to free speech, but what should be the position of the Left toward it?

Free speech, along with other democratic rights, such as the freedom of assembly, are rights that the socialist movement fights to defend, maintain, and expand. Contrary to the US nationalist myth, these rights are neither uniquely American, nor are they rights that were simply granted by the state. They are rights that were fought for and won by sacrifices and struggles waged by socialists, anarchists, communists, antiracists, suffragists, union militants, and the like. Every important democratic or civil right we have ever won in the United States—whether the right to organize a union, to assemble, to live and work where we please, or the right to vote—has been won through mass struggles that have pushed for the implementation and expansion of democratic rights. As recently as 1965, millions of Black people in the United States did not even have the legal right to vote; a mass movement lasting more than a decade changed that. These rights, moreover, are constantly being clawed back—as one example among many, think of the current systematic attack on the voting rights of poor, Black, and immigrant people.

As Alan Maass outlines in his article “Marxism and Democracy,” the struggle for socialism has always been about the expansion of democracy. Despite the legacy of Stalinism, which has unfortunately lived on, the tradition upheld in this journal—that of international socialism—has always rooted itself in expanding the rights that the elite enjoy to be truly and universally enjoyed.17 The Marxist tradition was founded in the struggle for democratic rights, and many of the rights that we currently have (while they are continually under attack and always partial) were actually concessions won by popular democratic movements in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and in ongoing struggles since the establishment of capitalism that continue to this day.

The entire struggle for the self-emancipation of the working class, the transformation of the working class from a class in itself into a class for itself, is predicated on the complete breaking open of democracy on a mass scale. This will require the expansion of the democratic rights that were cut short by the consolidation of capitalist rule. Our goal is to push democracy beyond the limited and partial political sphere to be more completely applied, and then also expanded into the economic realm. As Sam Farber points out in his recent Jacobin piece: “Indeed, breaking the ruling class control over socioeconomic power and establishing collective ownership depends on democracy: ‘the first step in the revolution by the working class,’ proclaimed The Communist Manifesto, ‘is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.’”18

As socialists, we know that even the right to go out onto the street and talk to people, distribute literature, and organize movements is a right for which some of our radical predecessors gave their lives. We shouldn’t, therefore, take these rights for granted. We know that we have them, however tenuous and under attack they are in different ways, because of the struggles waged by the soap-boxing antiwar socialists during World War I, the free-speech campaigns of the Wobblies, the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s, and the free speech movement of the 1960s—the list can go on. One can read up on some of these histories, for example of how the Wobblies stood up for free speech, and paid with their lives in their struggles to end wage theft and to stop World War I,19 or how the movement against racist hiring practices gave birth to the free speech movement at Berkeley.20

The economic structure of capitalism makes a mockery of free speech; billionaire conglomerates own and control the lion’s share of the media, while ordinary people struggle to have their voices heard, and social movements obviously lack similar resources to disseminate their ideas. As the old adage says: freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.

The very people who pretend to care about free speech rights today actually trample our democratic rights at every turn. One case in point: the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, is a noted First Amendment and freedom-of-speech scholar who defends the rights of people like Charles Murray to speak on campuses. While he does this, he is simultaneously expending millions of dollars in university resources to undo the democratically arrived at decision of graduate workers to unionize at the university.

The hypocrisy is tangible, because despite the claims of people like Bollinger, universities are not sites of democracy. In fact radical and progressive students have had to fight time and time again to win student group recognition, to fight against prohibitive regulations and security measures to hold events, and even to fight tooth and nail to have spaces that are not tightly regulated and controlled by the university. Student groups routinely fail to get campus recognition because bureaucrats decide they are too similar to another campus group. Rules governing student conduct have gotten much more stringent. More punitive consequences for student protesters have had a dampening effect on student activism. These regulations, rolled out at private and public universities around the country, will undoubtedly need to be targets of a new free speech movement as the Left grows in capacity to fight back. There are in addition many cases that could be cited of professors disciplined or fired by universities because of their antiracist and pro-Palestinian political views, such as Divya Nair, Joseph Massad, Norman Finkelstein, and Steven Salaita.21

In the Trump era, we will face more draconian and repressive laws, which is considerable when we consider what the Obama administration had already done to civil liberties. With the passage of Obama’s National Defense Authorization Act, whistleblowers already face harsher punishment for speaking out, surveillance on private citizens was expanded exponentially, and in general the government was given a huge amount of latitude in charging and prosecuting US citizens for collaborating with “terrorists.”22 In the context of this attack on civil liberties, the ruling class’s framing and uses of free speech is particularly hypocritical.

But the hypocrisy of those in power shouldn’t make us indifferent to free speech. If we are fighting for a future that is free from all tyranny, exploitation, and oppression, then it follows that on the way to achieve that we must fight for the expansion of all democratic rights in the here and now.

Hal Draper makes an important contribution to this way of approaching the question in his 1968 article “Free Speech and Political Struggle.”23 Draper draws a useful distinction between what is and is not a question of free speech, discussing the debates surrounding Dow, the chemical company that manufactured napalm B and was actively recruiting on campuses. If Dow were coming on a speaking tour to defend their decision to make and use napalm in Vietnam, Draper contended, then that would be an issue of speech (and they should be debated, not driven out). But Dow’s presence on campus was to conduct their business of war profiteering, and students had every right to prevent them from doing so.

This fact took the discussion out of the realm of speech and squarely into the necessity of confronting Dow’s action in perpetuating genocide against the Vietnamese people. The protest of Dow, then, wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment, but was in effect an exercise of first amendment rights by students against their university’s complicity with the war. This framework can be similarly applied to campaigns, for example, to get ROTC and other military recruiters off campuses,24 to convince Theresa May to disinvite Trump from visiting the UK,25 for Rutgers students and faculty to pressure the university to disinvite Condoleezza Rice as graduation speaker,26 or more recently, when thousands of alumni signed a petition to have Betsy DeVos’s invitation to speak at Bethune-Cookman University rescinded.

Socialists can benefit from developing this understanding of the difference between when freedom of speech is at stake and when power relations need to be challenged because a state or university is giving credence to reactionary actions through their institutions. The alumni at Bethune-Cookman do a great job of making this distinction in their petition, where they argue that DeVos shouldn’t be a graduation speaker (since it would be a photo-op for the Trump administration) but instead should be hosted in a context in which her ideas can actually be dissected and challenged and she would be forced to defend her deplorable ideas in public (which is not what happens at a graduation ceremony).27

Should the Left hold the view that right wingers should be denied the right to speak on college campuses? “There can be no contradiction, no gulf in principle between what is demanded of the existing state,” argued Draper, “and what we propose for the society we want to replace it, a free society.” Here, I think that Draper is saying that we should not place demands on the state that we wouldn’t want to see in a socialist society. This outlook, I think, underpins the idea that we should not be placing demands on either the state or institutions like colleges or universities to limit speech. Generally speaking, we shouldn’t sign on to or call for university administrations to restrict or ban speech on our campuses. There are a few reasons for this.

First, it will backfire and be used against us. If we are the ones arguing for the restriction of speech, the people who are in favor of depriving whole groups of people any freedoms at all will take the opportunity to present themselves as “victims” and promote themselves as defenders of free speech. But more importantly, if the state or the university can cancel a Republican Club speaker, we will be next. Anyone who has encountered difficult barriers when organizing around progressive issues knows that there are people in positions of power chomping at the bit to shut them down; so it really is a case of, “Be careful what you ask for.”

As Hal Draper argued,

Of all the juridical weapons we cannot entrust to a state machine that is not ours, the worst is the right to be selective about democratic rights. Because the state will make that weapon a double-edged one; and the sharp cutting edge will be used against the people, not the fascists, in the long run, if not the short.

This same position was taken by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In a 1938 article he argued, “Theory, as well as historic experience, testify that any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society, is eventually directed against the proletariat.”28 Those who argue that the workers’ revolution must take repressive measures in order to bring about a new society are conflating the tasks of a workers state under conditions of civil war—that is, a contest of power to decide which class will rule—with the demands placed on a bourgeois state in which workers need to open up the space for organization and dissent. “Today the government may seem well disposed towards workers’ organizations,” writes Trotsky,

Tomorrow it may fall, and it inevitably will, into the hands of the most reactionary elements of the bourgeoisie. In this case the existing repressive laws will be used against the workers. Only adventurists who think of nothing but the moment’s needs can fail to guard themselves against such a danger.

Second, and more importantly, banning speech is ineffective at stopping the growth of right-wing ideas. There’s an idealistic concept underpinning some of the appeals to have universities cancel speakers: that through stopping right-wing speeches, we will succeed at stopping the growth of the Right. As materialists, we understand that the basis of the growth of right-wing populism is in the economic crisis, and that these ideas exist and extend far beyond the confines of a campus. You can’t ban a mass phenomenon simply by trying to stops its expression on a particular campus.

We can’t protect people from bad ideas or surgically remove bad ideas from people’s brains. We have to actually win people to our ideas over the ideas of the right-wing populists, and we aren’t going to do that by asking the state or universities to stop them from speaking. Instead, we should be forcing them to debate us, and trying to actually expose them—and in some instances, confront them—not demanding the state or university close them down. When the ideas of someone like Charles Murray, for example, are used to dismantle the welfare state, it is not enough to deny him a platform: his ideas must be challenged, dissected, and publicly obliterated.

Here is how Draper, in short, summarizes the revolutionary socialist approach to free speech:

We want to push to the limit all the presuppositions and practices of the fullest democratic involvement of the greatest mass of people. To the limit: that is, all the way. No progressive social transformation is possible except insofar as the largest mass of plain people from way below in society start moving. And this movement both requires, and also helps to bring about, the fullest opening-up of society to democratic controls from below not their further restriction. It means the breaking up of anti-democratic limitations and restrictions. It means the greater unleashing of new initiatives from below.

The liberal and ultraleft stances on speech

In the Trump era we face a unique situation. Society is highly polarized with a growing and confident right wing, but also a resistance that has shown the potential for building the Left. The question is, how can we expand the resistance and draw in larger, more organized forces? The aim is to build a stronger left wing that can both challenge the assaults and pose an alternative to the politics of despair and scapegoating.

In this context we have seen debates emerge about how and on what basis to build a resistance to the Right, with different perspectives about freedom of speech emerging. We have seen three views of free speech emerge: the liberal, the ultraleft, and the revolutionary socialist. Draper, in his article on the topic says:

This kind of three-way division is not new: something like it has been seen in radical circles for a few hundred years, long before Dow invented napalm. Within movements of social dissent, there has always been a strong or dominant wing of reformists and reformers, on the one hand; and, on the other, there have also been the elitist and dictatorial currents of radicalism or “revolutionism,” more or less openly anti-democratic, often reflecting the aspirations of alienated intellectuals for a “dictatorship of the intelligentsia” which would permit them to impose their own “hierarchy of values” on the society they detested. Both of these have been quite distinct from the third current of revolutionary socialism-from-below.

We have seen the ascendance of the liberal approach to free speech, especially in reaction to the events at Middlebury. There are a few iterations of the argument, but the main thrust is that we should ignore the Right—“Don’t give them attention, that’s just what they want.” There is the kind of Enlightenment idea that there is a free marketplace of ideas; we shouldn’t do anything to challenge the Right’s speeches because in the free marketplace people will figure out what is right and moral. This approach was given a huge platform in a highly circulated statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” with hundreds of signatures from academics, alumni, and others.29 The statement begins:

The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

Language like this is familiar when it comes from university administrators trying to quell dissent and, of course, from conservatives like Robert George, one of its two authors. But George’s co-author is Cornel West, the radical scholar and activist, with a long history of protest and speaking truth to power.

The statement goes on to paint students who seek to protest deplorable ideas as trying to “immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities.” This line of argument echoes the rhetoric of the Right dating back to at least the 1980s, especially its “snowflake” claim: that young people in general and students in particular are self-indulgent brats who have been coddled and given too many participation trophies, and, as a result, can’t handle having their ideas challenged by someone that makes them feel “uncomfortable.”30

Here, the statement veers away from a liberal defense of free speech into the domain of actually smearing students who dare to use their own speech to challenge right-wing ideas. It abandons what should be a principle: we stand with students’ rights to protest and, if we have disagreements with their approach, we do so within a position of solidarity. At a moment when the conservative media is going after the anti-Murray protestors in racially coded language of “rioters” and “thugs,” we should expect better from the Left.

The ultraleft approach is summarized in the slogan of “no free speech for racists/fascists.” This slogan has been raised by those ranging from the Progressive Labor Party (Maoists) to black bloc groups who use tactics of property destruction and force to shut down speakers of the “Alt-right” and populist right. We saw this in Berkeley and Portland, Oregon when Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak, and at NYU when Gavin McInnes came to speak.

Hal Draper, in his article on free speech, talks about this outlook as rooted in the Marcusian31 idea that some principles can be compromised for your political enemies. Draper is arguing against Marcuse’s work of the day, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, in which Marcuse argues against freedom of speech for those whose ideas are in opposition to his, advocating an “educational dictatorship” of those with the right ideas. This Marcusian idea is rooted in a pessimistic and highly elitist concept of social change.

In the current political climate in which the right wing has trumpeted the cause of free speech hypocritically, a neo-Marcusian perspective has grown. As the recent PEN America report on campus free speech argues,

At times these [campus] controversies have led some groups of students to question the value of free speech itself. Students have asked whether free speech is being wielded as a political weapon to ward off efforts to make the campus more respectful of the rights and perspectives of minorities. They see free speech drawn as a shield to legitimize speech that is discriminatory and offensive. Some have argued that free speech is a prerequisite of the privileged, used to buttress existing hierarchies of wealth and power. Some have gone so far as to justify censorship as the best solution to protect the vulnerable on campus.32

The understandable frustration with the hypocritical ways that free speech is used by the right wing has thus pushed some to discard the principle of free speech altogether. This dismissiveness of the importance of free speech combined with the rising opinion among young people that it is OK for the government to censor offensive speech is damaging for the Left.33 By ceding the terrain of free speech to the right wing we provide legitimacy to their false claims. Instead of dismissing speech, we should point out the hypocritical ways that the right wing uses free speech, and then stand up as the most consistent defenders of our rights.

While the idea that the government should censor racist speech comes, in many ways, from a good place—that is, a rejection of racism—this outlook is limited by an incomplete and naive understanding of the role of the state under capitalism. As socialists, we understand that any restrictions on speech will be used first and foremost against the Left and the working class and the oppressed in general.

Some strategic considerations

For socialists, free speech is a right that guarantees that the state not censor speech, but not a right to speak uncontested from below. We understand that ideas can have a material impact in so far as they can embolden racist actors and in some cases lead to violence and increased marginalization of oppressed groups. While we will not call on any universities or state entities to suppress speech, we will contest their speech ourselves through protest, picketing, and mass interruptions when it is beneficial.

We need to examine on a case-by-case basis the nature of each speaker, and not give into the tendency to characterize everyone on the right as “fascist.” This is particularly important at a moment when the actual fascist movement is growing in this country. At every step of the way we need to consider each individual speaker and think not only about what can we do to protest their speech in the narrow sense, but also what we can do to delegitimize their ideas. The goal is to build the capacity of a broad-based mass movement to challenge and push back the Right. Protesting their speech may be part of this, but we shouldn’t let this get in the way of stopping their actions.

There will be times when we will disagree with allies who have a liberal or ultra-left stance on free speech, but we will also have moments of strategic agreement. For example, although we disagree with the liberal stance on speech, there will be times when free speech is under attack that we will work closely with liberals to defend our rights. We can work closely with liberals who actually want to protest the Right while working against the liberals who want to “leave them alone.” Similarly, while we disagree with the ultra-left dismissal of freedom of speech, there will be times when we align with anarchists who also see that we cannot make demands on the state or on universities to restrict speech.

One of the repercussions of the retreat of the Left in defending free speech principles is that it has contributed to the shifting of the terms of the debate against the right to protest. Now the movement is out on a limb. We are in a place where we have to stand up for the right to even challenge the Right and protest their vitriolic speakers. But among those of us who agree that we need to protest and challenge them, we must also discuss how and to what end. We have seen the numbers of people who are willing to challenge the Right shrink in some places, and now we have to rebuild our capacity to do so.

For some, shutting down right-wing speakers is an end in itself. This corresponds to the strain of the movement for whom confronting the Right always means using force no matter the circumstances. In a moment where there is impatience and frustration with liberalism and the inability of the Democratic Party to pose an alternative or to fight the right wing, a sense of frustration can develop. The politics of voluntarism—when a small number of people act on behalf of, or in place of, mass action—have played out in a number of protests and are exemplified by the anarchist black bloc.34

Voluntarism can have a very damaging impact on the movement in a number of ways: It can provide an excuse for the state to crack down on the movement, allow the Right to present themselves as victims of persecution, demobilize people, relegating them to be spectators of the street battle, and generally weaken the movement and make it more vulnerable by separating the smaller left-wing forces from the sympathetic and much larger forces who could potentially stop the Right. All of these outcomes can contribute to the shrinking back of the mass character of the movement, rendering it less capable of stopping the growth of the Right.

At every turn we ask ourselves if the tactics that we choose will embolden the mass movement or undermine it. So if challenging a right-wing speaker with large groups of people will help to do that, then we will argue for that, build it, and engage in it. And if in the process of challenging their ideas, unfurling banners, heckling, interrupting, and protesting in large numbers, the right wing decides to call off their event in the face of massive unpopularity, and the confidence and clarity of our side has grown, we have a victory.

But if, in the process, the masses of protestors are relegated to the sidelines by a handful of provocateurs, that is not a victory. Our goal is not to “shut down” speech, but to exercise our own free-speech rights through mass mobilization—to the point of making the right-wing speech untenable. And if we have a choice between being a part of a militant challenge of speech that grows and builds the ranks of the movement overall but does not prevent the speech from happening, and a speech that is shut down by a handful of people acting on behalf of the movement and relegating everyone else to the status of spectators, we should choose the first.

When the mass movement is displaced, as in the case of the anti-Milo protests at UC Berkeley, it can have the impact of actually demobilizing the broader movement, because the message is that a small number of people prepared to engage in street-fighting is sufficient to challenge the Right. Some claimed that the black bloc action in Berkeley was a victory; but its impact was to demobilize the movement and discourage subsequent protests, making it very difficult, for example, to organize against Ann Coulter a few months later.

Trotsky, in Their Morals and Ours, argues that means are not separate from the ends but are part and parcel of arriving at the desired end:

“Just the same,” the moralist continues to insist, “does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?” Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.35

We can’t dictate in advance the best means to achieve a goal, but we can say that only those means are permissible that build the confidence and fighting capacity of the working-class movement, which is the sole basis upon which a successful social movement that not only confronts the right-wing attacks, but also builds a more just society, can be successful. The role of the masses of workers and oppressed people in achieving their own liberation is not for us merely a goal for the distant future, but informs our vision for the movement of the present. In “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,” Trotsky argues: “In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.”36 This is a generalizable point that is not just about individual acts of terrorism; the point also applies to individual or small group acts of property damage or provocation. There is no great avenger or liberator—only mass struggle is capable of achieving real victories.

Challenging right-wing speech, therefore, is only part of our movement. The more important—though not unrelated—work is to challenge the entire panoply of attacks on the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. Our work is to challenge Trump’s austerity budget, to save Medicaid and Medicare and public education; to stop deportations, challenge Islamophobia, and defend abortion rights; and to stop police killings of Black people; to defend worker and union rights. We need to be building new and democratic networks and organizations that can knit together the burgeoning resistance. The challenging of speakers when they come to spread their vile hate, should be part of this, but should not be seen as a replacement for this, or an end in and of itself. It should be subordinate to the needs of building a movement that can push back the attacks on workers and oppressed people as a whole.

The right wing will continue to cynically and hypocritically claim the mantle of free speech to promote their reactionary agenda. We should relearn our own history: the history of the free speech movement, of the labor movement, and the abolitionist movement, and others. These are the people and traditions that can truly claim that mantle of free speech because they won it for us through long, hard struggle. On their shoulders we can reclaim and defend freedom of speech for all, all the while building a bigger and broader Left that effectively challenges the Right.

  1. Samantha Raphelson, “States Consider Legislation to Protect Speech on Campus,” NPR, May 5, 2017,
  2. Stephen Jay Gould, “Curveball,” New Yorker, November 28, 1994.
  3. David Love, “How Standardized Testing Maintains Achievement Gap, Perpetuates Black Self-Doubt and Self-Hatred,” Atlanta Black Star, November 8, 2016,
  4. Katharine Q. Seelye, “Protesters Disrupt Speech by ‘Bell Curve’ Author at Vermont College,” New York Times, March 3, 2017; Paul Fleckenstein, “What Happened at the Middlebury Protest?” Socialist Worker, March 13, 2017,
  5. For a good overview of the Right’s use of the term “politically correct” as a stick to beat its opponents, see Lance Selfa, “The Crusade Against Political Correctness,” Socialist Worker, December 8, 2015,; and Moira Weigel, “Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy,” Guardian, November 30, 2015,
  6. “Campus Sexual Violence and Freedom of Speech,” Faculty Against Rape statement,
  7. Jelani Cobb, “Race and the Free Speech Diversion,” New Yorker, November 10, 2015,
  8. Mukund Rathi, “What Will It Take to Stop the Right in Berkeley?” Socialist Worker, May 23, 2017,
  9. Maxine Bernstein, “Man Accused in MAX Attack Confessed to Stabbing Said I’m Happy Now. I’m Happy Now,” Oregon Live, June 2, 2017,
  10. Molly Harbarger, “Man Arrested After MAX Driver Assaulted,” Oregon Live, June 3, 2017,
  11. Sarah Gabrielli and Right Schapiro, “Milo-Yiannopoulos-Led Protest Against CUNY Commencement Speaker Turns Violent”, New York Daily News, May 25, 2017, “
  12. “Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Cancels Speeches Amid Death Threats, Democracy Now, June 2, 2017,
  13. Sarah Jones, “Where Is the Outrage for Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor?” New Republic, Minutes blog, June 2, 2017,
  14. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Facebook post, June 2, 2017.
  15. Becky Gardiner et al, “The Dark Side of Guardian Comments,” Guardian,
  16. International Socialist Organization, “Stand Up for the Victims of Racist Hate” Socialist Worker, June 2, 2017,
  17. Alan Maass, “Marxism and Democracy,” Socialist Worker, March 10, 2017,
  18. Sam Farber, “A Socialist Approach to Free Speech,” Jacobin, February 27, 2017.
  19. See, for example, Arnold Stead, Always on Strike: Frank Little and the Western Wobblies (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).
  20. An archive of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, compiled by FSM veterans, can be found here: The best book on the subject, written by a participant and close observer in 1967, is Hal Draper’s Berkeley: The New Student Revolt (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010).
  21. See Dorian Bon, “Who’s Behind the Free Speech Crisis on Campus?,” Socialist Worker, April 12, 2017,
  22. Mike Stivers interview with Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky: Obama’s Attack on Civil Liberties Has Gone Way Beyond Imagination,” Alternet, April 26, 2013,
  23. Hal Draper, “Free Speech and Political Struggle,” Center for Socialist History,
  24. Nicole Colson, “Counter Recruitment Fight Spreads, Socialist Worker, April 8, 2005,
  25. Adam Payne, “Theresa May’s Government Has Rejected a Petition to Ban Trump from Visiting Britain,” Business Insider, February 14, 2017,
  27. Emma G. Fitzimmons, “Condoleezza Backs Out of Rutgers Speech After Student Protests,” New York Times, May 3, 2014,
  28. The petition can be found here:
  29. Leon Trotsky, “Freedom of the Press and the Working Class” (1938),
  31. Lance Selfa, “The Crusade Against Political Correctness.”
  32. After Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose ideas influenced sections of the New Left of the 1960s.
  33. Quoted in Robbie Sloave, “Pen America’s Report on Campus Speech Gets the Yale Debacle Really Wrong,”
  34. Jacob Poushter, “40% of Millenials OK with Limiting Speech Offensive to Minorities,” Pew Research Center, November 20, 2015,
  35. Sarah Levy, “Why Black Bloc Tactics Weaken Our Struggle,” Socialist Worker, May 11, 2017,; Wael Elasady, “Hard Facts About Portland’s May Day ‘Riot,’” Socialist Worker, May 4, 2017,
  36. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (1938), Marxists Internet Archive,
  37. Leon Trotsky, “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism” (November 1911),


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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