During 2005 in Britain, a group of influential writers published a book entitled ‘Free Expression is No Offence’. It was published by PEN, an organisation which declared it;; ‘champions freedom of expression everywhere and the right of writers, artists and indeed anyone to say whatever they feel without fear of persecution or penalty‘. The editors and contributors to this volume, were energised to put pen to paper in order to defend the hard won enlightenment right to free speech. The catalyst for their essays was a government proposal to restrict criticism of religious forms of belief. The government were at the planning stage of creating an offence of ‘Incitement to religious hatred‘. More recently, in August 2011, two young men were convicted and jailed for suggesting on face book that a riot should take place. A riot did not take place and the two youngsters in question did not turn up at the proposed venue. No crime had actually been committed except a newly contrived crime of thinking and writing words someone didn‘t like.
So something is happening to the principle of free expression in the UK. In the 21st century, the ‘establishment’ in England (right wing and liberal) had clearly lost its grip on the economy and now seemed bent on losing its grip on rationality. Not two months after the above ‘reactionary’ punishment, apparently a solidarity movement in the UK decided to refuse its members the right to think or say anything which denied any aspect of the received Holocaust’ narrative or diminish the importance of it. Let me declare my own position on this insidious and dangerous precedent of outlawing free expression. I have taught holocaust studies and that I think those who deny the main outlines of the genocide perpetrated against Jews, Socialists, Trade Unionists, gypsies, Slavs and Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Nazi’s are wrong. However, although I may disagree with everything such revisionist writers suggest, I will defend, and others also ought to defend, their right to express their views. Why? Because to turn the clock back to previous centuries of mind control where those in power decide what is acceptable and what is to be outlawed and criminalised, is a far more retrograde step than the expression of any view considered offensive, by no matter whom. Let me explain why I think this might be so.
Throughout recorded history there have been only three forms of society where in peace time, what a person thinks and says has been transformed into a punishable crime. The first form comprised of those societies dominated by religious autocrats whose power and influence was sufficiently strong to declare any view they disapproved of as heretical and deserving censure or punishment. Anyone questioning the received dogma of the time was interrogated, invited to recant, often tortured and frequently burned at the stake or dispatched by the dagger, if they did not. The second form was those forms of Fascism, such as Nazism, which sought, and largely achieved, control of what people openly thought and said. Concentration camps and prisons were full of those dissenting individuals who were not summarily eliminated. The third form occurred in the Bolshevised Soviet bloc, where thought and speech control were also largely achieved – at least in public. In this case, those identified as critics, who survived torture or assassination, frequently found themselves in a prison or gulag. Indeed, it is the latter form of totalitarianism which the author George Orwell pilloried in his famous book 1984, from which I have borrowed the term ‘thought crime‘ in the title of this piece. Although fictional, the narrative of ‘1984’ bore an uncanny resemblance to the reality of Soviet Russia under Stalin. Orwell suggested the authoritarian anti-dote to thought crime should be termed ’Crimestop’. He describes this as follows;
“Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.” (Orwell page 220-221)
It is interesting how well this describes, the modern analogue of the process of ‘Crimestop’ which is of course the almost oxymoronic expression, ‘political correctness’. Yet politics, the arena in which this ‘correctness’ primarily originates and operates, is also the source of spinning incorrectness into a semblance of being correct. This occurs despite the fact that practically everyone knows that politicians economy with the truth is tantamount to lying – or ‘New-speak‘ as Orwell termed it. In contrast to such previously noted totalitarian forms of thought-control, modern democratic movements, confident of their universality have hitherto championed ‘free speech’ and the free expression noted above. Its advocates have also from time to time, vigorously promoted motto’s such as; ‘I may detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.‘ Such concern for independent thinking and critical dialogue was completely in line with the 18th and 19th century needs of the technical and social sciences and directly against those of religious and other more secular forms of dogma and intolerance. Such principles were developed by the enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke in the earlier 17th century. Writing about the type of person who vigorously defended thinking they had ‘borrowed’ from tradition or other forms of authority, he made the following comments:
“Now if, after all his profession, he cannot bear any opposition to his opinion, if he cannot so much as give a patient hearing, much less examine and weigh the arguments on the other side, does he not plainly confess it is prejudice governs him? And is it not the evidence of truth, but some lazy anticipation, some beloved presumption that he desires to rest undisturbed in? For if what he holds to be true, what need he fear to put it to the proof?” (Locke Essay ‘On the Conduct of the Understanding.)
Locke and the many enlightenment thinkers conducted a fierce struggle for the right of people to assess the evidence for themselves and to openly articulate their views, no matter what received dogma or vested interest it contradicted. The above was not an untypical argument throughout subsequent centuries and the same theme was re-visited by Karl Popper during the Second World War. Against the background of massive casualties and unprecedented suffering, in the war against Nazism, Popper’s contribution to the anti-Nazi effort was to articulate what criteria he thought an Open Society – as distinct from a closed one – should be founded upon. One of the important criteria he noted was rationalism. He reasoned;
“Rationalism is therefore bound up with the idea that the other fellow has a right to be heard, and to defend his arguments…..Ultimately, in this way rationalism is linked up with the recognition of the necessity of social institutions to protect freedom of criticism, freedom of thought and thus freedom of men…..The very fact that rationalism is critical, whilst irrationalism must tend toward dogmatism (where there is no argument, nothing is left but full acceptance or flat denial), leads in this direction. Criticism always demands a certain degree of imagination, whilst dogmatism suppresses it.” (Popper. Open Society and its Enemies. Volume 2 page 238-239.)
Millions died during the second world war in the effort, at least in part, to protect the above noted rationalist notion of freedom; freedom of criticism and freedom of thought. More recently it seems, in the above noted moves to introduce penalties for ‘causing offence’ by what is said and written and those awarded to the youngsters who advocated riot, that it is now irrationalism which stalks the living rooms of the dominant classes of middle and upper Britain. This ’reaction’ is prompted no doubt by fear. Fear among the politicians of losing the religious vote and fear among those who have much more than enough that the ‘have-nots’ will start to rebel against them. Its seems when privilege is threatened by crises suddenly the much heralded freedoms of expression are no longer useful and are deemed inconvenient. They are to be restricted or penalised. In some countries, legal constraints have now been imposed on what has become termed historical revisionism. So it seems that most areas of historical narrative or received opinion – as yet – can be openly questioned and critically examined, with the exception of three – religious forms of belief, advocating insurrection and the ‘holocaust‘. And now apparently, the British Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and some socialists, not waiting for a right-wing bourgeois government to implement further draconian ‘crime-thought’ measures, have decided to anticipate them and lead the way – backward.
Let me say at this juncture that I am a great fan of Karl Marx, who, in anticipation of what follows, has also been described as anti-Semitic for his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’. I have read that essay and do not find it an example of Marx displaying an anti-Semitic prejudice. However, before I indicate Marx’s position on the right to criticise, let me continue with the above philosopher, who incidentally took a dim view of some of Marx’s suggestions. However, despite his disregard for Marx, Popper did have something of importance to say with respect to the notion of historical interpretation. In a section on historicism, Popper noted that;
“..since each generation has its own troubles and problems, and therefore its own interests and its own point of view, it follows that each generation has a right to look upon and re-interpret history in its own way,….To sum up, there can be no history of ‘the past as it actually did happen’; there can only be historical interpretations and none of them final;…not only has it [each generation] a right to frame its own interpretations, it also has an obligation to do so.” (K. Popper. ‘Open Society and its Enemies‘. Vol. 2 Page 267-268. Emphasis added)
So in advocating institutions to protect ‘freedom of expression’ and later championing the ‘right to re-interpret history’ Popper demonstrated his commitment to a form of progressive ‘open’ bourgeois democracy, which has apparently been abandoned by the right-wing political class in the 21st century, with, it must be said, the enthusiastic applause of some so-called socialists. It perhaps indicates the degeneration of intellectual life in Britain in particular and Europe in General, that such prescient insights of those by Popper, and those of Marx to follow, remain unknown or ignored by the political classes and those who class socialist politics as their realm of activity. Indeed, many of the political activists calling themselves socialists and even Marxists have fallen victim to the pressure or seduction of naïve, dualistic ’political correctness’. Some have simplistically added their voices to those of ‘liberal’ and right-wing persuasion in condemning criticism of religious forms of belief – as if religion offered anything other than mystical confusion and further potential sectarian divisions. As Marx had noted, religion has become the ’Opium of the People’. Rigorous critical historical re-interpretation was also something which Marx had pioneered in his own historical analysis of social and economic systems – also described as ‘hateful‘ by some. Yet it has apparently left the front of the minds, if it ever took residence there, of those who describe themselves fully or partially as Marxists, that Marx was the clearest exponent of the call for criticism that he made to others. It was a guideline he never departed from;
“I am speaking a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge September 1843.)
So with the right to free expression and ruthless criticism of everything existing, in mind we can consider a few further examples of this in action by turning to the question of Zionism and the Jewish State of Israel. In doing so we find that the Jewish author Norman Finkelstein, in the wake of his researches, was not afraid to draw the conclusions which arose from it. Nor was he afraid of the Zionist powers that be. Calling the Holocaust an ‘Industry’ used to extract money from Europe, as he did, was certainly construed as disrespecting the sanctity of this institution, and the Zionists made their anger clear. Many ’socialists initially jumped on the Zionist bandwagon that Norman was an anti-Semite. People were advised by some socialists not to read his book. The career and personal life of Norman Finkelstein has also suffered at the hands of the Zionists as a consequence of his not being afraid. Another Jewish scholar, Schlomo Sand, concluded in his well researched book that the concept of the ‘Jewish People’ was an ‘Invention’. He has also not been afraid of the conclusions of his research or the powers that be in his own community and this has earned him hostility from Zionist Jews. Another recent case was with Illan Pappe who felt so threatened that he felt he and his family had to leave Israel. It would appear, from the evidence of threats and actions against these authors, that some Jews are totally and actively against other Jews expressing their point of view and publishing their research. More recently, Gilad Atzmon, as part of his support for the rights of Palestinians, has produced a book entitled ’The Wandering who?’ in which he de-constructs what he calls an ideology of ’Jewishness’. He has done so in an effort to explain how it is that very few people identifying with this ideology, condemned the genocidal bombing of Gaza during operation Cast Lead, and very few campaign for a full return of the Palestinian property and rights taken in 1948.
Interestingly, Gilad Atzmon’s latest book has provoked even more ire from a section of activists who class themselves as socialists. This is not the first time he has angered them by what he has said, but again instead of engaging in detail with his arguments, and encouraging others to do so, these sectarians make do with poorly constructed hatchet jobs. One such attempted hatchet job has been served up by Andy Newman in typical proto-Stalinist style outburst entitled ‘Root out this hate speech’ (Guardian 26 September 2011). Note that the title refers to ‘rooting out speech‘, even when the initiating subject for the article is a book. Anyone reading it will not find one quote from Gilad Atzmon’s book. Instead, the writer accuses Atzmon of a ‘wild conspiracy argument‘, when in fact in the book Atzmon actually rules a conspiracy out. So lacking in analysis of Atzmon‘s book, is this article, that another writers views are dragged in – and again with no quotations. The 16th century protestant author Luther, also dragged in, does in fact get a brief quote, which is used to incriminate Christianity in the origin of anti-Semitism. However, this quote has nothing whatsoever to do with either the book in question or Atzmon’s own Jewish origins. The author of this Guardian article comments that ‘well-meaning people fail to recognise anti-Semitism’ yet he ‘fails’ to help ‘well-meaning people’ by offering a definition of what he construes as anti-Semitism. This is perhaps not too surprising for it might prove embarrassing if his definition failed to convince people and contradicted his purpose. I suggest a definition should be along the lines of; ‘a phobic dislike or hatred based upon presumed characteristics which are applied to all’. This would also define all types of racism. In pursuing an alternative task to enlightenment, Andy Newman also introduces the 19th century anti-Semitic invention of a racial category for Jews, yet omits to inform the reader that Atzmon in his book explicitly rejects such a racial categorisation of Jews.
Not content with disparaging Atzmon‘s book without providing evidence, he also castigates others on the left and Indymedia for not condemning Atzmon. Apparently he does not recognise – or cannot countenance – that there must be a reason for their support or lack of condemnation. But note; here we have evidence that some ‘socialists’ are also against some Jews expressing their views – if those views conflict with their own. It is here that we can begin to recognise the sectarian nature of this so-called 20th century ‘socialist’ tactic. Anyone who does not agree with the sect (including other socialists and some Jews) must be off their heads and therefore ‘rooted out‘. Importantly, the sectarian tactic also includes producing diatribes which smear and assert in order to prejudice others not to read certain books and not make their own minds up about them. In other words, these socialists promote extreme prejudice against some Jews, in the name of non-prejudice against Jews. Interestingly, this type of ’socialist’ prefers to make up peoples minds on important issues for them, which is exactly what this pathetic article is intended to do. It just embarrassingly happens to be exactly the same method used by the previously mentioned Stalinists and Nazis. The Nazis, many of them ex-socialists, actually rooted out free expression by burning books by authors they detested. The Stalinists, who considered themselves ’socialists’ for example, did not want the soviet people to read Trotsky’s (and other oppositionists) actual words, so also just served up smears, distortions, out of context extracts and false positions hoping the people would trust these distortions. Sadly, through fear, laziness, or naïve trust, too many soviet citizens listened to the Stalinist sectarian distortions. In the end the Stalinist socialists ‘rooted out’ Trotsky’s ‘hate speech’ against Stalin by burying an ice-pick in the back of his head. Those are the inevitable and eventual consequences of ‘closed’ societies. People should explore, if they haven’t already, the terrible things that happened to Soviet citizens as a consequence of this failure to find out what was valid and what was false for themselves.
But don’t take my word for it. In contrast to what these ’crime-thought’ activists advocate I would encourage people to read their literature, scrutinise it carefully develop their own crap-detectors, read opposing views and come to their own conclusions. And of course do the same with Gilad Atzmon’s book. Read it and criticisms of it, and make your own mind up. Read my material in the book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle’ and on the blog critical-mass.net – read criticisms of my work and make up your own mind. We are in the middle of a deep and long-lasting economic, financial and ecological crisis with profound social and political consequences. The time for taking on trust the word of any self-appointed authority on any subject is well past.
R. Ratcliffe (September 2011.)