Free speech is under attack. Israel's imperialist allies are losing the war of public opinion as they struggle to justify the brutal collective punishment of Palestinian men, women and children. In response, they are clamping down on Pro-Palestinian voices to an extent that would make Senator Joseph McCarthy proud. This outrageous censorship and repression has major implications for the class struggle in the future – the labour movement must respond.
We are told that, in democratic societies, you can say what you like: the law only intervenes to protect the public with reasonable limits on hate speech, incitement to violence, terror threats and so on. As the British government’s ‘Free Speech Tsar’ Arif Ahmed said in the Telegraph:
“You can castigate the monarchy or defend it. You can argue that Britain is fundamentally racist – or that it never was. You can speak or write as a Marxist, a post-colonial theorist, a gender-critical feminist, or anything else – if you do it within the law.”
Yet consider the following by Robin Simcox, head of the British Home Office-appointed Commission for Countering Extremism, speaking about peaceful pro-Palestine demonstrations:
“Some of those whose jubilation and support for Hamas’s pogrom was literal and explicit have rightly been arrested. But the overwhelming majority have been careful to construe their public displays of support just below the legal threshold for hate crime, glorification of terror, or public order offences” [our emphasis].
It seems these dastardly terrorist sympathisers have a novel strategy for avoiding arrest: deliberately not breaking the law! They are, Simcox continues: “successfully exploiting one of our proudest British values, freedom of expression, to pursue a shameful extremist agenda” [our emphasis].
But what ‘extreme’ views are beyond the pale? Facing pressure from the most reactionary wing of the Tories and right-wing press, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, asked for “clarity” on the matter:
"There is scope to be much sharper in how we deal with extremism within this country. The law was never designed to deal with extremism, there's a lot to do with terrorism and hate crime but we don't have a body of law that deals with extremism, and that is creating a gap” [our emphasis].
In other words: “the police don’t have the legal justification to shut down pro-Palestine marches – so we need more powers!” Already, anti-Zionist and left-wing groups in Britain have faced police harassment, and hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested. Ahead of protests on 24 November, the Met issued a warning that “officers [have] been briefed on chants, including those which cross the line of the law” – without detailing what these are – and threatened that anyone committing offences would be “swiftly dealt with.”
Many of the arrests at Palestine demonstrations in London and Met Police ‘wanted’ posts on social media in recent weeks have not resulted in charges, as they have no legal basis whatsoever, or they are based on hearsay and malicious allegations by Zionists. The aim is not to prosecute hate crime nor incitement to violence, but rather to intimidate, harass and criminalise Palestine solidarity activists and actions with the hope of cowing the movement into inactivity or self-policing.
The ruling class justifies these curbs and attacks on basic freedoms of speech and assembly under the guise of “preserving public order” and “fighting antisemitism”. One is reminded of Marx’s observation (ironically echoed by Mr Ahmed above) that one can express any opinion in a democracy, so long as it does not contravene “equal rights of others and the public safety”. However, Marx adds the caveat that, since the bourgeoisie writes the laws that protect ‘public safety’ in the first place (“that is, the safety of the bourgeoisie”), it can always narrow the legal limits of free speech if it feels its interests are under threat:
“Thus so long as the name of freedom was respected and only its actual realisation prevented, of course in a legal way, the constitutional existence of liberty remained intact, inviolate, however mortal the blows dealt to its existence in actual life.”
But this is a dangerous game for the bourgeoisie today. The crisis of capitalism at all levels means they are in a weak position, and by coming down too hard they risk shattering democratic illusions that are important pillars of their rule, especially with the majority of the public opposed to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Despite the urging of fervent reactionaries like ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the British ruling class has not outlawed demonstrations for Palestine (yet). However, the ruling classes elsewhere in the West have already gone much further in this direction.
Palestine solidarity protests have been restricted in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and have been banned outright in some cities, including Berlin. They were initially outlawed in France after the 7 October attack, and there are reports of demonstrators receiving fines of 135 EUR simply for wearing keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf. Left-wing political parties have been threatened with dissolution for supporting Palestine, and leading trade unionists have faced arrest for the same.
These outrageous measures will doubtlessly undermine already dire levels of trust in the establishment, and further radicalise a section of workers and young people, who are seeing their basic freedoms eroded in order to stifle protest against an ongoing massacre.
Free speech – for whom?
While the state shifts the legal goalposts, the ‘free press’ provides a moral cover by whipping up a mood of hysteria. Ever since the 7 October attack, the capitalist press in the west has launched a propaganda offensive portraying Israel as the sole injured party, ignoring the preceding 75 years of brutal occupation faced by the Palestinians, and painting the murderous IDF campaign against Gaza as ‘self defence.’
At the same time, the papers and news stations spit endless venom that peaceful Pro-Palestinian protests, hundreds of thousands strong, are in fact pro-Hamas, antisemitic, terror-supporting hate marches, beyond the bounds of acceptable free speech. Of course, this is all accompanied with appalling racism and fear-mongering towards Muslims and migrants, including suggestions that they should have their visas revoked, or face mass deportation to curb the dangers of ‘extremism’.
Police harassment of the Palestine solidarity movement. Yesterday at the London demo, Met cops were filming the speeches at the Communist Bloc 1/ pic.twitter.com/EKfrjEgJsJ— Jorge Martin ☭ (@marxistJorge) November 26, 2023
The media presents a totally lopsided view of the conflict, with Israeli spokespersons regularly invited onto western television to present their point of view, while Pro-Palestinian voices or Palestinians themselves are seldom given any fair hearing. Meanwhile, the entire western political establishment also forms a united front behind Israel, so any politicians given a platform can be relied upon to toe the line.
Online, the big social media platforms owned by the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have been accused of “shadowbanning” pro-Palestinian users, limiting their reach. Musk has explicitly warned that anyone posting the slogan “from the river to the sea” or calling for the “decolonisation” of Israel-Palestine will be banned from Twitter/X.
This all begs the question – free speech for whom? All people do not have equal means to spread their opinions. Just six companies (National Amusements, NewsCorp, TimeWarner, ComCast, Sony Paramount and Disney) own essentially all significant private media outlets. These megacorporations are in turn owned by billionaire oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch, a staunch defender of capitalist interests, who also happens to have important business dealings with Israel.
These tycoons are the paid propagandists of capitalism and imperialism, and bring their considerable clout to bear in shaping a narrative favourable to Israel. State mouthpieces like the BBC follow much the same line, demanding that any pro-Palestinian guest ritualistically ‘condemn Hamas’ before letting them speak. Meanwhile, Israel’s crimes face only the mildest scrutiny, if any.
Moreover, we find the same voices in the ‘free press’ who previously accused the ‘illiberal left’ of shutting down dissenting points of view, now enthusiastically seeking to ‘cancel’ the pro-Palestine movement.
The about-face has been neck breaking. For example, the Tory-supporting Telegraph published an article on 4 September 2023 entitled: ‘It’s time the West admitted free speech is dead’, complaining about legal and professional consequences for right wingers speaking their minds. Just weeks later, it released a flurry of articles calling pro-Palestinian demonstrations hate marches that ought to be banned.
The same newspaper also accused student comrades of the IMT of inciting violence by speaking about intifada (which simply means a mass uprising); and endorsed the intimidation of the University of Oxford branch of the academic union, UCU, into cancelling its meeting where a solidarity motion with Palestine was due to be discussed.
This is especially ironic, given the Telegraph has for years been on the frontlines of right-wing culture war scaremongering about attacks on ‘freedom of speech’ in universities. We see how these bourgeois hypocrites preach the creed of free expression precisely until it is used to oppose capitalist interests.
No free speech under capitalism
The present situation has echoes of the postwar Red Scare, in which FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy trampled all over democratic and constitutional rights in their rabid persecution of (real and imagined) communist sympathisers in the USA. This was justified as a response to the “clear and present danger” of communist revolution.
Today, there is a “clear and present danger” of opposition to Israel’s crimes becoming a focal point for the class struggle. The ruling class fears an outpouring of anger that it might not be able to control. As a result, in addition to direct state repression, it foments a witch-hunt atmosphere to curb dissenting opinions.
Public figures have been censured, suspended or sacked for criticising Israel, including Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and British Labour MP Andy MacDonald. Another Labour MP, Apsana Begum, has endured a hail of racist abuse for expressing solidarity with Gaza. The small handful of pro-Palestinian journalists have had their articles censored, including (ironically) a Guardian column comparing the suppression of Palestine solidarity to McCarthyism!
Cultural figures are also under pressure. Football pundit Gary Lineker has faced a deluge of press bile and demands to be dropped by the BBC for approvingly retweeting an interview with an Israeli academic accusing Israel of genocide. Meanwhile, actors Susan Sarandon and Melissa Barrera have been sacked from film roles or dropped by talent agencies for exercising the ‘democratic right’ to criticise Israel and Zionism, recalling the infamous McCarthyite blacklist of alleged communist sympathisers in Hollywood.
These celebrity cases are only the tip of the iceberg, countless ordinary people have faced repercussions for sharing pro-Palestine views, particularly on social media. US-based advocacy organisation Palestine Legal reports over 260 cases of people’s livelihoods or careers being targeted, including the (Jewish) editor-in-chief of an academic journal was fired for sharing a satirical article condemning IDF atrocities. Meanwhile, students in Harvard remain at the centre of a right-wing media storm for accusing Israel of provoking the 7 October attack.
Communists and left-wing organisations have borne the brunt of state repression and media slander. Four members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (CPGB-ML) were recently arrested in London over the cover of one of their booklets against Zionism. Bail conditions for their release include a ban on giving out or selling any literature at demonstrations and rallies, effectively imposing a gag order. At the same Palestine demonstration in London, a young girl was given a "public order offence" charge (‘acts of violence or intimidation in public’) for carrying a sign saying "genocide is not self defence".
Comrades of the IMT giving speeches at the rallying point of the Communist Bloc were also provocatively filmed by the Met Police intelligence gathering unit.
Furthermore, our meetings have been banned, our groups have been targeted by the right-wing press, and our comrades have faced legal harassment. Three of our British comrades had a public manhunt instigated against them by the Met police, on the basis of bogus accusations. We fully expect further attacks in future.
Yet we refuse to back down. We offer no apologies. Despite the old Cold War song that communism is inherently ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘dictatorial’, it is the bourgeoisie that openly supports curtailment of basic liberties, while only communists mount a practical defence of these hard-won concessions.
Indeed, communists have always opposed the erosion of democratic rights. The Programme of the French Workers’ Party, co-written by Marx in 1880, takes as its first political demand: “Abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations and above all the law against the International Working Men's Association.”
However, unlike the liberals and reformists, communists’ defence of democratic rights like freedom of speech does not come from a superstitious belief in their universal, suprahistorical character. Instead, we understand that these freedoms are handholds and weapons, extracted through class struggle, by which the working-class can fight for its interests. And moreover, that any restriction of these rights will be exploited by the ruling class down the road to attack our class.
As night follows day, any new limits on ‘extreme’ points of view over the question of Palestine will be extended to demands for a general strike, the abolition of the Monarchy, or an end to capitalism, or revolution, as the class struggle intensifies.
The ruling class has already been sharpening its weapons in anticipation of battles to come. In Britain for instance, a raft of new restrictions on the right to legally protest and strike have been introduced in the wake of Black Lives Matter, protests by environmentalist groups like Just Stop Oil, and rising trade union struggle. The war in Gaza offers another opportunity for the ruling class and its agents to tighten the screws further.
The crimes of Israel and its imperialist allies must be opposed through class struggle methods: protests, strikes, sit downs, and blockades targeting those industries that feed the Israeli war machine. Beyond this, the left and labour movement must resist any attempts at censorship or repression. This is not simply for the sake of the Palestine solidarity movement, but for the sake of all future struggles. An injury to one is an injury to all!
As long as a tiny minority hold all the levers of the economy and state, ordinary people will have no real ‘freedom’ to express their points of view outside of the narrow limits permitted by the ruling class. Genuine free speech for the majority requires an end to poverty; democratic workers’ control over the press; and the abolition of the capitalist system, which subjugates the vast majority of humanity, denying millions a voice.